Rise of The Robots

I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of Rise of The Robots, by Martin Ford.  It was a fascinating and insightful look at how robots and computers are used today to replace human work, and how the expansion of artificial intelligence and the reduction in costs for new machines are accelerating their creation.

It got deep inside my psyche – I’ve been thinking about the implications for a couple of weeks afterwards, and it started a big conversation on Christmas Day with my family.

Collective bargaining, a degree and an engineering skill set just don’t cut it any more, if you’re competing with a robot that can produce more widgets, more quickly, with higher quality and lower cost.  Some of the traditional views about how you protect jobs in a capitalist economy just don’t apply to this threat.  Nedd Ludd would be spinning in his grave.

One of the central tenets of the book, is the reduction in jobs that will result from the rise of AI, and the increased automation of jobs that humans used to have to do.

Interestingly, this week, FoxConn, a major electronics manufacturer in China revealed it had automated away 60,000 jobs from it’s factories.  Though it’s questionable whether you’d really want to work in such a place unless you had no choice.

Many, from technology futurists, to economists, agree that automation is going have a big impact on the jobs market in the future.

One of the main problems mentioned in the book is that most of the jobs we do today, are not necessary for survival.  And a lot of the old middle-class positions are either already non-existent in the 21st century, or primed for automation.  There are potential software solutions to replace jobs, whether you are a bookkeeper, lawyer or a fast food chef.

Fast food is a good example of an area that has thus-far resisted automation, because of low wages, and highly efficient staff training and procedures.  Both make employee turnover a less serious issue for the big fast food giants.  However, at a certain crossover point in wage growth and automation cost, a point is reached where companies will find it cheaper to invest in automation – that is, machines to flip the burgers, dunk the fries, and package them up.  At that point, lots of people’s jobs will become threatened very quickly, with the power that two or three large food franchises have around the world.  Our local McDonalds have already automated most of their order points.

So what about solutions to these problems?  How can we keep producing careers for people, in an age where so many jobs could be automated given sufficient money and motivation?

I think one important mention by Ford is that we don’t really need to work as much as we do anymore in our developed economies.  We have chosen to take the time we’ve saved from automation of agriculture, and manufacturing, and instead directed much the same time to office work, for 40 hours a week.

Why do we all need to spend this arbitrary number of hours doing these, often unimportant, things?  For many people, they don’t even produce a great deal from the time they spend at work.  Everyone wants to feel like they produce something important – but I doubt any most office output is really important as the loaf of bread we produce by machine, or the wheat grown in the field, and harvested by a machine.

Will the idea of full-time employment for everyone even be desirable, let alone possible in the late 21st century?

Some ideas to change the way we think about work, are the universal basic income, higher wages for less hours of work, or just plain artificial job creation mechanisms.  I’m not sure which of these, if any, will be used, but I am sure that something will have to change, lest we get a future where the divisions of our society grow much larger.

Unfortunately, I think in the meantime, before we realise the real threat, there will be big fights over a return to trade protectionism, amongst nationalism and fear of immigration that we are seeing across the developed world, and the force down of wages in many sectors – something we have seen in Britain already in recent years.

To summarise – a great, thought provoking book, with lots of well argued points of interest.  I’d recommend the audible version if you don’t have a lot of time to read.  It’s quite a lengthy work.

Links:  Audible  |  Amazon

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