Robots Want Your Job

Book review

rise of the robots

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015)

Until recently it was an article of faith among economists that even as technology destroyed jobs in some sectors, it created new ones in other sectors. Is this belief still true?

Emphatically no, say Martin Ford, author of the best-selling “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.” Ford is a software engineer with decades of experience in computer design and in following technology developments. Robots and AI (artificial intelligence), he says, are moving up the job ladder from production workers to professionals.

Data analysis, medical diagnostics, language translation, news article and business report writing, legal research, scientific investigation, engineering and design, financial trading and even music composition are among the seemingly human-centric jobs that are being tackled by machines. And the capabilities of AI are continually accelerating.

The upshot is while jobs are being destroyed, a lot of the new jobs are now those that are too low-paid to bother automating (not yet, anyway). And the competition for the remaining professional jobs is fierce and going to get fiercer. The political nostrum of giving displaced workers more education and training is a strategy with diminishing returns.

This might be okay if efficiency gains due to technology were driving the cost of living down, but that’s not the case. Essentials like housing, insurance, health care and education are rising instead. Plus if you have no job and no alternative income, lower prices are not much of a consolation.

Ford counters the usual explanations of the long-term trends of stagnant wages, underemployment and increased economic inequality, such as globalization, financialization and conservative politics. His case is that automation is the prime mover.

I confess to being predisposed to accept his argument, as it corresponds with a lot of other information I’ve come across. But I do think he marshals enough hard evidence and memorable anecdotes to make even the most skeptical reader worried.

So what can be done about this? If we dismiss the Luddite fantasy of destroying the machines to protect jobs, the obvious alternative is to provide all citizens with a guaranteed income. Ford suggests ways to finance this, such as replacing welfare programs and their administrative bureaucracy and imposing a carbon tax or more progressive income taxes. He sees this solution as economically feasible and eventually inevitable, even if not currently on the political agenda.

He also touches on proposals to make everyone a “capitalist” with part ownership of the machines doing our work (shades of Louis Kelso!), but he sees this as even more politically infeasible.

In the meantime we can ameliorate the situation to an extent by expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, protecting anti-poverty programs, infrastructure investment to create jobs, and community college training for the jobs that still rely on humans.

But the robots are coming and we need to prepare for this. That means letting them do the work and learning to live without a paid job. Not so bad if you have an income, but a nightmare if you do not.

–Alan F. Zundel

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  1. “We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

    ― R. Buckminster Fuller

  2. Wouldn’t a net worth tax make more sense than combinations of income and property taxes?

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