Ryan Leatherbury

Business. Tech. Life

A Look at Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots

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In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his first novel, Player Piano about a future society that is completely automated with no need for human workers. This created a split between the upper class which owned the machines, and everyone else.

Artificial.intelligence63 years later, in Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford makes the case that we’re tending towards a jobless future because of rapid advances in automation. The main message of the book is that accelerating information technology will increasingly destroy more jobs than it creates, especially for white collar workers and service industries.

He argues that information technology is progressing to the point where it will disrupt more than certain industries and business models (e.g. Netflix vs. Blockbuster, streaming vs. music industry and cloud computing vs traditional software.) It is on a broader path towards disrupting the larger economic system. In a nutshell:

  • Chances are a smart machine will be able to do your job soon if it can’t already.
  • Unlike the industrial revolution, information technology is automating away jobs much faster than it is creating new ones, and that trend will accelerate.
  • We can expect to see higher permanent unemployment and lower incomes due to high competition, crowd-sourcing and deskilling because of automation.
  • This will create more income inequality since it takes increasingly fewer people to create extreme amounts of value due to technology leverage
  • Since machines don’t buy things, and fewer people will have income from work, the economic impact will be huge.

The general argument is nothing new, with origins in the Luddit uprising in 19th century London. But in the first industrial revolution, technology destroyed old jobs but also created many new ones. As machines did more of the lower skilled jobs, workers generally moved up the ladder to higher skilled jobs.

Candle_makers'_workshopThere are plenty of cases to point to in the 20th century: The candle-maker was put out of work by the light bulb. The stableman who kept the horses was put out of work by the car. 90% of farmers had to find new work after agriculture became industrialized.

While this must have been a shock to the people who had to adapt to the new realities of electricity, cars and automated factories, the world didn’t end. For 200 years, new technology generally allowed for higher productivity and more income from higher skilled work.

As a result, most of us cringe at the words this time it’s different.

Ford argues it is because machines aren’t just replacing human muscle. They are increasingly doing roles that once required human thought, coordination, dexterity and even creativity. Smart machines and software are increasingly able to do any job that is predictable, not just routine.

wage_productivity_gapFord makes the case that over the past few decades, automation has eliminated more jobs than other factors including globalization, financialization and politics. While short-term trends are conflicting, in the longer view, he points out that there were no net new jobs created last decade. The gap between productivity and compensation started diverging in the early 70’s and has been more drastic since 2000.

At the heart of the exponential advance is that computing power has doubled 27 times since Moore’s famous prediction. This combined with low cost 3D machine vision capabilities that came out of the gaming industry like Xbox 360 Kinect give machines the ability to perceive, move and interact with the real world in new ways.

As a result, robots are moving out of manufacturing plants into warehouses and services such as fast food and retail. Meanwhile, advanced analytics software and massive stores of data are silently doing white collar work at a much lower cost.

Here’s a snapshot of some examples given in the book:

  • Narrative Science produces automated sports, business and political articles that are used by Forbes and other media outlets.
  • Workfusion provides project management software that automates and learns new tasks from crowdsourcing
  • e-Discovery software that can analyze millions of electronic legal documents and do the paralegal work of figuring out relevant ones for a case.
  • The Painting Fool art created by a software program.
  • Iamus creates a music composition performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
  • Momentum Machines has fully automate fast food.
  • Suitable Technologies makes it possible to travel somewhere else virtually.
  • Baxter by Rethink Robotics can be trained, not programmed.

On the other hand, techno-optimists say that anything that can be done by a machine is dehumanizing. In this view, the Internet is the great equalizer. For instance, a poor farmer in a developing country with a smartphone in his pocket has access to more computing power than NASA a few decades ago. They claim the same technology progress will also create an abundance of food, energy and other materials at much lower costs.

Ford’s argues that while Internet technologies create a lot of value for the masses, relatively few people can earn a real living from it. On-line sales and influence tends to follow a power law curve where a small number of players on the far left side of the curve take the overwhelming majority of the gains, while most everyone else has a much smaller share in the long tail.

longtailThere’s also the growing idea that the new job opportunities will be in working with artificial intelligence. Instead of racing the machines, run with them. Rather than see an outright replacement, the more optimistic view (and one I would rather take) is that we can only imagine the new ways that people are going to in work with technology in the future as people will have a critical, but always changing role. But Ford is skeptical that specialized data analysis roles will result in massive job replacement especially as the machines learn how to do those roles as well.

Other books like The Second Machine Age have made similar arguments in recent years as the larger effects of mass automation and machine learning become center stage. In any event, Rise of the Robots is a good one for your summer reading list because it forces some deep thinking about the future of work.

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Ryan Leatherbury • June 12, 2015

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