In a world of self-driving cars and big data, smart algorithms and Siri, we know that artificial intelligence is getting smarter every day. Though all these nifty devices and programs might make our lives easier, they're also well on their way to making "good" jobs obsolete. A computer winning Jeopardy might seem like a trivial, if impressive, feat, but the same technology is making paralegals redundant as it undertakes electronic discovery, and is soon to do the same for radiologists. And that, no doubt, will only be the beginning.
In Silicon Valley the phrase "disruptive technology" is tossed around on a casual basis. No one doubts that technology has the power to devastate entire industries and upend various sectors of the job market. But Rise of the Robots asks a bigger question: can accelerating technology disrupt our entire economic system to the point where a fundamental restructuring is required? Companies like Facebook and YouTube may only need a handful of employees to achieve enormous valuations, but what will be the fate of those of us not lucky or smart enough to have gotten into the great shift from human labor to computation?
The more Pollyannaish, or just simply uninformed, might imagine that this industrial revolution will unfold like the last: even as some jobs are eliminated, more will be created to deal with the new devices of a new era. In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford argues that is absolutely not the case. Increasingly, machines will be able to take care of themselves, and fewer jobs will be necessary. The effects of this transition could be shattering. Unless we begin to radically reassess the fundamentals of how our economy works, we could have both an enormous population of the unemployed-the truck drivers, warehouse workers, cooks, lawyers, doctors, teachers, programmers, and many, many more, whose labors have been rendered superfluous by automated and intelligent machines.
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Robots yes, economics no
I naively thought this book would be more about the details of new technology and what jobs will be replaced but at least 50% is about the economics of robotics and frankly, the author gets this wrong. I think most readers will not find this economics part much of a problem but as someone who studied economics for many years and worked in the financial industry and technology sector, there is deeply wrong conclusion the author makes:
The industries that introduce the most automation and replace the most jobs are the same industries that improve productively the most (since labor is almost invariably the most expensive part of any process). This is also the area of our lives which improve the most (except for the immediate quality of life decrease for the people who work in that industry when it becomes automated). For example, since the mechanization of textiles, the cost of clothes as a percentage of poor people's incomes has dropped ENORMOUSLY in the past 300 years. Even people living at subsistence levels in parts of Africa and Asia have more clothes at higher quality, with greater variety then anyone could have ever dreamed of in 1700. As productivity rises, the purchasing power of people's incomes must rise at a greater rate (since it cost less to produce a given good or service with the new process). Even if incomes fall, quality of life can still go up if purchasing power of the falling incomes is more than compensating. The greater the output of mankind, the more wealth overall. If technology causes the incomes of the very skilled to rise disproportionately, you can just raise taxes a bit on them and reduce taxes or even create a negative tax rate for the poor (so you report your income and instead of paying the government say 15%, the government sends you a check for 15%). There will always be jobs at some low wage because although robots might be highly efficient, they are still not free. Electricity, maintenance, materials costs, R&D costs, construction costs, sales taxes, etc. In a world where robots can make almost anything very cheaply, people just do the things they are comparatively good at (and unless robots become people, these areas will always exist). By definition, if robots and people are different, they will have different capacities and different comparative strengths. People will just move to "design" and other creative jobs. The world does quite well without people operating our telephone switchboards (now done by software) and it will get along even better when no one has to make hamburgers or sew t-shirts. Hamburgers will be much cheaper and so will t-shirts. People will design new, even tastier hamburgers and new, even cooler t-shirts but robots will be making them.
The guaranteed income can be recipe for disaster and there are many people in this world who would just stay home to have sex, do drugs, and make babies. Over time this group would increase as the genes for laziness and baby making become more prevalent in society and other people realize they can do this a well (and don't like the idea of free-loaders having all the fun). I think its better if you make some kind of productive work a requirement via a negative tax rate if necessary. This way everyone contributes unless they are truly unable (disabled) or in school (which should be very cheap).
Ultimately, this is a complicated topic so I don't fault the author too much but I think there is clearly a flaw in the economic logic. I agree information technology is a general purpose technology as is narrow artificial intelligence. There have been other general purpose technologies however, and the main difference is that they affect many more areas of our lives and improve the world to much greater degree. These include the wheel, writing, electricity, democracy, the corporation, property rights, mathematics, etc. All these things have made our lives better on average while changing the returns to different types of labor and capital intensity of different industries. Robotics is just another (but potentially more profound and effective) way of creating what everyone wants. Efficiency has been the name of the game since the first technologies perhaps more than 1 million years ago in the form of fire and sharp stones. Only increasing efficiently will make tomorrow better than today. Just maximize on efficiently and then tax appropriately to spread out the returns in a reasonable way.
General AI is whole other ball game. This is the equivalent of an alien coming to earth. You might not even have to worry about he economy or jobs at that point. Presumably, this AI could become very powerful and it will decide the fate of humanity, not humanity. Our very existence will depended upon what this AI decides to do with us.
Please address the flaw in economic thinking.
When he talks about all the new robots that will do people's jobs. This was quite interesting.
Cut down the economics sections and focus on the robotic technologies.
written by a progressive with an agenda
- GARY ORR