Rise of the Robots

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Martin Ford. Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2015.

Here is a book whose title sums it up pretty well. The robots are coming to a workplace near you, and by the time they take over, a large portion of the workers will be out of a job. That may soon invalidate one of the cardinal assumptions of industrial capitalism, that people make a living through employment. How then will they live, and how will they continue to participate in economic consumption? In Ford’s view, millions will have to rely on a basic income guaranteed by the government. They will get “enough to get by, but not enough to be especially comfortable.”

I will say at the outset that I find this to be a pretty bleak vision of the future, although that in itself does not make it wrong. I will explore some doubts I have about Ford’s vision later. But first I’ll take a closer look at his argument.

The decline of the “golden age”

Once upon a time, back in the twentieth century, “the American economy was characterized by a seemingly perfect symbiosis between rapid technological progress and the welfare of the American workforce.” New technologies like the assembly line raised worker productivity, allowing for higher wages, higher spending, and higher demand for mass-produced goods and services. That kept the system going in a “virtuous feedback loop.” Ford makes the connection sound a little too technologically-determined and automatic for my taste, overlooking how hard workers had to fight to obtain a decent share of their rising output. Nevertheless, the country did finally achieve a positive connection between industrial technology and mass prosperity.

Ford believes that information technology breaks that connection. The new machines are not just tools that make workers more productive; they are potential replacements for the workers themselves. Robots empower capital (their owners), not labor. Ford sees evidence of this in a number of recent economic trends: Wages have been stagnating; labor’s share of national income has been declining; labor force participation has been falling; job creation has slowed to a crawl; income inequality has soared; and even college graduates are increasingly underemployed.

Other factors have aggravated the situation: offshoring of manufacturing jobs, growth of the financial sector and consumer debt, and political policies that favor capital over labor. But the development of information technology is the trend with the biggest potential to shape the future, because of its continuing exponential growth.

Automation and job destruction

Ford cites research to support the claim that “nearly 50 percent of jobs will ultimately be susceptible to full machine automation.”  Manufacturing jobs are prime candidates, but the transformation will hardly end there. In the more developed economies, automation will also overhaul the service sector, where most workers now work. Retail workers will be replaced by online sellers, intelligent vending machines, and robotic sales staffs. Robots will be preparing and serving fast food.

As the machines become smarter, they will threaten jobs up and down the job ladder. Ford does not expect that the workers displaced at the bottom will find expanding opportunities at some higher level, which was often the case in the last century. Instead he emphasizes the potential of smart machines to take over the more predictable tasks at many levels, including tasks that have required mental skills and a fair amount of education. Computers are now using vast amounts of data to make decisions, solve problems, and even to modify their own procedures through trial and error learning. They are helping to diagnose diseases, dispense pharmaceutical products, provide customer service, prepare financial plans, and serve as personal assistants to managers. That puts many white-collar jobs at risk.

The conventional wisdom that people can find jobs as long as they get a good education may no longer be true:

We are running up against a fundamental limit both in terms of the capabilities of the people being herded into colleges and the number of high-skill jobs that will be available for them if they manage to graduate. The problem is that the skills ladder is not really a ladder at all: it is a pyramid, and there is only so much room at the top….And because artificial intelligence applications are poised to increasingly encroach on more skilled occupations, even the safe area at the top of the pyramid is likely to contract over time.

Economic polarization

Economists have observed a process of “job market polarization” in which middle-class jobs are destroyed and replaced with “a combination of low-wage service jobs and high-skill, professional jobs that are generally unattainable for most of the workforce.” The automation of a middle-class job can save the employer more in wages than automation of a low-wage job. Eventually, automation will become cheap enough so that even workers who are willing to work for little may have trouble competing with the robots.

Ford expects the information economy to be largely a “winner-take-all” economy. Those who own and manage the robots will have a great advantage over workers who are competing for a dwindling supply of jobs. The winners will also include the companies that control the centralized computing hubs that provide data and software to the machines, as well as the principal producers of digital content for mass audiences. A few star performers can stream most of the music people want to listen to, and a few renowned scholars can stream online courses to masses of college students. The biggest losers will be those who can neither compete with nor find employment with the centralized providers of information.

As a software developer and expert on artificial intelligence, Ford is in the awkward position of both advancing the new technology and warning of its disruptive potential. His concerns about increasing economic polarization are both moral and practical. Since citizens as taxpayers have supported much of the basic research in information technology, they may have a legitimate claim on its benefits. And as a practical economic matter, a productive and innovative economy requires consumers with the purchasing power to buy the goods and services being produced. If automation breaks the link between production and consumption (robots produce, but people have to consume), how will the economy function to deliver products to consumers and buyers to sellers? “Continued progress depends on a vibrant market for future innovations–and that, in turn, requires a reasonable distribution of purchasing power.”

Ford suggests a thought experiment in which millions of workers are displaced, unemployment rises, wages fall, mass purchasing power declines, and mass-production industries fail. He also imagines, with the help of some science fiction writers, a “techno-feudal” scenario in which the economy is increasingly geared toward producing luxuries for the super-rich, who maintain a “robot-enforced tyranny” to keep the unemployed masses from overthrowing the system. It’s not a pretty picture.

A basic income guarantee

Ford’s main proposal for preventing such scenarios is a basic income guaranteed by the government. It would appeal to liberals on humanitarian and social justice grounds, and it would appeal to conservatives as a minimal intrusion by government into the market economy. It could be funded partly by eliminating other social programs, like food stamps and housing assistance. It could also pay for itself to a degree by promoting economic growth and tax revenue. It would be kept deliberately low, so that people unable to find work could meet their essential needs, while people able to work would still have an incentive to do so.

As Ford notes, proposals such as his have been around for a long time and have received support from liberals and conservatives alike, although never enough to be adopted in the United States. If high unemployment becomes as chronic as Ford expects, a strengthening of the social safety net along these lines might be necessary. But having said that, I am not sure that it is enough to relieve what is essentially a bleak view of our future. The economy he describes would still be polarized between winners and losers, with masses of the losers deprived of rewarding work.  The middle class would still be hollowed out, which many social analysts regard as bad news for democracy.

I also have questions about whether his proposal would even work to stabilize a highly automated economy. One thing that bothers me about Ford’s economic vision is that he never clearly says whether his future society will be richer or poorer in per-capita production and consumption. One would certainly hope that putting millions of smart machines to work would add to a country’s productive capacity. Why then should millions of people tolerate being reduced to a minimal income, especially if many of them are former middle-class workers who lost their jobs to machines? Even with Ford’s guaranteed income in the equation, falling incomes could fail to balance rising production, forcing society to give up much of the potential benefit of the technological revolution. There is also the political problem of how to contain the social dissatisfaction resulting from the gap between rising expectations and disappointing results, which brings us back to techno-feudalism and social repression.

With these concerns in mind, I will go on to ask whether the robotic revolution has some more positive possibilities that Ford may be overlooking.

Continued

 

 

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