Book Review: The Rise of the Robots – technology and the threat of mass unemployment

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford paints a bleak future for the global economy in Rise of the Robots.

His premise is simple – as capital increasingly reduces its investment in employing people and instead replaces growing numbers of workers with software and robotics, fewer people will be in a position to afford goods and services.

As fewer people can afford goods and services, businesses become less profitable, and government tax revenues will hit the skids.

He contends it is not only manufacturing workers at risk, but also ever-larger numbers of white-collar jobs.

These trends are already becoming evident, for example, where once a business had to hire people to answer phones, more and more firms are shifting to automate as much of the process as possible. The paperless office trend means fewer people have jobs doing filing.

In retail, self-service checkouts have slashed jobs, and there is now a machine that can replace the workers at a fast-food burger joint.

Ford points out that retail and hospitality are the low-value jobs that traditionally supported less skilled workers, and that the workers shed by these sectors are increasingly running out of others to deploy to.

There are other ways the use of technology is changing the world, such as intelligent software systems that are capable of making decisions for and about humans.

A writer’s harshest critic in this on-line world is in many ways the robotic web-crawling software that determines SEO and search rankings, not the readers

There are now digital systems capable of undertaking routine medical diagnoses, writing sports reports for newspapers and composing original music.

The economic scenarios Ford outlines are well-thought out, and this has been recognised by the book being named the Financial Times 2015 Business Book of the Year.

Ford takes a scalpel to the popular wisdom that more education and training is the answer to unemployment, pointing out that there are growing numbers of graduates with high debt levels unable to find a job in their field of expertise. These numbers are set to grow, he says.

He does propose solutions to stave off economic apocalypse while still having all the lovely progress in terms of 3D printing, cloud computing, automation and other advances.

Those solutions involve public policy that ensures people can maintain a basic standard of living even when out of work, and also that the holders of the majority of the world’s capital recognise they actually need people buying stuff and therefore need to ensure they are in a position to do so.

After all, Ford says, even the top one per cent can only consume so much in the way of services and products that will still require the human element.

Definitely, this is a thought-provoking, disquieting and intriguing read.

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