Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Author: Martin Ford
Labeling this book as “personal development” may be a stretch, but I feel that what I have learned from reading it has helped me tremendously in deciding how to plan my future. Martin Ford goes into extreme detail about how technology is vastly changing our entire way of life. To most, that statement may seem obvious. Just look at how self-checkout lines in grocery stores are changing the way people pay for their food, for example. The biggest impact this technology is having on our society is the loss of jobs due to automation. Again, think about the self-checkout; how many people need to be at a register while those are running? My guess would be no more than two. Sometimes at my local Walmart, there is actually NO one working the registers. Ultimately, there is one big question asked in the book: can accelerating technology disrupt our entire system to the point where a fundamental restructuring may be required if prosperity is to continue?
In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final sermon titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” he described the oncoming revolution of automation, weaponry, and human rights. He described it as a “triple revolution,” referring to a report by a group of technologists and economists, including Nobel Prize-winner Gunner Myrdal. The weaponry and human rights movements that were identified in the report were taken very seriously and were woven all throughout the 1960’s. The third movement, however, seems to have been forgotten even though it took up a bulk of the text. This movement, called “cybernation,” predicted that automation would soon result in an economy where “potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.” This would then lead to massive unemployment, soaring inequality, and, therefore, falling demand for goods and services due to the lack of purchasing power needed to continue driving economic growth.
From 1993 to 2010, more than half of the increase in US national income went to the homes of the top 1% of the income distribution. Do me a favor; take 60-90 seconds right now and think about that sentence. How can that trend not be scary to everyone not in that 1%? Economist Emanuel Saez found that a total of 95% of income gains between the years 2009 and 2012 went to that same 1%. How insane is that?
The Tyranny of the Long Tail
In 2012, Google generated a profit of nearly $14 billion USD while employing fewer than 40,000 people. In 1979, General Motors had over 800,000 employees and made a profit of around $11 billion USD after adjusting for inflation. See any differences? Does this fact scare you? The internet alone is taking jobs by the thousands and giving that same 1% a lot of damn money in the process. Now, think about movie rental services like Redbox or Netflix. They are almost entirely controlled by a small number of companies that require a very small number of employees in comparison to old brick and mortar stores like our old friend Blockbuster. Digital technology is continuing to transform industries, and many jobs that provide primary income for middle-class households are likely to disappear because of it. The presence of that strong middle class is what differentiates an advanced nation from an impoverished one…and its dissipation in the United States is becoming increasingly obvious.
Offshoring and High-Skill Jobs
In India, there are armies of call center workers, IT professionals, and even tax preparers well-versed in US tax code. Artificial intelligence and the digital revolution are making it much easier for companies to offshore jobs that cannot yet be automated. Details aside, this is important because it promotes something like a double-threat. If your job hasn’t been automated yet, can it be taken by offshoring? A lot of people firmly believe that their job and many other jobs are not susceptible to either demise but in 2013, researchers at the University of Oxford conducted a study of over 700 job types in the US and came to the conclusion that nearly 50% of all jobs will be at risk of full automation.
Pharmacy and Hospital Robotics
There is a pharmacy in San Francisco that prepares about 10,000 individual doses of various medications every day without a pharmacist ever touching a pill or medicine bottle. Here is the short version of the system they have in place: a robotic arm continuously picks the pills and places them in bags. Then, each bag is labeled with a barcode that will identify the medication and patient name. After that, the machine arranges the daily medications in the order they need to be taken. Three other robots are responsible for the injectable medications. The system basically eliminates the chance of human error by cutting humans out of the picture. There are few more stories and examples on this topic in the book, but I think this one is all it takes to get the point across.
In the End
There are many more scenarios and examples in the book of automation taking over the workforce but for the sake of not writing an entire novel about it myself, I’m going to let you read the rest for yourself. Martin gives a few examples of the possible end results or outcomes that could come from this automation wave, but I’m only going to share one of them. The most frightening long-term scenario is if the global economic system takes on a new reality. The mass-market industries that currently power our economy would be replaced by new industries producing high-value goods and services exclusively geared towards a super-wealthy elite. The vast majority of humankind would be disenfranchised. Economic mobility would become non-existent. The plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones. We would see a return to something like the feudal system that occurred during the middle ages. Yeah, it sure is a stretch, but think about it…what if?
Again, I only touched on a few of what I think are the biggest key issues written in the book. There are many more important and growing issues regarding automation, so if you’re interested you’ll have to actually read it, which I highly suggest everyone do anyway. It’s a very eye-opening piece of work. For me, it changed my mind about many things I had planned for my future. One of those things, in particular, is about going back to school, which is something I will be doing this coming fall. I plan on acquiring a technical certificate in automation and robotics technology to hopefully be on the winning side of whatever potentially upsetting outcome the topic does bring. Have you planned your future to allow for these drastic changes in the use of technology? If you haven’t, this book can help.
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