The prospect of machines stealing our jobs has perturbed and enraged humans for at least 200 years. The Luddites hit the alarm bell, and not without reason: The automation of weaving and spinning technology displaced an entire class of skilled artisans. But ever since, economists and historians have dismissed the Luddites as jokes, because the forces of industrialization they decried ended up making the world a far richer and more comfortable place. Technological progress has created far more jobs than it has destroyed.
So far. But this time might be different. This time, writes Martin Ford in "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future," the robots are coming for (almost) all the jobs. They're getting too smart, too flexible and too convenient. And that's a problem, because if robots take all the jobs, our long march of progress may well go into reverse.
Ford's thesis is not new. Similar outbursts of techno-pessimism pop up every time the economy takes a downturn or machines make a paradigm leap. Indeed, Ford, a former Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, has already written one book on the same topic, 2009's "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future."
"Rise of the Robots" is better than "Lights in the Tunnel," in part because Ford has spent the intervening years honing his argument in response to criticisms levied at his first warning salvo. "Rise of the Robots" is also more relevant now than ever; the arrival of self-driving cars, Jeopardy-winning IBM computers, package-delivering drones, Siri and the rapidly accelerating digitization of everything strongly suggests that the technological progress we've already witnessed is just the beginning. Lucid, comprehensive and unafraid to grapple fairly with those who dispute Ford's basic thesis, "Rise of the Robots" is an indispensable contribution to a long-running argument.
But what's most interesting about "Rise of the Robots" is that it isn't actually a narrative about the imminent triumph of soulless automatons. Robots aren't the enemy. The real villain here is capitalism: a stupid form of capitalism that seems dead set on destroying itself. It would be ironic if it weren't our own future that was in peril. The relentless drive by capital to cut costs and boost profits is threatening to destroy the wellspring of economic growth that capitalism requires. Because when there are no jobs for humans, there will be no consumers with the disposable income to buy the products being produced so efficiently by robots. Henry Ford understood this when he paid his workers high enough wages to buy his cars. Today's titans of the economy appear to have forgotten the lesson.
There's more than just the inexorable advance of machine intelligence at play here. "Rise of the Robots" argues that globalization, the decline of unions and the capture of government by special interests have all contributed to a well-documented rise in economic inequality. Increasingly sophisticated automation exacerbates the destructive effect of all these other factors. The result: "The fruits of innovation throughout the economy are now accruing almost entirely to business owners and investors," writes Ford.
So what can we do? The standard prescription is more education. Keep ahead of the robots by acquiring skills. Some techno-utopians go so far as to suggest that technology will save us from technology, by "disrupting" higher education with cheap online classes, and thus vastly expanding educational opportunity for all.
Ford doesn't buy it. Staying ahead is a loser's race, in which ever larger numbers of people fight for ever smaller numbers of jobs.
"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," writes Ford. "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."
That's a bleak view. Even bleaker, however, are the prospects for success of Ford's preferred "dramatic policy response" — a redistribution of wealth from the winners to everybody else, in the form of a "guaranteed basic income" that ensures displaced workers have enough income to keep the consumer economy chugging along.
Ford is not wrong when he declares that "a fundamental restructuring of our economic rules will be required." But it's hard to see how this will happen. Which leaves us in a pickle. Economic inequality is growing. Robots are gobbling up more and more jobs. A broken political system is unable to fix the problem. Call it the Luddites' revenge. The Industrial Revolution's chickens are finally coming home to roost.
Leonard is a freelance writer living in Berkeley.
Rise of the Robots
Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Basic: 352 pp., $28.99