Rise of the Robots

In this book, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford opens a new flank in the battle between the traditionalists (directed learning, focus on knowledge) and progressives (independent learning, focus on transferable skills). Don’t waste your time with 21st century skills he says, robots can do those too.

This book is fascinating, terrifying and questionable in equal measure. It walks you through advancements in robotics technology over recent decades and the progress we should see in the next few. Moore’s law (the observation that the sophistication of technology doubles every two years) in action.

The results, Ford claims, are not good. The gist is robots (for which read technology – but robots sound scarier) will replace almost all workers in established industries and will be designed into new industries from the start. All but a small handful of people (who will probably live in a glorious city surrounded by guard robots or terminators) will feel the full force of a triple whammy of “soaring inequality, technological unemployment and climate change”. Pretty grim.

Despite the gloomy tone, the economics teacher in me loved the accessible introduction setting out the separation between productivity and wages (although it is not quite that simple) and little facts dotted throughout – did you know the number of hours worked in the US in 1998 was 194 billion? Some 15 years and a 42 per cent increase in output later (worth a cool $3.5 trillion) the total number of hours worked was … 194 billion.

The nerd in me loved hearing about robots that can now do everything, from picking the ripest fruit to winning quiz shows. We hear about the team at Industrial Perception Inc., who have designed a robot that has moved ahead of “industrial robots [with their] unrivalled combination of speed, precision and brute strength” who are “for the most part, blind actors in a tightly choreographed performance.”

These new machines for the first time are “at the nexus of visual perception, spatial computation and dexterity” (they can actually see things!) and will soon replace the last remaining humans who fill the gaps in the production line. Gaps such as stacking lots of different sized delicate boxes – where the combination of depth perception, problem solving and a light touch are essential. Ford believes everything from chefs to paralegals to computer programmers are likely to find themselves out of work and there is not much they can do about it. More education will not save them this time.

It is at this point where it all seems to go a bit south. Accepting this apocalyptic certainty, Ford goes on to set out his preferred solution: a guaranteed basic income with built in incentives to encourage education. This feels a little premature.

Robots, as much as they transform economies are still subject to the rules of economics. There are a few of these rules that need to be considered when it comes to Ford’s analysis. First, as technology replaces some jobs, the demand for others tends to increase – it is the net difference that is important.

Second, the comparative advantage between humans and robots will likely mean a role for both. Originally conceived to explain why, even if one country is more efficient at producing everything than its neighbours, it still makes sense to trade because of the relative advantage the efficient country has in one area of production.

Third, just because something is cheaper, it does not mean demand for it goes up nor does something that’s technically best always displace the things thought to be inferior. Folks pay double for artisan bread while Concorde could not find a foothold in the market. The rapid development of technology Ford describes will undoubtedly change the world at an increasing pace, but these rules mean humans face more of an adjustment, even if it is a major one, than apocalypse.

Worth a read but keep a pinch of salt and your optimism handy.