Throughout 2016, we have seen more and more discussion about the role of automation in our economy and what this means for the future of jobs. This debate has tended to focus on two main schools of thought. The first of these is that while automation is eliminating routine lower-skilled and high-risk jobs, such as factory workers, this is overshadowed by an increase in higher-skilled, better paid jobs.
Martin Ford, however, sits firmly on the other side of the debate. In his latest book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Treat of a Jobless Future, Ford argues that advances in automation technology which allow machines to begin taking care of themselves mean that, ultimately, fewer people will be necessary.
Rise of the Robots chronicles technological progress throughout the 21st century and Ford sets out both the capabilities and limitations of artificial intelligence and robotics. He argues that traditional solutions to technological disruption, such as training and education, are no longer viable. Unless both business and the government begin to take the threat seriously, Ford warns that the implications are likely to be vast unemployment and inequality.
Ford’s answer to the problem is a guaranteed basic income payed by the government to all citizens, which he maintains might become an ‘economic necessity’ if work is no longer a viable option. He believes this would both soften the blow for the newly unemployable and encourage creative entrepreneurship in those able to make a new way for themselves. (As an aside, there is a fascinating angle not fully explored in this book looking at what automation means for entrepreneurship and whether encouraging entrepreneurship could be the key to creating new and better jobs in the future.)
In many ways, Rise of the Robots makes an excellent point. The topic itself is exciting and clearly has broad implications for every industry. Indeed, it is hard to think of a business for which this subject isn’t relevant and for this reason alone, it provides a strong starting point for a book club discussion.
The book is also extremely topical, which makes a refreshing change from some of the more concept-based business books we’ve been reading recently. For anyone with an interest in automation, Rise of the Robots brings together a range of perspectives on artificial intelligence and robotics. It is also packed full of thought-provoking, and surprising, anecdotes and statistics.
At some points, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Ford is making some very radical assumptions. His depiction of a jobless society in which ‘robots rule the roost’ is certainly powerful, but he is perhaps rather too dismissive of research showing that automation is actually creating more jobs than it is destroying.
It’s also hard not to view Ford’s insistence that a basic income guarantee will soon be an ‘economic necessity’ as somewhat exaggerated. Ford himself acknowledges that his idea is currently ‘politically unthinkable’ and it feels like the book would benefit from a more realistic approach to the problems that Ford sets out in the first half.
Ford doesn’t shy away from controversy and Rise of the Robots certainly argues a compelling case. Whether you agree with his solutions or not, Ford asks all the right questions and offers a stimulating start to a discussion about a subject which affects us all.