The Robots are Coming

A casual discussion about the automation of work and the decreasing relevance of humans to productivity.

Rise of the Robots

January 25, 2016

Martin Ford’s book, Rise of the Robots was on many “best of” books for 2015, It’s a broad overview of the problems of automation and the potential effects on the economy and society.

Beyond the standard litany of automation horror stories, Ford offers some interesting analysis, primarily in seven reasons why the answer to the question “Is this time different?” is absolutely yes.

  1. Stagnant wages
  2. A Bear Market for labor’s share, and a Raging Bull for corporations
  3. Declining labor force participation
  4. Diminishing job creation, lengthening jobless recoveries, and soaring long-term unemployment
  5. Soaring inequality
  6. Declining incomes and underemployment for recent college graduates
  7. Polarization and part-time jobs

He makes another obvious point which escapes many: workers are also consumers, He captures this in an anecdote:

There is an often-told story about Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther, the legendary head of the United Auto Workers union, jointly touring a recently automated car manufacturing plant. The Ford Motor Company CEO taunts Reuther by asking, “Walter, how are going to get these robots to pay union dues?” Reuther comes right back at Ford, asking, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

Could companies collectively automate away their own markets?

The book ends predictably with a call for guaranteed basic income, but Ford commendably includes figures and analysis in which he claims a $10,000/year basic income would effectively pay for itself in growth and increased tax revenue.

Ford briefly detours into the technological ideas of the singularity, nanotechnology, and an Elysium style future where the wealthy are sequestered in idyllic communities, attended to by robots and protected form the teeming hordes of zombie-like masses.

The book is a good overview of the problem. Beyond call for basic income, it doesn’t provide a whole lot of solutions, but perhaps that just reflects that the solutions are much trickier than the problem?