Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the ninth inning, but Los Angeles recovered, thanks to a key single from Vladimir Guerrero.” Software developer Martin Ford quotes that sports story in his 2015 book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.
The story opens with that final-inning nail-biter, using the slightly purple descriptor “bleak,” then goes on to tug at our hearts when Guerrero dedicates his run to a deceased colleague. But the story was written by a piece of software called StatsMonkey, one of many of Ford’s examples of jobs at all levels that are threatened by rapidly advancing technology. Warehouse robots can sort boxes, “seeing” in three dimensions thanks to Kinect, an inexpensive gadget used in Xbox game consoles, and open-source Robotic Operating System.
Willow Garage, Inc. can set you up with a Kinect-powered TurtleBot for $1,200, and current industrial robots cost less than the humans they replace. For example, Momentum Machines manufactures a burger flipper that shapes 360 patties, cooks them, slices the tomatoes and onions, toasts the buns, and assembles 360 final products in an hour. In Japan, the Kura Sushi chain’s robots make the food, tally bills, take cash, and clean up.
Ford points out that people have been “crying wolf” about technological unemployment since the Luddites smashed their first Jacquard loom, but he says this might be the time the wolf actually appears. Processing power doubles about every two years. Your smart-phone—or that annoying plastic noisemaker your toddler plays with—is more powerful (by an 18-digit factor) than what NASA used to put men on the moon. IBM’s Deep Blue triumphs over chess grandmasters, and its Watson can handle Jeopardy’s trivia and tricky answering process.
Ford expects robots to replace lawyers, managers, human service professionals—anybody who can train somebody else to do her job. Programmers write an algorithm and train it on known data, then turn it loose on similar problems. It learns as it goes. This is how spam filters work, and how Google is training driverless cars.
Automation is already beginning to “re-shore” manufacturing. Nike sees it as a cheaper way to avoid criticism of its Asian sweatshops. Some jobs come back, but not as many. Ford compares Google in 2012 to General Motors at peak employment in 1979. Google earned $14 billion and General Motors $11 billion (in 2012 dollars). GM employed 840,000 against Google’s 38,000. We’re screwed.
Ford writes, “Beyond the moral question of whether a tiny elite should be able to, in effect, capture ownership of society’s accumulated technological capital, there are also the practical issues regarding overall health of an economy in which income inequality becomes too extreme.” In other words, who’s going to buy the robot-produced burgers and gadgets?
The answer, for Ford, doesn’t lie in education, although he believes education is a public good. The problem is that the employment hierarchy erodes from the bottom. A third of college graduates work at jobs for which they’re overqualified, and society cannot abstain from further automation. Rivals will outcompete an employer who spends on wages instead of robots.
Ford quotes economist Friedrich Hayek, held up by conservatives against John Maynard Keynes: “The assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society.”
Ultimately, producers will pay for the technologically unemployed, whether or not there is any reciprocity, which raises the question of who owns the economy: Why does it exist, if not for the survival of its members and the quality of their lives?
In a 2013 Gallup poll, 70 percent of respondents didn’t like their jobs. Buckminster Fuller believed paying “handsome” pensions for workers to stay home would spark a Renaissance.
Robots will replace workers of all kinds. Ford’s book gives us a chance to get ahead of the trend by discussing how we will handle its consequences.