Lynn Bolin

Head of Communications and Media

November 2016

Book Review - The Machines Are Coming

Book Review - The Machines Are Coming
Winner of the 2015 FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, The Rise of the Robots warns of the dire consequences of the rapid advance of artificial intelligence for much of the global economy. Inevitably, concludes author Martin Ford (albeit at an unknown time in the future), most jobs will be lost to robots and the vast majority of today’s workforce will be left redundant, consequently decimating the mass consumer demand that is the bedrock of capitalist economies as we know them.

Ford, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and 25-year veteran of the IT industry, offers a fascinating but scary look at developments in modern robotics that have now made it possible for robots to replace humans in many high-wage, high-skill jobs that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Even those with expensive educations and transferrable skills are threatened, he warns, due to significant improvements in robotic 3D vision, dexterity and use of sophisticated algorithms scanning mass quantities of data.

These algorithms have already made robots capable of very nuanced, human-like reasoning, we learn, like grading essays on college exams, writing news articles and even winning at the popular US TV game show “Jeopardy” (which requires coming up with the correct question when first given its answer).

What about further education as the answer, as has been the case in previous decades? Ford believes there is a limit to upskilling. "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."  Automation has already been one of the key drivers behind the significant inequality in the world today, he points out, and this is only set to get worse.

So what should the policy response be from governments faced with mass unemployment and worsening inequality? He proposes instituting a guaranteed minimum income set at $10,000 a year, a level he estimates would be enough to keep people out of complete poverty and ensure enough mass consumer spending to keep the economy afloat, while not acting as a disincentive to work.

In countries like the US, such a solution is very controversial at best, and would represent a serious government intervention. Ford believes this drastic move is necessary, however, given the potential scale of the disruption caused to the economy.

It is interesting that Ford dismisses the idea of limiting the expansion of technology as an option to slow job losses – this is perhaps a reflection of his Silicon Valley background. In South Africa we have seen this very policy at work in preserving jobs, through the continued use of petrol pump attendants when they have been made redundant elsewhere. Automated store check-outs is another technology that may not prove successful in South Africa.

Finally, cost is another factor that will certainly slow the rise of the robots in many countries outside of the most advanced. Robots that replace radiologists surely cannot come cheap, for example. This is also not examined by Ford at any length.

While we can all certainly agree that the machines are coming to take more and more jobs, the pace and extent of that advance is debatable and should be subject to more enquiry. The Rise of the Robots offers some very scary insights into where the world is headed, and should make us all, especially students, more aware of the challenges ahead when it comes to education, skills and employment.

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