Book Review: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford

The Rise of the Robots is not history, in fact it is a forward looking book but so interesting that I am going to review it.  As regular readers know I do not always review only history books, I also review current events, contemporary politics, and some fiction.  I essentially write reviews for all the books I like to read in the hopes that they give value to my readers.  I picked this book off the shelf at my local library because it seemed interesting and I was not disappointed.

First the facts.  The book is 284 pages of text separated into 10 chapters with an introduction, conclusion, index, and surprisingly, a decent sized notes section.  The chapters are arranged topically.

What the book does is analyze recent trends in automation and try to forecast where the automation revolution will go and posit what the effects of increasing automation will be.  The book starts with a bang by looking at how automation is oncreasing at a rate that almost keeps up with Moore’s Law of computing.  Automation in the workforce is accelerating as the phenomenon not only continues in the manufacturing sector but increasingly begins to move into the service sector as well as routine tasks are increasingly automated.  He brings up lots of evidence to show why this is so and explains in terms of economics.  This explanation covers pretty much the first half of the book and he provides plenty of concrete examples.

He also explains the economic consequences of increased automation in terms that I would hope even the densest could understand.  One of the most important topics he tackles is growing income inequality.  One of the most interesting parts of the economic explanation is how delves into the ways in which increased automation in the workplace will actually only serve to speed up the trend to greater economic inequality as those in the top portion of the income pyramid will tend to get richer as those at the lower end will get even poorer as they increasingly lose job share to robots and automation of their jobs.  A critical distinction he makes and a point that should probably be emphasized even more is that if automation proceeds apace as it seems likely to do then as people lose jobs consumption (a major economic driver) is likely to plunge sharply as unemployment rises due to job losses from automation and the hollowing out, if not outright destruction of the middle class.

The second part of the book is an examination of potential remedies to address the coming inequality and massive job losses expected due to automation.  The prescriptions as the author acknowledges will require bold thinking and even bolder votes by Congress especially in the face of the increasingly bitter partisan divides causing governmental gridlock.  He examines several different scenarios and provides several different course of action to address future issues but as he makes clear, the US government has a difficult time thinking more than one election cycle ahead so the most likely outcome of the response to easily envisioned challenges are patchwork responses.  A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is addressed as the most promising way to address increased joblessness although the way such a regime would be financed is not fully tackled.  One thing is certain, the coming decades are going to be an interesting time economically, even without adding in geopolitical tensions.  We are no doubt entering, if not already in the midst of, interesting times.

Mr. Ford, has written a compelling and interesting account of the threats and opportunities to come from increased automation.  I highly recommend this to anyone thinking about what the world may look like in the near future.