Saturday, June 13, 2015

A must-read -- "Rise of the Robots"

Last update: Saturday 6/13/15

Rise of the Robots -- Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford (Basic Books, 2015) is, perhaps, the most disturbing Doomsday Book that I have ever read because it's the most low key. 

The other books read like powerful scripts for gory horror movies with thunderous sound tracks and eye-popping visual effects that show us how how the world will end because of climate change, or how the world will end because of nuclear proliferation, or how the world will end because of our creation of artificial intelligence that will quickly surpass us, despise us, and eliminate us. 

By contrast, Martin Ford writes like a soft spoken accountant. Here's what you have been doing recently, so here's how bad things will probably get in the next 10 to 20 years. The world won't end. And it won't look much different from today. It will just be a much, much, much nastier place to live in for most of us and for most of our children. I can kid myself that sooner or later something will happen that will help us avoid the long term, end-of-the-world disasters. But it's highly unlikely that anything will happen that will help us avoid the near term miseries that Ford projects.

So much for meta-comments. What's the book about? As per its subtitle, Ford's basic thesis is that technology, more specifically, information technology will absorb more and more jobs in the near future. Or as Marc Andreessen put it, "Software is eating the world". In other words, the jobless recovery from the Great Recession is the new norm, a norm wherein an ever increasing share of jobs at all levels, not just the manual jobs at the bottom, but the mid-level tech jobs (including computer programming), and upper level management jobs will be automated. And when new jobs are created, most of the new jobs will pay substantially lower wages than the jobs that were automated.

You say you've heard this song before? Perhaps. But mostly likely the versions you heard were sung by fire-eyed poets prophesying long term doom. Not so the prosaic Mr. Ford. He fills chapter after chapter with compelling data from impeccable sources that show that the U.S. is already using its most advanced computer technologies, especially AI, to replace human labor with computer systems at all levels of our economy. Consider this bitter morsel from the book's last chapter:
"In 1998, workers in the US business sector put in a total of 194 billion hours of labor. A decade and a half later, in 2013, the value of the goods and services produced by American businesses had grown about $3.5 trillion after adjusting for inflation -- a 42 percent increase in output. The total amount of human labor required to accomplish that was ... 194 billion hours."
Most jobs are at risk, including all subcategories of information systems  -- software engineering, systems administrators, data analysts, etc, etc, etc. At one point Ford wryly notes that when corporations hire analysts to use machine learning techniques to solve complex problems, the corporations are also using the analysts to "train" the corporation's computer systems to solve the same problems.

But not all jobs will be automated in the next 10 to 20 years. So I recommend Ford's book to readers of this blog because I believe that it provides a conceptual framework that can help them assess their current vulnerability and provide guidance for their movement onto less vulnerable career paths.