Monday, 12 June 2017

REVIEW: The Rise of the Robots - Martin Ford

It's just after the 2017 UK General Election, a heated debate which ended with a hung parliament but with more votes for the two main parties than has been seen in my life time. This might have been because the two sides held widely different views on how to deal with Brexit, economic inequality, unemployment, housing, staff shortages and immigration. 

What does this have to do with a book about Robots?

Martin Ford discusses in his book "The Rise of the Robots" how job creation and retention will look in the future. He discusses how the automated world looks set to become and the possible affects it will and is already having on the economy, employment levels and wealth distribution.

The book is insightful and works upon principles introduced in his previous book "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future". He seeks to answer and reflect on these principles based on reader interaction since 2009 when his first book was released. 

The book itself looks deeply into how we are already seeing examples of automation taking over roles in the current capitalist structures we live in today led from a recession and cut view point where jobs cut aren't adequately replaced.

The solutions to increased automation and loss of jobs are coincidentally highlighted in real life through the 2017 Labour manifesto and the Conservative manifesto. There is a real symmetry between policies being discussed and tactics that Mr Ford highlights. 

For example, in the conservative manifesto there is a resistance to the raising of minimum wage, a continuation of stagnating salary increases and an abundance of zero hour contracts means that humans are staying competitive against their robot automation competitors. However a lack wealth redistribution means that social inequality is growing and the wealthiest are merely getting richer.

In retrospect, the Labour party have announced a raising of the minimum wage which could see more job losses but will mean an increase in consumerism. They also plan to keep the young in education longer with little to no debt - an intelligent population is able to utilise free time for the greater good, or creating new jobs through innovation.

Part of the book describes a potential solution through the introduction of a Basic Income for all, which is greatly described as a "Citizen Dividend" which he describes in depth, very convincingly and with an eye on both sides of the argument. This in itself is a Green Party Policy!

Why should I read it?

I recommend this book if you are hot on politics and want to understand the pros and cons of what is being offered by the different parties. Its a great insight into how the world of tomorrow might look and is both a source of despair (in terms of distribution of wealth and economic calamity of the loss of jobs) and also hope (for the future and how our lives could be vastly improved). 

If you're not the politics sort but like technology this is also a great read as inspiration for the future! You might even find yourself coming up with ideas for a little start up!

My thoughts / Points for discussion... 
  • I think the book fails to link into how robotics and automation will deal with nurse and teacher numbers. Ford discusses how information intensive hospital jobs and doctoring could be aided using super computers such as IBM Watson but not so much how robotics would affect day to day nurses and doctors roles or how we might see a robot teacher teaching a class of 30/40 13 year old student.   In my opinion it would be difficult to automate away from these close and personal positions. Whilst a lack of foresight from governments might leave these frontline services short on numbers it's hard (for me at least) to imagine jobs such as: police, prison officers, social carers, nurses and doctors filled by robots. However the gap between open positions and filled positions is growing, and fears over immigration have caused a deep divide in the UK. Additionally to fill all these positions would cause a need for an increase in government income either through wealth taxes (on corporations and private individuals) or through cuts elsewhere.

  • Retrospectively the book, I believe miscalculates the additional jobs that might be created through our advancement in other fields. In my own field Integration for example, jobs are likely to increase, it also miscalculates the numerous pitfalls encountered on the road to corporate improvement. In my opinion there is likely to be new jobs emerge that we currently couldn't conceive of. For example, it is my belief that should we ever get to a machine capable of self improvement or the "singularity" it would not be inconceivable that we would have approached space exploration. i.e. a facility on the moon or potentially feet on mars.

  • From my own point of view it would have been nice to have looked towards our space exploration techniques for the future and the impact this might have on jobs, job creation and possibly colonisation. (am I being naive?)

  • Ford discusses at one point how in the future cognitive machines might be "conscious" so to speak, or more intelligent then we are ourselves with Moors Law perpetuating this! I have two thoughts towards this;
    • Is it possible that a cognitive machine, aware that History is written by the victors are able to slowly phase out our own history with alternative facts and emotive stories that lead us to follow a path the machine has dreamt up either to bring overall peace to humankind or even our demise. (Several Doctor Who series have followed this thought trend in recent times. "Smile")
    • Alternatively, do we take the singularity which we have contained and imprisoned for our personal gain either at a government level or for entertainment around the big questions of our day such as "What is 0/0" or "Is there a god?" a machine that surpasses human intelligence would surely make short work of such simple questions?

  • What isn't discussed by Ford as well (and possibly rightly as it is somewhat off topic) is around deep learning ethics. He mentions the eventual ability for companies and machines to know more about ourselves than we know ourselves i.e. the example with the lady who is pregnant and the advertising knows prior to her family. There is then a question about what responsibility do companies, programmers and government have to ensure citizens have their human rights to privacy and self determination. This then leads to the philosophical question as to whether humans as random and unpredictable as we would like to believe?

  • My final thought is the discussion around having robotics being used to aid existing workers instead of replacing them. It is my opinion that this is a moot point though one that is correctly covered. Ford does not seem to endorse this view point which I believe would have been contradicted by his opening quote of Milton Freidman "So then, why not give the workers spoons instead of shovels?"
Have you read the book? if not, find it here:

If you have... 

Any thoughts of your own? Feel free to share them in the comments! :)

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