The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford: the bottom line
What if technology progress, automation & robots led to mass unemployment? This question is very trendy and many people like to talk about around a beer. But what if a couple of good books helped you get a clearer picture?
I like reading books on technology. Especially when they explain what technology is about to change for us. And this book does just that. In contrast with more positive books (think Schwab or Ross here), The Rise of the Robots explores the problematic aspects of robotization and automation trends.
In short, Martin ford warns against what comes along with today and tomorrow’s innovation and technological progress. And the picture he draws is quite scary. Totally worth a read if technology is one of your topics! Technology is a big thing, don’t let people tell you what you think! Think smart, read smart! Find out more about the book in my book review!
Book Review: The Rise of the Robots – Martin Ford.
I had one of those interesting talks the other day, at lunchtime, about what the future could look like. There were five people around the table. And most thought that globalization, finance and technology would be the end of us. Sooner than later, in fact.
When I tried to go a little bit beyond what people say and think, no one had a clue, though. None of them had tried to find out more. So, I decided to do some research, hoping to get some food for thought on this technology-will-kill-us discussion.
I found three books on the topic and read the first two in a raw. The first one was The Rise of the Robots, Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment by Martin Ford.
The second was The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab.
The third one is still on my reading list, but I’ll update this post with a review as soon as it is ready. [Edit: See my book review of The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross here]
So, Martin Ford’s book The Rise of the Robots came up first. It is 285-page long best seller book (Paperback) and it shows the worst-case scenario on technological progress. The book is not fictional but it is far from being a crazy invention either, though. Want to know why? Keep reading and find out!
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author's main topics explained in detail.
- The book's main themes, questions and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
Ford’s Rise of the Robots: a brief book review (for starters).
Martin Ford is actually a serious and respected thought-leader in the field. As formulated by a famous online encyclopedia, Ford is a ‘futurist’, an expert on robotics and technological progress. Ford is also the Founder of a Silicon Valley-based software company.
In short? He knows the topic very well and actually wrote two books on the topic. The Lights In the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (2009), and this one. As a matter of fact, The Rise of the Robots was a New York Times bestseller. It also won the £30,000 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award in 2015.
The Rise of the Robots discusses innovation and the impact of the various developments that have started to take place, on our modern (and future) societies. Automation is the big topic of the book as Ford explores the robotization and automation trends that come along with today and tomorrow’s innovation and technological progress. In contrast with other books on the topic, The Rise of the Robots shows the dark side of the debates. If you are interested in technology discussions, this book should be on your reading list.
The style is accessible because the book aims for a large public but the book is not easy to read. It is very well written! The author’s writing is fluid and pushes you further, further, and further. It is well researched, packed with relevant information, full of very practical cases… That makes a lot of sense and that makes the subject matter extremely real by the same token. In fact, you will want to know what’s coming next.
Having said that, all the above also makes a very dense book, a lot of ideas to process and sleep on.
Now, I’m getting into the details with a much more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but to finish the brief overview here is what the book is about:
Ford’s Rise of the Robots: the comprehensive book review.
Martin Ford explores the idea that we are currently living a new revolution which will impact our future. And in the main, his argument goes as follows.
The previous revolutions brought progress to the world and have led to a golden age. New jobs created by new technologies were often better for the workers. Progress improved their way of life, gave them higher salaries and so on. Hence, the last revolution revealed a ‘symbiosis’ between technological evolution and work welfare.
Nowadays, in contrast, machines are not tools anymore. Nowadays, machines turn into workers. In the future, they will replace workers. Thus, disruptive technologies have the power to “devastate” entire industries. They could ruin our entire system by creating mass unemployment.
The book in bullet points
Martin Ford explores these major themes:
- Specialization, Technological Innovation, Automation
- Machine intelligence, Machine Learning
- Artificial Intelligence, Singularity
The author asks a series of important questions throughout the book:
- Is technology already replacing human workers?
- Can this revolution differ from the previous ones?
- Should the elites (those who hold the financial power) own technological progress and destroy the society?
- Should populations have a word to say on technology developments?
- Will workers be able to ‘collaborate’ with machines?
- What are the consequences of ‘machine learning’?
- Is there an impact for education? Healthcare?
- Will the industries of the future adapt and provide enough jobs?
- Would robots become consumers and fuel demand?
- Do we agree with the creation of a general Artificial Intelligence that will sooner or later supersede human beings thanks to its superior intellect?
Interesting, uh? Now, let’s dig into the themes. Keep reading!
The Rise of the Robots – Theme #1: Innovation.
The book builds on ten chapters which tend to develop three main discussions.
First, the book provides a detailed background on innovation and automation that any reader interested in the topic should take a look at. For real. The second main topic in The Rise of the Robots deals with the various impacts of the ongoing revolution. The Third topic in The Rise of the Robots deals with identifying forthcoming challenges.
Chapter 1 provides the background on innovation and technology. Ford uses it to explain the current state of technological development, of course. But he also introduces the idea that ‘industrial perception robots’ already replace basic jobs.
Those jobs which consist in handling, packaging and expediting finished products, that is. In logistics, most workers are expendable. Despite being ‘blind’, automated robots master visual perception. They have special dexterity and can operate in semi or full autonomy.
Not a game, but…
In Ford’s opinion, the trend flows from modern games involving spacial cognition technologies. Such as the Microsoft Kinect, for instance. When democratized, these made technological progress cheap and adaptable to business needs. Soon, Ford explains, this will make offshore production lines more efficient. It will also be adaptable to many sectors, including fast food chains and the services industry. Can you imagine an automated burger production?
In the future, automation will be about cloud robotics. This will allow ‘machine learning’, a smart word to describe machines able to learn from the data analyzed and interpreted by their peers.
The Rise of the Robots – Theme #2: Impacts of the revolution.
The second main discussion topic in The Rise of the Robots deals with the various impacts of the ongoing revolution. Here, Martin Ford discusses whether this revolution will differ from the previous ones.
Ford identifies various trends. He refers to ‘Player Piano’, a book by Kurt Vonnegut which described in 1952 an automated society in which most humans had lost hope in their future.
He also describes a war opposing humanity to technological progress over time. For instance, wages have long been stagnating despite an increase in productivity. Corporations have made important profits but job creations have been insufficient. Inequalities have rocketed. Graduates nowadays have difficulties finding jobs. Technology has reduced the value of studies and impacts the expectations of the middle class.
The previous revolutions improved the quality of life of the working class, but nowadays we produce “more stuff … with fewer and fewer workers”. Or, in other words, this revolution is “eliminating jobs”.
The “financialization” of the society is also to blame. Capital is now used for rent-production purposes, because investment in automation has reduced the labor’s contribution to the society. Capital has help making manual jobs expendable.
Globalization and trade?
Globalization and free trade are also problematic. They have allowed offshoring jobs for greater returns on investment.
So, this time the revolution will be different. The ability of machines to “eclipse the capability of average people to perform much of the work” wasn’t just unforeseen. It will have major impacts.
Martin Ford then discusses the disruptive power of automation and modern innovations. In Chapter 3, he describes information technologies as “an unprecedented force for disruption”.
Economists have long argued that specialization and innovation were key. Adam Smith described it as the basis of the economy. Robert Solow (1987 Nobel Prize) saw technology change as being key to long-term growth. Arnold Kling also says something like that. Specialization is a driver of prosperity, in sum.
But Ford pushes those arguments to the extreme. He argues that permanent specialization and innovation have led to automation. And to the replacement of routine jobs by machines with specific abilities.
This raises an important moral question! Should the elites (which hold the finances) also own technological progress? Should they be allowed to destroy the society? Shouldn’t populations have a word to say on this?
The Rise of the Robots – Theme #3: Forthcoming challenges.
The Third main topic in The Rise of the Robots deals with forthcoming challenges.
Yes, the points listed above do constitute significant challenges. But Ford does not only think about automation in terms of production-chain workers. He also discusses the consequences of technological progress on white collar jobs. Within fifteen years, algorithms will write ninety percent of the articles we read.
In fact, ‘narrative–writing engines’ already exist. They draw on massive databases of all kinds… Soon, machines will be able to leverage larger amounts of data, which so far is unstructured due to a lack of manpower.
In other words, knowledge-based work and routine jobs alike are “vulnerable to automation”. But ‘machine learning’ will also allow data-driven decisions. It will progressively end middle management jobs.
Education and healthcare.
Ford also considers whether education could be compatible with machines. Ford raises questions on the ability of the higher education system to evolve. Free online courses (MOOCs), ‘adaptive-learning systems’ and robot-marking, the business model of the higher education industry will be harmed over time.
Similarly, the healthcare system will be impacted. Data will bring relevant second opinions to doctors and practitioners. Automatization will reduce workloads, it will lower the cost of labor-intensive tests. Here too, that is, there is a risk of automation. Future will tell…
>> Related reading: On the compatibility between humans and computers, see for instance Thiel’s startup perspective in Zero to One.
>> Related reading: See also Alec Ross’ book on data and the industries of the future.
Industries of tomorrow?
Martin Ford then discusses the impact of technology on the industries of the future.
He dismisses the argument that technological evolution will create new jobs. Some argue that replacing old models allows improving the society. But Ford doesn’t buy that argument. Using 3D printing and autonomous vehicles as examples, he argues that technology will disrupt. Why using a taxi or delivery driver when a robot does the work for free? So? Technology will not create jobs. Technology won’t employ the available workforce.
The Rise of the Robots – Theme #4: What if…?
Martin Ford also elaborates on the “What if” side of the innovation discussion. What if robots replace workers? What if artificial intelligence got out of control?
The first point is discussed in Chapter 8, and it is one of the most interesting topics of the book. Here, Ford asks one fundamental question. How will our mass-consumption society strive if consumers are unemployed? Robots won’t consume, that’s for sure… So? Well, automation is the end of the world as we know it.
Ford also questions the inability of economists to reach this conclusion. To him, mathematical models are ‘absurd’ and outdated. Why? Because they do not consider technological change as an impacting variable!
Historically, prosperity always appeared when wages increased faster than prices. But this is not the case anymore. So, in the long run, Ford expects “squeezed consumers, deflation, economic crises and… maybe even techno-feudalism”.
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The issue of machine learning.
The second major idea is discussed in Chapter 9. Here, Ford argues that machines only need to replicate a fraction of your knowledge to replace you.
The concept of ‘machine learning’ is key here. Machines do not merely process data. Machines learn from data. They improve themselves. Hence, the big question is not whether technological developments are good. The big question is, what if Artificial Intelligence supersedes human beings?
Chapter 10 provides Martin Ford’s conclusion of the author, on the rise of the robots. His thoughts include some possible solutions for the workers. He also considers the opportunity of a basic universal income for all. Again, for more, get your copy of the book!
The main insights
Martin Ford comes to the following conclusions.
- Disruptive technologies will “devastate” entire industries. And our entire system.
- This time is different. Previous revolutions contributed to improving lives, but this one will simply replace workers.
- The collaboration model between human workers and robots is unlikely because it is already dehumanizing.
- Many challenges to come regarding education and healthcare.
- Technology and the industries of the future will not create new types of jobs in sufficient quantities.
- Robots will never be consumers and will never fuel the economy in place of jobless workers.
So, let’s finish this book review with some food for thought!
So, in my opinion… The Rise of the Robots is extremely relevant if you are into new technologies and future developments. And you should read it if you want to know more about the topic.
First, Martin Ford asks a lot of essential questions that most people can’t even discuss. For instance… When will machines stop being tools? Will they become a replacement for workers on a generalized scale? Is the technological revolution different from the previous revolutions? If yes, in what sense and with what impacts? What are the consequences of ‘machine learning’? Oh, and, of course, what are the odds of learning machines actually collaborating with humans?
A clear perspective.
Second, Ford does more than asking questions. He actually answers them with a very distinct perspective. And he takes a very clear position on the subject matter.
Innovation has become a trendy topic lately and everybody talks about it. Some authors (Schwab…) discuss innovation in very positive and thinking-forward terms. But innovation also has a dark side that very few people mention. Except for Martin Ford. Again, let me remind you the book’s title: The Rise of the Robots -Technology and the Threat of Mass Employment. There you go…
Of course, Martin Ford’s picture is not all black. He emphasizes the contribution of technology in relation to healthcare for instance. Overall, nonetheless, the general feeling after reading the book is that humankind is somehow doomed. The main question that will stick into the reader’s mind, in fact, will most likely be about what should be done next. Should we stop specialization and progress then? Of course not, and the author is not suggesting that we should. Still, the book’s argument is dark and this question will stick around.
Innovation involves many discussions related to economics or politics. Hence, those interested in the issue must also consider it in terms of globalization, modern trade… including free trade, liberalism, capitalism, etc. What does it mean? Well, The Rise of the Robots will also be relevant to those interested in governance in general, really…
Having said that… If you plan on reading The Rise of the Robots to sharpen your expertise on innovation, you cannot read that book only. You need to explore more. Don’t limit yourself to one perspective! The Rise of the Robots describes the worst part of technological developments – again, mass unemployment. But others provide much more positive perspectives on the issue. They argue that innovation and increased specialization are the key to more progress. Both in terms of economics, technology or human development.
Arnold Kling for instance talks about the economic rationale behind innovation. His book on specialization and trade is worth a read. Why? Because it provides food for thought on the necessity of specializing to remain competitive! Read my book review and summary of Arnold Kling’s book Specialization and Trade for more.
As already mentioned, The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab is another book you should read. Written by Founder of The World Economic Forum, it is actually a must-read book. Why? Because it gives a very positive, constructive and forward-moving perspective on technology. In contrast with Ford’s book, it focuses on the need to create frameworks applicable to the new trends. Instead of seeing technology as the end of employment, it talks about it as a chance. It considers the benefits that will come out of innovation. Clearly, both books are to be read one after another.
This is another edit of my article, obviously, as Alec Ross’ book was still waiting on my desk when I wrote this book review. Having said that, The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross is very much in line with Schwab’s book and far more practical. Another book on the positive side of things, in other words, but a must-read one. See my book review of The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross here.
In conclusion, The Rise of the Robots -Technology and the Threat of Mass Employment by Martin Ford is a must-read book written by a technology thought leader. Reading this book which will unquestionably boost your knowledge and critical thinking on technology and innovation-related topics. If you plan on having a serious discussion on this in the future (and trust me, you will because this is usually a lunch-time favorite) you need to get that book on the way right now!
In my opinion...
… too dense to be a bedside table book and lots to chew, really. But the book shows a side of technology you need to know about. One of the tech books you can’t miss, really.
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That’s it for now, but don’t stop here! My reading notes are meant to give you a very comprehensive overview of the books I read and some food for thought for the month. That’s why I’ll Make You Think SMART is the Kick-Ass Book Reviews blog after all!
Having said that, the next step for you is to keep digging! Remember, books are a cheap way to learn new things and to benefit from the experience of others at no cost. Not to mention the stories you’ll be able to tell after a good read!
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