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Martin Ford – Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment

Matthew Kaye, Consultant writes

I attended Martin Ford’s discussion of his new book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, at the Institute for Public Policy Research yesterday (24/09/15). Ford presented the central argument of his book; that the growth of automation threatens jobs across the board, not just those in low skill occupations.

Ford set out to demonstrate why automation was going to drastically alter the workforce over the next twenty years:

– Smart machines and algorithms are substituting for workers. IT is developing cognitive capability, able to think, learn and make predictions. An example of this is topic spotting in journalism. Machine learning means IT is now able to categorise news articles by area (e.g. politics, sport, culture). Leading on from this, Ford claimed that by 2026 90% of journalism will be done by software.

– New industries are not labour intensive and this trend will continue. In 1979 General Motors had 840,000 workers and $11 billion in earnings (2012 $). By contrast, Google in 2012 had 38,000 workers and $14.5 billion in earnings. Ford argued that industries in the future will look more like Google.

There is scepticism about Ford’s ideas, particularly amongst economists. This is grounded in history as the concern machines will displace workers is not new. Ford conceded the threat of automation and mass unemployment has been akin to “the boy who cried wolf” although, crucially, eventually the wolf does show up.

Ford raised the issue of skills, particularly relevant to Si’s work. He argued that, going forward, the most important skill will be the ability to continue learning. This is something we will have to keep in mind in future work on employment and skills.

He also added that jobs requiring a human element and creative thinking were safer from automation (good news for consultants!)

Responding to the rise of the robots

Ford offered both short-term and long-term responses to the automation question. In the shorter term, he endorsed enhancing the safety net of citizens through a guaranteed basic income regardless of job status. He did describe this idea (particularly in the case of the US) as “politically unthinkable”. In the 2015 General Election the Green Party manifesto included a commitment to a universal income. However, the policy is yet to gain traction with the larger parties, particularly in the current political climate where politicians are loathe to make what are seen as “unfunded spending pledges”.

Longer term Ford called for a decoupling of jobs from income. At present, jobs provide both self-worth and income. Automation’s advance will necessitate a decoupling of these, meaning workers have to get them from different sources. The example he cited was receiving your income from the state in the form of the basic income and editing Wikipedia for a sense of self-worth.

Personally, I thought Ford’s analysis overstated the ‘threat’ of automation in the future. Businesses have to be able to sell the products and services they make. Given that machines do not consume, it would not be in the interests of businesses like Apple to come up with machines that contribute to widespread unemployment and destroy consumer demand. This is, I think, going to be the most powerful countervailing force to the rise of the robots.

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