Skip to main content

The Rise of the Robots - Martin Ford *****

One of the best things in the world, in my opinion, is when you’ve been thinking about and discussing a subject for a while and come across a book by chance that deals precisely with that topic - in this case, the subject of automation and the enormous changes that it is having, and will have, on the world’s economic and political systems. 
A New York Times bestseller and recipient of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award in 2015, the book handles the subject expertly. Martin Ford is the founder of software development firm based in Silicon Valley and has written two books on the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation and their effects on society, employment and the economy at large.
Rise of the Robots systematically goes through the effects of automation on the economy and society, from the traditional areas of factory/manufacturing jobs through its advance into the service sector, typical office administrative jobs and even to the managerial level. The premise of the book is that while we have seen the effects of automation for a long time, a combination of factors - Moore’s Law (the doubling of processor speeds over approximately 18 months), advances in AI and the ability of computers to self-learn, the spread of fast broadband fibre and cloud computing - are converging to make changes in the workplace, economy and society that will be fundamental and irreversible.
Ford’s focus is primarily on the US, both in terms of historical reference and statistics, but the lessons can be applied globally. Ford makes an excellent case, for instance, that China and India may be worse off when it comes to advancing automation than the US, due to the lack of a widespread service economy that has historically been the transition from a manufacturing based economy. Unlike the West, China and India will go from labour intensive manufacturing-based economies straight to highly automised societies without the intervening service and consumer-based purchasing economies. What this will mean to the burgeoning middle class in China is anyone’s guess, but it may be that the current wage growth of China will stagnate or even decline with automation and the disappearance of jobs. This in turn could cause extreme societal pressures.
This is not to say that the US and Europe get off easy. The effects of advanced AI and atomisation will have profound effects there as well; the US suffering to a larger degree due to the increasing inequality in society and the lack of a European style welfare state. As Ford describes, the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of jobs that can be replaced by automation has already taken, such as robots manufacturing cars. The next step, where robotics are combined with AI, is the automation of low-level service jobs such as fast-food restaurants and warehousing. Following that, logistics and transport industries, and mid-level data processing jobs such as para-legals and administrative positions are susceptible. 
Ford also writes about IBM’s Watson project and how IBM gave themselves enormous challenges (from playing chess grandmasters to defeating trivia champions on televised game shows) and succeeding in creating a cloud based AI computing system that is now focusing on solving healthcare issues by absorbing and processing enormous amounts of medical data. The success rate for these projects, Ford argues, equals the progression of Moore’ Law and achieves accuracy levels that surpass trained human professionals. 
Ford also includes fascinating chapters on the potential downsides of AI, reflecting on the possibility of superhuman intelligence in machines, and nanotechnology. The book ends with some of Ford’s (and others) ideas about how society will have to be restructured to cope with massive amounts of job loss arising from robotics and automation.
While the book is rooted in business and economics, the central subject is the transformational power of computer science and technology. It is a well-argued and balanced book chock full of interesting historical descriptions and details of the development of computer science and technology, and  how we have gotten to where we are, including a very clear-eyed look at where we are going. In my opinion, this book is a must read for anyone interested in technology, business, economics, politics and society.


Review by Ian Bald


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…