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Ford’s focus is primarily on the US, both in terms of historical reference and statistics, but the lessons can be applied globally.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.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Ian Bald

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…