Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Armies of metallic soldiers attacking fleeing humans, monotone machines refusing to open air lock doors, malfunctioning androids on murderous rampages – popular culture has done much to disseminate anxiety inducing images of the dangers posed by robots and artificial intelligence systems. And yet, the immediate threat these machines represent may have less to do with robots that murderously bring an end to life itself, and more to do with machines that are used to bring about a dramatic reconfiguration of our lives as we have come to know them.
There is plenty of cultural content that has conditioned people to fear gun toting robots and deranged super computers, but what about the robots that assemble cars and the super computers that diagnose cancer? It is not an idle question. After all, powerful machines capable of performing complex tasks are no longer the province of science fiction – and this is certainly something that many employers seem to have gleefully noted. The potential perils of the coming advances in robotics and intelligent machines is the focus of Martin Ford’s book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future – and as the subtitle makes clear, the “rise” with which Ford is particularly concerned involves an assault on human employment, not an attack on life itself.
At the core of Ford’s book is a steady confidence that changes are coming. While Ford is not certain what all of these alterations will ultimately look like his survey of the hypes, hopes, and hypotheticals surrounding robots and intelligent machines presents a foreboding image of the future. And it is a vision of tomorrow that is only made grimmer when one considers the dangerous instability that may stem from other factors such as climate change and increasing economic inequality. The task, as Ford presents it, is not therefore to attempt to stand athwart this future, but instead to prepare for it in such a way that mitigates the problems while accentuating the positive potential. It is a challenge – but one that will only grow more perilous if it is ignored.
That advances in technology are reconfiguring the world of work is not in and of itself a new trend; however, improvements in the capabilities of machines means that ever more areas of labor – including some that had been previously safe from automation – now risk being disrupted. Certainly, for some, such disruption will be welcomed. After all, for those who own the machines there are significant profits to be made by replacing human workers with automatons that never call out sick or go on strike. While automation has been transforming the world of labor for decades, what sets the present moment apart is the versatility of today’s advances in intelligent machines and the speed with which these advances are begetting still further advances.
Indeed, the types of machines that are appearing with increasing rapidity today seem to be “geared toward nearly every conceivable commercial, industrial, and consumer task” (6). As such it is no longer only factory and agricultural jobs that are at risk – “white collar” and service sector jobs may soon be feeling increasing pressure from metallic pincers. While the story of automation runs alongside the story of globalization (jobs being off-shored to countries where labor is cheaper) further advances in automation potentially allow for re-shoring – though the bulk of the jobs are likely to go to machines that do not draw paychecks. Though the service sector may have grown whilst the manufacturing sector shrunk, those jobs too are increasingly precarious as inventors turn their attention from robots that can assemble cars to ones that can prepare hamburgers. And once one company realizes the profit to be made – in automating fast food restaurants for example – it is likely that its competitors will do the same. The trend seems to be one wherein “it’s difficult to imagine that the eventual result won’t be more robots and machines—and significantly fewer jobs for people” (20).
A standard reply to the prospect of automation is that those losing their jobs simply should have pursued further education, but expensive degrees may no longer offer much in the way of protection. The explosive growth, in the prevalence and power, of information technology has enabled computers to take on numerous jobs that were once “safe” middle class positions. Of course, technology does not exist in a social vacuum and the larger context that creates the backdrop against which these technological shifts play out is one that has been shaped by, amongst other things, “stagnant wages,” “declining labor force participation,” “soaring inequality,” and “declining incomes and underemployment for recent college graduates” – and those underemployment rates have hit students who studied in STEM fields as well. The leaps in information technology’s capabilities have made it so that a host of job fields have vanished (when was the last time you used a travel agent?) – though this has occurred at the same time as individuals have come to enjoy the devices that thrive on IT (smart phones, laptops, tablets, and so forth). For techno-optimists these devices represent powerful tools by which people can seek to earn income – “write a blog and run ads on it, publish an ebook, sell stuff on eBay, or develop an iPhone app” (76) – however – as Ford acidly puts it:
“As a practical matter, for the majority of people who lose middle-class jobs, access to a smart phone may offer little beyond the ability to play Angry Birds while waiting in the unemployment line.” (79)
Much of the increase in the power of information technology is attributable to the boom in cloud computing wherein massive server farms handle millions of gigabytes of information everyday. At the same time programs that are able to monitor (and “learn”) from what workers are doing are able to turn this data into the very type of information that may lead to those workers being replaced by machines. Backed by the massive computing power of the cloud, machines are demonstrating that they can be used for a range of ever more complex tasks – and even some that seem to require human creativity (such as making art). Offering workers more education and training is no longer enough to keep pace with the advances occurring in computer power, alas, “the machines are coming for the higher-skill jobs as well” (121). Even fields that have weathered the storm of automation relatively well – such as higher education and medicine – seem poised to be battered by further technical advances. From MOOCs, adaptive learning programs, and grading machines in education to programs that can analyze medical tests for signs of cancer, fill prescriptions, and make diagnoses informed by a swift scan of thousands of medical articles – careers in higher-education and medicine both seem less and less secure.
While the technologies of the present do much to illustrate the dangers to employment posed by automation and advances in information technology, one can already detect other technological shifts that may exacerbate the situation. 3D printing may transform the world of manufacturing (which has already been largely impacted by automation); while autonomous cars could potentially alter individual’s driving habits while putting those who drive professionally out of work. And looking at the hyped and hypothetical technologies from nanotechnology, to super-intelligent computers, to “the singularity” all portray a world in which changes in labor conditions are almost insignificant in light of the larger existential questions that come into play when (and if) humans create machines more intelligent than themselves. It is premature to know for certain what effects 3D printing, autonomous cars, and super-intelligent computers may have – and yet all of these point to a future in which ever more tasks are handled by machines. If the current trend is one wherein “the economy is likely on a path toward a tipping point where job creation will begin to fall consistently short of what is required to fully employ the workforce” (176) – than the visions of super-intelligent computers are not imaginings of a world where this trend is reversed.
And yet one of the perplexing issues problems that emerges is that robots may be used to assemble cars, but robots are not likely to buy the cars they assemble. Or, to put it a slightly different way, “Robots don’t drive final consumption—people do” (197). Since the crash of 2008, consumption has been slow to rebound and much of the purchasing that has been taking place has been driven by the wealthiest in society. The irony of automation may be that it creates a society wherein machines are able to churn out mountains of products that nobody has the money to buy any longer. Those who own the machines (who are also the ones firing the workers) will likely accrue significant profits in the short term but the risks of social instability from rampant unemployment and ever more significant economic inequality creates dangerous fractures in a society’s foundation. As Ford poignantly notes:
“As advancing technology continues to drive inequality in both income and consumption, it is poised to eventually undermine the vibrant and broad-based market demand that is essential for continued prosperity.” (227)
When getting a good education and working hard are no longer guarantees of financial stability it becomes increasingly clear that the economic changes automation has brought – and which it is bringing – necessitate rethinking the present economic paradigm. In this context – in Ford’s estimation – “the most effective solution is likely to be some form of basic income guarantee” (257). So as not to discourage people from working this would not be a lavish sum, but it would still ensure that none would be left destitute. Far from being a socialist solution – Ford highlights that no less a conservative icon than Fridrich Hayek had been a supporter of the concept (257) – a basic income acts to reinvigorate capitalism by giving people money with which to freely consume. In terms of technology, this could even be viewed as a “citizen’s dividend” – as the technologies driving automation are possible thanks to extensive government funding (money which came from taxes), a guaranteed basic income could be construed as people simply getting a return on this original investment.
Automation, robots, and ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence pose a serious threat to social stability. There are reasons to be pessimistic – especially as climate change continues to become a graver danger. And yet:
“if we can fully leverage advancing technology as a solution—while recognizing and adapting to its implications for employment and the distribution of income—then the outcome is likely to be far more optimistic.” (284)
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The scenarios that Ford considers in his book are ultimately a good deal more frightening than the images of marauding robots that periodically fill cinema screens. After all, the things that Ford describes are anything but speculative fiction. Rise of the Robots is a discomforting book, and purposely so, and Ford does not flinch from stating, repeatedly, that “the machines are coming for the high-wage, high-skill jobs” (27). Nor does the book offer cheap, simple solutions as Ford recognizes that his proposal for a guaranteed basic income represents a significant reconfiguring of the dominant economic paradigm. Yet what makes the book’s forecasting particularly anxiety inducing is that Ford recognizes that the trends he is focused upon will play out in a world also struggling to address climate change. Rise of the Robots is an interesting and engaging book that is well worth reading, but when reading Ford’s book there are certain matters to keep in mind.
Intended for a broad audience, Rise of the Robots is less of a warning than a statement: the robots are coming for your job, no matter how safe you believe it to be.
And yet, in a certain sense, this is nonsense.
After all, the machines are not coming for “the high-wage, high-skill jobs,” simply because the machines are not the ones making a decision to do this. The robot that replaces the assembly line worker, the MOOC that replaces the university professor, the automated burger flipper that replaces the fast-food worker, the website that replaces the travel agent – the technology in all of these situations does not make a conscious choice to put the human out of work – it is not what’s “coming for you.” It is essential to remember that behind automation is not some HAL like super-computer with malicious intent – but human beings, and they are the ones making the choices. Thus it is not that “the machines are coming for the high-wage, high-skill jobs” but that CEOs, boards of directors, fast-food franchise owners, university presidents (and the like) are exploiting advances in technology to go after jobs that had previously been safe from automation. This may appear as a nitpicky, linguistic squabble, a result of the way that people are accustomed to speaking about technology – but it is important to emphasize that “the machines” are not the responsible party. The risk of saying “the machines are coming” is that it provides ideological cover for those who are really behind the drive for increasing automation.
In Rise of the Robots the reader encounters the names of many companies involved in the push for automation—Google (prominently), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and others—but the actions of these companies are portrayed in a sort of vacuum. Ford appears wary of some of the trends being inaugurated and advanced at the gleaming tech campuses of some of these companies, but Rise of the Robots at points seems afflicted by an lethargic sense that there is no point in taking on the tech companies. It is as if to say that “tech companies are going to do what they’re going to do and we’ll just have to live with the consequences” – and thus Ford’s solution takes on a dark undertone: arguing for a basic income to keep capitalism chugging along instead of encouraging people to resist the monopolistic behemoths of the tech world. At several points in Return of the Robots, Ford despairs of the state of contemporary democracy (at least in America) – but technology appears completely outside the ambit of democratic control. Indeed, in many ways Rise of the Robots is confirmation of the continuing validity of the arguments advanced by Langdon Winner regarding the politics of technology in his classic work The Whale and the Reactor, wherein Winner wrote:
“Current developments in the information age suggest an increase in power by those who already had a great deal of power, an enhanced centralization of control by those already prepared for control, an augmentation of wealth by the already wealthy.” (Winner, 107)
But Rise of the Robots is not a call for people to seize technology for democratic ends, nor is it an ethically minded assault on companies like Google and Microsoft for marching us towards a potentially bleak future. This gives rise to a particular dissonance within Rise of the Robots – tonally it is simply an odd book. Ford is clearly concerned with the danger of technological unemployment, he obviously takes the threat of dire inequality seriously, treats climate change as a serious existential threat in his mind, and yet – upon introspection – some of his positions remain a bit tricky to finesse. It seems that much of this trouble may stem from the way in which Ford writes about automation as though it is inevitable – thus he is able to take the position not of a techno-optimist or of a skeptic but of one simply “telling it like it is.” And yet to assume that position results in one, intentionally or not, becoming a sort of echo for the propaganda issued by large tech companies. But just because Google is working on automated cars and Amazon is working on delivery drones does not make these things inevitable – though presenting them as inevitable certainly helps reduce the risks of the types of protest movements that could apply the brakes to these initiatives. The threat that automation poses to “white collar” jobs is in many ways the focus of Rise of the Robots and yet the book seems almost eager to see higher-education and the medical industry disrupted. It is true that higher-education and the medical industry are far from perfect – but will their being technologically disrupted genuinely result in better results for more people? Or will it just result in putting more people out of work while more profits accrue to large tech companies?
An important aspect of Rise of the Robots is Ford’s willingness to discuss climate change – after all, the threat posed by climate change has the potential to make many of the concerns about automation moot. Thus it seems a shame that Ford does not devote attention to the way in which the explosion of automation and information technology exacerbates climate change. As studies, such as Greenpeace’s “How Clean is Your Cloud?” make clear the IT sector and the Cloud require massive amounts of energy and much of this comes from nonrenewable sources. Even as some companies have made meaningful strides towards powering their Clouds with renewable power – other tech companies still continue to rely upon pollutant heavy ways of getting power. Thus, it is not simply that climate change and advances in technology represent two complicated problems – but that advances in technology are actively contributing to climate change. Ford proposes that a new economic paradigm is needed to confront automation – but what about the need for a new economic paradigm to confront climate change? By couching his proposal for the guaranteed basic income in pro-capitalist rhetoric, Ford lays out an economic paradigm that may work for confronting technological unemployment – but perhaps to address climate change what is needed is a new economic paradigm that is not focused around encouraging consumerism at all.
And yet the ultimate issue surrounding Rise of the Robots is that the book seems to skate around the most important question when it comes to robots, automation, and artificial intelligence. It is a question that the computer scientist and MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum dwelt upon in great detail in his book Computer Power and Human Reason wherein Weizenbaum critiqued the “artificial intelligentsia” and looked askance at the types of figures who today can be found steering companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. For Weizenbaum what needed to be emphasized was:
“that there are some human functions for which computers ought not to be submitted. It has nothing to do with what computers can or cannot be made to do.” (Weizenbaum, 270 – italics in original text)
Rise of the Robots is a book that tells a great deal about what computers “can…be made to do” and about the feats that technology may be able to achieve in the not too distant future. And yet the book largely glosses over the matter of whether or not these are things that the machines “ought” to be doing in the first place. Asking about “ought” is of course difficult, but by treating the technological plans of Google and Microsoft as inevitable Rise of the Robots deprives itself of the moral position from which to defiantly declare that these companies “ought” not to be doing the things they are doing. One of the things that Rise of the Robots makes starkly, if accidentally, clear is that a particularly important task right now is to regain the ethical vocabulary with which to push back against the statements of technological inevitability flowing out of Silicon Valley. A radical and ethical vocabulary that involves saying that just because something can be done, does not mean that it should.
With Rise of the Robots Martin Ford has written a compelling and important book that is well worth reading and contemplating. However it is vital to remember that the robots are not rising up, rather those in power are simply using robots (and the threat of them) to consolidate their own power.
And what those behind these machines are hoping for is that nobody will push back, that nobody will break rank. In other words, they are hoping that we are already robots.
After all, that “resistance is futile” is the mantra of Star Trek’s villainous Borg – but this does not stop Star Trek’s protagonists from resisting this technological foe. In other words: when those covered in technology say: “resistance is futile” – do not believe them.
By Martin Ford
New York: Basic Books, 2015
Other works Cited:
Weizenbaum, Joseph, Computer Power and Human Reason (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1976).
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989).