Robots Want Your Job

Book Review: "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future," by Martin Ford.

I walked into the Chase Branch near my home a few months ago to find that the counters in the middle of the room had been replaced by two ATMs. Standing between them was a smiling bank employee, eager to show customers how the machines can perform most of the banking services that she used to handle.

Chase ATMThe area behind her was different, too. Instead of five or six teller windows, a floor-to-ceiling wall covers all but one of the windows.

The message to customers is clear: You’re welcome to wait in line for service from that lone human teller, but we’d rather you use one of the shiny new ATMs in the middle of the floor to conduct your business.

I have no idea how many people that pair of ATMs is designed to replace, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of other machines like them scattered across America. But they are a benign example of how technology is changing our lives and the workplace that Martin Ford warns about in “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.”

“From the perspective of a great many workers,” he writes, “computers will cease to be tools that enhance their productivity and instead become viable substitutes.”

The weapons of man’s destruction are formidable: software, artificial intelligence and robots.

People in the service sector are most at risk, according to Ford, since that is “where the vast majority of workers are now employed.” Derek Thompson, in the cover story of the July/August issue of The Atlantic, agrees. Noting that there are 15.4 million people working in the most common occupations – retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server and office clerk – he concludes that “Each is highly susceptible to automation,” based on a 2013 Oxford University study that forecasts “that machines might be able to perform half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades.”

“We are making more stuff, but doing so with fewer and fewer workers.”

Those above the low-wage category should not feel comfortable, however, because technology is coming after them too.

Technology has eliminated 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000, for example, according to Thompson in The Atlantic. “The car industry automates approximately 80 percent of its assembly processes,” writes Daniela Rus in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in an article titled, “The Robots are Coming.” As Ford nicely sums it up: “We are making more stuff, but doing so with fewer and fewer workers.”

A company in Australia has built a prototype of a robot they can lay 1,000 bricks per hour, reducing the time to complete that part of home construction from five or six weeks to about two days. “The construction process needs to be made more efficient,” said a spokesperson.

Airports are experimenting with robots that park your car and check your luggage, then deliver the bags soon after you land.

Corporate America, meanwhile, is increasingly using software in the hiring process because it purports to be more effective and efficient than the ways people hire people.

In the chapter titled “White Collar Jobs at Risk,” Ford points to Quill, a “comprehensive artificial intelligence engine” that produces automated news articles that are “published on widely known websites that prefer not to acknowledge their use of the service.” Quill is also being used to produce high-quality analysis and reports in other industries, “all without human intervention.” So much for writers.

July/August issues of The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs magazines.

July/August issues of The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs magazines.

Education was supposed to help most of us stay ahead of the machines, but it’s not working out that way.

“Overall, about 20 percent of US college graduates are considered overeducated for their current occupation, and average incomes for new college graduates have been in decline for more than a decade,” while “as many as a third of American students who do obtain a degree in engineering, science, or other technical fields fail to find a position that utilizes their educational background.”

“The problem,” Ford in writes, “is that the skills ladder is not really a ladder at all: it is a pyramid, and there is only so much room at the top.”

“It is becoming increasingly clear that a great many people will do all the right things in terms of pursuing an advanced education, but nonetheless fail to find a foothold in the economy of the future.”

In Ford’s estimation, only two sectors have avoided the onslaught of algorithms and technology: higher education and health care, although he predicts that their days are numbered.

Hard economic times have fueled mankind’s precarious situation.

“…routine jobs are eliminated for economic reasons during a recession, but organizations then discover that every-advancing information technology allows them to operate successfully without rehiring the workers once a recovery gets under way,” Ford writes. After all, “rational business owners do not want to hire more workers; they hire people only because they have to.”

This “disruptive innovation” will result in massive unemployment, more poverty, increased income inequality, and lower demand for products and services.

“As jobs and incomes are relentlessly automated away, the bulk of consumers may eventually come to lack the income and purchasing power necessary to drive the demand that is critical to sustained economic growth,” Ford writes.

Since the spread of technology is unstoppable, the solution to this grim future is some form of a guaranteed income, an idea that Ford says conservatives and liberals have proposed. The goal, Ford writes, “is to give everyone the means to go out and participate in the market.” Rise of the Robots

“If something like a guaranteed income were implemented, and if the income were increased over time to support continued economic growth, then the idea that growth could explode and incomes could soar might make sense.”

If done right, Ford maintains that a guaranteed income would eliminate the need for “the minimum wage, food stamps, welfare, and housing assistance.”

Ford acknowledges the hard decisions required by his proposal: How much per individual? Who qualifies? How long would the income last? Where are the incentive to work or pursue an education, even just completing high school? To say nothing of the vicious political fights that such a proposal would ignite.

If — by some miracle — these hurdles were overcome (probably with the aid of an algorithm), Ford writes that, “At a stroke of a presidential pen, extreme poverty and homelessness in the United States might effectively be eradicated!”

It is one of the few times that Ford writes something that even a robot couldn’t compute. Otherwise, this frightening look into the not-too-distant future is cause for concern for anyone who is not a baby boomer. We’ll all be retired by the time Ford’s dystopia arrives, being assisted, perhaps, by elder care robots.

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James E. Kenyon

James is the publisher and editor of Page One Post. He was a newspaper reporter in Detroit and Norfolk, VA, before working in the corporate communications departments at a number of Michigan companies. His last stint was 18 years at Chrysler Corporation, where he handled media relations, product and marketing PR and speech writing. He retired from Chrysler in 2007. He enjoys listening to jazz, good cigars and bourbon Manhattans, often at the same time. He and his partner, Melba, live in Detroit's Rosedale Park neighborhood.