Review: Martin Ford’s “Rise of the Robots”

by Miles Raymer


If you decide to read one piece of nonfiction this summer, let this be it.

Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is one of the most intelligent and important works of futurism to date. Although the book’s title might trigger images of popcorn and 3D glasses rather than a sober analysis of Earth’s economic future, Ford’s arguments are politically balanced, meticulously supported, and cleanly presented for non-specialists. His message––that technological unemployment can seriously compromise the health of world economies––couldn’t be more timely.

Rise of the Robots follows a problem and solution format. Most of the book’s 300 pages are spent diagnosing the problem of technological unemployment, exploring its causes and trends, and explicating the transformative power of technological advances as they relate to human labor. It’s clear early on that while Ford is certainly no cynic, he’s roundly skeptical of the techno-optimism that characterizes many futurist manifestos. Technology will not solve this problem, because technology is the problem; to truly address the issue, we must restructure our political and economic landscapes. In a relentless and data-driven onslaught, Ford eviscerates the received economic “wisdom” that technological innovation will ultimately create enough good jobs to reinvigorate the lives and bank accounts of America’s workforce. Ford explains:

Among practitioners of economics and finance there is often an almost reflexive tendency to dismiss anyone who argues that this time might be different. This is very likely the correct instinct when one is discussing those aspects of the economy that are primarily driven by human behavior and market psychology…These things never really change.

It would be a mistake, however, to apply that same reasoning to the impact of advancing technology. Up until the moment the first aircraft achieved sustained powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, it was an incontrovertible fact––supported by data stretching back to the beginning of time––that humans beings, strapped into heavier-than-air contraptions, do not fly. Just as that reality shifted in an instant, a similar phenomenon plays out continuously in nearly every sphere of technology. This time is always different where technology is concerned: that, after all, is the entire point of innovation. Ultimately, the question of whether smart machines will someday eclipse the capability of average people to perform much of the work demanded by the economy will be answered by the nature of the technology that arrives in the future––not by lessons gleaned from economic history. (60-1, emphasis his)

It’s fair to point out that we also don’t know what new kinds of jobs will be created by “technology that arrives in the future,” but Ford claims it would be foolhardy to assume they will replace the stable employment, middle-class incomes, benefits packages, and retirement plans of the past (for the majority of the workforce). Ford wastes no time laying out the evidence for his case, which can be stated thus: Many jobs are gone, more are going, and when they go, they’re gone for good.

The book describes a host of trends that are leading the developed world inexorably toward less employment and lower-quality employment: stagnant wages, decline in labor’s market share, declining labor force participation, diminishing job creation, increased long-term unemployment, rising income inequality, underemployment for recent college graduates, and an unprecedented shift toward part-time jobs. Each contributing factor comes with its own hard data and logical explanation, and Ford is careful to point out that while these trends are sometimes the direct cause of government or corporate decisions, more often than not they result from market pressures that can’t be directly blamed on any particular entity. Regardless of partisan efforts to direct responsibility for technological unemployment one way or another, it is undeniably a huge problem that is likely to get worse as the 21st century continues. 

This is because automation is developing much faster in more economic sectors than previous generations could have imagined. Rise of the Robots gives a detailed overview of the many emerging technologies that are currently replacing human labor or will soon begin doing so: conventional robotics, automation software, IBM’s Watson (now being used in the healthcare industry), MOOCs and other forms of distance learning, 3D printing, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and self-driving cars, to name a few. Ford presents a balanced assessment of these technologies, explaining shortcomings and delays in development along with the particular strengths of each. He also debunks the idea that white-collar work will not be swallowed up in the automation revolution, showing that while many of these jobs require specialized education, their day-to-day activities are often routine and therefore easy to automate once the correct software is designed. Additionally, such jobs are increasingly easy to outsource to other countries––often a precursor to full automation (Chapter 4).

The sad truth is that when the right kind of automation comes along, it almost always outperforms human workers, and not just marginally. We can sometimes hybridize human and machine labor, but there is no way to completely obviate the zero-sum game of the market; business owners don’t want to pay for labor if they don’t have to, but workers need access to income and meaningful work. This tense standoff, which has been simmering at least since the time of the Luddites, has reached a new fever pitch in the 21st century. But, Ford posits, technological unemployment is also inseparable from other, far more desirable outcomes:

The astonishing wealth and comfort we have achieved in modern civilization are a direct result of the forward march of technology––and the relentless drive toward ever more efficient ways to economize on human labor has arguably been the single most important factor powering that progress. It’s easy to claim that you are against the idea of too much automation, while still not being anti-technology in the general sense. In practice, however, the two trends are inextricably tied together. (257)

In other words, if you want the modern bells and whistles, you’re not going to get them without automation. I think Ford is basically correct here, although I’d add that the “relentless drive toward ever more efficient ways to economize on human labor” has also led directly to some of the worst atrocities and explosions of suffering in human history, and it continues to do so. But perhaps Ford can be forgiven for glossing over this nasty truth, because his heart and mind seem to be in the right place. His answer for managing the crisis of technological unemployment? Re-balance the power of modern consumption in favor of the disenfranchised workforce.

Before outlining how Ford thinks we should attempt to do this, I’d like to point out one conclusion that isn’t brought up in the book but that implicitly follows from its premises. With automation and scarcity of traditional employment on the rise, it seems that workers should look to their local economies as much as possible for support and opportunity. By this I mean “local” in the most general sense––any self-selecting network or community, virtual or otherwise. If your main sources of income stem from personal relationships with friends, family, or like-minded community members, those individuals may be less motivated to automate your job or fire you to cut costs. This may require the rejection or revision of truisms from previous generations that discouraged the overlap one’s professional and personal lives.

While “going local” might help some people in some places, this is not a broadly-applicable solution for the woes of the technologically unemployed, especially those in economically depressed communities. Additionally, higher education and skills retraining–– “solutions” that have been touted for decades with little effect on the overall automation trend––will not secure stable employment: “The promise of education as the universal solution to unemployment and poverty has evolved hardly at all. The machines, however, have changed a great deal” (250).

Ford’s grand solution is not a new idea, but one that is ripe for revival: a guaranteed basic income. This means that each US citizen would receive a monthly check from the government as a form of income (Ford’s initial proposal is $10,000/year, or $833/month). It wouldn’t be enough for most people to live on without seeking other income, but it would be potentially life-changing for financially struggling citizens. Some people love this idea, and some dismiss it out of hand, but Ford admirably demonstrates why a basic income should appeal to citizens across the political spectrum, and how it could be financially––if not necessarily politically––feasible. The critical nonpartisan point here is that workers are also consumers; without consumption, the whole economy is compromised:

A worker is also a consumer (and may support other consumers). These people drive final demand. When a worker is replaced by a machine, that machine does not go out and consume. The machine may use energy and spare parts and require maintenance, but again, those are business inputs, not final demand. If there is no one to buy what the machine is producing, it will ultimately be shut down. (197)

The same can be said of the capitalist who “employs” the machine, as Nick Hanauer has pointed out. Since technological unemployment is running roughshod over workers’ ability to generate subsistence income (let alone disposable income), it is in everyone’s interest––including those whose taxes might go up––to use government money to redirect a portion of consumptive power back toward the general population.

Ford goes out of his way to placate proponents of the free market and small government who might dismiss the idea of a basic income as a further expansion of the “nanny state.” In fact, a well-designed basic income would be the opposite––a market-based solution that gives consumers the ability to spend their basic income as they choose. And it would have the added bonus of being a mobile form of income, allowing individuals freedom of movement as well as a financial cushion from which to launch entrepreneurial endeavors (267).

To fund a basic income, Ford would have us selectively shrink or eliminate welfare programs, as well as implement long overdue taxes on carbon, wealthy individuals, and corporations, who would no doubt resist such taxes, but would ultimately benefit from increased consumer spending:

The total cost [of a basic income] would be offset by reducing or eliminating numerous federal and state anti-poverty programs, including food stamps, welfare, housing assistance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit…These programs add up to as much as $1 trillion per year. (271)

As a general supporter of anti-poverty programs, I’d want to see the hard numbers to make sure a monthly basic income would actually cover the loss of these other benefits. We cannot allow an inadequate basic income program to gut our welfare infrastructure without just compensation, as with the voucher programs that are popular with spending hawks. But given this caveat, I think Ford’s idea is sound. The corresponding reduction in government bureaucracy would be a welcome development, and Ford’s basic income model would be a form of direct government-to-citizen payment that would require relatively little bureaucratic management, especially compared to current welfare programs. Less bureaucracy would also attenuate the ability of private contractors to siphon public money set aside for social programs (259-61). Instead, more dollars would go directly to citizens, who could spend them as they saw fit. This money would need to be carefully scaled with consumer need and distributed with work incentives in mind. For now, we still need a lot of human labor to keep the economy going.

When embedded in a particular moment in history, as we humans always are, it’s impossible to know which parts of our past are most relevant, which present assessments are valid, and which future projections are actually achievable and realistic. Rise of the Robots does a commendable job of identifying a big problem and offering a bold solution, but much subsequent discussion and criticism will be necessary to identify the flaws in Ford’s vision. Even if we did implement a basic income (which seems politically impossible at this point), key questions would remain: Would Ford’s proposed incentives be enough to keep the workforce adequately engaged in the economy? Would the rise in consumption push us over the climate cliff, or might it give people the financial freedom to understand climate change better and perhaps even do something about it (283)? Would getting rid of certain social programs cause an uptick of frivolous consumer spending, leading to even deeper poverty in the long run?

However we imagine these questions might be answered, we can be assured that Martin Ford has done much to improve our national dialogue about how to respond to technological unemployment. For those who lament the present paucity of ambitious “moonshot” ideas (what Neal Stephenson has called “Innovation Starvation“) this book should be a rallying point––not a sly pitching of some newfangled gizmo or magic bullet ideology, but a sensible return to economic realities by way of radical changes in our collective thinking and societal structure.

Rating: 10/10