Review: The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless FutureRise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rise of the Robots (RoR) was voted as the Financial Time’s Business Book of the Year* for 2015.

I found the book to be a disappointment. RoR goes over well trodden territory around automation, the shift of from a labour driven economy to a capital driven economy and the impending collapse of the consumption due to the shrinking middle class. Mr. Ford also provides a brief tour of the issues around the emergence of general purpose Artificial Intelligence** and nano technology. The book concludes with an argument for a universal, work appropriate basic income scheme and a discussion around the system of incentives that would make such a scheme work.

The book provides anecdotal commentary around the decimation of white collar jobs and the emergence of machine learning. It covers well trod territory on the failures of MOOCs and how a degree from a University may no longer guarantee a prosperous middle class life.

RoR comes across as a lament for the golden post-war age of increasing prosperity, high levels of employment and with the middle classes having a secure financial future. Mr. Ford mentions on a number of occasions that we are reverting to a feudal system with a small percentage of the population controlling access to capital and the majority of us becoming sharecroppers in a digital economy. I agree with this bleak prognosis but do not find Mr. Ford’s solution of a increasing consumption via a universal basic income satisfactory.

I found RoR to be a sharp, succinct read with extensive foot notes and references. There are few mentions in the book of the sort of challenges facing countries like India that are not wealthy and where a basic income would be difficult to implement. India, like China before it, has staked it’s economic future on creating millions of jobs through manufacturing and services. If these jobs are not to materialise due to the “Rise of the Robots”, what options remain open? Regrettably, Mr. Ford does not offer much in the way of insight here.

I would recommend RoR as a primer on the type of issues that developed nations will face in the coming decades but find Mr. Ford’s arguments for a solution unconvincing and his exploration on the deeper issues around ethics around general purpose AI unsatisfactory.

Notes:
* FT Business Book of the Year: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/45ea0f60-8d…

** Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence provides a detailed exploration around the issues behind the emergence of General Purpose AI: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2…

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Propaganda in the age of Wikileaks

Gloria Origgi, in Edge 335 states that we are leaving the information age behind and are entering a reputation age. She posits that one of the reasons for the influence Wikileaks wields in current political and social discourse is due to powerful, and reputed media organisations like the New York Times and The Guardian acting as conduits for it’s revelations.  We trust the contents of the Wikileaks secrets because of our implicit trust of these formidable media organisations.  We believe the revelations because we believe in the integrity of the Guardian or the Times.

When a reputed newspaper breaks a story, we assume that the sources have been vetted, and that the editors have double checked the allegations / revelations before publishing them.  Wikileaks, however, presents an interesting dilemma.  The contents of the leaks were uploaded by someone (presumably PFC Bradley Manning) within the US military establishment.   The behaviour of the US government (and other governments) subsequently offer some reassurance that these diplomatic cables did come from within their organisations.  Not surprisingly, “Cablegate” has become perhaps the media event of the year (or even the decade).  Hordes of commentators have descended on the Guardian website venting their spleen about the evils of the US government, and the hypocrisy of US foreign policy.

I can’t help but be a little cynical about this hoopla.  Yes, clearly some of the contents of leaks may jeopardise national (or indeed international) security.  However, I wonder how easy it would be for a government, or any other organisation to manipulate public opinion via a channel like Wikileaks.  Could Wikileaks itself be used as tool for government (or indeed corporate propaganda)?  Would it be easier for the US government to sell overt support of a South Korean invasion of North Korea given the cables published on the topic?  Would it be easier for the state department to withdraw a diplomat / intelligence agent from a tricky situation abroad now that he has been “outed” and him disappearing would look very bad for the host nation?

Yes, this is tinfoil hat territory.  I just want to convey that we should think twice before taking the contents of the Cablegate memos at face value.  Even if the leak was unintended (as it appears), it could be quite easy for a motivated organisation (government etc.) to move quickly and use it as another avenue for propaganda.

Saving the American Job

Contemplating a proposal by veteran Silicon Valley leader and former CEO of Intel to help create jobs in emerging industries in the US.

I read this editorial early last month when it was published on the Bloomberg opinion pages.  It was by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel.  It is a thought provoking, if somewhat incendiary piece.

Mr. Grove argues that the move of manufacturing jobs to low cost locations, especially in Asia, have resulted in the loss of “scaling skills”,  i.e. the ability to move from a startup to an established, market leading industry.  He worries that this will lead to a terminal disadvantage for US industries when it comes to emerging or green industries (like advanced batteries).  He suggests the US imposing a tariff on all goods that have been manufactured off-shore.  The revenue should be earmarked for supporting industries that will create jobs in the US in strategic industries.

To read such comments coming from a man whose company has benefited immensely by offshoring, and by exploiting new markets (and lower wages) abroad is shocking.  It goes to show the existential angst the current economic conditions are causing.  Slapping import tariffs on all good manufactured abroad is starting a trade war, and is naked protectionism.  None of the The US’s key trading partners would take take kindly to such a move.

What could be the possible implications of such a move?

  • It would cause a jump in the prices of imported goods.  Politically, this would be a risky move.  While people in the US have been agitating to “Take America Back”, it is difficult to see them taking a sudden jump in prices at Walmart without a murmur.
  • Lets say they go ahead, and after a couple of decades these new industries do take off.  With unilateral import tariffs, unless the goods made in the US have a huge advantage in quality or cost, there is nothing stopping competing products being created in other countries that could also have invested in new industries around the same time.
  • With the ability now to send huge amounts of data instantaneously anonymously, it would be almost impossible to protect US intellectual property abroad.  By imposing unilateral tariffs, the US would also lose political leverage, making it difficult to try and enforce US patent law abroad.
  • As the industry manufacturing our hypothetical future commodity grow, they would come up against limits of domestic consumption.  To continue growing, they would have to find markets abroad.  There are guaranteed to be retaliatory tariffs imposed on US exports.  So who will pay for these US jobs?

What Mr. Grove seems to be suggesting is a form of Mercantilism.  What was a dominant economic theory of the 18th century might not work in a world that offers a much more level playing field.

Please find Mr. Grove’s original article here on Bloomberg.