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.

Echo Chamber

Does anybody even remember the term “Information Superhighway” any more?  Do you remember a pre-global warming, pre-divorce, skinny Al Gore and his dubious claims on inventing the Internet?  We were told about having the world’s knowledge at our finger tips. The Internet would free information and provide the most egalitarian way to get to knowledge previously limited to inhabitants of ivory towers.  But what happened?  The story of the last ten years unfolds almost like a moralistic tale. Like Midas and his golden touch or like the Genie from Arabian nights and their granting of life wishes that destroy lives.

We don’t learn any more.  We bookmark.  We don’t read any more, we skim.  We don’t discuss any more, we forward links to points, and another set of links to counter points, followed by links for the conclusion.  When we do decide to comment, it is a comment made in character, stereotypical.

We all live in an echo chamber of our stereotype.  Our voices bounce off the walls, and are magnified by those of our peers, also of our stereotype.  These voices then pour out of the mouth of the chamber and as an atonal roar that clashes with those coming out of other chambers.  We are here, shouting at one another, but not bothering to understand why or what we are shouting for.  We like shouting because it is what we do, our slogans are what define us.