Rise of the Robots focuses on the economic impact of increased productivity due to automation. When I was just a lad, sometime in the last century, I recall this being talked about and how it would lead to greater wealth, shorter working hours, higher pay, and general abundance. That hasn’t happened, at least not for most workers who have seen no substantial increases in pay or benefits even though the value of the goods they are producing has risen substantially. Where did all that wealth go? I’ll bet you can guess. Automation isn’t the only cause for income disparity, of course. Narrowly focused short-term profit-seeking and manipulation of governmental policies and public opinion by well-funded special interests play a large role, but this book only touches on those. The automation aspect, especially the rapid advancement in robotics is the main topic.
When I started my first ‘real’ office job (1981), we had one admin assistant for about every dozen desk jockeys. Her job (all were women) was primarily to type our hand-written correspondence so it could be snail-mailed. When we got our first desktop computers a couple of years later, we typed the letters ourselves on our computers and sent them to a shared printer. A year later, we did away with the need for printing and emailed most of them. One of the consequences was elimination of the admin support jobs followed closely by staff reductions in the mail room.
We all know about robots replacing assembly line workers to build cars and a host of other things. This technology is getting more sophisticated and is being used in more ways. The trend will certainly continue. Some people may tell you that businesses are ‘job creators’, but they leave out an important word. Businesses are reluctant job creators. They don’t hire people they don’t need, and they do their best to need as few as possible. Robots that are reliable and cost-effective will, undoubtedly, continue to reduce the need for human labor. In the past, displaced workers might hope to retrain for different, possibly better jobs, but computer technology is advancing so quickly, there may soon be few jobs robots aren’t better suited for…from a purely profit-motivated business perspective.
Martin Ford suggests that what is needed is a new paradigm, one that retains the essential contribution of people as consumers, even if they do not have paying jobs bringing in income. This is necessary to keep the economy moving. Broad-based consumer spending drives the economy, but businesses can’t sell what people can’t afford to buy. He offers several options. I don’t know which, if any, of these might work, but they are all worth considering. I am quite sure, however, that the days of the labor-based income economy are numbered.
This is an important subject for our times and Rise of the Robots does a good job addressing it. I recommend it.