Automation etc.

I mentioned in my 2016 reading round-up that I hadn’t yet had a crack at Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots. I finally put that right the other week, and the book prompted many, many thoughts. Which is always a good thing.

Quite a few of those thoughts were objections. I generally agree with Ford that the technological progress we’re seeing today far surpasses anything that has come before, and the mass automation of labour is a feasible possibility as a result. But I don’t see it as inevitable. For one thing, a backlash against automation could see it rolled back, rather than accelerated, before too long. I wrote a short piece explaining the thinking behind that, which you can read here.

That piece was, necessarily, a massive over-simplification of the lie of the land. You can’t really cover social change on this scale in 750 words. My purpose with it was more to suggest an alternative way of thinking about how things might pan out, rather than predicting what will happen.

One of the most interesting dynamics that I failed to cover was how all of this fits into the global / international economy. Some of the best bits of Ford’s book, I thought, were actually about offshoring, and how it could seriously shake up the world of work (if it isn’t doing so already) before automation does. We think about manufacturing going abroad, but one of the things that technology really has changed is the ability to do non-manual work remotely, arguably making the pool of potential applicants for, say, a software engineering role, global. Why limit yourself to UK graduates when you could take your pick of the best minds in Asia, or Africa, or anywhere else?

The question of how different governments shape their policies in light of and in competition with those of other governments will also be fascinating. If you’re elected on a platform of rolling back automation (as I suggest might soon happen in the piece), and you force companies to hire human workers over computers while other countries are actively promoting automation, those companies will either move elsewhere or risk becoming uncompetitive in a global market. If they move elsewhere, you end up with the same unemployment problem you would have had anyway. If they stay, domestic consumers will probably look abroad for products and services provided more cheaply and efficiently – so you’ll have maintained that vital consumer purchasing power only to reap no rewards. Unless you close yourself off from the world of international trade, or implement very stringent tariffs and what have you – but then you risk your country becoming irrelevant on the world stage (the Trump presidency should make a very interesting case study…). At which point, UBI might seem like it was the better idea after all. Although then what would you have done about all the mental health problems and social issues arising in a population of bored, unhappy, confused and unfulfilled humans?

In short, it’s complicated. My piece, and these ramblings, don’t even scratch the surface.

The other complicating factor will be the environment. Ford mentions climate change at the start and end of the book as something that could further exacerbate the problems of mass automation. What he doesn’t do, however, is consider the ways in which climate change might actually impose a natural limit on automation. Where is the energy to run all these robots going to come from? But this is something I really want to write about separately. So I’ll leave it there for now.

Any thoughts / comments / objections, fire away. If you’re interested (and if you’ve got this far?), I thought I’d include a very brief reading list with some interesting stuff that might be worth referring to.


The Rise of the Robots – Martin Ford   >   Obviously. It’s actually a pretty easy and entertaining read, albeit slightly repetitive at times.

The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? – Carl B Frey & Michael Osborne   >   This now-ubiquitous report from 2013, which estimated that 47% of US jobs are susceptible to ‘computerisation’, underpins Ford’s argument. The Oxford Martin School have a load of other interesting publications on technology and unemployment which are also worth checking out.

World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends – The World Bank   >   In some ways, this could be seen as a follow-up to the above, but it takes a broader approach to the impact of technology and a much more international perspective. Very interesting on the topic of employment, though, particularly with regard to the susceptibility of jobs in the developing world to automation (see p.23 for a quick graphical overview).

New Robot Strategy  The Headquarters for Japan’s Economic Revitalization   >   A detailed plan of action for the integration of robots into multiple levels of Japanese society. Very interesting.

The Second Machine Age – Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee   >   I wasn’t overwhelmed when I read this last year, but have been dipping back into it over the past week and actually think it’s very thoughtful in terms of its policy / long-term recommendations. Worth a look.

Please let me know if you’ve read anything good!