Martin Ford: Rise of the Robots

Lets say you can wash the dishes twice as fast as you used to. You finish in 30 minutes instead of the old 15 thanks to buying a dishwasher. That extra 15 minutes you can now spend watching television, going to the gym or just about anything. Fantastic.  But what if you are a dishwasher and those 15 minutes are time that you’re paid for.  In the past those 15 minutes have party been replaced by other work, so instead of washing dishes you might be a computer programmer or man a call center . You don’t get free time, you simply free up time to do a new type of work and most importantly get paid.

This book posits that for the past 30 years or so this balance has been out of whack and increasingly our dishwasher can’t find new work, he just works far less than he used to and has a smaller income. As Ford notes productivity has skyrocketed, but real wages have declined precipitously. Offshoring and globalization have contributed, but the real enemy isn’t people in China, it’s your computer.

Computing and information technology have improved at an exponential speed, roughly doubling their abilities each year, which continues unabated. We aren’t at the end, we’re arguably at the beginning. This is the cue for a million dystopian sci-fi plotlines, which I’m sure we’re all aware of, but the main question Ford asks is what happens when we have far too few jobs?

For me the main question that Ford doesn’t much attempt to answer is how efficient would robots be compared to a human employee? Let’s say a human gets paid $7/hour, what would the equivalent robotic alternative cost? If it is cheaper but still relatively high, say $5/hour (parts, updates, fixing or replacing robots), then productivity will increase, but not exponentially.  If it is 0.1/hour then it’s an entirely different ballgame and productivity would skyrocket.  If Ford’s law of IT expansion (double every year) holds true then this is the probable end-state. The difference, to me, is that the cost of goods would plummet to match our diminished incomes. If the robots replace us, but are only marginally better in a big picture view of things, then goods wouldn’t be any cheaper. That’d be a big problem as nobody, save the owners of robots, would have much of an income to pay still high prices. That’d be economic catastrophe. If there’s a middle stage where robots are cheaper to employ than humans, but not drastically so, the economy would be in ruins and we might never reach that end state or at least not without mass poverty.

The biggest hypothetical benefit that I can foresee from increased automation would be helping out our beleaguered environment by way of increased efficiency.  If we can’t last another hundred years because the planet is destroyed robots will be the least of our worries. One tiny example would be eliminating commutes to and from work.

Freeing up more time is of course a double edged sword as many people would feel liberated, even if they didn’t have substantial incomes, not to have to slog it out at a job they hate and would have enough hobbies to fill their time. I’d wager though that over 85% of us would feel directionless and lose any sense of value of purpose. Our own minds would eat away at us. Evolution didn’t prepare us for lethargy and I’d picture us like an animal in a zoo going crazy from boredom and being removed from our natural environment (physical and mental exertion). The biggest antidote to depression is often “action over inaction.”

I’ll insert some song lyrics that I think capture this better than I can. Here’s Titus Andronicus’ Ecce Homo:

I heard them say the white man created existential angst
When he ran out of other problems
Cause the thing about those problems was
Typically, more money would solve them
We’re breaking out of our bodies now
Time to see what’s underneath them