Rise of the Robots: Review and Reflection

I recently read Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots with the UMD CS faculty book club. The book considers the impact of the growth of information technology (IT) on the human labor market, and how the trend towards greater automation could eventually eliminate a substantial number of jobs. The result could be a radical, and disruptive, reshaping of the global economy.81fncUPB6cL

I would recommend the book. I found it well-written and thought provoking. Ford capably argues from past economic and technology trends and also digs into particular problems, products, and research in order to extrapolate future impact. Of the ten faculty who discussed the book, nine of us (including me) were convinced that future automation will be increasingly disruptive to human labor markets.

While reading the book, I found myself wondering about my own role, and that of my field, in addressing this situation we’ve contributed to. Many computer scientists have high-minded ideals and wish to help society through IT innovation. What can we do to ensure that those ideals are realized, rather than perverted into the dystopian future that Ford is warning us about?

Robots replacing humans

The Rise of the Robots considers how automation is increasingly replacing human labor, and speculates about the long term impact of such replacement. One 2013 analysis quoted in the book suggests that 47 percent of current American jobs are at high risk of being automated within the next 20 years. The book provides its own specific, suggestive examples. One is a robot that can perform all of the tasks needed to construct a high-quality hamburger. This is a task with a clear specification that can be realized in a carefully controlled environment; another example is robot-based automotive manufacturing. As artificial perception and dexterity improve, the need for careful choreographing will diminish and the low-skilled tasks that only humans can do now will be automated, too, e.g., restocking boxes or constructing parts of houses (both mentioned in the book). Google’s (actually Boston Dynamics’) Atlas “robo human” is impressively capable.

As artificial cognition improves, jobs involving analysis and management will also be increasingly automated. A contemporary example is financial analysis. Dan Nadler, the inventor of Kensho, a “computational analysis engine for the financial industry” now in use by top banks, was recently interviewed by the NYT: “Within a decade, he said, between a third and a half of the current employees in finance will lose their jobs to Kensho and other automation software.” Even today, most market trades—between 50 and 70%—are driven by algorithms, not people. This is how companies like Jane Street Capital can be so profitable with so few workers. An article in the NYT stated that “Jane Street, which is privately held, has increased its shareholder’s equity, or net worth, to more than $1 billion today from $228 million in 2007. … Moreover, it supports just 450 people in offices in New York, London and Hong Kong.” The book states that over the last 15 years, 50,000 Wall Street jobs have been lost—a 33% decline—even as overall revenue and profits are up.

The book points to the future possibility of someone “doing everything right” in terms of getting a college degree and good grades, but still not being able to find a meaningful job. Even now, a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute says that higher unemployment and underemployment for college graduates “stems from weak demand for goods and services, which makes it unnecessary for employers to significantly ramp up hiring.”

The impact of increased automation

One view of how this plays out is that as some industries succumb to automation, other industries will emerge to offer new jobs that replace the lost ones. As support for this view, the book considers the agricultural industry. At the turn of the century, about 40% of the workforce was involved in agriculture. Today it is about 2%. As agriculture was increasingly carried out by machines, people moved to different sectors, with the service sector being the dominant today.[ref]See this article for more long-term trends on job shares in different industries.[/ref] During our book club discussion, one person referred to predictions of job growth from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which point to increasing employment in the health care industry, food preparation, and some areas of business and technology, as evidence that declines in other areas are being counteracted.

As machines do more of the work, humans must find jobs that machines cannot do as well. But as robots and automation become even more capable, fewer opportunities for humans will remain. And a problem arises when these new jobs are less stable and pay less than the jobs they replace. Such a trend has been playing out since the mid-1970s as shown in a compelling graphic due to Robert Reich in the NYT. Here is a snapshot of one part of it:

While automation tends to make the production of goods cheaper, it relies on the assumption that more people will buy them, raising profits. In the mid-20th century when this happened, the profits trickled down to the workers whose productivity was responsible for reducing costs. These workers then bought more goods, creating a virtuous cycle.

However, this cycle is broken by IT: When machines do things instead of humans, the productivity gains need not be passed back to workers as higher wages. The rising tide does not lift all boats. Rather, the tide lifts the capital owners, who make more profits. Eventually no cheapening of goods will be sufficient—enough of the population will be sufficiently poor that they will be unable to buy the goods to keep things afloat. Ultimately, perhaps well into a period of significant human suffering, the whole system will collapse.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis, or agrees that automation is a significant cause of income inequality; e.g., trade policy is an oft-cited source (and surely a contributor). Robert J. Gordon’s book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, was raised during the book club discussion as a thoughtful criticism of Ford’s point of view.


The future dominance of automation raises many challenging questions. The most obvious question is: What can we do to prevent the large-scale suffering that could result from a radical shakeup of the labor market? Answering this question requires answering a more philosophical question: What is the value of the human being as such? Is every human being valuable or is a human being valuable only in reference to their production value, brain power, etc.? Robots are steadily doing everything better than humans at the level of production. How society responds to this reality will reveal how it values (all) human beings.

Humans vs. machines

One response might be to attempt to hold back technological progress, protesting today’s automation just as the Luddites protested textile automation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But on reflection this approach doesn’t make sense. The problem is not automation itself; to the contrary it has brought, and can continue to bring, tremendous benefits to humanity at low cost. The problem is rather how the treatment of automation as labor-replacing capital increases relative poverty and creates ever greater income inequality. The solution to this problem is social/political, not technical.

On the other hand, it is worth asking: What jobs (or what human work) is fundamentally irreplaceable? What is the role of humans in an automated world? Again there is an important philosophical question here. Can a robot actually be a better mother than a human mother? Is there an irreplaceable value to a human teacher, present in the classroom in the flesh? Is there a value to a nurse and physical human touch? It may be that we will choose not to employ automation in some cases even if such automation could be developed. Or we will deploy it and later realize that doing so produced worse outcomes.

Basic income

The main idea suggested by the book to deal with dwindling jobs is to find a way to make gains derived from automation benefit everyone, not just capital owners. An idea proposed by Friedrich Hayek in the 1970s is one possible solution: Give all citizens a no-strings-attached stipend, or basic income.[ref]This site has a summary of Hayek’s life and ideas, and a collection of quotes.[/ref]

This approach might retain the efficiency and innovation benefits of a market-based system (since people choose how to spend their stipends) while cushioning individuals from the loss of wage-paying work. Supporting a basic income might be politically difficult, however, as it runs contrary to current ideals about work—this is where a philosophy about human worth apart from work is critical. Basic income has received recent support from Silicon Valley and some scientific studies and it is set to be attempted in the Netherlands and possibly Switzerland. Andrew Flowers has written a comprehensive piece on the idea.

What can we do, as technologists?

As I read the book I wondered about my own role in the rise of the robots. After all, as a computer science professor I am teaching students about software-based automation—how to use it, understand it, and program it. Just as someone concerned about global warming might buy solar panels or an electric car, I wondered what I could do to combat the ill effects of increasing automation.

There are (at least) two things I think technologists can do in response to the rise of the robots. First, they can recognize that their work is upending the traditional economic model, and they can think about how to respond to the suffering of those whose labor is being obviated. As I said above, I don’t think this means we should stop developing new technology, but we should think about ways to ensure that technology is used for the greatest good. At Universities, I could imagine developing seminar series and discussion groups to work through possible ideas.[ref]One off-the-cuff idea for technologists: rather than always release software freely, which can be picked up by companies that are rapidly obviating human work, adopt a model like the Unreal game engine. The engine is free for enthusiasts, but once a game starts making money, Unreal game producers have to start paying for it. Proceeds could be fed back into various progressive causes.[/ref]

Second, technologists can get the word out, so that other people will start thinking about solutions, too. Technologists are obviously among the most qualified to speak about trajectories involving automation, and so the rest of society needs to hear it from them.

Apparently, Kensho’s Dan Nadler does both of these things. Quoting the above-linked NYT article:

Some … have told Nadler that he would be wise to stop talking about the potential job losses at the same banks he is trying to secure as customers. Nadler has told them that he needs to carry on, partly to maintain his intellectual integrity. He often connects his discussion of jobs to his political fund-raising on behalf of candidates who call for a more robust social-safety net.

Maybe if we can accept that the robots are rising and work towards structures that share the benefits of automation equitably, we humans can end up like those aboard the Axiom in Wall-E.

Picture from the film Wall-E: Humans relaxing as robots do the work

When robots do it all, from Wall-E

Or if that particular lazy lifestyle seems unpalatable, we can use the benefits of automation to take advantage of our freedom in a whatever way makes sense to each of us!

Thanks to Boniface Hicks for helpful comments on drafts of this article and suggestions for reflection, and for the UMD CS faculty book club for interesting discussions.



Filed under Algorithms, Book Reviews, Policy, Software engineering

10 Responses to Rise of the Robots: Review and Reflection

  1. The problem is that many define themselves over there work. For them to talk about such things is a taboo.
    It also collides with the protestantic work ethics – “He who does not work – shall not eat.” and thus with the anglo-american capitalism model.
    The basic income is a nice start for a sollution.
    The alternative is basically riots against machines.

  2. As Richard Feynman says “I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.” I think it is a good idea to reflect on what we do, but I also think the it is a horrible idea to fall into the pessimism trap about future developments that is so common in today’s intellectual monoculture of campuses. (You’re lucky you’re not in a Humanities department where this is even more pervasive. I was associated with one of those over the last year.) Human ingenuity has always figured out a way forward, and I am sure that if we put our mind to it, we come up with 10 to 100 possible solutions, everybody should have an unusual one. Let me start. Compensate today’s industrial workers with part-ownership (shares) in industrial companies, that is, turn them into capitalists who draw a capital-based income. (Now I am as dumb as the next guy too.)

    • mwhicks1

      Point taken!

      I think it’s useful for CS types to endorse/publicize that the trajectory of automation obviating human labor is real, and could have substantial negative consequences. Then many more people can start digesting that the status quo is probably not going to be satisfactory. And those people can start thinking about a solution. Whether that solution is basic income, ownership shares, or something else is an interesting question and perhaps CS types have less expertise to speak about it.

      But we need to start the cogitation now. It will take a very long time to get anywhere because politics will surely be involved and the capital owners will invest serious resources to maintain their privileged position. I.e., this is going to be like addressing climate change: problem is clear, solutions are (eventually) evident, but political will to change will be hard to muster.

      • @ Mike, as I have already stated I agree with your basic point that we must acknowledge the trend, but otherwise I am with

        @ Jose — also as said. Capital investment has tremendously improved human condition, especially that of children and women. Anybody who has studied Economics and History (in a non-ideological context) will acknowledge this fact. For a rather concrete example, I will point to Robert Caro’s description of women’s work in the Texas hill country before LBJ’s push to electrification of this barren land [Path to Power, Means to Ascent]. This represents a huge capital investment — and companies were rather reluctant to do so. When they did, it paid off for all parties involved.

        It is easy to find statistical evidence of this trend at the macro -economic level. And nobody will seriously argue that this happened out of generosity of private companies; pressure from governments and consumers is necessary. But that’s the whole point of a free society — it’s a permanent struggle to preserve and improve most people’s lives.

        What Jose and I are pointing out to you, is that the campus left has cried wolf for decades. Here is another concrete example, though at the level of macro and micro economics. When I entered college, the Club of Rome predictions of an imminent collapse of food and energy supply, scared everyone to death. 40 years later, we have enough food for everyone; actual hunger is a question of warfare and occasional hiccups in distribution. Just this past month, the old supplier association reported that the current discovered oil reserves are the highest they have ever been, the cost of gasoline is the lowest since 1960 (adjusted for inflation) — and all this is due to serious capital investment in fracking and other exploration technologies. See Chesapeake ‘s balance sheet for debt and investment (OK company that spearheaded the movement). Now I will argue that cheap gasoline is a good thing ™ for the people who drive old, inefficient cars to get to work. (And those are not the wealthy rich people who drive re-distribution cars that shift wealth from middle class people to those who can afford a $100,000 sports car. )

        [As for your climate change argument, I will agree to disagree. You never know what you can say in public now that senators and general attorneys use law suits to suppress free speech on this issue.)

        • harrylippy

          “40 years later, we have enough food for everyone; actual hunger is a question of warfare and occasional hiccups in distribution.”

          Is this a serious argument, or are you being deliberately obtuse? I want you to show me where “hiccups in distribution” have lead to 12% of the world going hungry (https://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats)? And don’t just point to a country in Africa and say “there’s a war, so that’s the issue” – show me exactly *how* the war is preventing food from being distributed to the hungry. I’d like specific examples of programs where food was rejected from a people because of a war or a “hiccup in distribution” (that phrase is so absurd and offensive it’s very difficult to even type).

          I’m an economic conservative who believes that Capitalism is by far the best engine to drive economic growth and to provide for people who currently are lacking, in food, energy, and other resources. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s beyond any legitimate discussion to argue that another system has done or could do better. But this doesn’t mean that wealthy countries don’t have a responsibility to do far more than they are to lift up the people who are suffering – much, much more food needs to be distributed, and even better, GMO technology needs to continue to be perfected and implemented in developing countries so that distribution can become increasingly local and handouts increasingly unnecessary. We are working on this. But to suggest that hunger is simply a minor logistics issue is so grotesquely wrong that it doesn’t belong on the pages of an intelligent blog. I was wondering how anybody could make such a bizarrely uneducated claim, but then I noticed your a climate change denier and it became more clear to me.

  3. José L Duarte

    “When machines do things instead of humans, the productivity gains need not be passed back to workers as higher wages. The rising tide does not lift all boats. Rather, the tide lifts the capital owners, who make more profits.”

    This is demonstrably, magnificently false by simple reference to the last 100 years of economic history. Humanity is far better off for the market processes and human labor-technology that capitalism has enabled. The empirical evidence here is overwhelming. I’m surprised when scholars remain so ignorant of basic, observable phenomena because of their political ideologies. You seem to be conflating Marxist ideological tenets for descriptive reality, but of course that would be no more credible than spouting Scientology as though its tenets were facts. It really is irresponsible for scholars to remain completely ignorant of economics while calling for coercive intervention in others’ economic lives.

    • I’m restating the argument made in the book. The book presents data to back up this claim, considering the last 100 years. I am not an expert, but the data seemed compelling to me. Have you read the booK?

    • Willem Wyndham

      Great article! I definitely sold me on the book. This is a topic I ponder on often and it is refreshing to hear you say that you feel a sense of responsibility. The singularity is coming and we have to prepare people for it. There are 3 million truck drivers and millions more of taxi/rideshare/bus drivers in the US. These jobs might not last a decade. UBI is definitely a start, but people need to feel that they are doing meaningful work. There are many articles about the technology of automated transportation (there is even an automated drone being tested in Las Vegas), but none delve into the consequences of what this means for these millions of people.

      Have you read Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut? He saw this trend in the 1940s.

      “I was working for General Electric at the time, right after World War II, and I saw a milling machine for cutting the rotors on jet engines, gas turbines. This was a very expensive thing for a machinist to do, to cut what is essentially one of those Brâncuși forms. So they had a computer-operated milling machine built to cut the blades, and I was fascinated by that. This was in 1949 and the guys who were working on it were foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards. Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.”


      Apple recently replaced 60,000 jobs in China with robots. It aggravates me to no end when I hear politicians promising to bring back manufacturing jobs.

      I am very interested in trying to find other ways to engage and help usher in the next paradigm shift. We need start the discussion of why people work.

  4. Josef blink

    They say there will always be new jobs, but who ends up getting them? Even if we assume there is one new job for every job lost, which to me is optimistic, a smaller a smaller percentage of the new jobs will go to humans. Eventually humans aren’t competitive against machines on virtually anything except nice to have stuff we value because we are social mammals. If the wast majority cant sell their labour they can just die? Of course not. But even today we have more than enough for everybody and still we keep going like we’re just a drought away from mass starvation just abstracted to a higher cubicle jungle. Its time to think differently and teach our kids our purpose is not 9-5 corporate help. At minimum we should give more freedom so people can chose. Unconditional basic income is probably the least painful way to fix our system so we don’t have a massive breakdown in 30 years

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