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Robots and "full unemployment"


In the NY Times Sunday Book Review, Barbara Ehrenreich reviews Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. The book and Ehrenreich’s review both confirm the dire predictions we’ve been hearing for years: robots and automation will soon make many human workers obsolete, but instead of a leisure-filled utopia, the result will be even more precarity and unemployment. To counter this, both Ehrenreich and Ford take a page out of the old socialist playbook: they recommend a guaranteed minimum income for all.

There should be no doubt that technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment. Ford quotes the co-founder of a start-up dedicated to the automation of gourmet hamburger production: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

Ford offers little hope that emerging technologies will eventually generate new forms of employment, in the way that blacksmiths yielded to autoworkers in the early 20th century. He predicts that new industries will “rarely, if ever, be highly labor-intensive,” pointing to companies like YouTube and Instagram, which are characterized by “tiny workforces and huge valuations and revenues.” On another front, 3-D printing is poised to make a mockery of manufacturing as we knew it. Truck driving may survive for a while — at least until self-driving vehicles start rolling out of Detroit or, perhaps, San Jose…

In “Rise of the Robots,” Ford argues that a society based on luxury consumption by a tiny elite is not economically viable. More to the point, it is not biologically viable. Humans, unlike robots, need food, health care and the sense of usefulness often supplied by jobs or other forms of work. His solution is blindingly obvious: As both conservatives and liberals have proposed over the years, we need to institute a guaranteed annual minimum income, which he suggests should be set at $10,000 a year. This is probably not enough, and of course no amount of money can compensate for the loss of meaningful engagement. But as a first step toward a solution, Ford’s may be the best that the feeble human mind can come up with at the moment.

Above image by Kristian Hammerstad. Via NY Times.

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