Book Review: Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford

Rise of the Robots

Do not read this book if you want to remain optimistic about the economy and the world of work in the future. Martin Ford’s excellent work is very well-researched, full of innovative analysis, comprehensive, thought provoking, and…downright scary. Ford presents a compelling argument for why increasing automation will replace many jobs in the future, so much so that we will need to revisit our entire economic system to address this radically changed scenario.

Ford patiently builds his argument, starting with why it is different this time (as compared with the industrial revolution), and then continuing with the potential impact to white collar jobs, impacts on two areas thought safe from automation – higher eduction and health care, and an overview of technologies and industries of the future. It is at this point that he then paints various scenarios for how the future will develop, and all of these scenarios are bleak – with the most extreme being one of ‘techno-feudalism’, with one difference from medieval feudalism: “…medieval serfs were essential to the system…(while) in a futuristic world governed by automated feudalism, the peasants would be largely superfluous.”.

Ford then concludes with his proposed options to address this challenge of a highly automated future with very limited jobs. He presents valid options, and this does provide some hope for the future – but only ‘some hope’ since none of these options are as appealing as today’s economic model due to compromises that would need to be made by all.

It is hard to resist comparing this book with The Second Machine Age, another book recently released and on the same topic. The difference between the two is that The Second Machine Age is written more from an academic perspective and is more optimistic about the future, while Rise of the Robots has more of a ‘real world’ feel, and, as per above, is more pessimistic. Overall, Rise of the Robots is better because it picks the more relevant topics to focus on, and makes more solid arguments for the views expressed about these topics.

My only quibble with Ford’s book is that he doesn’t really provide a counter-argument to one future option – where citizens pressure governments to actually put a stop to excessive automation due to the extreme impact on the job market. This seems like a reasonable response in such an extreme scenario. Ford dismisses this as a valid option, but doesn’t clearly state why.

But other than this minor point, his arguments are very solid and it is hard to find any weak points in his premise, theories, and conclusions. Definitely a must read book!

Rating: four out of four stars

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford

  1. Great review Rohit. My concern with citizen pressure is it really doesnt work well. Come one recession all regulations, prohibitions goes out of the window if the technology brings great cost savings for the corporates. And in this case it is evident to say it will.

  2. Have you seen the counter-arguments? http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2015/06/04/the-robots-are-not-coming/ is a typical example.

    The idea that “increased efficiency eliminates jobs” has a long history, but it hasn’t really been borne out so far. The book claims that “this time is different because of the extreme nature of the increased efficiency”, but I don’t see where he really takes on the task of explaining the economic model behind that.

    Now I grant you, the industrial revolution did create lots of turmoil and was not necessarily a wonderful experience for all participants in the economy, and it’s likely there could have been better policy responses to those situations. And, we should try to learn from that and do a better job during the current technological revolution. But the policy options he advocates in this book do seem just a bit too simple for the real world.

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