For anyone looking for a story about how technology is impacting the unemployment picture, there is perhaps no better place to start than Martin Ford’s Lights at the End of the Tunnel. What Ford hopes is to start a conversation. That conversation is about the rising intelligence of machines, and what that means to the future of work, and the survival of a market based society. Ford’s predictions of a world that our children or grandchildren will be living in: the world before 2089; sounds like science fiction, but his view of the increasing speed and complexity of our machines is conservative. He is no Ray Kurzweil, though he takes the Singularity movement as something much more seriously than many of its detractors might.The world of 2089 is one in which almost all work done by humans can be better performed by machines. Highly paid knowledge workers might feel safe from all this robot stuff. After all,who can imagine C3PO standing in front of a court room arguing a case? But, as Ford points out, the job of the vast majority of knowledge workers, including lawyers, deals with sifting through information, summarizing that information, and moving it around. This is a task that advanced algorithms can do splendidly, with out the need for coffee breaks at Starbucks, or better, without the need for health care or a 401k matching plan. Certain types of medical professionals, such as radiologist, who make 100k a year, seemed destined to go the way of the the Steel mill worker- replaced by a combination of outsourcing and automation.It is the relationship between outsourcing and automation that is one of the most interesting contentions of Ford’s book. He sees outsourcing as more of a prelude to automation than an end in itself. Companies first outsource something to minimize human labor costs- say that of the poor souls in India who are forced to help Americans with their tech and credit card problems. Eventually though, machines always catch up, and can therefore provide a much more efficient job, 24/7 without ever asking for a sick day off. “Buy America” types might be happy about this because it suggests many of those manufacturing jobs we’ve offloaded to China will at some point be coming home. The rub is they won’t be bringing the jobs back with them.
It is Ford’s solutions I have some problems with: a massive guaranteed income system that is meant to preserve consumption. How do we pay for it? We tax the profits of producer companies that would have, without automation, had to provide income to workers. Given that the system is straining, or soon will be, under the current income system we have for the retired, this solution seems more fanciful that a world where almost all work is done by machines.
The question I have is why do we have to preserve the current system under the assumptions of near total automation? Is there no better system that would reflect better the new situation? There isn’t a market economy on Star Trek- well not counting the Ferengi. In any case, Ford has certainly got a discussion started with this excellent and smart book.