Recently I read a book by Martin Ford entitled ‘The Lights in the Tunnel’. In this book, Ford discusses issues relating to advancements in technology and their impacts on society, economy, and education.
Founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development and high-tech firm, Ford is a futurist, a keynote speaker and leading expert on the topics of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics. His TED Talk at the 2017 TED Conference on the impact of AI and robotics on the economy and society hit more than 2 million views. He has authored three bestselling books on similar topics;
1) The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (2009),
2) Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015),
3) Architects of Intelligence: The Truth About AI from the People Building It (2018).
The topic of automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics have attracted a multitude of attention from people in all walks of life. In his book The Lights of the Tunnel, Ford asserts that advances in technology, particularly in automation, artificial intelligence and robotics, would eventually cause massive unemployment as well as obsolescence of specific jobs. When this book came out in 2009, not many people take his assertions seriously. Majority of economists dismiss Ford’s claims and say that the idea that technological advancements will lead to unemployment is unthinkable. Ford explains that conventional economists have a staunch belief that technological advancement always leads to more prosperity and more jobs and anyone who challenges this ‘law of economics; is called a “neo-Luddite”.
What is the Luddite fallacy?
England went through the Industrial Revolution in 1811, and one of its consequences is the introduction of mechanical looms (a kind of weaving machine). Unlike traditional looms, these advanced machines require only low-paid unskilled workers, thus, making the jobs of skilled workers redundant. A man called Ned Lud was so angered by the introduction of these machines that he was reported to destroy one of them. Soon, groups of skilled textile workers who felt threatened that their jobs are taken over by the mechanical looms, formed in Nottingham, and they called themselves Luddites after Ned Lud. They held protests which propelled into riots and destruction of machines until the British government enacted harsh laws which finally ended the movement a year later. Since then, the word ‘Luddite’ or ‘neo-Luddite’ is given to anyone who is opposed to technological progress. Neo-Luddites fundamentally believe that there is no safe haven for workers once automation sets in or that advance technology will permanently displace humans and increase the rate of unemployment.
However, contemporary economists labelled this belief as the ‘Luddites fallacy’ which translates to mean that technology does not destroy nor cause massive unemployment. Instead, it only changes the structure or types of jobs. According to them, automation and offshoring may result in temporary job displacements and pockets of unemployment, but this is merely the normal functioning of the free market economy. As jobs are removed in one geographic area or specific industries or types of jobs, economic growth, and innovation create new opportunities. Consequently, new products and services are developed, new businesses arise, and new jobs are created. Furthermore, offshoring, outsourcing, or relocation of manufacturing to low wage countries like China or India develop new opportunities for workers in those countries resulting in the creation and rise of a massive new middle class. This will create new demand for consumer products and services worldwide, which will lead to a booming of businesses, and the whole cycle continues – new markets, new jobs, more money.
Economic Ramifications of Advancing Technology
However, Ford disagrees with the economists’ views. His refutations of their opinion are covered in detail in this book and his two other recent books. Although he agrees that new businesses will be created, these are likely to be automated too and will not require many workers. Subsequently, only a few of those previously displaced will be able to fit into these newly-created jobs while the rest will remain jobless. As automation spreads out to more businesses, more labour will be displaced, leading to more people being out of jobs. With no purchasing power, there will be no demand for products and services, and businesses will shut down, and the economy enters a continuing downhill spiral.
Moreover, he says that the majority of products offshored to low-wage countries like China or India (for example laptops) are either not affordable to them (they are low-skilled workers receiving low pays), they are of no interest to such products, or they prefer to save for rainy days. Thus, in this respect, Ford argues that automation will not result in prosperity, but in fact, will cause widespread unemployment. Ford’s view was supported by Michael Osborne and Carl Benedikt Frey at Oxford University. They found in 2013 that automation is likely to spread to jobs held by 47% of the U.S. workforce within the next two decades. That is almost half of the U.S. workforce.
Advanced Technologies Impact Both Blue- and White-Collar Workers
Another common misconception that Ford addresses in his book is that automation will primarily affect low-paying or low-skilled jobs but not middle or high-skilled jobs. To refute this misconception, Ford states that some low-skilled jobs like that of a housekeeper or a mechanic, cannot be automated or taken over by robots. Designing software of a housekeeping robot or that of a mechanic is just extraordinarily difficult and challenging, and it requires algorithms that can emulate the five senses of a human being, which are a necessity in these types of jobs.
On the other hand, high-skilled jobs like that of a lawyer or a radiologist can be easily automated as there are no capital assets used. Furthermore, offshoring to low-wage countries of these highly-skilled services is a much more attractive strategy for businesses to reduce operational costs. They would argue that why pay thousands of dollars to local employees when they can pay as little as 10% of that to workers from low-wage countries? Ford reveals that a 2006 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that Information Technology jobs (IT – a high-skilled job) in the developed nations have been one of the groups hardest hit by job losses from offshoring.
What’s in it for undergraduates?
So, what does this have to do with all of us in colleges and universities? Ford asserts that high-skilled jobs like software jobs or knowledge jobs are also facing the threats of being offshored or automated. He says that most of us believe in the conventional wisdom that becoming a knowledge worker or white-collar worker represents the best path towards a prosperous and stable future. The truth is that no job is stable in this age and era. Today, automation, artificial intelligence, robotization, digitization, and the like are impacting workers across all boards. This trend will continuously grow indefinitely.
A decade has passed since Ford wrote ‘The Lights in the Tunnel’ but until now, there are still many people who believe that artificially intelligent machines or robots will never take over our jobs or the world for that matter as they are lured into, according to Ford, “the false belief that ‘in order to replace us, machines have to become like us…. they have to replicate humanity. This is not true.” These people argue that humans are creative, talented, innovative, smart, artistic, and possess many more skills that a robot can’t be. However, Ford counter-argues that a robot does not have to be humans to replace humans. He provides the example of a German-made software program called Deep Fritz which was able to defeat the new world chess champion in 2006, Vladimir Kramnik. As we know, to play the game of chess, one needs to have a certain degree of creativity, and the ability to strategize to solve problems on the spot. By defeating Kramnik, it does not mean that Deep Fritz, the computer, possesses this humanoid skill of creativity and problem-solving. It doesn’t have sense nor feelings nor skills. It won the game by using a brute force algorithm that can calculate, at an impressive speed, and sieve through millions of different possible moves and then picking the best move. No human creativity or problem-solving skills required. (On second thought, in my opinion, Deep Fritz did not beat the chess champion. The programmer who created the software beat the chess champion. It has never been a match between a computer and a human. It was a match between two men’s brains.)
To summarize, I would say that Ford’s ideas seem hardline and yet very realistic and believable. Although I believe that automation, robotization, and offshoring will lead to unemployment, it will be just a temporary aberration. It will not be permanent, and with time, things will find its balance and stability will be restored. It has been a decade since Ford wrote the book, and it is evident that although technological advancements are accelerating at an astronomical speed, there is much stability in the world economy and labour market today. In fact, technology has so much improved our way of life that now, we are able to communicate and collaborate with anybody from different parts of the world. It has allowed us to work from home, has improved creativity and value in our lives as we strive to maintain sustainability, green environment, and a better quality of life.
Nevertheless, we should not be so complacent as to close our eyes to these rapid changes as we are still unsure as to the scope of technology and what it can bring to us in the near future. The risk is real. Jeremy Rifkin, as mentioned by Ford, speculates that, in the future, job automation may lead to not only unemployment but also “social disintegration, dramatic rises in crime, civil unrest and possibly even the fall of governments. The alarm has been raised, but so far, the wolf has not shown up. Does that really mean that the wolf is only an illusion?” Definitely not, I would say. The least that we could do is to continue educating, training, and retraining ourselves. “A more educated population has many benefits to society, including a lower crime rate, greater civic participation, a more informed electorate, and a more flourishing cultural environment,” Ford says. He continues that if we don’t continue to educate ourselves and assimilate knowledge, we are moving towards becoming a society whereby a large part of our knowledge resides not in our brains but in online information sources like Wikipedia. That is a dangerous and unacceptable move.
To conclude, I will leave you with Ford’s advice: “The reality seems to be that most people who forecast the future either cannot imagine or are not willing to consider, a world in which human workers become increasingly superfluous. Economy-wide automation of jobs is not a technological impossibility; it is a psychological impossibility.”