The Rise of the Robots, Reviewed

At the Spar on Camden Street, a machine makes my coffee. At the Tesco up the way, another machine sells me my groceries. At the Bank of Ireland, a little further on, I can withdraw or deposit money through another machine.

All these tasks were once performed by people, who were paid for their work. Now, the people are being phased out. Today, I can still find a human barista, or grocery-store clerk, or bank teller — but how long will that last?

I’ve had people tell me it would be no great loss if jobs like these disappeared: they’re boring and low-paid, and eliminating them would free people up to do more interesting things. But I sold coffee for years, and groceries for a while too, and I was grateful for the work.

The salaries I earned doing those things were not large, but they paid my rent, food, bus fare and bar tab. The work gave me satisfaction and purpose, and a place in society.

So I am not as sanguine about watching automation destroy jobs. I am nervous. Reading Martin Ford’s book The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, somewhat predictably, given the title, made me even more nervous.

Automation and artificial intelligence have come a lot further than I’d realised, and Ford argues that it’s not just low-level manufacturing and service jobs that are at immediate risk, but also white-collar jobs in fields including law, finance, and journalism.

His book is a primer on automation, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, as well as their economic implications. And he offers what to me sounds like a relatively plausible plan for how we might best cope with these seemingly inevitable changes.

What Can Robots Do?

Ford begins his book with examples of the things robots can do these days. As his book was published in 2015, I am sure they are hopelessly out of date and we have moved far beyond this.

There is the Industrial Perception robot that uses technology that originated in the Nintendo Wii to look at a messily stacked pile of brown cardboard boxes, choose one, pick it up, and move it to wherever it needs to go.

There are robots that help to assemble cars in Tesla’s factory. And Vision Robotics “is developing an octopus-like orange harvesting machine” that will look at an orange tree, map it, and then use eight arms to pick the fruit from it.

Aside from robots taking jobs in warehouses, factories, and farms, Ford looks at how robots are taking jobs in the service sector.

He uses as an example a product from Momentum Machines that “shapes burgers from freshly grilled meat and then grills them to order … The machine, which is capable of producing 360 hamburgers per hour, also toasts the bun and then slices and adds fresh ingredients like tomatoes, onions, and pickles … Burgers arrived assembled and ready on a conveyor belt.”

Then there’s IBM’s Watson system, which was designed to understand a question, sift through vast amounts of data on the Web, and provide an answer (in the form of a question) — so it could win Jeapoardy! (which it did in 2011).

IBM quickly got to work applying Watson’s abilities to other tasks. “The deployment of Watson in customer service call centres is perhaps the area with the most disruptive near-term potential,” Ford writes.

Add to these changes online retailers putting high-street shops and their employees out of business, with automated websites, robot-operated warehouses, and delivery robots. Add in automated vehicles that obviate the need for taxi drivers and truck drivers too.

That sounds like a lot of jobs on the line in the next 10 to 20 years.

The Situation in Ireland

The data and examples that Ford uses are primarily from the UK and US, but Ireland is facing the same challenges. Many jobs have already been lost to automation here, and many more are at risk in the near future.

A 2016 paper from researchers at the Centre for European Economic Research reviews literature that suggests that 45 to 60 percent of jobs in Europe are susceptible to automation. The paper argues that this overstates the case, though, and that the real number is 9 percent.

Still, even by this conservative estimate, if there are about 2 million people in Ireland employed, some 180,000 of them are at risk of losing their jobs to automation. I’ve been unable to find any Irish research done on this issue that might give us a more detailed picture of what’s likely to happen here.

When I asked the Department of Jobs how many jobs Ireland had lost to automation over the past 10 years, how many it was likely to lose over the next 10 years, and what the department was doing to address this, it did not give me figures.

But it did give me a long reply about how the economy is changing and the jobs available are changing, and so it’s working to makes sure Irish people have the skills they need to succeed in the new economy as it emerges. It named several industries in which it says new jobs will be created, even as jobs in other industries are lost.

This is a familiar approach: yes old types of jobs and old companies are being eliminated, but new ones are being created — ones our parents never imagined — and we just need to be ready to seize the opportunities as they arrive.

Ford calls this the “conventional — and nearly universal — assumption” that “more education and vocational training is always the solution. With proper training, workers will continuously climb the skills ladder, somehow staying just ahead of the machines.”

This is wrong, Ford argues.

The Shrinking Jobs Pyramid

The new industries aren’t the same as the old ones.

“Emerging industries will rarely, if ever, be highly labour-intensive,” Ford writes. “The threat to overall employment is that as creative destruction unfolds, the ‘destruction’ will fall primarily on labour-intensive businesses in traditional areas like retail and food preparation, while ‘creation’ will generate new businesses in industries that simply don’t hire many people.”

So the number of jobs overall is going to shrink, even as populations continues to grow. Furthermore, “the skills ladder is not really a ladder at all: it is a pyramid, and there is only so much room at the top”, Ford writes.

“Robots, machine algorithms, and other forms of automation are gradually going to consume much of the base of the job skills pyramid,” he writes. And even if the people who lose those jobs get new skills, there still won’t be room at the top of the pyramid to cram them all in.

“I think that assuming this is possible is analogous to believing that, in the wake of the mechanization of agriculture, the majority of displaced farm workers would be able to find jobs driving tractors. The numbers simply don’t work,” he writes.

Besides, even populations grow, even as the number of jobs overall shrinks as new labour-light industries replace old labour-intensive ones, even as automation gobbles up lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs, even as we all upskill to compete for the few remaining jobs at the top — those jobs will be disappearing too.

Says Ford: “artificial intelligence applications are poised to increasingly encroach on more skilled occupations, even the safe area at the top of the pyramid is likely to contract over time”.

White-Collar Jobs

Machines can do far more than stack boxes and make coffee these days.

There’s Work Fusion’s software, which handles project management. It “analyzes the project to determine which tasks can be directly automated, which can be crowd-sourced, and which must be performed by in-house professionals.”

It’ll then generate and post job listings to sites like Elance or Craigslist and manage the recruitment and selection of freelance workers. It’ll give them jobs, evaluate their performance, and give the task to someone else if they’re failing.

Meanwhile, it’s collecting data on what they’re all doing, so that “even as freelancers work under the direction of the system, they are simultaneously generating the training data that will gradually lead to their replacement with full automation”, Ford writes.

The finance industry is also under threat. Sophisticated robotic traders, “powered by techniques on the frontier of artificial intelligence research”, are responsible for at least a third of transactions in the UK and two-thirds in the US, Ford writes.

These robotic traders consume special machine-readable financial news feeds produced by organisations like Bloomberg and Dow Jones. The robots try to deceive each other, or outpace each other by a millionth or a billionth of a second.

In 2013, Watson was “helping to diagnose problems and refine patient treatment plans at major medical facilities [in the US]”. It was also “being used as a tool to help train medical students in diagnostic techniques”.

A computer has composed a symphony that was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and well received by critics. In “at least two instances” a computer programme has created “new, patentable inventions”.

“If computers can create musical compositions or design electronic components,” Ford suggests, “then it seems likely that soon they will be able to formulate a new legal strategy, or perhaps come up with a new way to approach a management problem.”

So how should we humans respond? Should we fight this latest wave of progress, this latest technological revolution?

A Solution

There’s no way to fight it, Ford argues. The best we can do is to adjust to it, and he suggests that the best way to do this is by introducing a universal basic income, or guaranteed minimum income.

Consider this: even if companies replace all their workers with robots, they’ll still need consumers, otherwise, who’s going to buy what they’re making and how will they make money?

Ford’s answer is that governments should tax these increasingly profitable companies, and give everyone money — they can live on it, and they’ll be the consumers the companies need. This approach would have lower administrative costs, and be less intrusive than an expansion of the current welfare state.

A basic income would allow parents to stay home and raise their kids. It would allow people to move back to rural areas that have been hollowed out as people moved to cities to find jobs. It would provide a safety net, which would encourage people to start new ventures.

Recipients would be welcome to work as much as they wanted to earn more than the basic income too, so there would still be an incentive to work. But they could also choose to stay home and write poems, or just to stay home and smoke weed.

“One of the greatest political and psychological barriers to the implementation of a guaranteed income would be simple acceptance of the fact that some fraction of recipients will inevitably take the money and drop out of the workforce,” Ford writes. “Some people will choose to play video games all day — or worse, spend the money on alcohol and drugs.”

But, Ford argues, who cares? There won’t be many jobs around, so if a few slackers want to turn on and drop out, that’ll mean they won’t be competing with ambitious productive workers. And those who drop out will still be buying things.

“While our value system is geared towards celebrating production, it’s important to keep in mind that consumption is also an essential economic function,” he writes. “The person who takes the income and drops out will become a paying customer for the hardworking entrepreneur who sets up a small business in the same neighbourhood.”

What would it cost? Well, Ford tells us, it all depends. He proceeds to fiddle figures in various ways and conclude that “I think there is a strong argument that a basic income would, at least to some extent, pay for itself.” If you want to know how he calculates that, read the book.

To learn more about how a basic income might work here in Ireland, you might also want to go to the discussion about it at the Teachers’ Club on Parnell Square on Wednesday 5 April.

It’s Happening Now

The Rise of the Robots is a fascinating primer on a major challenge facing Ireland and other advanced economies today.

Although there are a couple of rather speculative chapters towards the end, dealing with artificial general intelligence, the singularity, and nanotechnology, the book mostly stays grounded in today’s reality.

My one complaint is that Ford is – perhaps intentionally – rather credulous about companies’ claims for what their nifty robots can do.

A product in development will not always make it to the market. And many products on the market do not live up to the promises of their marketing materials

That said, it is undeniable that advances in technology are putting people out of jobs now, here in Dublin. So I cannot argue that Ford is trying to pass off the stuff of sci-fi novels as reality.

Today’s robots are quite mundane, really. I remember when checking in at an airport meant waiting in line in front of a long row of desks staffed by people, each employed, each taking home a pay cheque.

The last time I flew on Aer Lingus, I checked in online, printed my own ticket, and went to Dublin Airport, expecting to go to the bag-drop desk and leave my luggage with a hurried but helpful person in a green-uniform.

Instead, I found a kiosk that asked for my passport, found my ticket in its brain, told me to put my bag on a little scale, printed a tag for it, asked me to stick it on my bag, and then sent me to drop the bag on a conveyor belt.

I contacted Aer Lingus to find out how these little robots have affected the number of people they employ at the airport. When the airline didn’t respond, I also contacted the airport.

Dublin Airport Authority Head of External Communications Siobhan O’Donnell didn’t directly answer that question. Instead, she said by email that the number of passengers using the airport had been growing, and the airport hired 350 more people in 2016.

But that doesn’t mean no one lost out because of the introduction of the machines, according to the union SIPTU, which represents some workers there.

“The introduction of the Baggage Tag Kiosks (BDKs) has resulted in less seasonal workers being hired in the check in area,” SIPTU’s Neil McGowan told me by email.

“There was no job losses as a result of the introduction of the BDK but it is clear that number of fixed term contractors (FTCs) hired would have been greater if the technology had [not] been introduced,” he wrote.

“Given Aer Lingus and Dublin Airport in general are in a period of substantial growth FTC continue to be hired but it is a fact that more would be have been hired without the introduction of BDKs,” he continued.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of reviews of books, written anytime, anyplace, fiction or nonfiction, that help us to understand contemporary trends in the city. Got an idea for a book that you think puts Dublin in context? Email us at [email protected]


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Sam Tranum: Sam Tranum is co-founder of Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at [email protected]

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