According to one analysis, up to 47 percent of jobs in the United States now performed by humans will be performed by machines within two decades. In the past, this sort of job loss was attributed to “creative destruction” — the destruction of something old by something new, which economist Joseph Schumpeter considered “the essential fact about capitalism.” Continuous innovation sustained economic growth even as it destroyed older modes of production. Predictions of long-term joblessness went awry because innovation also transformed our wants and needs. When I was running Fortran programs using punched cards, I didn’t realize I would eventually need a handheld computer that also doubled as my telephone, camera and navigational guide.
In “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” author Martin Ford, software developer and computer designer, predicts that the next wave of job losses will be different. The main reason for this difference, he argues, is Moore’s Law. Formulated in the mid-1960s by Intel founder Gordon Moore, that axiom predicts that advances in chip technology will increase computing power exponentially. When combined with advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, these gains will make robots the most efficient way to perform routine work now allocated to humans.
We shouldn’t underestimate the consequences of accelerating automation, but Ford’s thesis is vulnerable to two sets of counterarguments. The first set is economic. Yes, American jobs are disappearing, but Ford never makes a convincing case that automation — rather than the neoliberal policies we have pursued for decades — is the main culprit. Indeed, it often seems he has read but not fully digested the relevant literature in labor economics, international trade, economic history and political economy. This lack of expertise doesn’t prevent him from offering a wide range of policy prescriptions.