Machines have been able to do mechanical jobs faster than humans, with greater precision, and for longer periods of time – the cotton gin invented in the eighteenth century for example. The inevitable loss of jobs called for a re-skilling of the people affected, and the mantra went that you had to pull yourself up by your socks, learn a new skill, and get productive again. Martin Ford’s book shatters that illusion. There is not a single profession left – whether unskilled or skilled, whether in technology or medicine or liberal arts, whether one that can be performed remotely or requires direct human interaction – that is not at threat from the machines. Whichever way you slice and dice it, you are left facing one or the other variation of a dystopian future, with stark income inequalities, a substantial population that will require doles on a permanent doles, and the concomitant social upheavals.
Some years back, when offshoring was in the news and concerns about its impact on US jobs was at its peak, with hundreds of thousands of jobs moved offshore to countries like India, there were stories coming out regularly, like the one about Southern California workers being made to train H1-B visa holders, many of whom took over their jobs. Pfizer made “hundreds of tech workers at its Connecticut R&D facilities” train their replacements – guest workers from India. If the economics of labor cost arbitrage precipitated the migration of skilled technology jobs away from the United States and to countries like India (being “Bangalored” entered the urban lexicon only a decade ago), technology could plausibly bring those jobs back to the United States – call it “reshoring”. The quantum of jobs reshored, however, is going to be a massive disappointment. Consider this:
“In 2011, the Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald reported that a colossal, billion-dollar data center built by Apple, Inc., in the town of Maiden, North Carolina, had created only fifty full-time positions.”
But it is precisely this elimination of the need for many people that makes the economics of reshoring work out. Ironical.
While the United States can at least look forward to the reshoring of some jobs lost to manufacturing in China or services in India, the loss of such jobs is certain, on the other hand, to cause greater upheaval in these offshore countries. India’s socio-economic progress is predicated in great deal on a re-skilling of its labour force to take advantage of an emerging “Digital India” both in the manufacturing and services sector, but which is in mortal danger of being blindsided by the rise of the machines. The use of IT-based services as a catalyst for driving economic growth in smaller – Tier B and Tier C – cities in India is a recurrent theme for planners. But this could be short-circuited by the rise of the robots, who, once trained – by humans – can perform the jobs of humans, better, and faster. Indians were trained by their American counterparts to do their jobs. Unbeknownst to many, these people are actors in the same offshoring saga that played out a decade ago, but with the proverbial shoe on the other foot now.
“The bottom line is that if you find yourself working with, or under the direction of, a smart software system, it’s probably a pretty good bet that—whether you’re aware of it or not—you are also training the software to ultimately replace you.“
India has been a spectacular laggard when it has come to industrializing its economy – it is probably unique among all developing nations to be progressing (or at least with ambitions of progressing) from a primarily agrarian economy to a services-based economy, skipping substantially the intermediate phase of industrialization that every single industrialized nation went through last century. It was industrialization that provided the bedrock for the middle-class in nations, which then aspired towards a better quality of life, with the ability to pay for it – thus driving the move towards a services-based economy. For India, it could be argued by some that this skipping may prove to be a blessing, since an industrialized economy is more susceptible to efficiencies wrought by advancements in technology. Consider these examples from Ford’s book:
- “In the United States, chickens are grown to standardized sizes so as to make them compatible with automated slaughtering and processing.”
- Momentum Machines, a San Francisco based startup has developed a machine that “shapes burgers from freshly ground meat and then grills them to order – including even the ability to add just the right amount of char while retaining all the juices. The machine, which is capable of producing about 360 hamburgers per hour, also toasts the bun and then slices and adds fresh ingredients like tomatoes, onions, and pickles only after the order is placed.” The company’s co-founder is clear that these machines are not “meant to make employees more efficient… It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
- “Vision Robotics, a company based in San Diego, California, is developing an octopus-like orange harvesting machine. The robot will use three-dimensional machine vision to make a computer model of an entire orange tree and then store the location of each fruit. That information will then be passed on to the machine’s eight robotic arms, which will rapidly harvest the oranges.”
- “Researchers at Facebook have likewise developed an experimental system—consisting of nine levels of artificial neurons—that can correctly determine whether two photographs are of the same person 97.25 percent of the time, even if lighting conditions and orientation of the faces vary. That compares with 97.53 percent accuracy for human observers.”
- “A Facebook executive noted in November 2013 that the Cyborg system routinely solves thousands of problems that would otherwise have to be addressed manually, and that the technology allows a single technician to manage as many as 20,000 computers.”
- If reading certain news articles makes you wonder whether a robot wrote it, things are going to get better – or worse. Computer algorithms are at work to churn out articles that will be indistinguishable from those written by humans. Liberal arts became even more unviable – if ever that was possible.
- “Radiologists, for example, are trained to interpret the images that result from various medical scans. Image processing and recognition technology is advancing rapidly and may soon be able to usurp the radiologist’s traditional role.”
- “In July 2012, the London Symphony Orchestra performed a composition entitled Transits—Into an Abyss. One reviewer called it “artistic and delightful.” The event marked the first time that an elite orchestra had played music composed entirely by a machine. The composition was created by Iamus, a cluster of computers running a musically inclined artificial intelligence algorithm.”
- “Perhaps the most remarkable elder-care innovation developed in Japan so far is the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL)—a powered exoskeleton suit straight out of science fiction. Developed by Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai of the University of Tsukuba, the HAL suit is the result of twenty years of research and development. Sensors in the suit are able to detect and interpret signals from the brain. When the person wearing the battery-powered suit thinks about standing up or walking, powerful motors instantly spring into action, providing mechanical assistance. A version is also available for the upper body and could assist caretakers in lifting the elderly. Wheelchair-bound seniors have been able to stand up and walk with the help of HAL.”
“In 2010, the Northwestern University researchers who oversaw the team of computer science and journalism students who worked on StatsMonkey raised venture capital and founded a new company, Narrative Science, Inc., to commercialize the technology. The company hired a team of top computer scientists and engineers; then it tossed out the original StatsMonkey computer code and built a far more powerful and comprehensive artificial intelligence engine that it named “Quill.”
… One of Narrative Science’s earliest backers was In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency”
“To keep instructional costs down, colleges are relying ever more heavily on part-time, or adjunct, faculty who are paid on a per-course basis—in some cases as little as $2,500 for a semester-long class—and receive no employee benefits. Especially in the liberal arts, these adjunct positions have become dead-end jobs for huge numbers of PhD graduates who once hoped for tenure-track academic careers.”
As one goes over these examples, it becomes obvious that automation is a sword that cuts both ways. Is India equipped – and more importantly, are the planners aware – to handle the flood of automation that could wash away entire swathes of jobs being dreamed up by ambitions of a digitally-enabled nation?
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Basic Books (May 5, 2015)
ISBN: 0465059996, 978-0465059997
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.