How to survive a robot uprising: seeing dark omens of catastrophe in new tech demos.

Author:Hanson, Robin
Position:Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future - Book review

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, by Martin Ford, Basic Books, 352 pages, $28.99

Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, doesn't like the recent increase in U.S. wage inequality. So he wants to tax the rich more, to fund a basic income guarantee for the poor. (But only the U.S. poor. Other poor don't seem to concern him.)

Maybe you think you've heard this story before. But Ford, a software engineer and businessman, doesn't argue that inequality is unethical or that it will destroy democracy. He instead argues that inequality will soon get much worse, so bad that most adults won't be able to find jobs. So bad the economy will descend into "catastrophe." And all because of robots.

Now, Ford wants to reassure you that he isn't crazy. He isn't one of those people who see robots with human-level intelligence coming soon and superintelligent terminators killing us all soon after. No, Ford just thinks that dumb robots specialized for particular jobs are quite enough reason to panic.

In the old days, if you wanted to scare people into action via fear of a coming catastrophe, you could point to most anything unusual as an omen: an eclipse, a sighting of a strange animal, a king dying young, perhaps even a new strain of music becoming popular. It helped if your coming catastrophe was something, like a flood or war, that everyone knew would come eventually--that it was a matter of when, not if.

Today, we know more about how the world works, so fearmongers can't just point to any aberration as an omen. But Ford's fears are thoroughly modern: all those new computer-based gadgets. Such things spook many people today, because super-robots come from a realm of futurist speculation that has landed with a plausible plop into the world we five in. A whole intellectual industry has sprung up to treat computer demos as dark omens.

Ford is correct that, like floods or wars, super-robots are likely to arrive eventually. That is, if our automation technologies continue to improve, it is plausible that in the long run, robots will eventually get good enough to take pretty much all jobs.

But why should we think something like that is about to happen, big and fast, novol After all, we've seen jobs replaced by automation for centuries. Sure, there have been fluctuations in which kinds of jobs are more valued and which are most vulnerable to automation. Wage inequality has also varied. But why shouldn't we just expect these things to stay...

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