Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Two More American Authors Calling for a 'Basic Income Guarantee'

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Two More American Authors Calling for a 'Basic Income Guarantee'

Article excerpt

The Martin Ford Book

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

Martin Ford

Basic Books, 2015

Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work (1995) was the first book I read about automation's impact on jobs. Since then, a great deal has been written about both automation itself and its effects on industry and employment, including by Martin Ford in his 2009 book The Lights in the Tunnel. Readers who are not already well versed in the gale- force winds caused by automation will find his new book's review of the broad range of recent developments compelling and informative. It would seem, however, that this book's most important feature lies in his joining the many thoughtful observers who point to how America's market economy (and, more broadly, society in general) must be restructured to meet the realities of what can only be described as a radically changing world.

By way of summary, he reminds us that "the hollowed-out middle of the already polarized job market is likely to expand as robots and self-service technologies eat away at low-wage jobs, while increasingly intelligent algorithms threaten higher-skill occupations." As this occurs, "the bulk of consumers may eventually come to lack the income and purchasing power necessary to drive the demand that is critical..." If so, "it is difficult to see how a modern mass-market economy could continue to thrive." If this is allowed to happen, not only will that economy lose its foundation, but other consequences are bound to follow: the innovation that at present offers so much promise for a near-utopian future will wither with it; there will be social chaos with all its horrific dangers and costs; and even the very wealthy, despite hunkering down in gated communities, will find their lives greatly affected.

Much of the book recounts the more recent developments. We will want to review that information before discussing what Ford says about what society must do now. Understanding the technical revolution is a necessary prologue.

Recent Developments

The computerization

Ford reminds us that "Moore's Law" posits that "computing power roughly doubles every eighteen to twenty-four months." Amazingly, computing power has doubled 27 times since 1958, and Ford tells that it is likely to continue through such things as "3D flash memory chips" and "exotic carbon-based materials" that will replace silicon.

This increase in power has made many things possible, including "big data collection," the "cloud," and "artificial neural networks." GPS (i.e., the "global positioning system") relies on "vast amounts of extremely detailed mapping data." The cloud calls into play "massive collections of servers connected to the Internet." And artificial neural networks, which Ford tells us were first "conceived and experimented with in the late 1940s," have led to "deep learning" systems that "al- ready power the speech recognition capability in Apple's Siri and are poised to accelerate progress in a broad range of applications that rely on pattern analysis and recognition."

Ford devotes a chapter to the efforts to expand "artificial intelligence" beyond the "narrow" form now used in virtually all cybernetics. This chapter is unlike the others, which are firmly rooted in present realities, by introducing us to what is perhaps the most futuristic of the Silicon Valley infatuations. There are dreamers, so to speak, who talk of a "Singularity."1 They anticipate the development of a "true thinking machine" that will (in the words of John von Neumann, who in the 1950s first used the term in connection with computers) reach a point "beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." The speculation extends to the merging of computers with people and to possible immortality through our reaching "longevity escape velocity."

Be all that as it may, the developments already here (and the many that are coming soon) are rapidly changing all sorts of activity. …

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