Robos are Taking Away Our Jobs (and it’s not just advisors)

When robots and automation have taken over not only the agriculture and manufacturing jobs but even the high-level service jobs, who will drive consumption? Will the economy stagnate? These are the questions posed by Martin Ford in his challenging, important and well-researched book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.

At one point in his book Ford cited an often-told story, “about Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther, the legendary head of the United Auto Workers Union, jointly touring a recently automated car manufacturing plant. The Ford Motor Company CEO taunts Reuther by asking, ‘Walter, how are you going to get these robots to pay union dues?’ Reuther comes right back at Ford, asking, ‘Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?’”

The assumption of economists has always been that creative destruction in the economy will result in overall economic growth and job growth. When some jobs are destroyed, other, better jobs, and more of them, will take their place – created by the very disruptive technologies that destroyed the old ones. When agriculture was mechanized, the manufacture of machines provided enough jobs to employ the displaced workers. When horses and wagons were crowded out by automobiles, horse-and-wagon makers went to work on Henry Ford’s assembly lines.

But what author Martin Ford wonders is whether this pattern – dependable throughout industrial history– is about to end. Robotization not only of manufacturing but of service professions, even financial advice and investment management, may not create enough new jobs to compensate for the ones that were destroyed – and there is no prospect that it will.

Robots are taking over faster than you think

Much of Ford’s book is taken up with accounts of how service professions are being automated by artificially-intelligent machines and robots, which can do the jobs that service workers do, not only just as well, but often better and more reliably. For example before pattern-recognizing machines, very well-paid radiologists read cancer scans for signs of disease; but now machines are brought in as “second opinion” devices, often even first opinion, and their conclusions are just as good.

Ford related one anecdote, apparently true, about two people who saw doctors in entirely different locations, a man in Marburg, Germany, and a woman in Denver, for very similar, severe symptoms. The woman in Denver wound up being given a heart transplant. But in Germany they solved the riddle, because “one of the doctors had seen a February 2011 episode of the television show House. In the episode, the show’s protagonist, Dr. Gregory House, was faced with the same problem and made an ingenious diagnosis: cobalt poisoning resulting from a metal prosthetic hip replacement.”

The point of this anecdote is that while doctors had to rely on serendipity to come up with the right diagnosis, a computer – or the cloud of servers – that stored all the case histories ever recorded and could riffle through them at lightning speed would surely have come up with the answer in an instant. When that happens, and it is by no means in the distant future, what will come of the medical profession? It may be reduced to technicians tending machines that make the diagnoses and prescribe the proper treatment, delivery of which in most cases will itself be automated, be it a pharmaceutical treatment – or even a surgical operation. Will the technicians themselves even be needed?