Books

Book review: Are we innovating ourselves out of jobs?

“Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future” by Martin Ford Basic Books ($28.99)
“Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future” by Martin Ford Basic Books ($28.99)

Imagine a world where you are dropped off at the office by a driverless car, your morning news is written by a computer, and your lunch is prepared by a robot. In such a world, it would not be a stretch to wonder if human workers were about to become obsolete. Martin Ford ponders the toll robots are taking on our economy — and could take in the near future — in his new book, “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.”

We’ve seen the scenario play out in movies and popular novels. But Ford, the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm, makes the case that technology is advancing so quickly that robots and computers soon will be able to do an overwhelming number of our jobs.

We know that robots already are replacing people who have jobs we would consider to be largely repetitive, such as those on manufacturing assembly lines. But Ford cites a recent University of Oxford study where researchers performed a detailed analysis of more than 700 occupations in the United States.

They concluded that nearly half of all jobs in the United States — 47 percent, or more than 60 million jobs — have the potential to become automated within a decade or two. It is clear that the service sector would be disrupted first and the hardest. But jobs we might not expect, such as those held by paralegals, journalists, office workers and computer programmers, could also be replaced by robots and smart software, Ford writes.

The picture elsewhere in the world could be even bleaker. In a June 2015 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Ford noted that China could well turn out to be Ground Zero for the economic and social disruption brought on by the rise of the robots. In this still-developing nation, employment is far more focused in the manufacturing sector, and according to the International Federation of Robotics, it will have more installed manufacturing robots than any other country by 2017, Ford writes. The impact already is being felt in the job market. Ford tells us that in mid-2013, only about half of China’s new college graduates found jobs.

“Rise of the Robots” offers a timely exploration of how new technologies already are impacting employment in the U.S. and abroad. As Ford writes, it will be crucial to address the complex issues raised by these escalating advances if we are to adjust to the changing landscape of work and jobs unfolding today.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Martin Ford airs today. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.

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