#edbookfest: Martin Ford: “There’s no doubt that technology is climbing the skills ladder.”


martin fordThe Robots are Coming | For years, technology has been putting workers out of jobs. But in his award-winning new book, The Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford charts a technological revolution that has profound social implications. He argues that we must make fundamental decisions to ensure technology benefits all, or we risk making white (and blue) collar jobs obsolete and an implosion of the capitalist economy.

Bit doom and gloom, eh? But bear with us.

“We’re at a tipping point.”
The idea that machines might displace workers isn’t new. There have been countless false alarms for the best part of a century, but just because they’ve all been false alarms before doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen.

“We’re at a tipping point,” says Martin. Robots are starting to think, they’re starting to make decisions, this has gone beyond the mechanics of repeating tasks and being prime for the assembly line. They’ve built a robot that can move boxes that are in a bundle – it can assess the pile and figure out how to move them, which was previously a human skill.

They’ve got visual perception, dexterity, algorithms. They’re able to replace a lot of roles. One example from the book is a report of a baseball game. “There’s no doubt that technology is climbing the skills ladder,” he notes, explaining how smart algorithms allow them to do basic journalism, such as the report. A lot of large media companies have started using this kind of tech, and readers cannot tell that it’s not written by a human, and many probably had no idea that this was even done.

martin ford bookPersonal, political, singularity-creating-the-Terminator.
Education can be automated, doctors rely on computers for many symptoms, so vast is the knowledge they have to hold – jobs that were previously stable are relying on tech more than ever. It’s a double-edged sword. Technology makes things accessible, but can make human input redundant; so far it has created more jobs than it has taken, but as it advances, there is a risk of the balance switching. There will always be jobs in place, and more created, but the question is finding where technology stops eating into human input in roles and finding the balance.

Audience questions are extensive, everything from questioning whether we have a choice or are being forced to accept this technology over human interaction, to Martin’s ideas for a basic income that are outlined in the book as a way to allow people to prosper. Personal, political, singularity-creating-the-Terminator – all aspects of technology were put under the microscope in a fascinating hour.

Technological advances are a double edged sword – only time will tell which way it ends up going. While it may have been doom and gloom for a while, Martin is excited at the prospects of what robots can do, and the possible opening up of barriers both economical and geographical that come with these advances.

More posts from Edinburgh Book Festival

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