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The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future Paperback – September 22, 2009
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From the Publisher
THE LIGHTS IN THE TUNNEL takes an in depth look at current trends in information technology and globalization and examines what the likely economic impact will be in the coming years and decades.
Here are just a few of the questions explored in the book:
How will job automation impact the economy in the future?
How will the offshore outsourcing trend evolve in the coming years?
What impact will technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence have on the job market?
Did technology play a significant role in the 2007 subprime meltdown and the subsequent global financial crisis and recession?
Globalization. Collaboration. Telecommuting. Are these the forces that will shape the workplaces of the future? Or is there something bigger lurking?
How fast can we expect technological change to occur in the coming years and decades?
Which jobs and industries are likely to be most vulnerable to automation and outsourcing?
Machine and computer automation will primarily impact low skilled and low paid workers. True or false?
Will advancing technology always make society as a whole more wealthy? Or could it someday cause a severe economic depression?
What are the implications of advancing automation technology for developing nations such as China and India?
Will a college education continue to be a good bet in the future?
Recent economic data suggests that, in United States, we are seeing increasing income inequality and a dwindling middle class. How will this trend play out in the future?
What will be the economic impact of truly advanced future technologies, such as nanotechnology?
Retail positions at Wal-Mart and other chain stores have become the jobs of last resort for many workers. Will robots and other forms of machine automation someday threaten these jobs? If so, what alternatives will the economy create for these workers?
And much more...
About the Author
MARTIN FORD is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software firm. He has over twenty-five years experience in the fields of computer design and software development. He holds a computer engineering degree from the University of Michigan and a graduate business degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Top customer reviews
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The question driving most of the book is: what if jobs are automated to the point where as much as half the population either have no work to do, or are unable to do the work that continues to need humans to do it — including that which requires a large amount of manual dexterity or creativity? He argues at some length why it’s likely that might happen, and in a system bent on maximizing the efficiency of corporations there’s no reason to employ people if they aren’t needed for the work itself.
In Eastern Europe is not an abstract question. Kosovo has a 45% unemployment rate. The only reason it isn’t even worse (my colleague estimated 60%) is because so many people are working in Germany and Switzerland. In Greece and Spain a quarter of their potential workers are unemployed. “Unemployed” in the village (like in Kosovo, Georgia, or Alaska) does not mean not doing anything at all, of course. They may be farming, fishing, hunting, and so on. Most have excellent vegetable gardens. But it does mean that there isn’t a really a way for them to participate in the larger economic system, and to the extent they do, it’s because of government programs or employed family members.
Mr Ford concedes that capitalism has worked the best of any system tried by a modern nation, and his solution looks something like capitalism on the side of the producers and socialism on the side of the consumers. Businesses are free, even encouraged to compete in the same way they do now, but would be taxed mostly on their actual cash flow, with no payroll taxes, to avoid putting labor intensive fields at a disadvantage. The various welfare and unemployment programs would be restructured into a kind of baseline sum for ordinary citizens, and then he has a scheme where people are rewarded for doing desirable things, such as furthering their education or volunteering in their communities.
Of course, this faces the normal criticisms against socialism, starting with the fact that it’s difficult to impose the requisite taxes on anyone — rich people, successful businesses, whoever — without damaging their ability and incentive to operate well. He has thoughts on that, but they mostly amount to: if the scenario plays out as he thinks it will, we either have to make something like socialism work, or live with a massive disconnect between production capacity and buying power. I appreciate about this book that Mr Ford is a thoughtful, reasonable liberal, not an angry blaming liberal, and would recommend his book.
Martin Ford describes the "Alan Turing" test: When a computer can convince a judge that it is human, during a normal conversation, it will have passed this test. Making computers so user friendly so that we can all have our private mentors seems like a great project!
The author is very concerned about the painful transitions we can expect to have as we redefine what it means to "have a job". We tend to define our own worth by the size of our paycheck. If intelligent machines do the vast majority of our mental and physical work will we lose our self respect?
For me this book provides a useful transition between the past and the future. We can summarize the past by studying the following book: "That Used to be Us", by Friedman and Mandelbaum. We can imagine the future by reading the book titled "Physics of the Future" by Michio Kaku.
One of the many books that I have read in order to keep optimistic about the future is "Seven Miracles That Saved America", by Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart.
I hope that Martin Ford is working on his next book. We clearly need more ideas from him and others like him in order to understand our world and do our best to make it a better place!
It is likely true that most middle-class and blue-collar jobs are ripe for automation, but his conclusions don't necessarily follow. When jobs are automated, labor costs are a much smaller part of the cost. The remaining costs are capital costs and raw material costs. The problem is that capital costs and raw material costs are, ultimately, also labor costs: the cost of a metal is the cost of taking it out of the ground, and the cost of capital is the cost of building it and maintaining it. Therefore, the total cost of goods on the market should keep pace with the total cost of wages and current consumption.
If the number of people employed per unit production drops, the cost per unit drops correspondingly.
Possible diseconomies are:
- unemployed supported by taxation - his solution, (more or less), which is a bit of a non-solution
- intellectual property rights, which drive up costs in an unequal manner
- local resource advantages, where for example, oil is unusually cheap to extract
- ecological costs, and regulatory costs
- real resource scarcity, for example, rocketing oil prices
These last two, Ford reckons, will be avoided by nanotechnology. This is possible in the long term, but not in the nearer future, when the bulk of current blue-and-white-collar jobs are automated.
Things might well occur a bit as he suggests in the medium term, but his direct redistribution solution will not occur while there are countries in the world that do not apply it. The result is mass unemployment and no viable safety net.
In the longer term though, once the economy re-adjusts, the lower cost of production should result in higher employment and higher average incomes.