By Yung-Hsiang Kao / Japan News Staff WriterRise of the Robots
By Martin Ford
Basic Books, 334pp
A robot wrote this sentence.
Just by typing the letters “A,” “r-o-b,” “w-r-o,” “t-h-i,” and “s-e-n” into the text messenger on a mobile phone, the predictive text function helped write that first sentence. But this “primitive” method won’t take away any writing jobs.
What will do so is software such as StatsMonkey, which can automate sports reporting. The software analyzes statistics from a baseball game and “generates natural language text” to come up with phrases such as “Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the ninth inning” and even includes quotes from players.
This is just one of the many well-researched examples presented by Martin Ford in his scarily intriguing new book, “Rise of the Robots.” Ford is not some Luddite scared of technology, though. It’s worth paying attention to him because he has been part of the industry, having founded a software development firm in Silicon Valley.
Subtitled “Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” the book is Ford’s attempt to look at automation in relation to its impact on the economy and workers around the world. He explains a difficult subject with ease.
Early in the book he lays out what he calls the Seven Deadly Trends. These include Stagnant Wages; Soaring Inequality; Declining Incomes and Underemployment for Recent College Graduates; Polarization and Part-Time Jobs — all of which he can tie to “advancing information technology as a disruptive economic force.”
While planes are not all that different from the flying machine the Wright brothers built in 1903, Ford argues, information technology has changed enormously in just a few years. This is not lost on the public imagination, as recent films show.
In 2014, “Interstellar” had human-size brick-shaped robots that could have their humor and honesty levels set according to users’ wishes, while “Transcendence” looked at nanotechnology and whether artificial intelligence could contain souls. “Chappie” from 2015 involved police robots connected to the cloud and centered on whether artificial intelligence could learn.
All this is a far cry from assembly line robots or automated harvesters.
At the end of the book, Ford offers some suggestions for policies that might alleviate the coming crisis as automation diffuses across society. Yet could all of this be too late?
Ford brings up mathematician Noriko Arai, who works at the National Institute of Informatics and is developing an artificial intelligence system that she hopes can pass the entrance exam to the University of Tokyo.
Ford writes: “Arai believes that if a computer can demonstrate the combination of natural language aptitude and analytic skill necessary to gain entrance to Japan’s highest-ranked university, then it will very likely also be able to eventually perform many of the jobs taken by college graduates … One of the primary motivations for her project is to try to quantify the potential impact of artificial intelligence on the job market.”
A “catastrophe” would be when “10 to 20 percent of skilled workers [are] replaced by automation,” according to Arai, adding that she “can’t begin to think what 50 percent would mean.”
Where to Read
In a coffee shop run by people who still manually make drip coffee.
Maruzen price: ¥3,500 plus tax (as of March 16, 2016)