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Review: The Globotics Upheaval

The portmanteau in the title of Richard Baldwin’s The Globotics Upheaval refers to the parallel development of automation and artificial intelligence on one hand, and off-shoring and “telemigration” on the other. Even though artificial intelligence and off-shore human workers are quite different things in many respects, they happen to be rising in prominence at the same time, and Baldwin (amongst others) sees both of them as threats to developed-world workers currently earning comfortable incomes from routine jobs that could shortly be performed by “globots”.

Baldwin describes the rise of his globots in a gee-whiz-isn’t-technology-amazing sort of way that I suspect overstates the actual state of play—my experiences with chatbots, for example, haven’t been anywhere near as satisfying as his seem to have been—but the point is that, regardless of exactly where technology might stand now, it’s progressively either automating various sorts of white-collar work, or allowing it to performed by lower-waged workers in developing countries.

The more interesting part of the book, to my mind, is in how developed countries respond to these changes. Baldwin recounts backlashes from previous generations of displaced workers in the form of Luddites, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump, but his own recommendations are relatively tame: develop skills at which computers are expected to perform poorly for some time to come, such as managing people; perform work that can be done in-person, such as aged care or brewing the local beer; and adopt employment security policies like the Danish “flexicurity” system.

Baldwin’s approach is essentially business-as-usual (though English-speaking governments might baulk at introducing Scandinavian-style welfare policies): economic growth and innovation will create work for creative people and their managers, which will presumably pay them enough to afford personal carers and craft beer. If there are changes to education systems, tax policies, and so on to support these things, he doesn’t mention them.

I suspect that a lot of people would aspire to this sort of work anyway but I have reservations similar to those that I’ve previously noted about hopes that we’ll all get to take up the arts and humanities under business-as-usual: there’s no obvious reason to think that there will actually be enough demand to keep everyone in this sort of employment (who will the people-managers be managing when everyone else has been automated, for example), and it presumes that we keep working for forty hours a week even as machines do more and more of the work. Most tellingly, perhaps, having noted the backlash to business-as-usual as it currently exists, Baldwin doesn’t say much about how that business-as-usual is to become the new business-as-usual.

In the conclusion to the book, Baldwin says he is optimistic, and perhaps that’s at the heart of the weakest aspects of the book: he finds technology awesome and he’s hopeful things will work out without having to make any real change.

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