Federico Pistono:

"Robots Will Steal Your Job But That's OK" (2012)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
The impact of technological progress on jobs has been the topic of countless books: most of them are forgotten because they were so wrong about it. The first person to raise the alarm was probably one of the founders of robotics, Norbert Wiener, in a famous letter to Walter Reuther of 1949. He predicted massive unemployment caused by the coming wave of technological progress "within one or two decades". Predicting the future has always been a lucrative business (Delphi's Oracle, Nostradamus, George Orwell), but rarely a science. If all of them had been right, today we would all be unemployed and, in fact, extinct. Instead, guess what: humans are wealthier than ever in history, the world has never been so peaceful and we all buy machines by the millions. Pistono's book is the refreshing exception: no, we are not doomed. That, per se, is a good reason to read it.

The book's breadth is impressive: its chapters touch on Economics, Sociology, Philosophy, Morality and Artificial Intelligence, and sometimes within the same paragraph. This is what sets it apart from popular books on similar subjects like Erik Brynjolfsson's and Andrew McAfee's "Race Against the Machine" (2011). It is organized as a collection of self-standing essays, even though each one ends by implying a segue in the next one. But one can read pretty much any chapter independently and still get the point. In fact, my first criticism would be that the flow is not quite there: i get the premises, but not quite the "proof" of the theorem. It works better as a set of disconnected meditations on the present and the future. In this sense, i feel that it is an unfinished book, that the author had thoughts on so many subjects that just selecting the ones to include in the book took most of the design and a future edition will take care of working out a more comprehensive framework around them. In particular, the book ends up being two books in one. The first book is about the impact of today's computing technology, and that's the one i was mostly interested in, and therefore most of this review focuses on the first half. The second book is a book on ethics in such a high-tech world, and i am neither competent nor terribly interested in discussing it: when religions withdraw, people can argue forever about what is right and what is wrong, and each of the book's recommendations for a better life is based on good intentions, not necessarily on science (at least, the science is not explained). I'll trust the good intentions for now.

The first part of the book touches on so many of the topics that i routinely discuss these days. I can't resist hijacking this review and summarizing my thoughts on some of the most popular theses.

Unplanned Obsolescence

The book's premise is that us (humans) are becoming obsolete because machines will soon take our place. This refrain is repeated often in the media; actually, it has been repeated often since the invention of the assembly line and of the typewriter.

In order to understand what we are talking about we need to define what is "us". Assembly lines, typewriters, computers, search engines and whatever comes next have replaced jobs that have to do with material life. I could simply say that they have replaced "jobs". They have not replaced "people". They replaced their jobs. Therefore what went obsolete has been jobs, not people, and what is becoming obsolete is jobs, not people. Humans, to me, are biological organisms who (and not "that") write novels, compose music, make films, play soccer, ride the Tour de France, discover scientific theories, hike on mountains and recommend restaurants. Which of these activities are becoming obsolete because machines are doing them better? My favorite question in private conversations on machine intelligence is: when will a machine be able to cross a street that doesn't have a traffic light? Machines are not even remotely close to doing anything of what i consider "human". In fact, there has been virtually no progress in building a machine that will cross that street.

Machines are certainly good at processing big data at lightning speed. Fine. We are rapidly becoming obsolete at doing that. Soon we will have a generation that cannot do arithmetic. In fact, we've never done that. Very few humans spent their time analyzing big data. The vast majority of people are perfectly content with small data: the price of gasoline, the name of the president, the standings in the soccer league, the change in my pocket, the amount of my electricity bill, my address, etc. Humans have mostly been annoyed by big data. That was, in fact, a motivation to invent a machine that would take care of big data. The motivation to invent a machine that rides the Tour de France is minimal because we actually enjoy watching (human) riders sweat on those steep mountain roads, and many of us enjoy emulating them on the hills behind our home.

The real danger is, actually, that we turn people into robots, not that robots get smarter than people. As society becomes more and more structured, people behave more and more like robots. That indeed would make people "obsolete". But that's not what Pistono's book is about.

So we can agree that what is becoming obsolete is not "us" but our current jobs. That has been the case since the invention of the first farm (that made obsolete the prehistoric gatherers) and, in fact, since the invention of the wheel (that probably made obsolete many who were making a living carrying goods on their backs).

And this offers me a good segue to the topic of jobs.


The economic analysis at the foundation of this book is clearly superficial, and the author recognizes it at the outset. However, some macroscopic factors should have been mentioned in a book that opens with a discussion on chronic unemployment in our age.

The first and major one is the end of the Cold War. In 1991 the capitalist world started expanding: before 1991 the economies that really counted were a handful (USA, Japan, Western Europe). After 1991 the number of competitors for the industrialized countries has skyrocketed, and they are becoming better and better. Technology might have "stolen" some jobs, but that factor pales by comparison with the millions of jobs that were exported to Asia. In fact, if one considers the totality of the capitalist world, an incredible number of jobs have been created precisely during the period in which Pistono claims that millions of jobs have been lost. If Kansas loses one thousand jobs but California creates two thousand, we consider it an increase in employment. Pistono makes the mistake of using the old nation-based logic for the globalized world. When counting jobs lost or created during the last twenty years, one needs to consider the entire interconnected economic system. In the first pages he mentions employment data for the USA but has nothing to say about employment over the same period in China, India, Mexico, Brazil, etc. Those now rank among the main trading partners of the USA, and, more importantly, business is multinational. If General Motors lays off one thousand employees in Michigan but hires two thousand in China, it is not correct to simply conclude that "one thousand jobs have been lost". If the car industry in the USA loses ten thousand jobs but the car industry in China gains twenty thousand, it is not correct to simply conclude that ten thousand jobs have been lost in the car industry. In all of these cases jobs have actually been created.

There are other factors that one has to keep in mind, although not as pivotal as globalization. For example, energy. This is the age of energy. Energy has always been important for economic activity but never like in this century. The cost and availability of energy are one of the main factors that determine growth rates and therefore employment. The higher the cost of energy, the lower the amount of goods that can be produced, the lower the number of people that we employ. If forecasts by international agencies are correct (See this recent news), the coming energy boom might have a bigger impact on employment in the USA than computing technology.

Then there are sociopolitical factors. Unemployment is high in Western Europe, especially among young people, not because of technology but because of rigid labor laws and government debt. A company that cannot lay off workers is reluctant to hire any. A government that is indebted cannot pump money into the economy.

Another major factor that accounts for massive losses of jobs in the developed world is the management science that emerged in the 1920s in the USA. That science (never mentioned in this book) is the main reason that today companies don't need as many employees as comparable companies employed a century ago. Each generation of companies has been "slimmer" than the previous generation. As those management techniques get codified and applied massively, companies become more efficient at manufacturing (across the world) and selling (using the most efficient channels) and at predicting business cycles. All of this results in fewer employees not because of automation but because of optimization.

As i have written years ago, the Gift Economy is the scariest of the factors that emerged in the 2000s.

Unemployment cannot be explained simply by looking at the effects of technology. Technology is one of many factors and, so far, not the main one. There have been periods of rapid technological progress that have actually resulted in very low unemployment, most recently the 1990s when e-commerce was introduced.

Here and there i also found misunderstandings about how the modern age compares with previous ones. For example, Pistono quotes a book according to which "147 megacorporations controls 40% of the world". Aside for the vagueness of the statement (40% of what? GDP? land? people?), this is nothing new. At its peak Standard Oil was the dominant oil company worldwide (so much so that the government itself forced it to split). At its peak AT&T owned almost 100% of telephony in the USA and had revenues comparable to the GDP of many independent countries (again, the government forced it to split). At its peak RCA pretty much owned the radio business. IBM ruled the world of computing in the 1960s. In fact, the 1920s were probably the age of monopolies. The statement about the "147 megacorporations" might or might not be correct: my point is that a historical perspective is always needed to understand if it's something new or if it's a case of "same old same old".


A postulate at the basis of this book and of many other contemporary books (particularly those by futurists and self-congratulating technologists) is that we live in an age of unprecedented rapid change and progress. But is our age truly so unique?

As i wrote in my essay titled "Regress":

One century ago in a relatively short time the world adopted the car, the airplane, the telephone, the radio and the record, while at the same time the visual arts went through Impressionism, Cubism and Expressionism, while at the same time Quantum Mechanics and Relativity happened in science. The years since World War II have witnessed a lot of innovation, but most of it has been gradual and incremental. We still drive cars and make phone calls. Cars still have four wheels and planes still have two wings. We still listen to the radio and watch television. While the Computer and Genetics have introduced powerful new concepts, and computers have certainly changed lifestyles, i wonder if any of these "changes" compare with the notion of humans flying in the sky and of humans located in different cities talking to each other.... There has been rapid and dramatic change before. Then one should discuss "change" versus "progress". If i randomly change all the cells in your body, i may boast of "very rapid change" but not necessarily of "very rapid progress". Assuming that any change equates with progress is not only optimism: it's the recipe for ending up with exactly the opposite of progress.

Ray Kurzweil has been popularizing the idea that exponential growth is leading towards the "singularity" The expression "exponential growth" is often used to describe our age. Trouble is: it has been used to describe just about every age since the invention of exponentials. In every age, there are always some things that grow exponentially, but others don't. For every technological innovation there was a moment when it spread "exponentially", whether it was church clocks or windmills, reading glasses or steam engines; and their "quality" improved exponentially for a while, until the industry matured or a new technology took over. Murphy's law (that translates into the doubling of processing power every 18 months) is nothing special: similar laws can be found for many of the old inventions. Think how quickly radio receivers spread. In the USA there were only five radio stations in 1921 but already 525 in 1923. Cars? The USA produced 11,200 in 1903, but already 1.5 million in 1916. By 1917 a whopping 40% of households had a telephone in the USA up from 5% in 1900. There were fewer than one million subscribers to cable television in 1984, but more than 50 million by 1989. The Wright brothers flew the first plane in 1903. During World War I (1915-18) France built 67987 planes, Britain 58144, Germany 48537, Italy 20000 and the USA 15000, for a grand total of almost 200 thousand planes. After just 15 years of its invention. In 1900 virtually no household owned a car. In 1930 half of the households in the USA owned a car. I am sure that similar statistics can be found for old inventions, all the way back to the invention of writing. Perhaps each of those ages thought that growth in those fields would continue at the same pace forever. The wisest, though, must have foreseen that eventually growth starts declining in every field. In a sense Kurzweil claims that computing is the one field in which growth will never slow down, in fact it will keep accelerating. David Deutsch's "The Beginning of Infinity" (Viking, 2011) is a much more powerful defense of that thesis (see my review).

In my Alan Turing tribute of early 2012 (Machine Intelligence vs Human Stupidity: Are we building smarter machines or dumber humans?) i argued that it is not so much "intelligence" that has accelerated in machines (their intelligence is the same that Alan Turing gave them when he invented his "universal machine") but miniaturization. In fact, Moore's law has nothing to do with machine intelligence, but simply with how many transistors one can squeeze on a tiny integrated circuit. There is very little that machines can do today that they could not have done in 1950 when Turing published his paper on the "intelligence test". What has truly changed is that today we have extremely powerful computers squeezed into a palm-size smartphone at a fraction of the cost. That's miniaturization. Equating miniaturization to intelligence is like equating an improved wallet to wealth.

Pistono reproduces a diagram by Kurzweil titled "Exponential Growth in Computing", but that is bogus because it starts with the electromechanical tabulators of a century ago: it is like comparing the power of a windmill with the power of a horse. Sure there is an exponential increase in power, but it doesn't mean that windmills will keep improving by the difference between horsepower and windpower.
Yes, technologies have changed rapidly in a very short time compared with the millions of years that it took humans to evolve their skills. It is, however, a fallacy to claim that "machines evolved rapidly". Read note 2.
Pistono omits the broader discussion going on among philosophers and scientists about the "singularity", but it would be important to at least mention David Deutsch's "The Beginning of Infinity" (Viking, 2011) and David Chalmers' "The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis" (2010). I also feel that many of these topics were discussed in the 1970s and 1980s by the French postmodernist philosophers and we are now only rehashing those debates (originally invented to discuss the age of television) for the age of the Internet. It would be useful to check what is truly unique about today's debate (or do we simply re-discuss the same ideas every 40 years thinking that we are young and smart when in fact we are simply unaware that a previous generation said the same things, also thinking that they were young and smart, when in fact a previous generation...?)

Predictions about future exponential trends have almost always been wrong. Remember the prediction that the world's population would "grow exponentially"? Now we are beginning to fear that it will actually start shrinking (it already is in Japan and Italy). Or the prediction that energy consumption in the West will grow exponentially? It has peaked a decade ago. As a percentage of GDP, it is actually declining rapidly. Life expectancy? It rose rapidly in the West between 1900 and 1980 but since then it has barely moved. War casualties were supposed to grow exponentially with the invention of nuclear weapons: since the invention of nuclear weapons the world has experienced the lowest number of casualties ever. Places like Europe that had been at war for 1500 year have not had a major war in 60 years. (For those who don't know, Kurzweil's "The Singularity Is Near" of 2005 is a revision of his 1999 book "The Age of Spiritual Machines" which was a revision of his 1990 book "The Age of Intelligent Machines", and that indeed is a kind of exponential trend).

What is truly accelerating at exponential speed in fashion. This is another point where many futurists and high-tech bloggers confuse a sociopolitical event with a technological event. We live in the age of marketing. If we did not invent anything, absolutely anything, there would still be hectic change. Change is driven by marketing. The industry desperately needs consumer to go out and keep buying newer models of old products or new products. Therefore we buy things we don't need. The younger generation is always more likely to be duped by marketing and soon the older generations find themselves unable to communicate with young people unless they too buy the same things. Sure: many of them are convenient and soon come to be perceived as "necessities"; but the truth is that humans have lived well (sometimes better) for millennia without those "necessities". The idea that an mp3 file is better than a compact disc which is better than a record is just that: an idea, and mainly a marketing idea. The idea that a streamed movie is better than a DVD which is better than a VHS tape is just that: an idea, and mainly a marketing idea. Steve Jobs was not necessarily a master of technological innovation (it is debatable whether he ever invented anything) but he was certainly a master of marketing new products to the masses. What is truly accelerating is the ability of marketing strategies to create the need for new products. Therefore, yes, our world is changing more rapidly than ever; not because we are surrounded by better machines but because we are surrounded by better snake-oil peddlers (and dumber consumers).

Future outlook

If you take into account the real causes of the high unemployment rate in the USA and Europe, you reach different conclusions about the impacts that robots (automation in general) will have. In the USA robots are likely to bring back jobs. The whole point of exporting jobs to Asia was to benefit from the lower wages of Asian countries; but a robot that works for free 24 hours a day 7 days a week beats even the exploited workers of communist China. As they become more affordable, these "robots" (automatiion in general) will displace Chinese workers, not Michigan workers. The short-term impact will be to make outsourcing of manufacturing an obsolete concept. The large corporations that shifted thousands of jobs to Asia will bring them back. In the mid term, if this works out well, a secondary effect will be to put Chinese products out of the market and create a manufacturing boom in the USA: not only old jobs will come back but a lot of new jobs will be created. In the long term robots might create new kinds of jobs that today we cannot foresee. Not many people in 1946 realized that millions of software engineers would be required by the computer industry in 2012. My guess is that millions of "robot engineers" will be required in a heavily robotic future. Those engineers will not be as "smart" as their robots at whatever task for which those robots were designed just like today's software engineers are not as fast as the programs they design. And my guess is that robots will become obsolete too at some point, replaced by something else that today doesn't even have a name. If i had to bet, i would bet that robots will become obsolete way before humans become obsolete.

Tip for Future Edition: You Are Your Tools

I have always said that "you are the people with whom you surround yourself" (meaning that the company you keep defines your aspirations, your context, your beliefs and even your daily behavior), but now i am increasingly convinced that, just like the spider "is" its cobweb, we are the tools that we use. Too much of my daily life depends on the tools that are available today. If i had lived a century ago, my life would have been completely different. There might be a piece of me that is there regardless of what i do, and there might be a piece of me that is influenced by parents, relatives, friends and society, but too many hours of every single day depend on the tools that are available to me. As technology changes, it would be more interesting to discuss how it impacts "me", not just my employment status.

If suicide is a measure of unhappiness, the statistics are terrifying. In 2010 there were 38,364 reported suicide deaths in the USA. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 65 years in the USA. Suicide became a national tragedy in the whole developing world during the age of economic expansion, which also included an increasing reliable on automation: "Between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, the suicide rate among U.S. males aged 15-24 more than tripled (from 6.3 per 100,000 in 1955 to 21.3 in 1977). Among females aged 15-24, the rate more than doubled during this period (from 2.0 to 5.2)." (Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). The numbers came down a bit during the following two decades (mainly because of massive drug and psychological therapies) but they started rising again in the new century, coinciding (chance or not) with the new technological acceleration due to the Internet. (Source: Harvard School of Public Health). Rich, high-tech countries like Japan, South Korea, France and Scandinavia consistently post the highest suicide rates despite possessing the best available tools to fight depression. (Source: World Health Organization) The increase in suicide rates is now worldwide. (Source: International Association for Suicide Prevention). While there is no study that shows a definite correlation between technological progress and suicide rates, we can confidently conclude that technological progress has not helped stem the tide.


The second half of the book is (probably inadvertently) more ambitious: it aims at sketching a morality for an age in which automation will make jobs obsolete. Pistono's line of attack is that automation will make jobs obsolete, therefore people unhappy, therefore we need to find new meaning.

This section of the book starts with a discussion about happiness. I can list many great thinkers of the past who had tackled that subject, and none of them was particularly convincing (so much so that philosophers still make a living writing about happiness). Using wealth as a measure of happiness has all sorts of obvious problems. The country with the highest suicide rate is now France, followed by Japan and Scandinavian countries, all very rich countries. Pistono deals with the relationship between work and happiness, and the negative impact that unemployment has on happiness. Again, many books have been written on the subject. One article that made an impact on me (Foucault?) pointed out that teenagers are perfectly happy to be unemployed; then we screw their lives by brainwashing them about having a career, and for the rest of their lives they will be happy only if they do have a career.

Another interesting topic is how "busy" people are. Jan English-Lueck has written books about the busy lives of Silicon Valley, which might be the best introduction to modern "busy" lives. My sense is that work deprives humans of meaning, and then people need to feel their lives with everything they can (from skydiving to salsa lessons) simply to 1) forget how meaningless their lives are and 2) see if they can accidentally stumble into a meaning of life. In places where people are very religious the motivation to be always so busy is not very high: meaning is in the afterlife.

Pistono's recommendations for a "better" life include education (not specified on which topics), growing your own food, eating less meat, using public transportation, etc. I am not competent to decide which of these are founded on sound science (i have been a vegetarian for almost 40 years on ideological grounds, but i have highly educated friends who swear that a meat-only diet is the healthiest and the most natural) and what effects they will have on employment (if we consume less, don't we cause more unemployment?) and on happiness (most of my highly educated friends are depressed, not happy, and two of them tried to commit suicide). Regardless, the attempt is heroic: basically, Pistono is trying to construct a future society in which humans will be happy even though they will be less necessary. Instead of an apocalyptic view of the future, Pistono is the rare prophet with a Panglossian view of the future.

Note 1.
Human-looking automata that mimic human behavior have been built since ancient times and some of them could perform sophisticated movements. They were mechanical. Today we have electromechanical sophisticated toys that can do all sort of things. There is a (miniature) toy that looks like a robot riding a bicycle. Technically speaking, the whole toy is the "robot". Philosophically speaking, there is no robot riding a bicycle. The robot-like thing on top of the bicycle is redundant, it's there just for show: you can remove the android and put the same gears in the bicycle seat or in the bicycle pedals and the bike with no passenger would go around and balance itself the exact same way: the thing that rides the bicycle is not the thing on top of the bike (designed to trick the human eye) but the gear that can be anywhere on the bike. The toy is one piece: instead of one robot, you could put ten robots on top of each other, or no robot at all. Any modern toy store has toys that behave like robots doing some amazing thing (amazing for a robot, ordinary for a human). It doesn't require intelligence: just Japanese or Swiss engineering. This bike-riding toy never falls, even when it's not moving. It is designed with a gyroscope to always stand vertical. Or, better, it falls when it runs out of battery. That's very old technology. If that's what we mean by "intelligent machines", then they have been around for a long time. We even have a machine that flies in the sky using that technology (so much for "exponential progress"). Does that toy represent a quantum leap in intelligence? Of course, no. It is remotely controlled by a remote control just like a tv set. It never "learned" how to bike. It was designed to bike. And that's the only thing it can do. Ever. If you want it to do something else, you'll have to add more gears of a different kind, specialized in doing that other thing. Maybe it's possible (using existing technology or even very old mechanical technology) to build radio-controlled automata that have one million different gears to do every single thing that humans do and that all fit in a size comparable to my body's size. Congratulations to the engineer. It would still not be me. And the only that is truly amazing in these toys is the miniaturization, not the "intelligence". A human is NOT a toy (yet).
Note 2.
In all cases of rapid progress in the functionalities of a machines it is tempting to say that the machine achieved in a few years what took humans millions of years of evolution to achieve. However, any human-made technology is indirectly using the millions of years of evolution that it took to evolve its creator. No human being, no machine. Therefore it is incorrect to claim that the machine came out of nowhere: it came out of millions of years of evolution, just like my nose. The machine that is now so much better than previous models of a few years ago did NOT evolve: WE evolved it (and continue to evolve it). There is no machine that has created another machine that is superior. WE create a better machine. We are capable of doing it because those millions of years of evolution equipped us with some skills (that the machine does NOT have). If humans gets extinct tomorrow morning, the evolution of machines ends. Right now this is true of all technologies. If all humans die, all technologies die with us (until a new form of intelligent life arises from millions of years of evolution and starts rebuilding all those watches, bikes, coffemakers, airplanes and computers). Hence, technically speaking, there has been no evolution of technology. This is yet another case in which we are applying an attribute invented for one category of things to a different category: the category of living beings evolve, the category of machines does something else, which we call "evolve" by recycling a word that actually has a different meaning. It would be more appropriate to say that a technology "has been evolved" rather than "evolved": computes have been evolved rapidly (by humans) since their invention. Technologies don't evolve (as of today): we make them evolve. The day we have machines that survive without human intervention and that build other machines without human intervention, we can apply the word "evolve" to those machines. As far as i know those machines don't exist yet, which means that there has been zero evolution in machines so far (using the word "evolution" in its correct meaning). Humans can build and use very complex machines. The machine is not intelligent, the engineer that designed it is. That engineer is the product of millions of years of evolution, the machine is a by-product of that engineer's millions of years of evolution. (See Kelly, Kevin: "What Technology Wants" for a competing argument on the evolution of technology).