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Globalization and AI are primed to disrupt tomorrow’s workplace, argues an economist

The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work

Richard Baldwin
Oxford University Press
300 pp.
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In the conference room of a popular San Francisco–based magazine, journalists and editors walk through the door, gathering for a staff meeting. One colleague, however, rolls in on two large motorized wheels.

“EmBot” is a human-sized robot that shows live video of Emily Dreyfus, a staff writer who lives 3000 miles away. But EmBot is more than a face on a screen. It can turn toward whomever is speaking or chase a colleague of Dreyfus’s down the hall. EmBot is an example of the telepresence technology that Richard Baldwin, author of The Globotics Upheaval, believes will cost many workers in wealthy nations their jobs, allowing them to be replaced with “telemigrants” from abroad.

But even telemigrants face stiff competition in the emerging economy. EmBot has software-based cousins that use artificial intelligence (AI) to perform tasks we once thought required highly skilled humans, from searching for the legal precedents of a patent dispute to spotting cancer in a magnetic resonance image.

Baldwin’s thesis is that globalization and AI robots constitute a “globotics” tidal wave that will shake the foundation of middle-class prosperity in wealthy nations. This, he argues, will lead to social upheaval, just as 19th-century steam engines and mechanical looms created workplace disruptions that brought workers to the streets in sometimes violent protest.

Although globotics will improve productivity and create new jobs, by some estimates cited in the book, it could also replace more than half of current jobs in a developed economy. The effects will be uneven.

Some skilled workers will prosper as they gain the ability to compete for jobs across the globe; others will become obsolete. An accountant whose primary competitive advantage is that she lives within easy driving distance of a commercial hub, for example, will now have to compete with accountants around the world. An accountant whose primary advantage is the ability to detect complex patterns in financial data will have to compete with machine-learning software that never sleeps or asks for a raise.

For people hoping to choose a profession that won’t soon be replaced, Baldwin recommends those that require physical proximity and that take advantage of distinctly human qualities, such as creativity, social awareness, ethics, and empathy. AI robots cannot (yet) write articles for Science, for example, and they are terrible preschool teachers.

Disruptive change can lead to backlash. Baldwin argues that 2016 vote outcomes favoring Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the United States were backlashes to globotics. Although this was not a period of high unemployment—Trump was elected after 7 years of solid economic growth that drove the U.S. unemployment rate from 10 to 4.6%—it is possible that globotics could have contributed to low growth in wages.

Although the book offers valuable insights into the long-term impact that globalization and AI will have on workers, the case that globotics will bring upheaval is less convincing. Upheaval occurs when technology advances at a pace that is too fast for society to absorb. Baldwin portrays the progress of telepresence and AI as suddenly becoming rapid, but these technologies have been progressing for decades.

Thanks to the vast expansion of undersea fiberoptic cables in the 1990s, widespread adoption of the Internet, and continuous improvement in collaboration software, we already live with many effects of telepresence. Multinational companies routinely hire the most competitive workers anywhere in the world and use this technology to move jobs to workers rather than moving workers to jobs. Similarly, AI algorithms have already replaced humans in many endeavors, including monitoring everything from surveillance video to credit card purchases, just as websites have all but replaced travel agents.

So far, there has been workplace change but little true upheaval. Both telepresence and AI technology are still making impressive progress, but Globotics Upheaval provides no way to judge whether the pace of advancement will eventually exceed what society can absorb.

Nonetheless, Baldwin presents a compelling view of the future of work and the serious challenges ahead while there is still time to prepare. He wisely argues that we must protect workers, without necessarily protecting specific jobs as they become outdated, and that we must do more to help those who’ve been displaced by technology reenter the workforce and offer such individuals a strong safety net along the way.

I would add education reform to the prescription: Moving forward, schools and universities should teach students to work with emerging technology rather than compete against it.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Engineering and Public Policy and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA.