Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots, this year’s business book of the year, is in some ways the dystopian bookend to Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, which won the first Financial Times prize for compelling business books 10 years ago.
Where Mr Friedman was breathlessly optimistic about the prospects for a working world connected, lubricated and energised by technology, Mr Ford, a software entrepreneur, is much more pessimistic.
He envisages a world of fewer jobs and relentless pressure on both manufacturing and professional workers, as machines take over an increasing range of tasks. If action is not taken, inequality will increase (a phenomenon also addressed by Thomas Piketty in last year’s award-winning book Capital in the Twenty-First Century) and economic growth could stall.
At Tuesday’s judging session for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, Shriti Vadera, board director and former UK business minister, said Mr Ford’s book pointed to “an incredibly turbulent time as we adjust to [a change] more profound than the industrial revolution”.
As Mr Ford writes: “While human-machine collaboration jobs will certainly exist, they seem likely to be relatively few in number and often shortlived. In a great many cases, they may also be unrewarding and even dehumanising.”
Mr Ford warns in the book that “a fundamental restructuring of our economic rules” may be needed to mitigate the impact of the advance of robotics and automation. He proposes a guaranteed minimum basic income — or “citizen’s dividend” — as one radical remedy.
Such solutions looked unpalatable to a number of the judges, but they agreed that, of the six strong contenders on this year’s shortlist, The Rise of the Robots was the book likely to have the greatest impact. One judge, Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, said: “I believe that basic income is a plan of near last resort. I disagree that we get there inevitably from now.” He believes there are various ways in which entrepreneurship might be able to solve the issues highlighted in the book.
But the panel agreed that the book was an important call to action. Lionel Barber, FT editor and chair of the judging panel, called The Rise of the Robots “a tightly written and deeply researched addition to the public policy debate”.
Since 2005, when the £30,000 business book award was launched, successive panels of judges have tried to pick the titles that provided “the most compelling and enjoyable insights into modern business issues”. The rules were tweaked in 2014 to underline that durability of the ideas was also important. As board director and author Dambisa Moyo, new to this year’s judging panel, put it on Tuesday, the judges need to ask themselves: “Is there something in this book that we should know that we don’t?” and “What is the shelf life of these ideas?”
Answering the second of those questions is complicated by the increasing proportion of books about the business impact of technology.
Many of the more than 200 entrants for this year’s prize had a technological theme — with a notable subset about how automation would affect humans in the workplace. Four of this year’s six finalists were books about some aspect of technological disruption: Losing the Signal, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, who look at how BlackBerry went off course; Digital Gold, Nathaniel Popper’s examination of the rise of bitcoin, the virtual currency; How Music Got Free, Stephen Witt’s history of the way piracy and peer-to-peer sharing have disrupted the recorded music industry. The other two finalists — all of whom receive £10,000 — were Unfinished Business, about the challenge of achieving gender balance; and Misbehaving, in which Richard Thaler traces the development of behavioural economics.
Last year’s finalist The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, is notably more optimistic about the jobs that will be created as a result of the technology revolution. Mr Ford’s first book, The Lights in the Tunnel, was attackedfor being too gloomy. But as Edward Luce wrote, reviewing The Rise of the Robots for the FT, his latest work is “well-researched and disturbingly persuasive”.
Mr Ford holds out the slim hope that, handled properly, the technological revolution could usher in an automated utopia of greater prosperity and leisure. But he warned on Tuesday, as he received the award, that his predictions “could unfold faster than we expect”, sweeping away the advantages of education and training. “Even people that do everything they are supposed to do [to get a good job] may find it difficult to get a foothold in the economy,” he told the New York audience.
● At the same ceremony in New York, Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s global managing director, awarded the £15,000 Bracken Bower Prize for young business writers to Christopher Clearfield and András Tilcsik. Their proposed book would look at how businesses can manage the risk of catastrophic failure.
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