In The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics and the Future of Work, Richard Baldwin provides a new analysis of how automation and globalisation could together shape our societies in the years to come. Drawing on numerous examples to keep readers engaged from cover to cover, this book is a tour de force, writes Wannaphong Durongkaveroj, discussing the past, present and future of globalisation and automation and their implications on the way we work.
The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics and the Future of Work. Richard Baldwin. Oxford University Press. 2019.
There is little wonder that the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) has sparked ongoing debates about the future of work. In The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics and the Future of Work, Richard Baldwin, the author of The Great Convergence, provides a meticulous and succinct analysis of how a ‘dynamic duo’ of economic change — automation and globalisation — can shape our societies in the years to come.
Baldwin starts by defining the term ‘globotics’ — a combination of globalisation and robotics. These are not old wine in a new bottle. Globalisation is no longer simply a trade of goods and services across boundaries. It is ‘telemigration’ — a widespread, new form of work that allows workers to sit in one nation and work in offices in another. Simply put, forget about the crowded office — workers can now deliver services remotely. In addition, a new phase of automation is not just about vast machines and industrial robots that replace blue-collar workers in factories. It concerns white-collar robots — software that performs functions that previously only humans could. An example is ‘Amelia ’— an AI-based digital assistant introduced at the Swedish bank SEB. The first key implication of Baldwin’s argument is that this transformation has happened so quickly. It took just years, rather than a century, for this dynamic duo to emerge, spread throughout the economy and change our lives. Second, it creates upheaval throughout society.
To depict the massive changes brought about by globalisation and automation, Baldwin proposes a four-step progression: transformation; upheaval; backlash; and resolution. First, an advance in digital technology has transformed the nature of jobs. Thanks to collaborative platforms such as Business Skype, Slack and Trello, remote work is possible. This mostly affects jobs that do not require a physical presence: for instance, those in management, business and finance. Moreover, the preponderance of AI-trained robots also disrupts jobs that are automatable. Most of these jobs are in the service sector — the sector in which most people work. Baldwin points out that these changes will not eliminate all jobs, but they will certainly lower the headcount in many service-sector occupations (183). At the same time, this is not a doomsday predicament as the duo also helps create some jobs, especially for workers with specific skills in which the human average scores higher than that of AI.
Baldwin asserts that this unprecedented change can lead to a so-called ‘globotics upheaval’. This happens when people are forced to find new jobs. Society could wind up in economic, social and political turmoil. Baldwin uses the ubiquity of the iPhone to explain how globotics invades our society. They are everywhere, and we could not imagine how to live without them. For remote workers residing in different countries, they may accept lower wages and may not receive other benefits such as insurance and health care. This creates a fierce competition borne by domestic labour markets. People may view this practice of using remote workers or ‘telemigrants’ as ‘unfair competition’ (200), triggering discontent.
Baldwin describes how the globotics upheaval could turn into a violent globotics backlash: a fight between millions of service-sector and professional workers and ‘globots’ (212). Baldwin argues that a failure on the part of mainstream politicians to stop the disruption of communities, the loss of good jobs and the undermining of hope has already resulted, in part, in the twin convulsions of 2016 — Donald Trump winning the US presidential election and the UK referendum on leaving the EU. Protest can be another example of how workers react when their livelihoods and communities are threatened.
Baldwin ends the book with resolution. While it is true that robots are good at many tasks, it is equally true that they are useless in some cases. It is difficult to automate some jobs (e.g. education and technical) and some cannot be carried out from far away (i.e. hotels and restaurants, transportation and construction). Baldwin argues that ‘future jobs will rely heavily on skills that globots don’t have’ (261). These will require face-to-face interactions that stress humanity’s abilities over AI robots; such jobs will be newly created in the future. Overall, Baldwin is optimistic about the transformation. As guided by history, he believes that this will make for a better society.
This book is another tour de force from Baldwin. He discusses the past, present and future of globalisation and automation and their implications on the future of work. With the book offering numerous examples, it is easy for readers to stay with Baldwin from cover to cover.
I do agree with Baldwin’s argument that the ‘globotics transformation’ can have a profound impact on the future of work. However, while the evidence has been observed in advanced economies, the book does not address the implications for the Global South in a detailed manner. This poses a big limitation in a book aimed at extending our understanding of the future of work. Developing countries have been relying on manufacturing for decades to absorb the flood of labour released from agriculture. The result has been swift poverty reduction unmatched in human history. As industrialisation has fundamentally transformed the West in the nineteenth century, East Asia in the twentieth century and now Africa, it is important to know how the duo of automation and globalisation can have implications for development paths in the Global South, given levels of economic development and human capital. Whether the vulnerable services sector can provide more and better jobs than manufacturing remains an unsolved issue.
Moreover, while job creation is always good, the economy also needs better jobs. Take ‘vulnerable jobs‘ — those without formal working arrangements, lacking decent working conditions, adequate social security and labour rights. ‘Telemigrants’ tend to be particularly prone to this vulnerability. Additionally, the focus on the effects of globalisation and automation should not be limited to the creation of new jobs or the loss of the same old. What matters is the quality of the job. As observed by Winnie Byanyima:
It is the quality of jobs that matter. When you talk about low levels of unemployment, you are counting the wrong things. You are not counting dignity of people. You are counting exploited people.
It would be beneficial if the book had shone some light on this vital issue.
In addition, more analysis of the mechanisms of how resultant upheaval could flare into violent protest could complement the chapter on backlash, one of the key parts of Baldwin’s four-step globotics transformation. It is true that rising populism is a reaction to current economic and political situations. Yet, the book does not acknowledge other possible ways that people express their dissent, such as through social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. Furthermore, the book does not systemically picture how governments can cooperate and deal with the protesters. Not all demonstrations in the street will turn violent. Countries with different levels of democracy and regime repressiveness seem to handle national uprising differently. Think of the recent protests in Hong Kong and Chile.
Lastly, Baldwin argues throughout the book that the future of jobs depends on how quickly new jobs can be created. But another illuminating framework is how firms use their profits. As pointed out by Mariana Mazzucato, the future of work looks grim when new profit is not used to reinvest and expand business but rather to maximise shareholder value through financial instruments. This has happened as finance has come to occupy the core of capitalism — the same period in which we have seen the rise of globotics. No doubt the changing practices of firms can complement Baldwin’s story.
As one of the world thinkers on globalisation, Baldwin offers more than simply a prediction of the future in this book. It belongs on the reading list of all of us who live in this ever-changing world.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.