Tag Archives: automation

50 years of warnings about the new industrial revolution. It’s here. Ignore the naysaysers.

Summary:  The new Industrial Revolution is now upon us. We have sufficient warning and, with the experience from the earlier ones, should be able to navigate through it to a prosperous future without massive suffering during the transition. This is the latest in a long series about what might be the major economic event of the 21st century. {1st of 2 posts today.}

Danger, Construction Ahead

There is a safe path to the future.
“Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage (1940)



  1. Preparing by closing our eyes
  2. James Blish warned us
  3. Jeremy Rifkin’s bleak forecast
  4. Politics of new industrial revolution
  5. Conclusions
  6. For More Information


(1) Prepare for the future: close our eyes

On September 23 {William the Conqueror’s} fleet hove in sight, and all came safely to anchor in Pevensey Bay. There was no opposition to the landing. The local fyrd had been called out this year 4 times already to watch the coast, and having, in true English style, come to the conclusion that the danger was past because it had not yet arrived had gone back to their homes.

— From A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill.

The development of semi-intelligent machines, with simple sensory systems and IQ equivalents of 60+ (in a small domain), will destroy a large fraction of today’s jobs.  Perhaps we’ll find new forms of employment.  Perhaps we will develop new economic systems which require fewer people to work.  If delayed into the second half of the 21st century, the almost inevitable population crash (esp. following the invention of a contraceptive pill for men) will make automation a cure — not a curse.  All of these solutions will require innovation, wisdom, luck — and time.

But the need to adapt is not obvious to everybody. In her deep 1989 book In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future Of Work And Power Shoshana Zuboff does not even use the word “unemployment” — or mention the potential for massive job losses.

This “robot revolution” is long-predicted and now arriving, but some interpret that it took long to arrive as evidence that it will not come. For example, past week Elizabeth Garbee at Slate wrote “This Is Not the Fourth Industrial Revolution” — “The meaningless phrase got tossed around a lot at this year’s World Economic Forum.”

Here are three forecasts of the coming robot revolution. Let’s learn from their insights, and get ready.

(2)  Science fiction then; now our future

The effects of automation were visible to some people long ago. One of the first was James Blish, as in this his A Life for the Stars (1962), the second of his Cities in Flight series. This passage describes what New York might look like in the late 21st century.

The cab came floating down out of the sky at the intersection and maneuvered itself to rest at the curb next to them with a finicky precision.  There was, of course, nobody in it; like everything else in the world requiring an I.Q. of less than 150, it was computer-controlled.

The world-wide dominance of such machines, Chris’s father had often said, had been one of the chief contributors to the present and apparently permanent depression:  the coming of semi-intelligent machines into business and technology had created a second Industrial Revolution, in which only the most highly creative human beings, and those most fitted at administration, found themselves with any skills to sell which were worth the world’s money to buy.

(3) Jeremy Rifkin’s bleak forecast warns us to prepare

Jeremy Rifkin is a Jeremiah of our time. But as a stopped clock is right twice a day, he scores occasionally — as in The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (1995):

The Information Age has arrived. In the years ahead, new, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world. In the agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors, machines are quickly replacing human labor and promise an economy of near automated production by the middecades of the twenty-first century.

The wholesale substitution of machines for workers is going to force every nation to rethink the role of human beings in the social process. Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century.

… We are entering a new phase in world history-one in which fewer and fewer workers will be needed to produce the goods and services for the global population. The End of Work examines the technological innovations and market-directed forces that are moving us to the edge of a near workerless world. We will explore the promises and perils of the Third Industrial Revolution and begin to address the complex problems that will accompany the transition into a post-market era.

… In the past, when new technologies have replaced workers in a given sector, new sectors have always emerged to absorb the displaced laborers. Today, all three of the traditional sectors of the economy agriculture, manufacturing, and service — are experiencing technological displacement, forcing millions onto the unemployment rolls.

The only new sector emerging is the knowledge sector, made up of a small elite of entrepreneurs, scientists, technicians, computer programmers, professionals, educators, and consultants. While this sector is growing, it is not expected to absorb more than a fraction of the hundreds of millions who will be eliminated in the next several decades in the wake of revolutionary advances in the information and communication sciences.

… The restructuring of production practices and the permanent replacement of machines for human laborers has begun to take a tragic toll on the lives of millions of workers.

(4) Politics of a new industrial revolution

For a grim look at our future see Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance by David F. Noble (1995). See his Wikipedia bio. The opening chapters are from his 1983 series of articles in Democracy about “Present Tense Technology”. The series opens with this stark warning from “Technology’s Politics“:

There is a war on, but only one side is armed: this is the essence of the technology question today. On the one side is private capital, scientized and subsidized, mobile and global, and now heavily armed with military spawned command, control, and communication technologies. Empowered by the second industrial revolution, capital is moving decisively now to enlarge and consolidate the social domination it secured in the first.

… Thus, with the new technology as a weapon, they steadily advance upon all remaining vestiges of worker autonomy, skill, organization, and power in the quest for more potent vehicles of investment and exploitation. And, with the new technology as their symbol, they launch a multi-media cultural offensive designed to rekindle confidence in “progress.”

On the other side, those under assault hastily abandon the field for lack of an agenda, an arsenal or an army. Their own comprehension and critical abilities confounded by the cultural barrage, they take refuge in alternating strategies of appeasement and accommodation, denial and delusion, and reel in desperate disarray before this seemingly inexorable onslaught —- which is known in polite circles as “technological change.

What is it that accounts for this apparent helplessness on the part of those whose very survival, it would seem, depends upon resisting this systematic degradation of humanity into mere disposable factors of production and accumulation?


“We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.”
— Dr. McCoy, star date 4729.4, in the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer.“

We have no excuse for being caught unaware and letting this new technology destabilize our society and cause widespread suffering. With modest planning we can enjoy its fantastic benefits without pain. Failure to plan for these obvious developments might mean some tough times ahead for America.

Our world in their hands.

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts describing how the 3rd industrial revolution has begun. Also see the posts about the evidence that we’ve entered a period of secular stagnation. And especially see these…

For deeper analysis see these books…

Tech creates a social revolution with unthinkable impacts that we prefer not to see

Summary: We prefer cartoonish visions of the future, utopian and dsytopian. For good reason, since clearer visions range from disturbing to mind-blowing. Sexbots are coming, the next generation of automation. They’ll bring a future of the mind-blowing kind, for which we will not prepare because we don’t want to see it.

“This will blow up the world. It will make crack cocaine look like decaffeinated coffee.”
— Anonymous (source here).

Love revolution

I have written much about the fake crisis that our leaders use to keep us fearful, with our attention focused where they want it. I’ve written about shockwaves (low probability, high impact scenarios). There is a third category: events quite likely — yet we refused to see them, let alone prepare. Two I have discussed are the mass unemployment coming from the 3rd industrial revolution (now beginning) and the return of past extreme weather.

Another event of the third kind might have even larger effects: the arrival of sexbots. The easy and cheap availability of porn and games already might have reduced the number of men interested in assuming the burdens of marriage. The number of such defectors will skyrocket eventually, inevitably as sexbots gain increased functionality at affordable prices.

Journalists have begun warning us (see below). But we saw with news about the pause in atmospheric warming that a few low-key articles do little to gain our attention (the BBC ran articles about the pause in 2008 and in 2009, yet 5 years later the media still overflowed with confident denials of the pause).

I don’t know what effect sexbots will have on society. But I’ll bet it will be bigger than we can imagine. I suggest we start to think about it.

A vision of the year 2050

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
— Attributed to
Roy Charles Amara as paraphrased by Robert X. Cringely.

For a vision of our likely future see “Robots, Men And Sex Tourism” by Ian Yeoman (Assoc Prof Business, Victoria U) and Michelle Mars (sexologist) in Futures, May 2012. It’s gated. Here’s an excerpt, a conservative description of a world where robots have automated prostitution and perhaps to some extent replaced wives and girlfriends.

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Why Japan can become an economic star of the 21st century

Summary:  Today we look at the future of Japan, and speculate at how well it will cope with the new industrial revolution. Their unique strengths (sometimes wrongly considered weaknesses) suggest that the 21st century might see the sun again rising over Japan. America too will face this challenge; we should watch and learn from Japan.   {1st of 2 posts today. It is a revised version of posts from 2013 and 2014}


  1. A falling population is a boon for Japan
  2. A new Industrial Revolution
  3. Japan: suited to be a star of the 21st Century
  4. For More Information


(1)  A falling population is a boon for Japan

Japan’s government has worried about its overpopulation since the Meiji Restoration when they had about 3 million people (1868). They encouraged emigration to Korea, to no effect. They had 50 million in 1910, 100 million in 1967, and a peak in 2008 at 128 million — all crowded into a narrow urban belt along the coast. At their current level of fertility, by 2100 their population might be half of today’s, back to the level of 1930.  If fertility continues to fall, population might fall to 60 million (1925) or even 50 million (1910).

The effect on Japan’s environment would be wonderful. Japan could become a garden with the cleaner technology of that future era (a common question in grade-school history will be “Teacher, what is ‘pollution’?”).

See this graph showing the coming evolution of the age distribution in Japan (source; see more information from their National Institute of Population and Social Security Research).

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Happy Meals: now made with 20% less people!

Summary:  By now everybody sees that a new industrial revolution has begun, but few clearly see its dynamics. This post looks at one example: the debate about wages. Raise wages or lower them, it makes little difference compared to the new technology that does jobs both cheaper and better.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Minimum Wage Meme: False


Funny but false, showing a deep misunderstanding of how automation works…


Mike Konczal demolishes fantasies about a post-work world in his rebuttal to Derek Thompson’s article in The Atlantic (discussed here yesterday): “The Hard Work of Taking Apart Post-Work Fantasy” at the Roosevelt Institute. However, he believes several false elements of consensus thinking, such as this: “If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers?

Economist Gregory Clark gives an example showing why that’s false in A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (2007)…

There was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle.

But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

Horses then, people now. New technology allows machines to do their jobs cheaper and better. McDonald’s shows how this works as they install kiosks allowing people to enter their own orders. They’re already used at “McDonalds in Switzerland“. In the US they’re being tested where “The McDonald’s of the future lets you customize your burgers“.

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Three visions of our future after the robot revolution

Summary: During the past 2 years the robot revolution has come into view, and all but Right-wingers living in fantasy-land have begun to realize it might (like the previous ones) produce large-scale social disruption and suffering. But to prepare for these changes we must first image what kind of world they’ll create. Here we look at three visions about what lies ahead for us.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it.”
— Barack Obama’s speech to Congress, 9 September  2009.

Dark futures



  1. The center-left sees the problem
    ……and offers mild solutions.
  2. Realistic analysis and prescriptions.
  3. Visions of dark futures.
  4. For More Information.


(1)  The center-left sees the problem and offers mild solutions

Slowly, people have come to see the coming robot revolution (aka, a new industrial revolution), even economists. The Left has adopted this issue, as they have climate change, as a means to enact long-sought changes in the US economy. Like climate change, their solutions are far too small for the problem described.

(a) A World Without Work” by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, July/Aug 2015 — “For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?” Typical of The Atlantic. Long, meandering, confused mish-mash of issues. Never confronts the core issue of how people will earn money to live. Lots of nonsense about people living by selling crafts to each other.

(b) The Future of Work in the Age of the Machine” by Melissa S. Kearney, Brad Hershbein, and David Boddy at the Hamilton Project, February 2015. See the slides and transcript from the seminar they held for academics and businesspeople. Their prescription is aggressive application of conventional methods…

The Project’s economic strategy reflects a judgment that long-term prosperity is best achieved by fostering economic growth and broad participation in that growth, by enhancing individual economic security, and by embracing a role for effective government in making needed public investments.

(c) The future of work in the second machine age is up to us” by Marshall Steinbaum at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, 23 February 2015 — They show that the robot revolution has not yet appeared in the macroeconomic statistics. But it’s coming. Their conclusions are the standard center-left recipe, like those of the Hamilton Project…

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Economists show the perils and potential of the coming robot revolution

Summary: History shows that we oddly focus on small changes coming while ignoring the larger one, because they are truly revolutionary and hence difficult to see and understand. So it is with the third industrial revolution, the oddest so far — and likely to be the biggest. This post shows that some of our top economists have begun to describe what’s coming. As usual with power, it’s great news if we manage it well and potentially horrific if we don’t.  We time to get ready. {1st of 2 posts today.}

Julie Hagerty & Leslie Neilsen in "Airplane!" (Paramount Pictures)

The reality will not be funny. Julie Hagerty & Leslie Neilsen in “Airplane!” (Paramount Pictures)

Robots Are Us: Some Economics of Human Replacement

By Jeffrey D. Sachs (Prof Economics, Columbia), Laurence J. Kotlikoff (Prof Economic, Boston U), Seth G. Benzell, and Guillermo LaGarda.
29  March 2015.


Will smart machines replace humans like the internal combustion engine replaced horses? If so, can putting people out of work, or at least out of good work, also put the economy out of business? Our model says yes. Under the right conditions, more supply produces, over time, less demand as the smart machines undermine their customer base. Highly tailored skill- and generation-specific redistribution policies can keep smart machines from immiserating humanity. But blunt policies, such as mandating open-source technology, can make matters worse.


Whether it’s bombing our enemies, steering our planes, fielding our calls, rubbing our backs, vacuuming our floors, driving our taxis, or beating us at Jeopardy, it’s hard to think of hitherto human tasks that smart machines can’t do or won’t soon do. Few smart machines look even remotely human. But they all combine brains and brawn, namely sophisticated code and physical capital. And they all have one ultimate creator – us.

Will human replacement – the production by ourselves of ever better substitutes for ourselves – deliver an economic utopia with smart machines satisfying our every material need? Or will our self-induced redundancy leave us earning too little to purchase the products our smart machines can make? Ironically, smart machines are invaluable for considering what they might do to us and when they might do it.

… Our simulated economy – an overlapping generations model – is bare bones. It features two types of workers consuming two goods for two periods. Yet it admits a large range of dynamic outcomes, some of which are quite unpleasant.

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How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over

Summary: Today we have another essay about the 3rd industrial revolution now under way (aka the robot revolution), reviewing another new book preparing us for what is to come. We’ve had 50 years of warnings, all ignored. We’ll have to move soon to avoid severe social turmoil. Let’s not repeat our ugly 19th C history. {1st of 2 posts today.}

“We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come — namely, technological
unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the useof labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. ”

— John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“, The Nation and Athenœum, 11 and 18 October 1930.

Cover of <i>Galaxie</i>, 1959

Cover of Galaxie, 1959. CCI/Art Archive.

Excerpt from
How Robots & Algorithms
Are Taking Over

By Sue Halpern.
London Review of Books, 5 March 2015

Halpern reviews: Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.

Here is what that future — which is to say now — looks like: banking, logistics, surgery, and medical recordkeeping are just a few of the occupations that have already been given over to machines. Manufacturing, which has long been hospitable to mechanization and automation, is becoming more so as the cost of industrial robots drops, especially in relation to the cost of human labor.

… Meanwhile, algorithms are writing most corporate reports, analyzing intelligence data for the NSA and CIA, reading mammograms, grading tests, and sniffing out plagiarism. Computers fly planes — Nicholas Carr points out that the average airline pilot is now at the helm of an airplane for about 3 minutes per flight — and they compose music and pick which pop songs should be recorded based on which chord progressions and riffs were hits in the past. Computers pursue drug development — a robot in the UK named Eve may have just found a new compound to treat malaria — and fill pharmacy vials.

Xerox uses computers — not people — to select which applicants to hire for its call centers. The retail giant Amazon “employs” 15,000 warehouse robots to pull items off the shelf and pack boxes. The self-driving car is being road-tested. A number of hotels are staffed by robotic desk clerks and cleaned by robotic chambermaids. Airports are instituting robotic valet parking. Cynthia Breazeal, the director of MIT’s personal robots group … $25 million in venture capital funding, to bring Jibo, “the world’s first social robot,” to market.

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