See warnings of the coming machine revolution

Summary:  The next Industrial Revolution is now upon us. It won’t be Skynet and Terminators, but could bring massive job losses. With this warning and the experience from the earlier ones, we can build a prosperous future without massive suffering during the transition. But nothing will happen until we turn our eyes from the past towards the future.

“Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage (1940).

Preparing for the future by closing 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 four 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 – and had gone back to their homes.”
— From A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill.

We have been amply warned about the coming waves of automation, but most prefer to look ahead with closed eyes. For example, Michael Olenick, a research fellow at INSEAD, wrote at Innowiki that it will be just like the slow automation of bakeries during the past 50 years. No worries! 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. Elizabeth Garbee at Slate wrote “This Is Not the Fourth Industrial Revolution” – “The meaningless phrase got tossed around a lot at {the 2016} World Economic Forum.”

A common rebuttal to warnings about automation is that it has long been predicted, but not yet happened. Therefore it won’t happen. Q.E.D!

That is unlikely. This will be a revolution. Like what nuclear weapons did to war. What the printing press did to the writing. What antibiotics did to medicine. These inventions were inflection points, not incremental changes.

That assumes the continued development of semi-intelligent machines, with simple sensory systems and IQ equivalents of perhaps 60 (in a narrow domain, not general intelligence). These will destroy a large fraction of today’s jobs. Sometime in the next few generations we might get more advanced forms of machine intelligence, the equivalent of IQs near 100 – in a narrow domain. That would create a revolution like the invention of fire or agriculture, since these machines could more cheaply do most (half?) 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. But all of these solutions will require innovation, wisdom, luck – and time. We need to begin planning soon. As the posts here show, it has already begun (fortunately, slowly).

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

Available at Amazon.

Science fiction then. Now our future.

The automation revolution was visible to some people long ago. One of the first was James Blish, as seen in his A Life for the Stars (1962, the second book of his Cities in Flight series). This passage describes what New York might look like in the late 21st century if we get widespread unemployment without a new economic system to fairly distribute its fruits.

“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.”

The End of Work
Available at Amazon.

Jeremy Rifkin warns us to prepare

Jeremy Rifkin is a Jeremiah of our time. But just 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). From the publisher …

“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.”

Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance
Available at Amazon.

Politics of a new industrial revolution

For a grim look at a possible future see Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance (1995) by David F. Noble, late professor of history at York U (see his Wikipedia bio). The opening chapters are from his 1983 series of articles in Democracy about “Present Tense Technology” (part 1, part 2, part 3). The series opens with this stark warning from part 2, “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 on star date 4729.4 in the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer.“

See a Timeline for the Extinction of Jobs by Machines. So we have no excuse for being caught unaware and letting these new technologies 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.

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

Our world in their hands.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

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, and especially see these …

  1. The next industrial revolution starts. Beware the Pied Pipers who lull us into passivity.
  2. At last economists see the robot revolution. Here’s why they worry.
  3. Automation hits the professions. Most remain delusionally confident, so far.
  4. How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over.
  5. Tech creates a social revolution with unthinkable impacts that we prefer not to see — About sexbots.
  6. The new industrial revolution has begun. Research shows more robots = fewer jobs.
  7. Book and video rental stores show the coming singularity. Let’s prepare now.

For deeper analysis see these books,

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
Available at Amazon.
Rise of the Robots
Available at Amazon.

23 thoughts on “See warnings of the coming machine revolution”

  1. And automation isn’t just coming for menial jobs, though the concept of a functionally unstaffed WalMart or McDonalds might be closer than we think. I recall reading that AI’s can now outperform radiologists when interpreting xrays and scans. Perhaps simpler surgeries will soon be performed by AI’s as well, Consider how many surgeons now use robots to perform the nitty gritty of the surgery, which the doctors control via a panel:

    How long will it take until the surgeon is reduced being a mere observer? Or maybe not needed at all anymore? I mentioned my wife’s cataract surgery the other day. It appears to be a very cookie cutter process: cut incision, pulverize and remove the natural lens, insert new plastic lens. It takes a human about 10 minutes to perform. I assume that an AI controlled robot could do it in 5 and do it with tighter tolerances than any guy wielding a scalpel could.

    Then there’s #LearnToCode, which has been used as an insult against the economically displaced, taunting them with “getting with the times” and become computer programmers, but the bar for programmers continues to rise, leaving many experienced coders suddenly incompetent to perform their jobs. Is it even feasible for a 47 year old coal miner to become a programmer, when long term professionals find themselves pushed out of their careers at that same age, mostly because they crank out fewer lines of code per hour than the fresh batch of youngsters? When applying for a coder position these days most employers will expect you to take a “test” which involves solving a non trivial problem in a limited amount of time, so it’s clear that what IT employers value is not expertise or wisdom, it’s how much code can you slam out in an hour.

  2. I view this as an inevitability.

    “We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. But when it comes to getting your food fresher and other goods cheaper and faster and with a lower carbon footprint, you can’t help thinking it’s probably for the best”

    The pressure will be overwhelming. Most people won’t be replaced by hardware, it’ll be software. Medical diagnostics done by software only with edge cases examined by humans. An AI won’t miss what human eyes would miss. The house you’re selling, the legal leg work will be done by AI.

    It’s the middle classes that’ll feel the biggest pinch. Democrat voters will get to experience what the rust belt have gone through over the last three decades. Gone to college, got that expensive law degree, but can’t get a job…

    Whither democracy? If almost everyone is unemployable and dependent on the state, then the state has them by the short and curlies, who’s going to vote against the people that’re providing everything they depend on…

    There’s a line from Terminator II:

    “It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die, to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”

    If there was an almost unarguable argument for AI child rearing, then that’s it. Also, care for the elderly. Or those with mental illness, or disability. Or almost any one or any thing.

    We’re heading toward some ghastly hybrid of 1984 and Brave New World. It’ll probably overtake us long before RCP 8.5 ever does.

    1. “If almost everyone is unemployable and dependent on the state, then the state has them by the short and curlies, who’s going to vote against the people that’re providing everything they depend on”

      I doubt that by that time those who are dependent on the state will have a vote. If anything, it will be the state making the rules unilaterally. Don’t follow them, no soup for you. And that includes who will be able to have children. I could see sterilization as being a requirement for getting aid.Once you’ve been identified as a low IQ reject, you will be branded as unfit to reproduce.

      I can imagine though, the stress elite families will undergo when little Johnny or Suzie falls behind in school, and the threat of being labelled “unfit” looms. Brave New World indeed. Perhaps we will reach the point where all children are genetically engineered, and we eventually have a world where everyone has an IQ of at least 150.

      1. Frank,

        Just my personal opinion, of course, but these wild speculations about the future are a waste of time.

        We might get massive unemployment and social disorder – that’s a possible scenario. Going into details is just having fun.

        Which is why I cite the sci fi. People won’t read the studies, so the fiction vividly describes possible futures – and might help us avoid them.

        But these detailed stories are fiction. We have no ability to predict at that level of specificity.

      2. The point I was making wasn’t so much a direction things are likely to head, Larry is right, it’s impossible to predict even first order effects, but that the economic and social pressure to head down this path is proving to be irresistible just as it was when Ford introduced his production lines or when the spinning and weaving industry was turned on it’s head by Hargreaves and Crompton.

        Once you’ve been identified as a low IQ reject, you will be branded as unfit to reproduce.

        IQ is not the thing. The second wave of ‘automation’ won’t be for manual workers. It’ll be the middle level people, those who’ve gone to college, got debt, a qualification and had expected a comparatively comfortable life as a teacher, realtor, lawyer, doctor, manager. Articulate, inclined to vote Democrat.

        There’s even a lot of work using software to write, compose and sculpt. If it can be made to work to a level where people would buy it not even the artists will be safe.

        What happens will depend on the degree to which the middle classes will mobilise. Intellectual Levellers or Luddites you might say, and try to outlaw the use of AI, and then the reaction of those for whom AI offers better, cheaper, more reliable service or access to things that would otherwise be beyond their reach.

    2. We have to eventually come face to face with the most Ethical of questions, what is human life really worth?

      That is the essence of the article isn’t it? And its corollary, are all human lives worth the same? the West has already decided that humans are worth more than non-human creatures. But somehow not as clear when comparing humans vs. humans.

      We have to do this because, if left to algorithms and computer logic, they’ll just wipe us off completely.

      Hence the importance of the new Space Race,

      ____1). we stay on Earth, and figure out how to cut 8 billion in half, then probably half that too.

      ____2). we leave for Space, and spread to God knows where. same thing we need to absorb human deaths.

      Figure this out, and we’d have figured out,

      Climate Change and Machine Revolution. two birds, one stone.

  3. But there is also good news. The next industrial revolution will be great for those who are creative, and those who can visualize what persons need or want.

    As Larry has pointed out, and it is expounded above, the military found that anyone below a certain IQ was untrainable. Untrainable does not mean unuseful.

    There are other science fiction visions of the AI revolution that are not as dark. One thing agreed is that it will change our society.

    My point is that humans have been adapting to the changes we make for millenia. Yes, the frequency of them is increasing, and the time of implementation is decreasing. But these problems were caused by humans and the solution lies with humans.

    There was a comic showing the boss surrounded by robotic systems speaking to himself “I wonder if I could get some of these robots to buy my gadgets?” This highlights what I think will be the greatest conundrum humans face. The very fabric of our solution, work/pay/procreate/train, to being social animals will need to evolve.

    For example take this quote ““There is a war on, but only one side is armed: this is the essence of the technology question today…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.” The statement of one side is correct, the human side. The steady advance offered by this author will fail when the system cannot support what it has already conquered. I expect the very persons who did the most damage will be the ones screaming the most for a solution. Afterall, all that they will have conquered, they will have made worthless.

    One thing does not change, expression of life is based on two factors: capability and opportunity. Therein lies the potential solutions for the coming industrial revolution.

    PS Don’t forget the Dune series. One cannot make a machine in the image of man.

    1. John,

      “There are other science fiction visions of the AI revolution that are not as dark.”

      Missing the point. Sci fi is useless for predictions. I use it here to illustrate what experts’ studies have predicted (e.g., see the Timeline paper cited).

      More broadly, I’m uninterested in the fun stuff about super-AI’s that become angels (Asimov’s robot series, in the later books) or other flights of fancy. This just looks at the most likely result in the next several generations: rising unemployment and social disruption if we don’t fairly distribute the fruits of automation. Beyond a few generations we have near-zero ability to forsee.

      “My point is that humans have been adapting to the changes we make for millenia.”

      That’s meaningless. As Keynes said in A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923):

      “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. …Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task, if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us, that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again.”

    2. John,

      I’m very excited how Amazon/Jeff Bezos will continue the Expanse series. I like the focus on gravity, makes for understanding space exploration better for us non-science fiction folk— but I did read Enders Game (that’s been a staple on Marine Corps reading list since forever).

      I say skip the moon, let China have the moon, and we go straight to Mars. We have to partner with India though. because the US won’t be able to absorb fatalities in going to Mars. but I surmise, if Indians perish, 1-50 deaths, we’ll stomach it and continue going to Mars.

  4. We need to work with our hands again. More high school students should be encouraged to look into instead of going to college after HS.

    I’m not sure if you all are familiar with Mathnasium and Kumon, basically tutoring services for math, for parents that don’t wanna go thru all the hardships of teaching (or following up with their math homework) math at home. So they pay, tutors who themselves are engineering or math college students.

    Why not do this for liberal arts, instead of wasting so much money doing philosophy, english, etc. in college and high school, outsource all the liberal arts to businesses like Mathnasium, call it Symposium. i dunno.

    So whittle it all down to apprenticeships, and if opting for college focus on doing projects, instead of wasting so much time with lib arts subjects, also social sciences. make things again. Colleges need to get their students to make stuff, sure it easier to cover theories and readings of this and that, but there should be some national directive to get colleges to make stuff.

    All college students should have to graduate with a new invention or two.

    For example , the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is focused on making the new toilet and sewage system. Apprentice on that, or if going to college seek funding into that and make your whole college experience into research said project.

    There’s waaaaaaaaay to much college grads with soft sciences degrees and lib arts degrees, and they all end up serving coffee and lattes. Let’s start clearing them away from social sciences, ethnic studies and lib arts studies.

    p.s.– i’m no college guy, though i have a PhD in Google.

  5. Yang proposed a universal basic income. His proposal in how it would be funded are the least of the problems associated with the proposal.

    Militaristic imperialism plus a large mass of people with no way of supporting themselves, depenendent on handouts while being anathaestized by bread and circuses led to the collapse of Rome.

    Work and a steady job are essential to a functioning nuclear family.

    My idea would be a universal wage subsidy funded by an automated payment transaction tax as proposed by Ed Feige.

    1. Daniel,

      I’ve written about the UBI.

      (1) About Yang’s proposal.

      Automation will destroy millions of jobs – mostly low-skill jobs. But Yang doesn’t see that as a reason to oppose his opponents’ call for open borders, flooding the US with more low-skill and low-education migrants. Building an instant underclass! Give them all money! This goes to the inherent conflict between two of the Democrat’s core policies: open borders and a generous welfare state. Can’t work.

      (2) About these proposals for a basic income stipend.

      A guaranteed minimum income: faux solution for the new industrial revolution.

      Why a guaranteed minimum income won’t protect us from the automation wave.

      1. The other issue is. If correct me if I am wrong are already generations of people dependent on welfare generation after generation?

        What’s to stop them from simply eat sleep, copulate and simply breathe or make a mess of themselves since they are so dependent on not having to take care of themselves?

        Like people that are said to even tire to bring food to their mouths. Ending up like the denizens of wall-E:

        Or simply just becoming plugged into virtual machines with pleasure literally being fed into their bodies artificially.

      2. info,

        “If correct me if I am wrong are already generations of people dependent on welfare generation after generation?”

        I doubt that there are many people (as a % of total) like that. It’s a right-wing myth about “takers.”

      3. Imagine a matrix where bodies are atropied and one is simply fed pleasure.

        Its a dystopian future in contrast to whatever great adventures and deeds that are performed like the crew in Star Trek.

        A life with meaningful purpose and exciting vistas. Of adventures unlike anything before. A sampling of which is portrayed in this video game:

        Like the age of exploration or the romantic version of Pirates of the Caribbean is a better potential future if we manage to avoid the pitfalls of automation.

      4. @FM
        That may be true now.

        Although I do not see how such a type of life style couldn’t eventually dominate as such a thing is most conducive to reproduction for a time.

        Perhaps selection pressures of the environment and human nature prevents such a phenomenon?

  6. “I doubt that there are many people (as a % of total) like that. It’s a right-wing myth about “takers.”

    The Cloward–Piven strategy is a political strategy outlined in 1966 by American sociologists and political activists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven that called for overloading the U.S. public welfare system in order to precipitate a crisis that would lead to a replacement of the welfare system with a socialist system of “a guaranteed annual income and thus an end to poverty”

    John McWhorter attributed the rise in the welfare state after the 1960s to the Cloward–Piven strategy, but wrote about it negatively, stating that the strategy “created generations of people for whom working for a living is an abstraction”

    I would also suggest looking up the term learned helplessness.

  7. Ahh, well this post raises important questions about what even IS the purpose of an economic system anyway. And what is economics? Is it a method of distributing scarce goods? Is economics really just the study of human trading psychology. In my opinion it’s at least as much the second as the first, and lack of understanding of human group psychology is , in part, why so many economics predictions are useless, or nearly so.

    Just my thoughts:
    1. The goal of an economic system (whether you choose capitalism, socialism, communism or whatever combination) should be to distribute goods and services in as fair and efficient manner. It may be tweaked to encourage or discourage certain behaviors, consumptions, means of production, and ‘externalities’ such as pollution. Importantly, it has to serve the interests of not just the consumers and producers but also the political polity of which it is a part. Also, “fiat” currency does not have to be pegged at any relation to the price or costs or externalities of actual production at all.
    2. The goal of a NATION should be for its citizens (and to a lesser extent allies/friendly trading partners) to flourish both economically and psychologically.
    Modern Nations and the economic systems that serve them have forgotten that.
    Instead, many nations, esp the developed ones, literally have no concept of a larger purpose, beyond enriching the current players. Citizens, of the US, for example, are largely currently thought of in two ways by the politicians that ‘serve’ (in reality; rule) us: A) By the sexual or racial group we belong to (The Identity Politics of largely the left) or B) How useful we are in a strictly economic sense (economic being defined by the current globalist crony capitalist system). Except for those that think of us as ‘marks’ ( A surprising number), these are the only two identities that most Americans have. Simplistic: Politicians on the left believe in Victim Groups, politicians on the ‘right” believe in the economic American dream and have totally forgotten the dignity of the poor but free farmer of the US Revolution.
    Fathers are walking wallets. That’s why our Family Laws (Usually EVEN IF there are ‘equal parenting’ statutes on the books; not all states even have those) gives little or not importance to him (or the few times its HER) getting actual time with the child(ren) or having actual parenting rights.All that is important is that mom gets HER cut (ostensibly for the kid(s) not always so, alas) so the state gets ITS cut.
    Old people? Not your beloved grandma or grandpa or that teacher that the kids loved for 40 years. Mere drains off fictional pieces of paper, the lot of them!
    Community? Those coal miners better leave those towns they’ve lived in their entire lives and find some cubicle work in a big city or something, because towns, cities and villages are worth no more for anything other than a balance sheet. It’s why illegal aliens are used for labor: citizen, non-citizen, what’s the difference? A human body is fungible, and besides, lots of Americans are middle aged or older.
    I could go on and on but it would be too long, and I know you see the problem from other writings of yours. Basically US Politicians (just using the US as an example) largely treat the running of the country like it’s the running of a company, or, worse, (at least the company guy considers everyone an employee) like you could run the country ONLY for the benefit of your particular gang.
    We are beset by utilitarianism unmoored by any form of conscience.

    Now, automation in a post scarcity economy COULD be used to free people. One could have (instead of consumption quotas) robots to do the consuming. One COULD provide a generous minimum standard of living, but provide incentives for volunteering, exploring, going off-world (Musk’s Mars Colonies), doing things to benefit the nation as a whole, starting a business, etc. There’d still be rich, vs comfortable. Social respect would go to creators, performers, etc. In other words, sitting around all day when there were zillions of things to do, wouldn’t have to be necessary NOR encouraged. Also, I don’t see the full end of human employment ever. In such a world, I still predict SOME personal services would exist as well as restaurants and other establishments with at least some human servers. Most people, at least occasionally, do prefer a human touch, and other human interactions.

    However, given the trends of today , I do think if this ever comes to pass at best you’ll have a comfortable serf class, not the society of largely equal but striving human beings I would prefer. At worst you get mass executions either by a technocratic elite that sees no need for ‘useless eaters’ and doesn’t want to share even the tiniest sliver of tremendous wealth, or an A.I who decides either a cyborg future for humanity or our complete annihilation.

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