Automation on the Job

Automation Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

Automation was a hot topic in the 1950s and ’60s—a subject for congressional hearings, blue-ribbon panels, newspaper editorials, think-tank studies, scholarly symposia, documentary films, World’s Fair exhibits, even comic strips and protest songs. There was interest in the technology itself—everybody wanted to know about “the factory of the future”—but the editorials and white papers focused mainly on the social and economic consequences of automation. Nearly everyone agreed that people would be working less once computers and other kinds of automatic machinery became widespread. For optimists, this was a promise of liberation: At last humanity would be freed from constant toil, and we could all devote our days to more refined pursuits. But others saw a threat: Millions of people would be thrown out of work, and desperate masses would roam the streets.

Looking back from 50 years hence, the controversy over automation seems a quaint and curious episode. The dispute was never resolved; it just faded away. The factory of the future did indeed evolve; but at the same time the future evolved away from the factory, which is no longer such a central institution in the economic scheme of things, at least in the United States. As predicted, computers guide machine tools and run assembly lines, but that’s a minor part of their role in society. The computer is far more pervasive in everyday life than even the boldest technophiles dared to dream back in the days of punch cards and mainframes.

As for economic consequences, worries about unemployment have certainly not gone away—not with job losses in the current recession approaching 2 million workers in the U.S. alone. But recent job losses are commonly attributed to causes other than automation, such as competition from overseas or a roller-coaster financial system. In any case, the vision of a world where machines do all the work and people stand idly by has simply not come to pass.