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The dark side of automation: History up to now

Imagine that a new software program replaced your work role entirely. You might not be pleased. But just that phenomenon has been happening to many human roles.

The automation pioneer Norbert Wiener, in his book The Human Use of Human Beings, pointed out that automation amounts to slave labor, and any labor that competes in a free market with slave labor must accept the living conditions of slave labor. Globalization is already doing this to some degree, leaving many in developed countries unemployed.

In a recent New York Times article, the current risks to human labor and human purchasing power from advances in automation were explored. This is an old story that may be catching up with us today.

Mechanization and automation have always resulted in some combination of empowering human labor to be more effective and efficient, or replacing it entirely. These changes are always motivated by an immediate desire to reduce the costs of producing goods and services, both for those who own the means of production as well as for the consumer.

Sometimes these transitions have been painful to displaced laborers whose purchasing power was taken away without an immediate path toward new and meaningful work. However, in many cases, work that is dull, dirty, or dangerous can be passed off to machines and thus improve labor conditions for humans, and free them to explore more profitable and fulfilling forms of work. Better still, automation can enhance human ability and allow us to achieve feats that would amaze our ancestors.

Early automation replaced backbreaking manual labor on farms and then in factories. Simple but drudging cognitive functions like arithmetic, tabulation, and rote decision-making were next. Recent advances in automation, by contrast, have steadily been replacing more advanced human cognitive skills, including, but not limited to, visual perception, competent interpretation and generation of natural language, and advanced sensory-motor control in industrial operations and vehicle guidance.

The author's affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only, and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE's concurrence with, or support for, the positions, opinions, or viewpoints expressed by the author.