The Starting Gun of the (Modern) Race Against the Machine

MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee were on 60 Minutes yesterday discussing their book Race Against the Machine, which describes how computers (in particular, robots & digitally enabled technologies) are increasingly displacing humans from work and offers some conjectures about what that phenomenon means for the future. In the first chapter of The Coming Prosperity, I describe an earlier—likely, the first—version of the argument that computers will inevitably be responsible for widespread unemployment. Here’s an except from that chapter:

Almost exactly four years after V-J Day—on August 13, 1949, to be precise—an MIT professor named Norbert Wiener wrote a letter to Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW). It contained a darkly prophetic message: within a decade or two, Wiener wrote, the advent of automatic automobile assembly lines would result in “disastrous” unemployment. The power of computers to control machines made such an outcome all but inevitable. As a creator of this new technology, Wiener wanted to give Reuther advance notice so that the UAW could help its members prepare for, and adapt to, the massive displacement of labor that Wiener saw on the horizon.

Now if anyone in 1949 grasped the disruptive potential of computing machines, it was Norbert Wiener. What Albert Einstein was to the nuclear age, Norbert Wiener was to the information age. Home-schooled until age nine by his demanding immigrant father, Wiener made headlines as the “Youngest College Man in the History of the United States” when he enrolled at Tufts University in 1906 at age eleven. In 1913, at only eighteen, he earned his PhD from Harvard in mathematical philosophy. By the time Wiener wrote to Reuther, he had grown round and renowned. (“Short, rotund, and myopic, combining these and many qualities in extreme degree” was one contemporary’s description.) He had contributed to the development of the first modern computer, created the first automated machine, and laid the groundwork for a new transdisciplinary science of information and communication that he termed “cybernetics.” His work would anticipate and inspire Marshall McLuhan’s heralded studies of mass media, would provide the initial impetus for the explorations by James Watson and Francis Crick that led to the discovery of the double helix, and would spur science-fiction writer William Gibson to coin the term “cyberspace” in describing a type of virtual world that Wiener himself had envisioned two decades before the creation of the first web page.

As Wiener warned Reuther of the potentially dire consequences of automated production, he also had a plan to avoid calamity. The UAW, he advised, should “steal a march upon the existing industrial corporations” by taking ownership of the technology for robotics, and then using the returns from the production of robots to fund “an organization dedicated to the benefit of labor.” He admitted the existence of another option: the UAW could undertake to keep the new technology from entering into industrial use. But having suggested this option, he immediately dismissed it: since ideas forming the basis for robotics were already “very much in the air,” they likely could not be suppressed.

Surprisingly, Reuther, the Big Labor kingpin, did not dismiss the portly professor’s Cassandra calls. To the contrary, Reuther responded to Wiener promptly by telegram. “Deeply interested in your letter,” he wrote. “Would like to discuss it with you at earliest opportunity following conclusion of our current negotiations with Ford Motor Company. Will you be able to come to Detroit?” For some months thereafter these two global figures sought to coordinate their schedules. When they met at last in March 1950, they pledged to work together to create a labor-science council to anticipate, and prepare for, major technological changes affecting workers. But then their paths diverged. The idea never came to fruition.