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An Apology for a Cybernetic Future

Posted: Sun, November 25, 2012 | By: David Eubanks

Recently the giant (1e6+ employees) manufacturer Foxconn based in China announced that it was purchasing thousands of robots to replace humans on the assembly line. Quoting from the Financial Times [1]:

[T]he chief executive said the group would have up to 300,000 robots [in 2012] and 1m by 2013.

Leaving aside the irony of Western companies outsourcing cheap labor ultimately to high tech machinery, the rapidly accelerating capabilities of automation may be seen as blessing or curse. On the one hand, it’s a hopeful sign that one day the most mundane types of labor will no longer have to be done by humans, who can then presumably spend their time working on physics or poetry instead. 

But on the other hand, market economies are not designed to allow this transition. Others have explored this issue of what happens as production is increasingly automated. For a detailed analysis of the problem and some proposed solutions, see Martin Ford’s book 2009 book The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future [2]. From the introduction:

It turns out that while technologists are actively thinking about, and writing books about, intelligent machines, the idea that technology will ever truly replace a large fraction of the human workforce and lead to permanent, structural unemployment is, for the majority of economists, almost unthinkable. For mainstream economists, at least in the long run, technological advancement always leads to more prosperity and more jobs. […]

The reality is that the free market economy, as we understand it today, simply cannot work without a viable labor market. Jobs are the primary mechanism through which income—and, therefore, purchasing power—is distributed to the people who consume everything the economy produces. If at some point, machines are likely to permanently take over a great deal of the work now performed by human beings, then that will be a threat to the very foundation of our economic system. This is not something that will just work itself out. This is something that we need to begin thinking about.

The 20th century gave birth to electronic ‘thinking’ machines that for the first time began to show signs of competing with their makers. At the center of this new control technology named cybernetics was Norbert Wiener, who wrote a book with that title. It’s fascinating to read from the introduction of that work what he thought of his creation [3]:

[W]e are already in a position to construct artificial machines of almost any degree of elaborateness of performance. Long before Nagasaki and the public awareness of the atomic bomb, it had occurred to me that we were here in the presence of another social potentiality of unheard-of importance for good and evil. The automatic factory and the assembly line without human agents are only so far ahead of us as is limited by our willingness to put such a degree of effort into their engineering as was spent, for example in the development of the technique of radar in the Second World War. […]

I have said that this new development has unbounded possibilities for good and for evil. For one thing, it makes the metaphorical dominance of the machine, as imagined by Samuel Butler, a most immediate and non-metaphorical problem. […]

There is no rate of pay at which a United states pick and shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel as an excavator. The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. […]

[T]aking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that is worth anyone’s money to buy. The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling.

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write this is in 1947, and I am compelled to say that is a very slight hope.

This was written 65 years ago, and it seems prescient now. One might argue that enhancements to humans themselves will allow them to stay ahead of the machines by producing intellectual activity instead of moving matter around in standardized ways. However, even in the unlikely event that all humans can produce enough informational product of value to make a living, it’s not clear how such a virtualized economy would work, including ownership of the intellectual property comprising original work. Maybe, at the end of the day, all we have left to sell is the last bits of our privacy, including our thoughts and emotions. Given the trajectory of technological evolution, it seems like a good idea to entertain Wiener’s idea of a “society based on values other than buying or selling.”


[1] Kathrin, Hille. “Foxconn Looks to a Robotic Future.“Financial Times. 1 2011: <

[2] Ford, Martin. The Lights In The Tunnel, Automation, Accelerating Technology And The Economy Of The Future. Acculant Publishing, 2010. 3-4. Print

[3] Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics or control and communication in the animal and the machine. 2nd. Edition Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1961. 27-29. Print.


We will fall as a nation if we outsource all our manufacturing to any country that will invest the money into automation. Humans cannot compete with machine that work 24/7. No breaks no unions, just performing perfectly to spec.
It will only be a matter of time before those same machine will be put to use making weapons of war. Those weapons are becoming automated as well. The winner will be the country that can turn those weapons out faster. This is our future, where the winners are also the losers as those same automated weapons will be turned on its own populace. Very sad, I weep for mankind.

By W Hansson on Nov 25, 2012 at 11:31am

I apologize for all spelling and grammar errors in advance and for splitting post into two parts.


Those economists who are “unthinking” about this alleged “problem” of automation are right. I found it puzzling that so many people actually don’t understand economy at all, as well as direction it is always heading towards.

First of all, economy is about allocating resources IN ORDER TO serve the needs of people. We are usually concentrated only on first part of that and often forget about the second. It is so, becuase we still are very dependant on much that is manufactured and we tend to think that humans needs are only material. However in developed nations a lot of production is treated as given and not very important in bigger context. Take agriculture for example. In theory it is a pillar of everything. Without it there is no economy. Yet it is miniscule in comparison to other sectors. Both in terms of employment and revenues in relation to GDP. Yet it produces so much so cheap, that developed nations are more threatend by obesity than anything else. How come it is not most important and how come we don’t have problems with unemployment becuase of its advancement?

Industry? It is the next pillar of everything as it seems. Yet its share in GDP shrinks and shrinks, despite the fact that it produces more and more. It hires less and less, but unemployment is not rising.

So where is everything going? Where economy is developing? Well, its true you cannot have development without previous two, but they are just the beginning. They are the basis of something much more important: services. Partially those services are dependant on needs of industry and agriculture, so atuomatization is going to reshape them too. However the essence of services is something different - it is, generally speaking, contact of one human with another human.

It is sometimes difficult to grasp. We are so obssessed with production, resources, that we just ignore simple fact, that those means are supposed to serve the needs of the people. And they do. However once basic needs are secured, different arise. The more sophisticated economy is, the more human-oriented it is. I could name various examples of serivces no machine can truly provide. Sure, machines can in theory do them too, but at certain level of wealth our needs evolve beyond mere efficency and are taking place of all those, where previously efficency was more important (ecological food anyone?). It is so simply becuase we can afford it.

For example lets take shopping. We want it to take as little time and effort as possible, because we have different things to do - like earn money in work - and this is just a necessary task. Going to grocery isn’t fascinating, meeting with staff and other buyers is just needless. However at some point this changes. Yes, I don’t need a human to, for instance, cut my hair, but what if I wanted to? Yes, this painting is beatifull, but it wasn’t done by a human. Yes, computer plays chess better, but there is no joy in that, when on the other side there is no fellow man. Yes, those flowers were grown in automated farm, but I want human to organize them in some pattern. Or even better-human to plant them with most crude methods first. I don’t need automated staff in restaurant, I want human one. And while we are at it - cheff too!  Not machine, but human, precisely becuase he is going to do this less efficently, but with more autencity. No, it won’t eleminate machines, because they will be those, who enable humans to do wastefull things. But it also means that machines won’t eliminate human labor.

What does it mean to be rich? It means, that you have enough resources to “waste” them on less and less objectively important needs. Do you think you need internet? A car? A cellphone? A book? Or even a house? No, the fact is you don’t. You need shelter at most, basic nutrition and enough space as to reproduce. You don’t even need to be healthy, because you have to live only long enough as to pass your genes. Yet we left this type of “economy” behind long time ago. Why? Precisely because our needs evolve into less important ones. And the less important they are the more sophisticated economy has to be to fulfill them.

We forget, that the needs of a man are what fuels the economy. Without him there is no economy. And only part of this needs is servicable better by machines. There won’t be any structural unemployment, that’s impossible. Machines will be doing better what machines have to, humans are not in danger. The only way such unemployment would be created would be if society of very low development level would be radically modernized by fruits of automated civilization, so that it wouldn’t be able to reshape itself fast enough to match those changes. But even so, the end result would be the same, it would be only the process of modernization that would be disruptive.

By Sulfur on Nov 25, 2012 at 5:56pm


Think about the internet. Look at internet celebrities. They are humans. They are providing content for other humans. Its value lays in fact, that they are doing it, not somebody else. They are sharing their own experience. They exchange. They serve others needs, even create them by mere existence. Its funny, I know, but only a human could make Gangnam Style video. There would be no point of machines doing it. And there would be no point of selling or buying it by machines. Lolcats as vehicle for business-it IS ridicolous. Yet true.

In fully automated economy only fraction of people will earn becuase they work in traditional way-in production, management, science. Contributing to pillars of everything else. And therefore they will be incredible rich. Most of us will be making living from goofing around in todays terms, taking revenue from those guys and passing it over to the rest, giving them services based on genuity of human experience.

The only way this would not happen would be in scenario, when AI’s would take over. Still, even if their intelligence would be grater than ours, the laws of economics stay the same, certain things would be done cheaper and more efficently by us. Humans at most would not be the top dogs anymore, but they still would be able to serve in certain minor sectors of economy thanks to specifics of our brains, which are “AI’s” in their own right. And still we would thrive and most propably livie much better lives in much bigger numbers than today. Because maybe our share would be small as our usefulness and thus political power, but economy would be homongous in comparison to today’s situation.

This is fictional scenario. Automation, which is not as fictional, has no such impact on civilization.

This whole problem of thinking about economy only in terms of efficency is directly taken from communism. Only in this faulty theory there is some kind of fixed value on work and products, ignoring the fact that it is personal marginal utilty that counts, not some abstract objective value. Price system, the law of supply and demand is like a bullet into the head of this ridicolous idea. For somebody one car is worthless, but he wants piece of cake. For somebody else piece of cake is worthless, but he wants a car. Its that simple. Subjectivity of economic exchange is what makes all fears of automation baseless.

Money, as effect of exchange, is best understood when seen as proof of community service. Humans serve fellow humans needs, and as a proof that they have done so, they receive from them a banknote. Then they can show other people this banknote as a proof that they served community and receive services in the same way they provided them to the other men.

Automatization of work occurs gradually in certain sectors of economy, so there is no reason why it would cause unemployment. As I said-the only way this would happen is if overnight not only means of production would become independent of man’s will, but also their ownership would be passed to themselves. Then its simply fact of creating complately separate economy, serving needs of those machines only. But what will serve ours? Well, we would have to build everything from scratch again. If they would allow us, that is.

In extreme examples of futuristic economy everything becomes to us today - counterintuitive. But its still exactly the same economy with law of supply and demand. For instance if really this structural unemployment would arise, what would happen? The need would arise from those people to have some kind of job. The others would also have the need to help them and measn to do so. It would work at first like charity. Then it would took the form I described above. Those with wealth would simply hire others to do stuff. Wastefull stuff. Like puring a coffe to your cup. Just. Because. You. Can. Afford. It.

So in essence “Weiners idea” is not an idea at all. It is logicall progression of civilizational development under capitalist regime. We don’t have to change anything, we just have to remember why capitalism works and what are its roots. Its a shame, that today everyone, and I mean virtually everyone except some really small minority of obscure scholars remembers from what word we derive term “capitalism”. Its from “capita”, not “capital”. Capita, that means “head” in latin. That means ability to think how we can help each other, so others would feel compelled to help us too via mutual exchange and interdependence. Sadly, socialist doctrine has poisoned our thinking about economy, so most of us udnerstand is as some kind of malicious scheme. Hence “capitalism” is unaviodably paired with “capital” as in “money” or “savings”, often also understood as “something we took from others”. Thus leading to such misinterpretations of technological development as presented in this blog entry.

We don’t need change of values. We have to remember their true meaning and allow them to do their job.

By Sulfur on Nov 25, 2012 at 6:00pm

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