A Brief History of Automation

It wasn't always quite this threatening...

As a general principle of capitalist enterprises, every business is searching for a way to remove people from their operations. People are expensive, temperamental and difficult to control. They ask for vacations, slack off, sexually harass each other and generally cause chaos for companies.

Automation gives businesses what they want: lower costs, higher profits, increased productivity and far fewer headaches. Employers have understood this dynamic since the first machines arrived during the Industrial Revolution, and they've been utilizing automation ever since.

This has caused tensions with the people who are the targets of layoffs, and it also creates wider economic problems because, at the end of the day, it's people who buy things. If those people don't have incomes, they can't buy as much, which means those same companies can't make as much money.

The Historical Pattern of Automation and Adaptation

What's a business, or a worker, to do? Historically, the overall (highly simplified) pattern looks something like this:

  • New invention radically alters the balance of power between workers and owners.

  • Owners rapidly replace or downgrade workers with the leverage this new invention gives them.

  • Workers resist in the near-term (example: the Luddites), sometimes resulting in violence.

  • Businesses start to recognize limitations in the technology or realize they have to soften their stance to keep the money flowing.

  • Workers pick up skills that work for this new arrangement and start to replace their lost incomes.

  • Both sides adapt, and a new equilibrium is created...until the next invention shows up.

A Better Long-Term Solution

In previous eras, automation meant that jobs were replaced — but (in the long term, at least) it worked out for everyone. More jobs were created than replaced in the long run, and automation has undoubtedly saved countless hours of human labor from being wasted on pointless, repetitive tasks.

The examples of this type of automation are all over the place. During World War 2, people (mostly women) manually calculated shell trajectories, ideal bombing altitudes and all kinds of other data points needed for battle. That was a boring, difficult job and the inevitable errors that come from having people doing that kind of work by hand put lives at risk.

If you wanted to get cash out of a bank, it used to be a matter of dealing with a bank clerk, who had to do a whole bunch of manual writing and other...clerky...tasks before they could hand you your money. Then the ATM was created, which replaced that entire cycle of tasks for the people who worked at the bank.

The same could be said for people who pumped gas, used pickaxes in mines, and on and on and on. Automation has reshaped labor as technology progresses, with predictable responses from those who benefit and those who are hurt by it.

Not So Great in the Short-Term

The ugly truth is that the Luddites were largely correct about their short-term prospects: the textile machines designed to replace them did, in fact, replace them. There weren't any social safety nets, and anyone who had dedicated a large block of their lives to this work was in serious trouble.

Their response (smashing machinery and creating chaos for factory owners) was a rational one. They faced an existential crisis and responded in the only way that seemed effective. Unfortunately, they also lived in a time where the (British) government had zero issues with killing protesting workers on the spot, then arresting any survivors.

All this being said, it's for the best that textiles were automated. It allows for much faster, cheaper production and using people to do something that is so easily done by a machine is a waste of human potential. Eventually, textile workers found other ways to make a living and the world moved on from the Luddite cause.

This is the great balancing act we've had to play throughout history: workers get hurt (sometimes quite badly) in the short-term by increased automation, but long-term it tends to be for the best.

Humans Should Not Do Boring Jobs

Automating that kind of work is a good thing, even if it puts people out of a job. Can anyone seriously argue that their life would be enhanced if they had to pump gas all day? No, of course not. But it kept food in some people's fridges, and that's why they were viewed as important at all.

Rather than spending our time raising crops and assembling widgets by hand, we can now engage in work that means something to us. I think we can all agree that this has been a positive development.

The larger problem is not technological, but political. When governments and businesses feel no obligation to take care of workers who have been made redundant by new technologies, it creates a wide variety of serious, society-wide conflicts.

This is a much larger discussion that is beyond the scope of this guide, but the fact remains that technology is never neutral: it creates winners and losers. Who falls into each category and how the victors treat the vanquished both help determine whether a technological transition is a net positive or a net negative.

Enter Computers

Fast forward a bit from the days of the Luddites, and computers have continued this same dynamic. When we started to utilize computers for tasks that only require calculation (not creativity), we made our collective lives better because we could use our minds for things besides simple number crunching.

This style of automation—taking people out of the picture for tasks that require high speed and precision—has been the norm since the dawn of the Information Age. If the primary constraint on people is speed and/or precision, computers have largely taken their place.

The only limitation on automating like this is access to computing power, and that problem has been solved. Once you have the CPUs to do the task, it's just a matter of defining a clear set of steps (aka an algorithm) and putting it all into place.

Familiar Math

Knowing all this, it makes sense that people have been taken out of factories and factory-like environments. A very simple robot can do the same thing over and over again for a fixed cost and at high levels of precision and speed.

Robots in a factory can be given a small number of well-defined tasks and do those tasks much faster and better than a human. Even better (from a manager's perspective, at least), is the robots don't demand raises, ask for breaks or go on strike if they don't get paid enough.

Fortunately, computers were such a powerful general-purpose technology that they opened far more doors than they closed. A worker fired from a manufacturing plant can go online to search for other jobs, learn new skills, network, and so on. Losing your job to that kind of automation isn't the end of the world.

An Ominous Future

Anything that involves crunching numbers at crazy high speeds is the low-hanging fruit of computing. And that low-hanging fruit has been eaten for the most part. There will always be new applications for this kind of technology popping up, but as time goes on the returns get smaller and the capital required to take advantage of opportunities balloons.

It used to be that a person or two in a garage could use a computer to create a world-changing technology company. While there's always the off-chance something like that could still happen, this dynamic was possible because the aforementioned low-hanging fruit was still on the branch. Now taking advantage of tech-related opportunities, at least ones that involve actual innovation, requires more time, more money and more people.

As with most things in human history, this sort of equilibrium could not last forever. Disruptive technology inevitably shows up to change the landscape, and that's exactly what happened with the arrival of machine learning (ML).

Please note: This is a HIGHLY simplified version of events. There is a library worth of books out there about this and it's a supremely political subject, so don't crucify me for not including more details.

Key Points

  • There is a historical tension between business owners and workers over automation.

  • Business owners want to get rid of workers to pump up their bottom lines.

  • Workers don't want to get fired because they don't generally like to starve or be homeless.

  • Examples like those of the Luddites in Britain illustrate that workers have good reason to be wary in the short-term, but overall society is better off in the long-term.

  • Computers continued this dynamic but carried it over to tasks that required far more speed and precision than previous eras.

  • As with previous eras, computers have given workers new ways to make a living even if they get replaced by machines.

  • The low-hanging fruit of the Information Age is gone.

  • What's the next stage in the evolution of this story? Machine learning.

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