Recently the New York Times published an excerpt from a long-lost article that Norbert Wiener wrote in 1949. Originally solicited by the oddball Sunday Times editor, Lester Markel,it was mysteriously either lost by Markel or abandoned by Wiener, or both. In any event, a researcher recently found the among Wiener’s papers at the MIT archives. In the piece Wiener about “what the ultimate machine age is likely to be.” He expounded future automated systems well beyond what then existed and about smart computers and smart gauges that would integrate one machine with another machine various manufacturing processes.
Although he did not foresee the economic shift in the value of information versus manufacturing, the revolution he did envision was profound and his predictions dire: “These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the
present basis of industry, and for reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty. . . Moreover if we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us. In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.”
Would that our writers and our thinkers and our leaders of corporations today, instead of blithely hailing the onslaught of robots and marveling at increased productively and the brilliance of our technology, had some of the compassion and wisdom that Wiener possessed in 1949.