Norbert Wiener on automation and unemployment



As a part of my work on the "Can we know what to do about AI?" project for MIRI, I looked at mathematician Norbert Wiener's predictions about the impact of automation on society, and how he acted based on these predictions.

I already wrote about Wiener's "Sorcerer's Apprentice" type concerns about the dangers of automation, which parallel MIRI's concerns and Eliezer's concerns about AI risk. But Wiener was also concerned that automation would cause unemployment.

Coincidentally, immediately after I investigated this, Eliezer wrote The Robots, AI, and Unemployment Anti-FAQ, which argues against the position that Wiener held.

I found a recent paper titled Some Notes on Wiener’s Concerns about the Social Impact of Cybernetics, the Effects of Automation on Labor, and “the Human Use of Human Beings” which summarizes Wiener's views on automation and unemployment and how he acted based on them.

Wiener's prediction

Wiener believed that unless countermeasures were taken, automation would render low-skilled workers unemployable, precipitating an economic depression of far greater magnitude than the Great Depression of the 1930s:

Wiener voiced his reservations about the potential impact of the new technology on working people in every business and industry, [saying] the second, cybernetic, industrial revolution “is [bound] to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions [until] the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that it is worth anyone’s money to buy.”


“It is perfectly clear that [automation] will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which…the depression of the [nineteen] thirties will seem a pleasant joke. This depression will ruin many industries—possibly even the industries which have taken advantage of the new potentialities.…”

What Wiener did based on his prediction

Wiener believed that the problem that he foresaw was so great that he considered giving top priority to mitigating it:

“I wondered whether I had not got into a moral situation in which my first duty might be to speak to others concerning material which could be socially harmful.”

He attempted to network with labor unions so as to mitigate the problem:

Early in the postwar period, Wiener began an active outreach to organized labor. He made contact with union leaders, but he could not impress union officials the seriousness of the challenges posed by automation. The experience left him frustrated and strongly suspecting that labor leaders had a limited view of the coming realities of automation and few tools for dealing with his larger questions about the future of labor itself. 


Wiener’s outreach to labor never resulted in the coordinated planning and struggle he knew would be needed to prepare societies for the coming age of automation.

Assessing Wiener's prediction

Wiener was correct that automation would put some workers out of work in the near term:

And, beginning in the 1960s, the numbers of American industrial workers began their historic decline. In the first wave, more than a million factory workers lost their jobs to automation, including 160,000 members of Walter Reuther’s United Automobile Workers union.

However, at a macro-level, and over large time scales, automation doesn't seem to have increased unemployment nearly as much as Wiener seems to have believed. The graph of unemployment from 1950 until present gives the impression that at the time when Wiener expressed his concerns, unemployment hovered around 6%, whereas in later decades it's hovered around 7%. It's interesting that there appears to have been a slight increase, but this could be attributable to outsourcing to foreign countries rather than to automation, and the absolute unemployment rate is very low compared with the 20% unemployment rate from the Great Depression. 

As Eliezer said in his recent post

Conventional economic theory says [long term unemployment due to automation] shouldn't happen. Suppose it costs 2 units of labor to produce a hot dog and 1 unit of labor to produce a bun, and that 30 units of labor are producing 10 hot dogs in 10 buns. If automation makes it possible to produce a hot dog using 1 unit of labor instead, conventional economics says that some people should shift from making hot dogs to buns, and the new equilibrium should be 15 hot dogs in 15 buns. On standard economic theory, improved productivity - including from automating away some jobs - should produce increased standards of living, not long-term unemployment.

Wiener seems not to have assimilated conventional economic theory. Specifically, he seems to have been unattuned to the existence of equilibrating influences. As Robin Hanson wrote in his post on Eventual Futures:

[A] common pattern [is]: project forward a current trend to an extreme, while assuming other things don’t change much, and then recommend an action which might make sense if this extreme change were to happen all at once soon.

This is usually a mistake. The trend may not continue indefinitely. Or, by the time a projected extreme is reached, other changes may have changed the appropriate response. Or, the best response may be to do nothing for a long time, until closer to big consequences. Or, the best response may be to do nothing, ever – not all negative changes can be profitably resisted.

At least with the benefit of hindsight, Wiener's predictions appear naive.

Where did Wiener go wrong?

Wiener seems to have gone wrong in relying on one relatively strong argument as opposed to many weak arguments. The argument "if machines start doing the labor that low skilled workers are qualified to do, then their employers will fire them, and they won't have jobs" may have seemed strong from the inside. But arguments that feel strong from the inside are often wrong.

Wiener could have done better by giving more weight to conventional wisdom, by trying harder to understand why others didn't share his concerns (which might have resulted in more exposure to conventional economic theory), and by doing a more detailed study of the historical impact of technological innovations on employment. 

In Chapter 2 of Nate Silver's book "The Signal and the Noise", Silver describes Philip Tetlock's study of expert political judgment, and Tetlock's findings about characteristics of relatively successful political expert predictors. Two characteristics that he highlights as helpful are

  • Being multidisciplinary — Incorporating ideas from different disciplines.
  • Being empirical — Relying more on observation than on theory.

If Wiener had approached the question of whether automation will lead to large scale unemployment in a more multidisciplinary and empirical way, he might have made a better prediction.