February 10, 2013

The challenge of automation

Stewart A. Denenberg, Technology and Society

— Living close to Lake Champlain, we know about the tension surrounding cormorants who feed on the fish that are eaten by the fish that sports fisherfolks like to catch.

Are the cormorants an invasive species? Loosestrife, the beautiful purple plant with the electric purple hue, is classed as an invasive species because it will crowd out some of the other plant species considered to be native. This could mean that birds that depended on the native seeds for food will have to migrate elsewhere and animals that depended on those birds become the dominoes in a cascading sequence of cause and effect.

But let’s not forget the ultimate invasive species: mankind. We move around a lot and do have a habit of trying to modify our environment so that it’s more to our liking, and often these changes are not for the better. When we use technology to make these changes and these changes create and destroy jobs, we call it automation.

I have recently been reading some books that deal with the problem of automation. One of them is “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” by Martin Ford. In this and the next column, I will be discussing Ford’s views on the problem and some proposed solutions.

I received “The Lights in the Tunnel” as a Kindle e-book, so it’s ironic that while it attempts to explain and suggest remedies for humans losing jobs to automation, in fact it contributes somewhat to the problem. How many jobs are replaced when Amazon wirelessly sends me this book? Depending on how far back in the chain we go, we had to get in our car, drive to a bookstore to purchase the book and then drive back home. From the supply side, there were trucks driven by people delivering these books to store, not to mention the owner and the employees of that store.

So lots of folks are impacted when technology enters the process. Technology acts like an invasive species, which comes into a dynamically balanced environment and crowds out one or more species from their niche. There’s no question that it changes the environment. Does this make things better or worse? That’s the question.

The challenge of automation is that while it’s fairly easy to identify the problem; it’s extremely difficult to propose useful solutions. However, a good diagnosis improves the odds for a useful prescription. The problem is that new technology destroys some jobs and creates others; in the long term we don’t know whether more jobs get created or destroyed, so we cannot judge a net gain or loss for society as a whole.

One of the claims made by Ford is that as technology grows exponentially so will automation, and although most economists seem to think that the net effect of automation will create more jobs than it destroys, the author strongly disagrees.

But what exactly is “exponential growth”? Ray Kurzweil gives an excellent example of exponential growth in his talk found online at where he points out that if a process is only 2 percent complete at the end of the year, but its progress is exponential, there’s no reason to fret as it will be completed within seven years.

It works like this: At the end of year one due to an exponential growth that doubles each year, the project is 2 percent complete; at the end of year two, the project is 4 percent complete — doesn’t sound too good does it? But at the end of year three, it’s 8 percent complete; by year four, it’s 16 percent complete; year five, it’s 32 percent; year 6, 64 percent; and by year seven, it’s been completed!

According to Sigmund Freud as well many other philosophers and social scientists, one’s ability to love and work is linked to one’s degree of happiness and satisfaction with life.

As Freud said, “Love and and love..what else is there really?” — so if we really need work to supply meaning to our lives and be happy, and automation will destroy more jobs than it creates as Martin claims, then we’d better start planning for some radical economic disruption.

Next time: Ford’s diagnosis and prescription to the challenge of automation.

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at