Automatic bookkeepers and electronic vacuum cleaners are all very well, we feel. But is it inevitably going to happen some time or other that humanity will let itself in for a heap of social trouble with the robots?
Computers and technical automation in the factories have introduced an upset comparable with the Industrial Revolution of the last century. We are still merely at the beginning of the Electronic Revolution. But unlike the industrial one, the new stage of evolution towards automation has been recognized for what it is in good time. It is being attentively observed and people are more or less prepared for the problems it will bring with it.
Essentially, they are the same problems as in the nineteenth century: man is replaced by machines - what will happen to man? Only this time it is not only the workers who are affected. Electronic computers are forcing their way into practically all sectors of commerce and industry: they can take the places of engineers and bookkeepers, warehousemen, bank tellers, testers and statisticians, managers, salesmen and station masters. In a few short years, thousands of people will either have to look for new professions in which there is no electronic competition or join the line of applicants for unemployment assistance. Many hundreds of office workers will have no alternative but to return to school, this time to learn how to live with electronic computers. Tens of thousands of skilled foremen will have to learn how to get along with electronic colleagues.
In the preface to a book called "Thinking Machines," Max Bense, a philosopher, wrote: "The decisive technical event of our age is not the invention of the atomic bomb, but the creation of the great mathematical machines which, perhaps with some exaggeration, have also sometimes been called thinking machines. With their advent, technology has made deeper inroads into our social and intellectual life than ever before. We can in fact without hesitation speak of a new epoch in the evolution of the world of technics or of technical civilization."
That was written in 1953. Events since then have shown clearly that Bense's views were quite correct. Even if the new problems confronted have not been thoroughly mastered, intellectually or in any other way, their social effects - in western Europe at any rate - have been realized in good time. The change-over to automatic electronic machines has not caused any unemployment so far. But it is merely the beginning of the revolution. The case is different in the United States, where uncontrolled and excessive automation has already thrown a considerable number of people out of work.