After Automation

In his famous essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” John Maynard Keynes wrote the following words about life in a largely automated society:

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well. [1]

When Keynes originally wrote these words, casual readers may have envisioned that most people would spend their days in such a society lounging around with little of real interest to do, since machines would take care of essentially everything. Perpetual boredom probably seemed like a real possibility.

Estimates today about the aftermath of widespread automation include Jeremy Rifkin’s belief that there will be significant growth of the non-profit sector [e.g. 2, 3], and concerns mentioned by Martin Ford [4, 5], Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee [6] about the potential for spikes in economic inequality. These views tend to focus on the future of real world human activities in the aftermath of automation.

In this post I will focus instead on the fact that virtual and augmented reality technologies are soon going to change the entire context within which we view Keynes’ statement above. As these technologies achieve their promise over the next three decades, humanity will gain access to a vast universe of engaging and challenging virtual world experiences, which automation will provide us with significant time to explore. The most surprising thing about the majority of jobs and social activities of the future is thus not what they will be but where they will be!

Machines Won’t Make Humans Obsolete

While many people today are very concerned about the ongoing automation of jobs, few seem to be as concerned about the fact that human buying and selling decisions are also being automated and/or simplified as well.

For example, many banks offer automated bill paying services for their customers, and automatic highway toll paying systems are popular in many countries.   In addition to this, given the tremendous amount of data available to corporations from internet “cookies” and the like, many retail buying and selling tendencies can be estimated by computer programs today with a reasonable degree of certainty.

As there is effort involved in making buying and selling decisions (especially for non-discretionary items) it shouldn’t necessarily be shocking that labor saving inventions are reducing the need for human intervention in this area.

However, this fact should also give us pause because it means that technology is doing more than simply freeing humanity from “pressing economic cares,” as Keynes’ statement above describes it. Technology instead seems to be in the process of “freeing” humanity from essentially all real world economic cares, whether pressing or not.

This implies two obvious possibilities. The first possibility is that technology is paving the way for humans to make new types of decisions in worlds other than the “real world” we are familiar with.  The second possibility is that technology is leading towards a “robot stand-in economy” in which most humans live in poverty on the sidelines of global infrastructure (due to technological unemployment), while machines mimic the production, consumption and commerce of an Industrial Age economy for no discernable purpose.

Clearly, the latter possibility seems extremely unlikely, especially when we take into account the fact that tools and technologies have generally been created over time to increase convenience for individuals or groups by improving their access to certain experiences. Yet in contrast to this, a “robot stand-in economy” would be one in which humanity’s access to experiences has been drastically reduced. This implies that although most of the individual technologies that lead to such an economy would presumably increase human convenience, the aggregate effect of all of these technologies would somehow be a large reduction in human convenience.

I find technology to be instead signaling that the “real world” economic activity society focuses so much effort on today is likely to be regarded as a quaint distraction in the future. Technology appears to be gradually enabling individuals to focus on activities that won’t require traditional real world labor and won’t require them to make commercial decisions about real world goods and services.

In Keynes’ day, such activities would have been very limited in scope, as technology simply wasn’t advanced enough to provide very compelling substitutes for most real world experiences. However, today technology is nearly there, and is indicating to us as it progresses that most human activities in an automated society are likely to take place in the virtual world.



[1] Keynes, John Maynard, Essays in Persuasion, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1963

[2] Rifkin, Jeremy, The End of Work, New York: Penguin, 1995

[3] Rifkin, Jeremy, The Zero Marginal Cost Society, New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2014

[4] Ford, Martin, The Lights in the Tunnel, USA: Acculant Publishing, 2009

[5] Ford, Martin, Rise of the Robots, New York: Basic Books, 2015

[6] Brynjolfsson, Erik and McAfee, Andrew, The Second Machine Age, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014


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