A Warning from the Past: The Rise of Cybernation


In late March 1968, just 4 days before his assassination in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C. In his speech, titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Dr. King said:

…one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.

There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, “Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away.”

Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. And I would like to deal with the challenges that we face today as a result of this triple revolution that is taking place in the world today.

It is fascinating to read, almost 50 years later, Dr. King’s reference to a revolution of automation and cybernation. As with so many thinkers with long time horizons, he was referencing something that has required several decades of technical innovation, primarily in computing power and digitization, to reach an inflection point — namely, the potential for large-scale application of robotics and artificial intelligence and the immense societal transformation this will bring about. (Note: you can read his entire speech here: Stanford’s MLK Research Institute.)

The “triple revolution” to which Dr. King refers is a report written by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution, a group of notable writers, academics and engineers, who wanted to raise awareness of, and to influence public policy regarding, three issues they believed of paramount importance to the world as a whole: the human rights revolution, the threat of advances in weapons technology, and a cybernation revolution (The Triple Revolution, March 1964).

Of the cybernation revolution they wrote:

The fundamental problem posed by the cybernation revolution in the U.S. is that it invalidates the general mechanism so far employed to undergird people’s rights as consumers. Up to this time economic resources have been distributed on the basis of contributions to production, with machines and men competing for employment on somewhat equal terms. In the developing cybernated system, potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings. As machines take over production from men, they absorb an increasing proportion of resources while the men who are displaced become dependent on minimal and unrelated government measures—unemployment insurance, social security, welfare payments. These measures are less and less able to disguise a historic paradox: That a substantial proportion of the population is subsisting on minimal incomes, often below the poverty line, at a time when sufficient productive potential is available to supply the needs of everyone in the U.S.

The existence of this paradox is denied or ignored by conventional economic analysis. The general economic approach argues that potential demand, which if filled would raise the number of jobs and provide incomes to those holding them, is underestimated. Most contemporary economic analysis states that all of the available labor force and industrial capacity is required to meet the needs of consumers and industry and to provide adequate public services: Schools, parks, roads, homes, decent cities, and clean water and air. It is further argued that demand could be increased, by a variety of standard techniques, to any desired extent by providing money and machines to improve the conditions of the billions of impoverished people elsewhere in the world, who need food and shelter, clothes and machinery and everything else the industrial nations take for granted.

There is no question that cybernation does increase the potential for the provision of funds to neglected public sectors. Nor is there any question that cybernation would make possible the abolition of poverty at home and abroad. But the industrial system does not possess any adequate mechanisms to permit these potentials to become realities. The industrial system was designed to produce an ever-increasing quantity of goods as efficiently as possible, and it was assumed that the distribution of the power to purchase these goods would occur almost automatically. The continuance of the income-through jobs link as the only major mechanism for distributing effective demand—for granting the right to consume—now acts as the main brake on the almost unlimited capacity of a cybernated productive system.

In a nutshell, their concern, and ours today I believe, is perhaps best summed up by the story (perhaps apocryphal) of a Ford executive showing the newest robots in a Ford assembly plant to the head of the autoworkers union and saying: “How are you going to get these robots to pay your union dues?” To which the union leader retorts: “How are you going to get your robots to buy your cars?”

With the advances in computing power, AI, cloud computing capacity, vision systems and, most potently, the ingenuity of countless entrepreneurs, I have no doubt that we will continue to see advances in automation/cybernation that will increasingly replace the humans in many “blue-collar” and “white-collar” jobs. True, there will be some jobs for those who make the robots and program them, but the number of such positions may well not match the mass employment levels of the past century.

The Triple Revolution paper, and recent books such as Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, raise important questions about how we organize ourselves both in the public and private sectors in a post-employment world. How do we maintain consumption levels in the face of chronic under-employment and declining (in real terms) wages? What will it mean to be a productive member of society? These are questions that requires a rate of innovation and thinking that begins to match the rate of technological innovation already well underway.