Automation: A Philosophical Challenge?

(The following throwback article comes from the archives of Research Management, the precursor to IRI’s award-winning journal, Research-Technology Management (RTM), and appeared in the March 1962 issue. It is based on a talk first presented at a meeting of the Convair-Fort Worth Management Club in April 1961)

“Automation, Automata, and Adam”

By Nisson A. Finkelstein, VP, Research, General Dynamics (1962)

One of my favorite stories is one due to the late Alben Barkley. The former Vice President used to tell of a poor mongrel dog in his boyhood town who was continually plagued by children tying tin cans to his tail. According to Barkley, it got so that every time this dog saw a tin can he’d back up to it.

I think that many of us concerned with automation often back up to the tin can embodied in the accusation that automation steals jobs and adds to unemployment. We back up to it with the hopeful and brave argument that it really creates more jobs than it eliminates. I don’t personally know whether this is true or not. I do know that many thousands of words, oral and written, have been addressed to this point and I suspect that readers of this journal have been exposed to a representative share of them.

One comment I will venture: there is something unacceptable and even revolting in the suggestion that we stifle the products of man’s ever-restless and fertile imagination. Knowledge does not lend itself to an ethical classification as good or evil; it is, instead, the manner in which this knowledge is exploited within the society that introduces problems of an ethical or moral nature. Automation, along with nuclear fission and fusion, cannot be ignored, or buried, or locked up, or wished away. It is rather for society to adjust itself to the knowledge generated within it in such a manner as to bring the most benefit to all its members; and particularly to alleviate the distress of any one segment receiving the brunt of any negative effects concomitant with application of this knowledge. In short, in the case of automation, I hope that we will vigorously apply the most advanced techniques available where they may be effectively utilized, while bearing and discharging the responsibility we have as members of a free democratic society to those who are displaced.

However, I would like to discuss not the economic aspects of automation’s social impact, but rather some of the philosophical implications. These latter impress me as quite significant, and I approach them through a line of thought that some of you may have heard before.

It goes this way. From the time that man first began to think about the problem until fairly recently, he believed that the earth was the center of the universe. It was not until the sixteenth century that the Polish astronomer Copernicus gave a convincing proof that the earth and other planets actually moved around the sun. The Italian scientist, Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600; and Galileo, forced to recant his scientific beliefs, bear historical witness to the fact that man did not easily accept the loss of prestige that was his under the geocentric theory.

While man could no longer believe after Copernicus that he was the center of the universe, he was certain that, after all, he was a very special form of life on this earth, originating in a very special way. And then came Darwin, in the middle of the nineteenth century, to say that man was only another stage in an evolutionary process that had begun with fish and most recently moved from apes. This truly rocked the world and led, among other things, to one of the most fantastic court trials in American history, the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial,” involving William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

But when the smoke had cleared and most of us had reluctantly accepted our hirsute origins, we still could believe that man was, in fact, quite different from the other animals in that he was rational in his thought processes. That is, we could until the turn of the century, when Sigmund Freud taught us that many of man’s actions derive from emotional sources and then are rationalized as an afterstep.

This brings us to the present, where we see ourselves revolving around a moderately bright star two-thirds of the way out from the center of a relatively unimpressive galaxy well off from the middle of the universe, a quite recent step in a long evolutionary process which will probably continue to advance the species beyond this stage, if we allow any specimens to survive the often irrational machinations of our emotion-driven mentality.

However, we say, whatever the rationale behind our mental processes, we are creative in our thinking, and no other animal or device has matched that. Or has it? The final blow, it would appear, and it is no wonder that so many react to it with furious protests, is the concept of advanced computers and automata performing creative work. While this is a matter of hot controversy, one which I do not choose to enter at this time, the arguments on the side of creative machine “thinking” are impressive. Let’s suppose they are true. What then is man’s mission in life? With automation, computers, automata, the whole panoply of modern science and technology removing the need for his physical and mental drudgery, perhaps even his creative mental efforts, where shall he turn for his work?

Let us approach the argument from another point of view. Of the three billion people on earth, roughly two-thirds exist on a subsistence level of 1500 calories per day or less. Life expectancy for the majority of the world’s population is about one-half that in the United States. In the face of these discouraging statistics, however, we have seen emerging during the past decade the technical capability for building a world in which the pangs of hunger will be virtually unknown, most common diseases eradicated, and life expectancy substantially increased. The world is still divided into the rich nations and the poor, the “have’s” and the “have-not’s,” but the secret is now out that one travels the road from poor to rich by industrialization; and that industrialization proceeds from a technological base; and that development of a technological base is not a matter of evolution over many generations, but rather of education over not too many years.

Thus, science and technology as a whole, and perhaps automation and automata in particular, may have given us the key to re-enter Eden, the Eden from which man was originally banished to eat bread by the sweat of his brow for all his living days. It could soon be within our power to eliminate most, if not all, the need for physical and even mental drudgery by a majority of the population. Whether or not you believe this to be an overly ambitious assumption, let us consider it for a moment. As the need for human labor, mental and physical, becomes progressively less, what shall we do with our new-found freedom? Less and less driven by the need to expend our energies and talents in gathering food, clothing and shelter, to what end shall we redirect these energies?

If we take our answer by extrapolation from the use of steadily increasing leisure over the past few decades, the result is one which I personally find discouraging. We would have some eighty hours a week of bowling, TV, Mickey Spillane and outboard hot-rods, with perhaps a smattering here and there of Homer’s Iliad, or The Red Badge of Courage (paperback edition, of course). While I have nothing against any of these activities in moderate amounts, they hardly add up to a worthy goal of existence for a being created in the image of God, a little lower than the angels.

May there not exist, then, a need for defining a new purpose in life for man? An alternative, one having little appeal for me, is that man is by his very nature amenable only to a life primarily filled with physical and mental drudgery; that having solved the basic problems of coping with his physical environment, his sole raison d’etre has been swept away; that he has, in fact, obsoleted himself.

There is another even more discouraging alternative. That we will devote to conflict, both “cold” and “hot,” the energy and capacity no longer needed to meet the requirements of life support. This is an all-too-real possibility in a society which today is pouring so much of itself into conflict in the midst of still existent hunger and privation throughout the world.

All this can add up to a rather bleak picture, but it need not. Within our grasp is a world in which men are freed from the treadmill of labor which for so long has been necessary for physical survival. We have only to apply with diligence and wisdom the fruits of modern science and technology, particularly those of automation, computers, and automata. Our modern Adam holds the key with which to reopen the gates of Eden, to enter a new golden age of man surpassing any that this earth has seen in the past. It is his choice to make. It is our choice to make. May we choose wisely. May we choose Life.


Reference: Finkelstein, N.A. (1962). “Automation, Automata, and Adam,” Research Management, Vol. V, No. 2, pp. 23-27.

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