Is the world’s economic framework in a death spiral due to automation?

Jonathan Kolber
4 min readSep 5, 2017

It approaches a certainty as time passes. We’re talking decades; not centuries.

There is a drumbeat of bizarre optimism about job creation among many futurists, and most economists — including people whom I otherwise greatly respect. The essence of their message is: waves of automation have ALWAYS created more jobs than they destroyed. Almost all of those new jobs arrived in professions that no one had imagined. Therefore, they argue, it must be this way yet again.

One of my favorite cartoons of all time shows an economist, walking on a straight road. Looking into the distance, he sees that the road continues. “You see”, he says, pointing ahead, “the road continues as far as we can see.” He misses the fact that the road is interrupted by a chasm, directly in front of him.

I want to debate them, and pose questions like these:

  1. Has there ever before in history been a force like deep learning? (These are AIs, and the robots they control, that teach themselves how to master complex tasks. They do so far more quickly than humans could teach, or learn.)
  2. Have there ever before been machines that learn new skills through observation of humans, then — through trial and error — perfecting their performance until mastery; mastery that can then be transferred to other machines on demand?
  3. Have there ever before been sensors and actuators capable of granting to robots the full range of human senses and motion control, and beyond?
  4. The range of competencies of such machines is still narrow, but widening rapidly. There is no good reason to expect this to slow, or in fact to do anything other than expand exponentially.
  5. How can the majority of humans possibly compete with such machines, on a cost/benefit basis? (Universally applied by accountants.)
  6. What will happen to the millions of drivers and store clerks whose jobs are being automated away as we speak?

When I pose questions like these in private conversations, the responses often seem to more closely resemble what I’d expect from priests than from technologists. (i.e., there is a way that things “must be”, and therefore observations must comport themselves to “the truth”. )

I suspect that they don’t see a solution to this dilemma, and the prospect of a largely jobless future terrifies them. It’s too alien to their Scarcity Game-based way of thinking, so they deny it. (Admittedly, the implications of such are world-shaking.) But that’s just my “armchair psychologist” opinion.

The Youtube short film, Humans Need Not Apply does an excellent job of explaining the basis for a jobless future. It’s so good that, early in my book, I invite skeptics to STOP READING and watch that film. (My theory: if it doesn’t convince them, there’s no way I can do so with words, and if it does then they’ve saved a lot of time.)

How, then, does this lead to a death spiral? I can do no better than to quote Quora commentator Jeff Ronne:

“The trend of technology replacing virtually every worker destroys the model of capitalism. Capitalism assumes that economic production chiefly employees (sic) people not machines. Workers derive personal wealth from employment. When the majority of goods and services are produced by machines without human labor then the capitalist model falls completely apart.”

Ronne is not some guy in a diner. He had a 30+ year career in Silicon Valley developing exactly this kind of technology. And he’s far from alone in such concerns. Read Prof. Jerry Kaplan of Stanford, or computer scientist Marshall Brain — one of the earliest to sound the alarm, and propose a solution.

Jobs aren’t just source of the income upon which workers depend. They also give meaning, dignity — a sense that one MATTERS to one’s community. This is why loss of job is a major risk factor for suicide, and why, when companies like IBM have layoffs, they mandate weeks of counseling before granting severance packages.

Capitalism, and all other historical “isms” (socialism, communism, fascism, …) are rooted in the Scarcity Game. We desperately need a NEW, viable alternative, rooted in a sustainable Abundance Game. Until we have such a model society, functioning well and demonstrating readiness to replace the antiquated models, we will face a precarious future.

My book proposes one such model, Celebrationism. It has been well-received, with endorsements by leaders from diverse fields. Other Abundance-based models are also possible. My allies and I happen to believe that nothing will so unite a society in service to its highest virtues as frequent celebration of expressions of those virtues. We should celebrate great accomplishment, thereby inspiring more such service, in an endless virtuous cycle.

Admittedly, our proposal — and other such proposals — are not able to address the tsunami of technological unemployment coming in the 2020s. We need interim solutions. I am pleased to report that a Celebration Society ally has brought forth a NEW way to accomplish universal basic income (UBI) that addresses all of my concerns with conventional UBI, explained here: Guaranteed Mirage Income?

We expect to publish a paper explaining the new approach by early 2018.



Jonathan Kolber

I think about how to create societies of sustainable, technological abundance. My book, A Celebration Society, offers one solution. It has been well received.