Science  /  Antecedent

Guaranteed Income? 14th Grade? Before AI, Tech Fears Drove Bold Ideas.

Three-quarters of a century before artificial intelligence concerns, rapid advances in automation prompted panic about mass unemployment—and radical solutions.

Three-quarters of a century before our collective angst over the exponential growth of artificial intelligence, rapid advances in another form of new technology took the country by surprise and prompted panic about mass unemployment — and calls for policymakers to do something about it.

Automation was to the post-World War II era what AI is to our time. It wasn’t always well understood, but it was widely feared. Leaders of labor and industry warned that “electronic brains” would soon take over the jobs of office clerks, accountants and other white-collar workers, and a 1946 Fortune cover story predicted the factory worker would soon be obsolete.

Almost two decades later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a 14-member commission of academics, business executives and union leaders to come up with solutions. The commission’s recommendations were radical, including a basic income for all families, free public education through grade 14 and the guarantee of full employment.

The proposals were ultimately shelved amid economic shifts and political caution. But as a similar array of political and business leaders debates how to cope with AI today — the Biden administration is expected to release an executive order on AI regulation Monday, and tech executives and civil groups are meeting this week in Britain for a summit on AI’s dangers — the recommendations suggest the kind of bold action that may actually be required to cope with the immense challenges posed by AI.

In 1946, Ford Motor Company’s vice president of manufacturing, Delmar Harder, instructed his engineers, “Give us more of that automatic business, that automation.” With this command, Harder is credited with coining the term that would define America’s postwar industrial boom.

The automation revolution following World War II resulted from applications of the mathematical language described by Norbert Wiener in his best-selling 1948 book “Cybernetics,” involving a new science of communication and control that allowed machines to talk to one another. But Wiener soon grew alarmed at the real-world consequences of his theories. Just as current MIT professor Max Tegmark recently organized his counterparts in a letter calling for a moratorium on AI development, in 1949 Wiener — also an MIT professor — sought allies among corporate and labor leaders to confront the dangers of automation.