Vernor Vinge on Technological Unemployment

What does the future hold, not only for the great hoard of folk who may not keep ahead of the ever-widening techno-chasm, but also the banks of thinkers/creators who have until now been busy at encoding the Book of Life?

So you can imagine a civilization in which there are these bright little sparks of human level intuition and creativity and insight that are separated by vast stretches of algorithmically accessible problems. And there’s a lot of occupations and businesses, where the successful insight on the part of management is figuring out how to do all the stuff you can do without those expensive people, and then what remains are those bright little spots where you need to have the people.

via Vernor Vinge on Technological Unemployment.



  1. I’ve put a bit of thought into this issue, and I think we’re going to see an upswing in small business start-ups, as people try to cope with these changes. A large percentage of these will fail, which will likely plunge more and more westerners into the scale of poverty we’ve seen in less-developed regions of the world.
    Unless governments put a great deal of effort into protecting these populations, in the post-industrial world, most industrialized regions will likely fail.

    1. Right on. I think this mostly underway. Governments among the Big 20 industrialized nations will only protect the bare minimum of industrial workers. Folks will continue to go into debt to either get an education and/or start a business. Even more high level, petit bourgeois bureaucratic functions–like accounting and certain aspects of finance–are being outsourced to countries like Brazil and Argentina. So I think that we will see this among more than just industrial workers.

  2. Do you think we’ll likely see a change in economic models to compensate for the gradual decline in personal income? This is particularly tricky in places like the US, where it’s fashionable to attribute poverty to laziness, thus vilifying anyone who could become a casualty of the purge of labor employment. I foresee that this will continue to drive income inequality toward the extremes.

    P.S. I originally read this article about a year ago. In that time, I have continued to think about the impact of this, and possible ways of coping, as a society. It is certainly a grave concern, and a worthy topic for deliberation.

    1. I am not sure we will see a change in economic models. Or better, I feel like any changes that happen will occur beyond the eyes of the public. In one sense, we did have a change already in economic models: we transformed from industrial capitalism (centered around the closed sectors of manufacture) to financial capitalism (located within the ever changing networks of market instruments).

      The invisible hand of the market that so many folks invoke does not work in the new model because it favored the closed national systems. We are now globalized. Those toward the extremes of poverty compete not only with each other but with machines/computers.

      The question is whether there is a form of cooperative movement that would lead to us exchanging the status quo. I’m just not sure. What do you think? Are you considering a particular kind of economic model that might take the place of global financial capitalism?

      1. I’m working on a book about it actually. The idea is that over the coming decades, unemployment rates will climb far past the point where it is able to sustain the population, while productivity will stay high. It is in the best interest of business owners and manufacturers, that people still have the ability to purchase goods. I am building a tax reform structure that would make taxation contingent upon the number of employees per unit of productivity. If your company is productive and profitable, and you have no employees because you automated, you are going to pay a higher tax rate. This tax will be less than the combined wages of the employees that would have been required to maintain the same level of productivity. However, since automation is an expensive, one-time cost + materials, the business owner is still going to be making large payments to whatever company provided the equipment used to automate. During that payment process, the tax burden will be placed on the company providing the equipment. This tax will be used to cover the cost of social programs (e.g. 3d printers, robotics). These social programs will provide the support to the population, that will keep them buying things, which keeps our companies in business, and our economy turning.

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