The world is abuzz with talk of automation. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics seem set to transform the world of work. In the most advanced factories, companies like Tesla have been aiming for ‘lights-out’ production, in which fully automated work processes, no longer needing human hands, can run in the dark. Meanwhile, in the illuminated halls of robotics conventions, machines are on display that can play ping-pong, cook food, have sex and even hold conversations. Computers are not only developing new strategies for playing Go, but are said to be writing symphonies that bring audiences to tears. Dressed in white lab coats or donning virtual suits, computers are learning to identify cancers and will soon be developing legal strategies. Trucks are already barrelling across the us without drivers; robotic dogs are carrying military-grade weapons across desolate plains. Are we living in the last days of human toil? Is what Edward Bellamy once called the ‘edict of Eden’ about to be revoked, as ‘men’—or at least, the wealthiest among them—become like gods?footnote1

There are many reasons to doubt the hype. For one thing, machines remain comically incapable of opening doors or, alas, folding laundry. Robotic security guards are toppling into mall fountains. Computerized digital assistants can answer questions and translate documents, but not well enough to do the job without human intervention; the same is true of self-driving cars.footnote2 In the midst of the American ‘Fight for Fifteen’ movement, billboards went up in San Francisco threatening to replace fast-food workers with touchscreens if a law raising the minimum wage were passed. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the bill the ‘robot employment act’. Yet many fast-food workers in Europe already work alongside touchscreens and often earn better pay than in the us.footnote3 Is the talk of automation overdone?

In the pages of newspapers and popular magazines, scare stories about automation may remain just idle chatter. However, over the past decade, this talk has crystalized into an influential social theory, which purports not only to analyse current technologies and predict their future, but also to explore the consequences of technological change for society at large. This automation discourse rests on four main propositions. First, workers are already being displaced by ever-more advanced machines, resulting in rising levels of ‘technological unemployment’. Second, this displacement is a sign that we are on the verge of achieving a largely automated society, in which nearly all work will be performed by self-moving machines and intelligent computers. Third: automation should entail humanity’s collective liberation from toil, but because we live in a society where most people must work in order to live, this dream may well turn out to be a nightmare.footnote4 Fourth, therefore, the only way to prevent a mass-unemployment catastrophe is to provide a universal basic income (ubi), breaking the connection between the incomes people earn and the work they do, as a way to inaugurate a new society.

This argument has been put forward by a number of self-described futurists. In the widely read Second Machine Age (2014), Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that we find ourselves ‘at an inflection point—a bend in the curve where many technologies that used to be found only in science fiction are becoming everyday reality.’ New technologies promise an enormous ‘bounty’, but Brynjolfsson and McAfee caution that ‘there is no economic law that says that all workers, or even a majority of workers, will benefit from these advances.’ On the contrary: as the demand for labour falls with the adoption of more advanced technologies, wages are stagnating; a rising share of annual income is therefore being captured by capital rather than by labour. The result is growing inequality, which could ‘slow our journey’ into what they call ‘the second machine age’ by generating a ‘failure mode of capitalism’ in which rentier extraction crowds out technological innovation.footnote5 In Rise of the Robots (2015), Martin Ford similarly claims that we are pushing ‘towards a tipping point’ that is poised to ‘make the entire economy less labour-intensive.’ Again, ‘the most frightening long-term scenario of all might be if the global economic system eventually manages to adapt to the new reality’, leading to the creation of an ‘automated feudalism’ in which the ‘peasants would be largely superfluous’ and the elite impervious to economic demands.footnote6 For these authors, education and retraining will not be enough to stabilize the demand for labour in an automated economy; some form of guaranteed non-wage income, such as a negative income tax, must be put in place.footnote7

The automation discourse has been enthusiastically adopted by the jeans-wearing elite of Silicon Valley. Bill Gates is advocating for a tax on robots. Mark Zuckerberg told Harvard undergraduate inductees that they should ‘explore ideas like universal basic income’, a policy Elon Musk also thinks will become increasingly ‘necessary’ over time, as robots outcompete humans across a growing range of jobs.footnote8 Musk has been naming his SpaceX drone vessels after spaceships from Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series, a set of ambiguously utopian science-fiction novels depicting a post-scarcity world in which human beings live fulfilling lives alongside intelligent robots, called ‘minds’, without the need for markets or states.footnote9