This time Elon was not the first… (and he may not be the last)

We found evidence of voices mentioning the impact of cybernation already in the 1960s. And they were brought to us by one of the worlds greatest human rights thinkers.

You will have followed the press announcements regarding the speech of Elon Musk at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Rhode Island on Saturday July 15. Like we all did. All major press including WSJ, Washington Post, The Guardian and Fortune covered this tremendously important subject.

Elon named Artificial Intelligence the “greatest risk we face for civilization” and urged government officials to release decisive regulation on this emerging technology before it becomes a danger to humanity. Importantly, he demands a proactive regulation, i.e. before bad things may happen. This is opposed to the usual model of governmental regulatory intervention, where officials wait, watch and analyse. Usually a good strategy to follow for many topics that are subject to regulation. In the case of AI this strategy will fail. And I cannot agree more.

It was not the first time that the Silicon Valley elite warned on the implications AI will undoubtedly have for human mankind. In 2015 non-profit ‘Open AI’ (notably 1 billion USD budget) was founded by Elon Musk together with Sam Altman, Peter Thiel and involving leading AI researchers like Yoshua Bengio and Ilya Sutskever. Blog platform Medium quoted Mr. Musk as “I want to get a deeper understanding of where we are in terms of AI and if anything dangerous could happen”.

No need to quote Bill Gates on AI in the WSJ in January 2015: “I don’t understand why some people are not concerned”.

Now, looking back some decades we remember there was an intellectual, charismatic thinker named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. On 31 March 1968, just days before the tragic April 4 assassination in Memphis, he held a speech at Washington National Cathedral. This speech did not get the same publicity as his famous “I have a dream” address on 23 August 1963, but it can be seen as of tremendous importance to the technology criticism we see nowadays. The title of his sermon was “Remaining awake through a great revolution”.

I quote the next paragraph from the Kings Institute, as you simply have to read the original text (

There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, “Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away.”

‘A technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation.’ Back in 1968! Cybernation nowadays is defined as ‘the use of computers to control automatic processes, especially in manufacturing.’ Those days it was more generally used for increased automation.

The triple revolution quoted by Dr. King referred to an open memorandum issued to President Lyndon B. Johnson on 22 March 1964. A group of intellectuals, including Linus Pauling and Gunnar Myrdal, calling themselves the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution comprised the paper with support of the then Santa Barbara Think Tank Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

The report on the Nature of the Cybernation Revolution ( highlighted, that cybernation might lead to circumstances, where “In the developing cybernated system, potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.”

Well, looking at what literature on AI currently proposes with regard to unemployment, social injustice and minimum wages, this sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Especially the part on cybernation is one of those forgotten papers which are worth while reading again under a new perspective. The perspective of Artificial Intelligence, with a computational power of 1 with 15 zeroes FLOPS (PetaFLOPS) at its best right now, which is not far from a 1 with 20 zeroes FLOPS (100s of ExaFLOPS), marking roughly the capacity of a human brain.

Again, let me quote from the report:
The Cybernation Revolution: A new era of production has begun. Its principles of organization are as different from those of the industrial era as those of the industrial era were different from the agricultural. The cybernation revolution has been brought about by the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine. This results in a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor. Cybernation is already reorganizing the economic and social system to meet its own needs.

A further interesting aspect about the report is the fact, that it envisages a transition phase which might also bring “some sort of physical and psychological misery and perhaps political chaos”. The group therefore proposed nine non-inclusive measures, the first referencing to “a massive program to build up our educational system, designed especially with the needs of the chronically under-educated in mind.” What the report does not propose though, is massive governmental regulation, as Elon Musk suggests.

Of course one has to read the report under the light of the era in which it was written. In the 1960s the fear of mass joblessness was deeply embedded in society thinking. Yet, as Martin Ford wrote in his 2015 book The rise of the robots that ironically “when the triple report was released in 1964, the unemployment rate was just over 5 percent, and it would fall to a low of 3.5 percent by 1969”. Further, until the mid 1970s productivity and wages rose together and only then started to divide as wages stagnated while productivity continued to rise.

Finally, criticism toward the report was also raised by Daniel Bell in his 2008 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society where he criticizes a paranoia of predictions and the replacement of Utopia by Doomsday scenarios. He names the image of a completely automated production economy simply a “social-science fiction of the early 1960s.”

Interestingly, these days I had a talk with a former student of Prof. Schmidhuber, now Scientific Director at Swiss Istituto Dalle Molle di Studi sull’Intelligenza Artificiale (IDSIA). This former student stated that AI is still in the development status of a small worm. There were simply some clever guys who “renamed a usual neural network, which we work with since the 1990s, into DEEP LEARNING. That’s all.” So why worry?

Best wishes,

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