The Age of Automation and how the planners have let us down

Growing up I was told about a member of our family who had started from humble beginnings in London’s East End and had made his way up the ladder to become the Managing Director of large

The-age-of-automationPelican paperback of the 1964 Reith Lectures

companies. His name was Leon (later Sir Leon) Bagrit and he was married to my mother’s first cousin Stella.

In 1964 he was asked by the BBC to deliver the Reith Lectures for that year. He chose for the title of the series of lectures “The Age of Automation” which, as a pioneer of computing and industrial automation with his company Elliot Automation, was very much the subject dearest to his heart.

elliot 405

The Elliot 405 Computer

His lectures were incredibly forward thinking for 1964. Here is just a taster of what he said:

‘It is now possible to envisage personal computers, small enough to be taken around in one’s car, or even one’s pocket.  They could be plugged into a national computer grid, to provide individual enquirers with almost unlimited information.’
‘Perhaps the most far-reaching use of the new generation of computers will be in the retention and communication of information of all sorts within a national, possibly a world-wide, information system.
‘In many industrial and commercial applications we are moving steadily away from large, centralized computers towards much simpler decentralized units, systems of small, cheap, special-purpose units, rather like building bricks.
‘Car drivers could be told immediately about traffic hold-ups and road works and given alternative routes…”

The remarkable thing to me was that Leon was making these predictions nearly 53 years ago. Now in 1964 they would certainly have seemed like science fiction but as the computer began to make real headway in public consciousness and participation by the 1970’s you would have thought that Governments of any political persuasion would be sitting up, taking note and planning for the future.

.”Yet in 2014, some 50 years after Leon’s Reith Lectures, this headline appeared in an article

47% Of All Jobs Will Be Automated By 2034, And ‘No Government Is Prepared’ Says Economist        17/01/2014 14:43 | Updated 25 January 2014

The Huffington Post

I have to say that on reading this article I was filled with dismay. The consequences of mass unemployment and huge change due to cheaper other markets or automation has fuelled many of the events that made 2016 such a fascinating and worrying year.

But  before you heap the blame on Sir Leon and his fellow automation pioneers you need to heed the words by the authors in the article:

“technology has always been destroying jobs, and it’s always been creating jobs, and it’s been roughly a wash for the last 200 years. But starting in the 1990s the employment to population ratio really started plummeting and it’s now fallen off a cliff and not getting back up. We think that it should be the focus of policymakers right now to figure out how to address that.”

Leon Bagrit was actually an optimist about the role that automation could play in our future, as he stated:

“Science and technology have come to pervade every aspect of our lives and, as a result, society is changing at a speed which is quite unprecedented. There is a great technological explosion around us, generated by science. This explosion is already freeing vast numbers of people from their traditional bondage to nature, and now at last we have it in our power to free mankind once and for all from the fear which is based on want. Now, for the first time, man can reasonably begin to think that life can be something more than a grim struggle for survival. But even today, in spite of the high standard of living which has become general in the more fortunate West, the majority of people in the world still spend nearly all their time and energy in a never-ending struggle with nature to secure the food and shelter they need. Even in this elementary effort millions of human beings each year die unnecessarily and wastefully from hunger, disease, or flood

I feel that, if he were to come back today Leon would be excited by the advances in science and technology and totally devastated  by the failure of politicians and planners to use the opportunities given by automation to better humanity.





About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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