AI and Kurt Vonnegut’s Barber

Photograph Source: Paul Sableman – CC BY 2.0

Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) replace human workers? Goldman Sachs thinks so. The investment bank suggests that AI could displace 300 million workers worldwide over the next ten years. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company thinks the number could be even higher: as many as 400 to 800 million jobs could disappear by 2030.

Some jobs are gone already. Business Insider reports that “Both IBM and British telecommunications giant BT Group cited AI when announcing job cuts—and saying that many wouldn’t come back.” Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a self-described “outplacement services” firm, estimates that AI eliminated nearly 4,000 jobs in May.

The jobs most at risk from AI are ones which are repetitive, rely on routine, or which can be performed by rote. Blue-collar workers will be hit hard, but so will white-collar office workers.

Can humans protect ourselves from a jobless future? You may want to look into “future proof” jobs: jobs that won’t—can’t—be replaced by AI. Some possibilities are nurses, chefs, human resource managers, plumbers, electricians, cybersecurity experts, and teachers (presumably because no AI would allow itself to be treated as badly as American teachers).

Vonnegut’s Barber

Is any job truly future proof? I thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s barber. I don’t mean the actual human being who cut Vonnegut’s signature curly mop, but a character in Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, published in 1952.

Player Piano takes place in a dystopian America in which automation has eliminated most jobs. Fortunately, the engineers and managers who run the centrally planned state capitalist economy see to it that everyone’s material needs are met. (This is wildly improbable in a highly stratified society like the one in Player Piano in which democracy is purely formal.) In fact, even ordinary people enjoy a high standard of living. One passage describes the abundance of consumer goods, including television sets, washing machines, refrigerators, automobiles, etc. available to ordinary Americans.

The 1950s resembled the 2020s in this respect: then, as now, there was widespread fear that technology would produce mass unemployment. In the 1950s, the fear was of automation. By the 1960s, the fear was of computers. Today, it’s AI.

A minor character in Player Piano describes a barber who tries hard to convince himself that barbering is a future-proof skill. Each night, the barber lies in bed, unable to sleep:

he kept worrying and worrying about somebody was going to invent a haircutting machine that’d put him out of business. And he’d have nightmares about it, and when he’d wake up from them, he’d tell hisself all the reasons why they couldn’t ever make a machine that’d do the job—you know, all the complicated motions a barber goes through. And then, in his next nightmare, he’d dream of a machine that did one of the jobs, like combing, and he’d see how it worked clear as a bell. And it was just a vicious circle. He’d dream. Then he’d tell hisself something the machine couldn’t do. Then he’d dream of a machine, and he’d see just how a machine could do what he’d said it couldnt do. And on and on, until he’d dreamed up a whole machine that cut hair like nobody’s business. And he sold his plans for a hundred thousand bucks [a small fortune in 1952] and royalties, and I don’t guess he has to worry about anything any more.

The moral of this story is that you are making a mistake if you assume that AI can’t replace you.

Vonnegut’s barber was fortunate. He was able to cash in on automation. Most Americans in Player Piano are much less fortunate. The workers displaced by automation must join the Reeks and Wrecks.

In 1952, memories were still fresh of New Deal public work projects such as the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). These agencies gave jobs—and hope—to millions of men (only men in those days) who had been thrown out of work by the Great Depression.

In Player Piano, the successor of the WPA and the CCC is the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps. Workers in the corps call it the “Reeks and Wrecks.” Worse, they call themselves reeks and wrecks. They are kept busy with make-work projects, like this scene on a seldom used bridge: “The bridge was blocked again by Reeks and Wrecks who were painting yellow lines to mark traffic lanes. … Three men were painting, twelve were directing traffic, and another twelve were resting” (173). This follows an earlier scene where forty men are filling a small pothole (24).

What troubles Vonnegut is that a fully automated economy would leave human beings psychologically unfulfilled. Today, we have a more mundane concern: that AI will cause most of us to starve. Service in the Reeks and Wrecks is a miserable experience, but would today’s elites make even that much provision for the jobless? Or would they let us starve?

Averting a Jobless Future

Vonnegut may have been gazing into a cracked crystal ball. Automation did not produce mass unemployment in the 1950s. Even during the recession years of 1953-1954 and 1958, unemployment never exceeded 6.2%. Dean Baker points out “that there were predictions of massive layoffs and unemployment from computers and robots for decades. This did not happen.” Googling “AI” and “mass unemployment” turns up as many articles which claim that AI will not destroy jobs as articles which predict that it will.

So, maybe AI won’t create mass unemployment. But it might. In order to be on the safe side, several proposals have been addressed which are meant to address mass unemployment. They include government regulation, instituting a universal basic income, levying a “robot tax” on corporations which replace humans with AI, and establishing a “Universal Adjustment Benefit”.

The trouble with these proposals is that they are no more than palliatives. What’s needed is public ownership of AI. Otherwise, ownership of AI will be concentrated in a relatively small set of hands. Even if AI doesn’t destroy jobs, public ownership is the right way to go. If done carefully, treating AI as a public utility will ensure that all citizens benefit equally from the increased productivity AI will bring.[1]

Player Piano ends with the people rising up and destroying the machines. The humans’ triumph does not last long, however. The final pages of Player Piano show a crowd enthusiastically repairing a vending machine, implying that it will not be long before the old order of things is restored.

If we want to avoid Vonnegut’s future, we need public ownership of AI now. Without public ownership, we may find that only billionaires have future-proof jobs.

[1]  Management consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimates that productivity gains from AI could boost global GDP by $15.7 trillion by 2030. However, few workers will see those gains. Income inequality in the US is already severe; AI will make income inequality far worse.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at