Jun 17 2012

The John Henry Fallacy

""){ ?> By Valkyrie Ice


If you are familiar with American Folklore, you probably recall the story of John Henry. He was a steel driver in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. If you don’t know what that means, it basically means he drove steel wedges into rocks to cut through them for railroads. John Henry was supposedly the best of them, and is famous for the tale of his competition against an early steam rock-cutter. He won against this prototype, barely, and it cost him his life. This story is often used as an allegory of the “Man vs Machine” meme, in which we are presented a choice – either Man or Machine – without any other options presented. In these arguments, the author is generally proposing to eliminate the machine in favor of the man, and advocate the abandonment or imposition of limits on technology.

Indeed, even one of the few books which I would consider positive on the subject of technological advancement, Martin Ford’s The Lights In the Tunnel frequently falls into this dualistic view, that man is in competition with machine, and that this competition inevitably will be won by the machine. In a recent blog post he links to numerous articles showing the ongoing replacement of humans in the workplace by machines. In the next most recent blog he shows examples of how many businesses are reaching a point where it is impossible for them to keep human workers and remain competitive. If we accept that the John Henry options, man or machine, are the only two that exist, then it looks very much like man is losing, and losing badly.

Yet I titled this article as I did precisely because this “choice” is a complete falsehood based on an underlying assumption: that the economy will always be one of scarcity. In an economy of scarcity, the assumption that individual humans need to compete against each other for scarce natural resources, and that this requires them to have “jobs” in order to acquire the means to survive, makes such a “choice” seem inevitable. If “machines” win, “humanity” loses.  Everywhere you turn, machines are taking away human jobs, replacing humans in the workforce in ever greater numbers, and invading jobs which once only humans could perform, from doing basic science research, to preparing legal paperwork, to financial trading, and even medical diagnostics. It’s a bleak prospect for the overwhelming majority of humanity about to rendered “obsolete” to the scarcity economy. Looked at from this perspective, it’s a possible future that makes William Gibson’s “cyberpunk future” look positively rosy. For a rather dark and disturbing look at the possibilities, Marshall Brain’s “Manna” is a highly recommended start.

There’s just one huge, gigantic, impossible to overlook flaw in this logic. “The Market” exists only so long as “consumers” exist to “purchase” good and services. Without people to supply a demand, it doesn’t matter how much supply exists.  A completely automated system of production will destroy the economy of scarcity by creating a mode in which supply becomes effectively infinite, and demand becomes so easily met that it can no longer be “sold” and thus becomes essentially “free”. For all the logical errors I could point out in the first part of Manna, Brain’s view of the possibilities full automation could bring about are just the tiniest tip of the iceberg.

Because the dichotomy presented by the John Henry choice is not merely false, it blinds us to the reality that we want the machines to win. As I pointed out in Adding our way to Abundance the 3d printing revolution is going to force the costs of manufacturing to plunge to below rock bottom. With the addition of robotic “resource gatherers” that can mine, refine, and process natural resources, and robotic drone delivery systems, the need for a human element in the supply chain vanishes, leaving only the demand side left. With supplies able to meet demand at effectively zero cost, the only remaining “jobs” left to humanity will be in creating “new” demand. Because until we create true AI, all of those machines will ultimately have only one single purpose. To give Humanity what it wants, because only humanity can have “desires” for those machines to meet.

So like John Henry, fighting the machines is the worst possible choice. If we “win”, we will only lose.

  • By Donald B. Davis, June 18, 2012 @ 4:17 am

    “The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines,” Leto said. “Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed.”

    We are no closer now to artificial intelligence on the scale you describe than we were 50 years ago. Software just doesn’t work the way you think it does.

  • By Angela Adams, June 18, 2012 @ 10:38 am

    And will these automated “resource gathering” magic robots have any concern for ecology and environmental regulations?

    Good thing they will remain only a fantastic comic book notion, as likely to appear in reality as a mass army of Leperachaun miners aka good old Cornish Kobolds…

  • By Valkyrie, June 18, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    Current robotics are improving at a massive rate, and automated mining machinery has been around for decades. Wishful thinking is your only defense to being replaced by a machine in the not very distant future. The pressure is on to remove humans from the loop entirely, and is increasing daily as “cheap” overseas labor is becoming “less cheap” all the time.

  • By Angela Adams, June 18, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    there are _no_ fully automated mines needless to say transport systems _anywhere_ on this planet, they exist only in your One True Faith of the Robot Church, Ctrol-C the Machine Christ!

  • By Mark, June 18, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

    Methinks poor Angela and Donald are in for profound future shock as we move into the 2020s 🙂

  • By Angela Adams, June 18, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

    Methinks you need to read some god damn Orwell and some goddam Aldous Huxley.

  • By Valkyrie, June 19, 2012 @ 4:08 am

    Nor did I state that any existed, Angela. I stated rather explicitly that they would exist in the not very distant future.

  • By Joe Mamma, June 19, 2012 @ 4:47 am

    Orwell, Huxley, Orwell, Huxley, Orwell, Huxley. I think “Angela” needs a bigger library or a better argument.

  • By Angela Adams, June 19, 2012 @ 5:34 am

    ANSWER THE QUESTION : will the magic mining “resource extraction” robots OBEY ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATIONS and what impact will they have on ecology and the environment?

  • By Angela Adams, June 19, 2012 @ 5:37 am

    always in “the future”, that magical fantastical future which you constantly revise the ETA on.

    “tommorow, tomorrow, your’s always a day away”

  • By Valkyrie, June 19, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

    Considering that they could be programmed to follow environmental regulations BETTER than humans do, I’m pretty sure you are just grasping at straws simply to try and pretend you actually have an argument to make, Angela.

  • By Leyvenn Valeth, June 20, 2012 @ 7:27 am

    @Angela: “will the magic mining “resource extraction” robots OBEY ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATIONS and what impact will they have on ecology and the environment?

    They’ll do what they are programmed to do. You cannot stop them from being created in the future, so complaining about the possible harms they can do is futile. If you want to have an active part in all of this, the only thing you can do is to add your grain of sand to ensure that, not only they’ll do their work effectively but also that they’ll be designed to obey environmental regulations.

    I still have to learn more about nanotechnology, but right now I think nanoproductive systems should decrease to some extent the need for mining by eternally recycling matter from obsolete or discarded objects. For this to be feasible, an energy-efficient way to break atomic bonds must be developed. Perhaps there are already some technical concepts, but I don’t know of them yet. I would appreciate any information on this topic.

  • By Angela Adams, June 20, 2012 @ 11:10 am

    Drexlerian nanotechnology is now regarded by most actual physicists and chemists as nothing more than a Fairy Tale which utterly ignores fundamental laws of quantum behavior and Brownian motion.

    Drexler is washed up, relegated to the Hall of Pseudiscience.

  • By Angela Adams, June 20, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    pseudoscience, typo.

  • By Valkyrie, June 20, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    Will nanotechnology work exactly like Drexler predicted in EoC? No. Can the original design for the “nanoarm” that Drexler proposed in “Nanosystems” work according to the exact principles that he laid out? No. Even Drexler pointed out that his “Diamonoid” assemblers were a THOUGHT EXPERIMENT, Angela. It was intended as a starting point to begin an exploration, not a concrete path to achievement.

    But precise Mechanosynthesis CAN BE DONE through a variety of methods. DNA IS PRECISE MECHANOSYNTHESIS. It is a PRECISELY CREATED chain of atoms, in which EACH ATOM is placed with vanishingly low rates of error. To dismiss this as “Not Nanotech” is to deliberately blind oneself to the facts, and base an objection on blind faith in an ideology, not reality.

    Nature proves it can be done. We are proof of concept, Period. We might have to start out duplicating the same methods and techniques of biology to get started, but we will not stop there.

    Without more to go on, I must assume these “physicists and chemists” you claim regard nanotechnology as a “fairy tale” are the same ones who were behind some extremely old and worn out arguments from nearly 13 years ago. These objections were popularized by Richard Smally, a former Bush “technology advisor” and formed the heart of a informal and indirect debate between Smally and Drexler at the turn of the century. The objections raised about quantum behavior and Brownian motion were quite thoroughly answered. EOC 2.0 is available online at Wowio ( ) and the Drexler Smally Debate is reprinted in full as an appendix.

  • By Angela Adams, June 20, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

    robots are not made of DNA, silly Rabbit…. you are adept at coupling totally distinct and unrelated categories to bolster your One True Faith.

    This is medieval thinking, at its finest.

    so… your magic mining leperachuan robots will be made of DNA and I presume protein, you are aware of the difference, right?

  • By Ian, June 20, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

    There are some robots that are made of DNA:

    See also the original article from Science, Feb. 2012:

    The entity currently calling him/herself Angela needs to read more before making claims of fact which are demonstrably false.

  • By Angela Adams, June 20, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

    1. those are _not_ robots

    2. they are _certainly_ not magic robots with geology and environmental science degrees that can do mountain top removal mining with no consequences to the environment and living things

    3. robots can be _programned_ dude! those are _not_ robots you reference, not at all. read things before you post them.

  • By Ian, June 20, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    1) if they’re not robots, then why does the very first sentence of the abstract from Science say, “We describe an autonomous DNA nanorobot capable of transporting molecular payloads to cells, sensing cell surface inputs for conditional, triggered activation, and reconfiguring its structure for payload delivery”?

    2) You said no robots were made of DNA. You didn’t say anything about them having to be mining robots.

    3) The Harvard scientists who wrote the paper also built prototypes, and programmed them to be triggered by the presence of certain molecules. Clearly, these nanorobots can indeed be programmed. in fact that was entirely the point of creating them in the first place.

    4) I believe Harvard scientists published in the premier peer-reviewed journal in the world over anonymous random internet strangers that hide behind aliases. They’re right, you’re wrong. And that’s that.

  • By Angela Adams, June 20, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    Horseshit. One NAND gate does Not a Robot Make.

    they are abusing the term ‘robot’ to gain attention.

    this is called ‘bad science’, and there is _plenty_ of it out there, even from Haha-vard.

  • By Ian, June 20, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    Cool, you’ve made your opinion quite clear.
    So let’s tally up that score:

    Harvard nanotechnology researchers published in Science : YES
    Anonymous luddite “art conservationist” on the internet: NO

    Why don’t we let history be the judge?

  • By Angela Adams, June 20, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

    “Sensationalist journalism, don’t be its victim. Bad Science, Don’t Be its Dupe.”

    btw, I have a degree based partially on heavy duty organic chemistry, little man.

  • By Ian, June 20, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

    “btw, I have a degree based partially on heavy duty organic chemistry”

    Prove it. Send me your name and your alma mater. I want to call them and find out for sure.

    “Anonymous internet posters, don’t be their dupe.”

  • By Angela Adams, June 20, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    When you resort to childish personal insults and evidence free claims? That is when you have lost, son. google my name, find my papers on laser interactions with mordant dyes and ferrous contamination.

  • By Ian, June 20, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

    Your search – “angela adams” “laser interactions with mordant dyes” – did not match any documents.


    Make sure all words are spelled correctly.
    Try different keywords.
    Try more general keywords.
    Try fewer keywords.

  • By Angela Adams, June 20, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

    psssssssst……… (hint)

    college was a long time ago, you are familiar with maiden names, now aren’t you Mr. Occultist who (ick) “dreams in Enochian?”

    also, if this is the best website you can make? It ain’ta bad, for 1997,,,,,,

  • By Ian, June 20, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

    Hey, awesome! You found my website!

    Anyone else interested can find me at, or on twitter or facebook!

    See, “Angela”? You don’t have to hide behind pseudonyms. Be proud of your work. Show it off. Point me to your published research. Show me what you’ve done. Prove you’re worth talking to. Otherwise, I’m going to be forced to conclude that you’re just full of shit, and you obviously wouldn’t want that. You seem to care quite desperately about what we think of you.

    Unless… you have something to hide? Or maybe you’re lying? I mean, why else wouldn’t you take ownership of your own words? You’re not a coward, are you?

    ps — I think that’s the first time anyone has ever called me an occultist. That’s just darling.

  • By Singularity Utopia, June 23, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

    The utopian-techno-revolution is coming.

    The evidence is undeniable.

    Stupendous robots and powerful AIs are inevitable in the not too distant future.

  • By SHaGGGz, June 24, 2012 @ 9:41 pm


    Val’s point about DNA was that it serves as a proof of possibility of nanoscale molecular assembly with negligible rates of error, as was made explicitly clear. Your canard that robots are not (currently) made of DNA is either a deliberate misreading of this plainly stated point or a betrayal of the fact that you are not very bright. By the way, a nice touch of class, pointing to your supposed academic credentials whilst belittling someone as “little man.” You are a pompous embarrassment.

  • By Angela Adams, June 25, 2012 @ 5:15 am

    kid, there is ‘no proof of concept’ when you are comparing totally unrelated concepts, that will never even be related in any manner that isn’t logic defying. I am well “bright” enough not to fall for modern day fairy tales and comic book nonsense, you can’t seem to manage that.

  • By Nyc LabretÅ¡, June 27, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    Huh, Valkyrie, I must link to this Disneyfied John Henry clip (introed by Herr James Earl Jones), at least once a week as a demo of where Closed captioning Automated Speech To Text Natural Language Processing is at, and where it is going.

    (Surprised that you didn’t use it yourself to highlight your points in this piece.)

    The CC-Transcription Accuracy Rate is for shit, and laughable.

    For now.

    But here’s the thing of, it’s one of the first clips they ever ran through the machine and not only does it handle *multiple* fe/male voices **in addition** to Mister Darth Vader’s, but it ALSO attempts to machine transcribe the singing.

    That was the first time that I’ve ever seen that.

    Now, at the Current Rates of Improvement for Speech to Text Transcription the projections are that it will hit Accuracy Rates of >±95% (to include Scottish brogues), no later than the end of the year 2016.

    That’s going to be a HUGE game changer and I am curious as to what you think the impact will?

  • By Valkyrie, June 29, 2012 @ 4:43 pm


    Speech to text recognition able to automatically understand and transcribe any voice is the major foundation stone of a Voice interface system, not to mention a universal translator. Imagine never needing to restrict what you watch to simply those items in languages you understand.

    This will not only have a huge impact in allowing universal accessibility to knowledge, it will definitely improve international relationships at the level of individuals, who will no longer need to learn a different language just to talk to someone around the world.

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