09 July 1965 - 12 July 1965

Anglo-American Conference on the Social and Economic Consequences of Automation

Chair: Sir Walter Puckey

Many people have offered definitions of automation, and it may be rash to attempt another; but in the present context I take it to mean all those processes in industry, commerce, transport and administration which replace or extend the operation of human intellect, memory, judgement or decision. That their introduction by modern science and technology must presage a revolution as far-reaching as the revolution caused by mechanisation – the substitution of mechanical power for human effort, and the extension of physical effort beyond the capacity of human strength – has seemed to me obvious. Not long, therefore, after we at Ditchley had begun our work of education, mainly by way of expert conferences, in fields of common interest to the people of Britain and America, I began to plan for an examination of the social and economic consequences of automation by people on both sides of the Atlantic who were directly concerned with various aspects of the question.

They included, obviously, industrialists familiar with the manufacture and application of automation equipment, trade unionists, representatives of government, economists, industrial psychologists, sociologists, management experts and others. Eventually we brought together, over the long weekend of 9th to 12th July, 1965, a gathering to whose status and capacity to contribute expert understanding the list of members bears sufficient testimony. They were invited individually, and it was as individuals, not in any representative capacity, that they took part in the conference. Moreover, the opinions embodied in the annexed reports, drafted by the two groups into which the conference split after its general discussion of the subject in plenary session, embody a consensus rather than a unanimity of view. No member was asked to commit himself to every word, nor were any notes of dissent invited or recorded. The value of the reports lay in their representing the broad composite opinion of people possessing many different kinds of expert qualification, drawn from two countries with different experiences and outlooks, on a set of problems which must increasingly affect every economically advanced society.

The conference was urged by more than one speaker to imagine, as the basis of its thought on the consequences of automation, a world in which the potentialities of automation had been fully realised; constructing it either from technical possibilities or from ideal aspirations. While we should certainly keep our eyes on far horizons, this method of argument might well be misleading, first because the scientific potentialities will develop and proliferate only as they come to be realised, and secondly because even the known techniques will in practice be brought into effect at highly varying rates, for obvious political, economic and structural reasons. We have to consider the impact of automation on national economies and individual life in terms of those things which we have already seen and those we can confidently expect to happen within the next decade or so. This was the approach actually adopted by the conference. Its judgments are believed to hold good, not merely in some hypothetical future, but here and now.

The Ditchley Foundation is grateful to all who gave their time and effort in the preparation and work of the conference, but especially to its Chairman, Sir Walter Puckey; whose firm leadership was invaluable in producing the best results from the short, intensive meeting, and to him and Dean George Shultz for their contributions to this report.

I would like to add a personal word of thanks to Sir Leon Bagrit, whose vision and enthusiasm in exploring this new region of human progress have been an inspiration to many besides myself.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Sir Walter Puckey