If jobs were pointless, what would you do? The question seems a little absurd, but the rapidly advancing capabilities of AI would seem to indicate that it is a very real, and not too distant, possibility.
How would you occupy your time creatively? What would motivate you if working for a living we’re not longer necessary. What if you could live, without having to work for it?
Would this be utopia, paradise, heaven on earth? Or would it be a hellish, boring, and empty dystopia? How would life be were there but one class, i.e., “leisure class?”
Would you stop aiming for something higher? Would mankind stop striving altogether? Would competition cease and envy fade away? Would the lack of work be the great equalizer, the panacea for all inequity?
Perhaps the playing field would not be leveled, but shifted. Perhaps the game would no longer focus so myopically on achieving, and the proponents of “being” would have their day. I can see it now, people pouring their creative energies into “being” better.
We’ve had this discussion before. We, as a species, that is. The dawn of the Industrial Revolution prompted such thoughts. Machines doing work, replacing jobs!?! How wonderful! How dreadful! This fear is a durable one, perhaps due to the Luddites who feared an apocalypse of sorts, one in which machines replaced labor…leaving humanity on the sidelines.
Even the more gung-ho proponents of AI like Elon Musk foresee a future where human beings become—in the best case scenario—the equivalent of a house cat, if we don’t find ways (e.g., neural links) to deepen the human-machine integration. Can you say “meow?”
Part of me thinks his statement was a shameless promotion of one of his—if you’ll pardon the pun—pet projects, but he does seem deeply concerned with the future of humankind. There is always an ethical dimension to scientific and technological advancements and science and technology itself does not seem to be overly concerned with the ethical dimensions of its march forward. Somebody needs to pay attention. Really, everybody needs to pay attention.
The author of a 2018 article on the topic in the (“The Question with AI Isn’t Whether We’ll Lose Our Jobs — It’s How Much We’ll Get Paid”, Harvard Business Review) argued that “it is likely that humans will continue to dominate machines in a variety of skills, including creativity, interpersonal relations, caring, emotional range and complexity, dexterity, mobility.” That thinking is so three years ago! Have you seen the therapy robots In Chinese hospitals? AI is moving quickly, more quickly than most might imagine.
Maybe the Luddites’ fears were grounded, but just ahead of their time. Maybe this time is different. Maybe we are in for a massive shift and the widespread malaise of our time has less to with microbes and more to do with bits and bytes. Maybe we’re sensing the accelerating effects of technology and the restive lack of control, particularly over the ethical and psychological implications of this rapidly changing landscape.
Were we only human, devoid of a deep and seemingly unshakable “religious” impulse could be said to spring from the “Being” side of our nature (we are human beings and not “only human” as so many like to say when they fail to live up to their full potential), I would have less faith in our ability to transcend our domestication by AI. The fact that we are animated by the spirit of life, by whatever name you call it, and that consciousness seems to mesh, intermingle, or be infused with some realm of Being that we cannot brush off with the rationalist’s broom brings a modicum of comfort.
It seems to me that we are at another crossroads in our development, one that is nested in a much larger plan that has yet to be revealed to us. Work and jobs have evolved through human history, so too have the means by which that work is done.
If Plato’s account of the conversations between the lawgiver Solon and Egyptian priests have any merit, this isn’t even the first time we’re faced the perils of a highly advanced technological society on earth. It likely isn’t the first time we’ve faced a global adjustment or “flood” moment, either. Maybe the records of antiquity are more than myths and foreshadowing.
Maybe they point the way to a more generative, positive outcome. If so, we had better restore our connection to that guiding wisdom before the machines that are evolving at a breathtaking pace envision an alternate reality that further dehumanizes mankind and more thoroughly inhumes the evidence of the presence of Being on this beautiful planet.
If you can’t tell, I’ve never been much of a cat person.
Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash