The Meaning of Life and Work in the Age of AI

There’s a deep-seated belief in our culture that work is inherently good.

Not just any work: but the kind of work that one gets paid for. On the whole, as a practical culture we tend not to idolize the starving artist, but the man who can pull himself up by his bootstraps from poverty into business. Should we respect the office worker more than we do the poet? Perhaps, because we can be more sure that the office worker is doing something of value because his employer pays him a living wage. While the poor poet might be working equally hard, the economy assigns little value to his work. And so we might too – what is the value in the poet’s output?

 Attitudes Towards the Unemployed

Because we prize this kind of paid work so highly in our culture, those without paying jobs are often considered lazy, stupid, or incapable. Social systems like welfare or unemployment benefits, that allow the jobless to subsist, worry some of us, because they can be exploited, effectively rewarding laziness. And this violates our sense of justice, which is why the concept of a welfare queen can evoke such rage. Why should some work hard, while others live in leisure through cheating the system?

Still, we understand because of a mental or physical handicap, not all might capable of finding paying jobs in the market. So – what should happen to them, should they starve to death? No, thankfully there is a social consensus that handicapped people whom cannot find employment should be eligible for government support. But beyond these unavoidable cases, many believe that everyone who can work should have a job (or two!) – even if the jobs that society is willing to offer a worker are not fulfilling or interesting.

These attitudes might make sense when nearly everyone is employable, when decent jobs require only average intelligence. But what happens as technology begins increasingly to automate jobs, and the requirements for being employable rise? That is, what happens when to get any job you need to be of above average intelligence?

 Technology and Automation

Technology keeps improving. An increasing share of jobs can be automated through computers and robotics. It isn’t crazy to think that in the not-so-distant future, computer programs (and robots driven by such programs) may be able to do most things that we can – but more quickly, and cheaper.

In the past, technology has largely acted as a new tool that enables people to become increasingly productive. For example, the computer spreadsheet automates many calculations that once were done by hand, freeing up people to work on more strategic issues. However, we’re reaching a point where technology is actively displacing human workers, instead of merely empowering them to become more productive. That is, we’re getting to the point where computers and robotics may make an increasing proportion of the population unemployable.

Even if you disagree with me, imagine that this automation comes to pass. Should those people rendered completely obsolete by technology be doomed to starve or live in poverty? No, of course not; it is not their fault that computers have become so powerful. It would be a tragedy if we got so caught up in our own created tools (computers) that we allowed them to create suffering on a large scale (mass poverty or starvation, and loss of diginity, for those displaced). We would have to somehow come up with social systems to help those displaced by technology.

 The Meaning of Paid Work

The scenario where technology displaces most human workers leads to questions about the inherent value or meaning of paid work. If there comes to pass a time when computers can do most of our jobs better than us, then that should be a win for society. That is, it should free us from drudge work, and allow us as a society more leisure and time to reflect on the important issues of life!

Isn’t that the dream of automation, anyways? If robots and computers do most of the work, it should leave less for us to do, giving us more time to relax, enjoy our family and friends, and contemplate what life is really about. It might enable trimming the work week down from 40 hours to 15.

Then perhaps as a society we would have more time to become more informed and better understand the critical issues we are facing as a civilization. We realize that there is an increasing problem in politics in some countries (namely the US), in that the system seems increasingly dysfunctional. Few are happy with the way that our country is being run, and problems range from the steady flow of corrupting money into politics, the increasing divisiveness of political issues, and the increasing focus on mere image and soundbites rather than real solutions to complex problems.

Maybe one reason these issues persist is that we as citizens are entirely focused on the immediate struggles of surviving and making a living; we don’t have time to think deeply about the larger problems facing our society and our species.

 Retooling the Economy

While it’s clear to see the benefits of having more leisure time, there’s a problem. Our current economy is not designed to facilitate more leisure, or to handle those that are no longer employable due to the march of technology. That is, although having everyone in the population work 40 hours a week is not strictly necessary for the world to function, generally we all still do. Why? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure – part of it is that companies paying salaries don’t have any incentives to cut hours, and part might be convention.

But the issue will come to a head when more and more people become displaced from jobs by technology, because we just don’t have social systems in place currently to deal with a substantial portion of the population being unemployed. Some tweaks to our economy will likely be needed. One possibility is the idea of a basic income, where everyone in a country receives a wage for doing nothing.

It seems a little crazy, but in the situation where companies are making lots of money without employing many people, our consumer system will fall apart, because who will be doing the consuming? That is, with most of the population in poverty, who would buy anything? So – in the case where automation has taken over, it may be best to just pay people for doing nothing; or for doing volunteer work, or for some other pro-social behavior that doesn’t have direct economic value (like writing poetry!).

 The Strange Future

So, if your meaning in life derives from being employed by someone to work 40 hours a week, the future may undermine your self worth. If, however, you think living life is about more than just paid work, then with any luck the future will be bright! There may be more time for all of us to be creative, to better understand the world and what it means to be alive, and to become better people and a better civilization. No doubt it will be a strange time, if computers displace most of us in our current jobs, but it may be the push we need as a species to come to terms with what is really important in life.


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