by James A. Bacon
It’s Labor Day, a suitable occasion for opining on the future of work…
One of the great questions of our era revolves around the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the job market. People have fretted about automation since the days of Ned Ludd, the knitting-frame wrecker. Machines have been replacing human labor on a large scale for more than two centuries now. Yet somehow the economy managed to generate more new jobs, and somehow our society has managed to become more productive and prosperous than ever.
Some say, this time it’s different. The nature of automation is changing.
My friend David Rafner refers me to an article in Space Daily describing how biophysicists are developing an algorithm for inferring laws of nature from time-series data of dynamical systems. The hope is that large-scale computing can spot patterns that elude mere mortals. If the biophysicists are successful, they will have made a huge advance toward Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the Singularity, in which computing power and AI exceed humans in intelligence, thus accelerating the rate of scientific discovery and the rate of technological development.
Machines first reduced the demand for physical labor; soon AI will reduce the demand for cognitive labor. Once those two sources of employment dry up, what’s left? While machines build the cars, plow the fields, manage the currency transactions and conduct the scientific research, what will humans do? Will we revert to a nation of artists, musicians, writers and craftsmen? Perhaps. David thinks there still will be room for philosophers and bloggers. But I’m not confident that the United States can accommodate 320 million philosophers and bloggers. Personally, I think the only occupational category that’s safe is politicians.
Work is so central to our culture — so essential to our standard of living, our status, our self-worth — one can’t help but fear will happen when the AI-enhanced robots take over. Who will control the wealth and power as robots (a form of capital) replace labor? Will the plutocrats rule? or will we distribute material blessings so that all of us are freed from drudgery and toil? And what would a life free from labor and toil be like? Would humans have any purpose? Would life have any meaning beyond the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure? Are we not destined for an existential crisis that will give rise to nihilism, thrill seeking and violence?
As much as I love my time away from paid toil, I see no substitute for work. Ned Ludd wrecked the knitting machines. Maybe it’s time to start purging the algorithms.There are currently no comments highlighted.