Of late, the press seemed to have picked up on major advances in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics and translated them into angst regarding the future of mankind. There appears to be a two concerns arising from these developments: how Man (by that I mean we humans, not some bloke down the pub) will maintain our existing hegemony over the world around us, the second being the slightly strange concern as to what we humans will do if all the hard work of cleaning, making and killing is done by robots.
I don’t have much to say about the first of these concerns. Its a work in progress and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. I worry how the law makers and rule generators will generate sufficient insight into these deeply technical areas to make sensible rules, but I’m sure we’ll both make mistakes and also get there in the end. I don’t share some of the apocalyptic concerns that I read in some parts of the press.
For me, the second issue is far more interesting. Just thinking about the myriad of conflicting points is enough to make your head spin. Take, for example, the world of work. If machines do most of the work, labour will be displaced by capital, so will that further exacerbate inequality? Or will it naturally lead to a citizens wage as a way to ‘pay off’ the broader population? What happens to existing the social hierarchy where ‘hard work’ is seen to be such an admirable trait? Will we have to complete re-evaluate what constitutes admirable behaviour? What happens during the transition period? The social and political consequences are fascinating. Its as if we are about to engage in a massive, real time social experiment with unpredictable results.
One thing I’m fairly sure about is that we don’t need hard work as much as we think we do. Or at least not the type of hard work that we currently obsess over. It seems to me that its a historical anomaly for us to willingly enslave ourselves for years to earn money and buy houses, then die and leave them to a combination of the tax man and our descendants. There are so many other things that make us happier, can earn greater prestige and can contribute to the world. As Henry James aptly put it,
“Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasure, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”
If that isn’t a recipe for life without work, then I don’t know what it. In a way, you could say that this transition has already begun. If work hard/play hard was the motto of Generation X, the generation that followed is maligned for spending too much time socialising with friends on social media. Perhaps its simply an echo of the future – mankind preparing themselves for whats to come. Only time will tell.