Automation and the Future of Work

23 September 2017

Will technology eventually eliminate the need for human labor? Without work, will we finally have all the free time we want to pursue our hobbies and passions? Or do we need work to give our lives a sense of purpose and achievement?

Ever since the invention of the wheel, we humans have been coming up with all sorts of new technologies to reduce or even eliminate certain types of labor. In many ways, this has been a boon for humanity. Apart from saving us time and effort, these inventions have grown our economies, and have increased the standard of living worldwide. Now, we can spend our time on more important things and let technology do the mindless drudgery for us.

But we’ve entered into a new phase of technology and it’s not all good. Whereas the technology that came before was mainly a way to reduce hard physical labor, since the invention of the computer, more and more technology is replacing mental labor. Of course, there are still benefits to that. Instead of, say, having to figure out my taxes myself, I can just use some nifty software that does all the work for me. And it does it with much greater speed and accuracy.

But if we think about the bigger picture, if we think about the ultimate direction all this new technology is leading us to, then we have cause to worry. Increasing automation means more and more jobs are being lost because robots are more efficient and cheaper than human labor. Take drivers or cashiers—there are over 6 million people in the US currently working in those jobs, but now we have self-driving cars and trucks, and self-checkout machines, and soon there will be no humans employed in those kinds of jobs. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, this is always what happens when new technology is introduced. Some jobs get replaced, but new jobs are introduced, jobs that no one would have imagined before, like software engineers. What is different now, though, is that jobs like that are also being replaced because computers are becoming increasingly better at various kinds of mental labor. So, it’s not just blue collar workers who will be affected. It’s lawyers, programmers, doctors, and—who knows?—maybe one day even philosophers too. The bots are coming for us all!

Is this an inevitability? No, it depends on who owns the bots. If the public owns them, then maybe we can choose when and where to use them. But if it’s the capitalists, the 1%, they’ll be happy to drive us all out of work if it means greater profit margins for them. 

But even if the bots do take over most jobs, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. I mean, who doesn’t want more leisure time and less drudgery? Leisure time is definitely great—when all your basic needs are met. But it’s no fun to lose your income when you’re already living paycheck to paycheck.

So, for a world without work to be something positive for humanity, we would have to have universal basic income (UBI). And with all the money we would save with these superfast, efficient robots, surely we would be able to afford that? Finland is currently experimenting with UBI, though it's not exactly "universal". And the fact that Finland is doing this does not give me hope that the US will implement UBI anytime soon. We can’t even guarantee universal basic healthcare here.

It will be interesting to see what happens in countries that do introduce UBI. How will it affect the people on it?  Some worry that without work, people would lose their sense of purpose in life, not to mention their connection to their communities. But do we really need some lousy job to give our lives meaning? Jobs that truly provide meaning and purpose are few and far between. How many people would keep doing their current job if money was not an issue? I would guess very few. Most people would much rather have more free time. Not having—or needing— a job would provide opportunities to pursue other things, like painting, playing music, writing, gardening, or just spending more time with friends and family. We would naturally find activities that give us structure, purpose, and connection.

On the other hand, in a world without work, maybe there would be more people going quietly mad with nothing to fill their time than there would be people pursuing meaningful activities. Hey, I might even be one of those people who just sits around smoking pot and watching TV all day if I didn’t have a job. But I would get bored with that fairly quickly. I would need to find ways to spend my time more productively and, I imagine, most people are like that. Slacking off is fine for a while, especially when it’s in contrast to a hectic, stress-filled life, but it’s not interesting if there’s no end in sight to it.

So, what do you think? Does the possibility of a world without work fill you with dread or yearning? What do you imagine it will be like, once the robots come for us all?


Comments (14)'s picture

Sunday, September 24, 2017 -- 10:11 AM

Please don't confuse jobs

Please don't confuse jobs (work for pay) with work. If you don't see the stark difference, you can ask almost any woman on the planet!

suetalksalot's picture


Sunday, September 24, 2017 -- 10:48 AM

As a young retired person (

As a young retired person ( reluctantly with a medical problem), I see both sides of the work issue. Work is imperative to young people for growth. Its that simple. Everyone needs to work when they are young.
Robots will replace too many human jobs but humans will always be needed for caretakers. It would be wonderful to have a "helper" clearinghouse for simple tasks like taking the garbage out, driving to appointments, getting groceries. These caretaker helpers need a living wage. This is where government can step in with basic wage help for non workers and more for
working caretakers.

mirugai's picture


Sunday, September 24, 2017 -- 9:49 PM

As Zizek always points out,

As Zizek always points out, "they" would always have you believe that there are only two polar opposites in any proposition, but really that is a clever appeal to the worst of our "human nature" in order to get us to ignore real solutions that "they" don't want us to consider. The truth is that robotics and all the other tech replacements of labor and employment have dramatically increased the productivity (as economists define it) or better, the income of the society. The US is a very very rich country. The solution to the problem of people not having jobs, is to better distribute the wealth of the country. A guaranteed national income would be one solution (stop all this worrying about "people won't have the nobility and self pride that comes from work." I am always so surprised to find out that a huge percentage of Americans are pretty damn good artists, or can really play some musical instrument pretty well, or are very knowledgeable on some academic subject, or can repair their own car or boat...). I wouldn't allow anyone to make over $1M per year (for God's sake, that's plenty), and require that companies keep passing their profits down the employment chain with a $1M cap. If you paid each sports star from $200,000 to $1M per year max, there would be no diminution of skills represented; all the same players would be playing. Of course, there would be universal healthcare (Medicare for all, and an option for insurance companies to cover the high end treatments), and free education at all State universities. Everything funded by taxes, not employers. Anyone making $70,000 or less pays no taxes at all. After that its 30%. Of course this cannot be brought about by using the "American" style of democracy: but as Naomi Klein has predicted, capitalism will disappear when confronted by what is happening to the earth; and the social systems set up to mindlessly exploit the earth will crumble. WWIII which is all about this will intensify by the declining livability and habitability problems, combined with the ever more devastating armament in the hands of those pushed too far. So, it isn't a debate between "work is a human right" and "more profits raise all boats." Because there is no one in power who wants to really address, and solve, the income inequality problem.

Lister's picture


Monday, September 25, 2017 -- 4:18 PM

I’m confident we can all

I’m confident we can all agree that it will not turn out how we think it will. There are so many explosive technologies out there and if any of them take off it will change everything we know and do. Quantum Computers, Electric Self Driving Cars, Artificial Super Intelligence, CRISPR… the list goes on. And that is just the list of technologies we currently have on the table; who knows what will be breaking 10 or 20 years from now.

What we always seem to forget is the meaning of exponential growth. When you connect brains together like we have with the internet, then integrate artificial intelligence, then use the connection, human brains, and computers to improve the entire system you get exponential growth. By no means am I saying the exponentiality is perfect, but it’s real, and it’s fast!

Everything we’ve achieved thus far has been done within the confines of our tiny individual brains. Soon, with CRISPR and melding with technology we’ll be able to fundamentally redefine who we are.

No, we shouldn’t be thinking about UBI and automation as something that will eventually pose extreme challenges to our current selves. Instead we should be trying to comprehend what sort of life forms humans will become once the skulls we live in crack open; once the limits to our intelligence and connectivity become mouldable. That and we should be pushing harder to achieve it, however scared we may be.

Think of how Ants life their lives as compared to Humans. That’s the sort of comparison you should draw between humans today and humans 50 years from now. While automation is causing us pain now we don’t like to drastically change economic systems quickly or without significantly more pain. If you speak with WW2 veterans, they will say we are not in enough pain currently to change. With continued improvements to our standards of living arguable out pacing the hurt from automation, it is unlikely we will have the motivation to change the current economic model any time soon.

50 years is an accurate time scale for a complete change in economic models, AND, for the change from the Ants we are to the ascended humans we’ll likely become. Unless we blow ourselves up, but, that’s always been an option.

Grailgrasp's picture


Tuesday, September 26, 2017 -- 12:44 PM

Do individuals have the

Do individuals have the choice to be technologically competent, incompetent, or superfluous, the 3 social classes predicted by JK Galbreath? at the end of work If yes, then work for humans will continue. If choice is pre-empted by political control, then the history of work is over and the leisure society is over, also.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, August 31, 2018 -- 12:20 PM

I cannot say that I am either

I cannot say that I am either bored or restless, now that I have been out of the workforce nearly ten years. More nearly broke than any time since I was about age twenty-five, but bored? Restless? Naaaah---The work-for-pay that I churned out for twenty-nine years was, at times, interesting, at others, frustrating, but it was never a definition of myself. Now, I write philosophy for pleasure and for brain-matter gymnastics --- that work is more rewarding than anything (save perhaps poetry) I have ever attempted. My brother has said he will probably never have grandchildren. I think he regrets that, even though he has two fine sons who are successful in their own right. I have no children and our family line is therefore lost. As a practical matter, however, it does not matter so much. The family name and genes go on and likely shall into the foreseeable future.

Most of them will have to work. Some, however, may not. I wonder if THEY will be bored. Or restless..., or, if boredom and restlessness will be obsolete? We can make it so. Brother writes some damned fine poetry.

Christopher Hall's picture

Christopher Hall

Sunday, September 2, 2018 -- 2:49 PM

Who controls the livestock,

Who controls the livestock, the hired hands and the robots? That, we know is a rhetorical question, but I thought I'd say it anyway...

I am no Pollyanna, in the strict term the folks at IBM imagined it, so I cannot see any alternative than we the people going from the working livestock to pets, and when our numbers are to great to feed and clean up after, we will be sent to the shelter like all unwanted pets.

If we can look to the past, say for instance when the folks cooped up on the British Isles coined the term "Surplus Population" some 400 years ago, then we can be sure of the fact when the time comes around again for that term to become commonplace, the circumstances will be worse by orders of magnitude.

The moment someone doubts that what was done in the past can't be done in the future, run. When they capitulate and agree it could happen again, but could not be worse, run faster.

hrsweet3's picture


Monday, September 3, 2018 -- 1:03 PM

In the last century there

In the last century there were numerous predictions that the work week would be reduced because of automation and that would free up people to expand themselves through art, education and the like. At the moment what we see, instead, is a lot of people working multiple jobs at minimum wage.

But should it ever come to pass that we have a Universal Basic Income, we are not likely to see people flocking towards self development. Yes there are self motivated people but far more more likely would choose sensuality and entertainment. So along with UBI what we will find out, probably more by learn by burn, is that there needs to be structure and accountability in peoples' lives. At first that will likely be some kind of make work and that will end up being heavily criticized. Eventually, we will all likely gravitate towards human interaction types of pursuits.

This would leave the 'Dilbert' types the ones that are left behind. But they will still be needed for development, maintenance and operation of our technology. They will be well paid.'s picture


Sunday, February 9, 2020 -- 12:11 PM

There are many jobs that need

There are many jobs that need MORE personnel than they currently are allotted. One such job is that of teaching. For economies of scale, schools have been made ever bigger, until a small corps of teachers is in charge of a large body of students, who have to be regimented to keep them orderly and functioning. There is tremendous need for more teachers of students with special needs, as well as for music and art teaching, and teachers of other subjects that have been left out of the curriculum for reasons of economy. Of course robots are being brought into the enterprise of teaching, but they are not able to adapt to the needs of individual students, and so they contribute to a leveling and standardization that is inimical to the best kind of teaching, which is based on human relationship and caring. Just to teach the teachers of such a kind of one-on-one instruction will take a tremendous effort involving a great many highly satisfying jobs.
For myself, my own writing has been a free-time enterprise that I continue to find satisfying, but it was my paying job as a college teacher that has given me the most pleasure and satisfaction - as well as some displeasure and dissatisfaction - over the course of a lifetime. Finding the meanings and pleasures of literary works from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison, and conveying these to classes of students, has been my life's work. This pleasure has been wrapped up with the pleasures of human interaction with colleagues, and with students outside of class, including former students who contact me occasionally for friendly interactions. Teaching could, I think, occupy a good deal of the manpower freed up by the mechanization of labor, but I think there is work to be done in every field that will be hard to mechanize, and that will provide satisfaction to those called to the work.
The real problem is to discover WHY our society is so hell-bent on inventing machines to do every kind of human job. Sure, industry anticipates savings, but the costs that business avoids will simply be shifted onto the backs of taxpayers who will have to compensate jobless workers for income they no longer can earn. Under these circumstances, how is it in the interest to government-funded universities and laboratories to subsidize the work of those who are busy producing mechanical substitutes for human labor?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 -- 11:31 AM

So, I'll ask again: what is

So, I'll ask again: what is it that we will DO when there is no work to be done? If that means we will all be artists; poets; philosophers;journalists, etc.,how will that square with the notion of entropy? For, if there is no one doing anything other than the sorts of things I have mentioned above, the probable outcome would be confusion and, eventually (sooner, rather than later), chaos. What we know as work, is really a system, in the thermodynamic sense, seems to me. When systems break down, things start flying in all sorts of directions. Probabilists play with this sort of thing all the time, but I do not know whether this exact contingency is on their "radar". Does anyone else know? Is it, then, something which should matter?

RalfKortig's picture


Thursday, January 11, 2024 -- 2:34 PM

Good day everyone! I want to

Good day everyone! I want to join an interesting discussion. Moreover, as technology continues to evolve, it is essential to consider how societies can harness its potential benefits while mitigating potential drawbacks. In today's world, there are many assistants that make life easier. In particular, learning to be a programmer is very prestigious. However, if there are difficulties, you can use the services to complete the task. This may involve reimagining education and training paradigms, fostering innovation-friendly environments, and implementing policies that support equitable access to opportunities.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
SamantaMoris's picture


Sunday, February 11, 2024 -- 7:49 AM



I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
SamantaMoris's picture


Sunday, February 11, 2024 -- 7:52 AM

Automation plays a key role

Automation plays a key role in the future of work. With the constant advancement of technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and process automation, we are witnessing changes in how work is organized and performed. service helps me in automation. If you need to quickly and easily convert files from PPTX to PDF format, there are numerous free online tools that can assist you with this. These tools typically offer a simple interface, allowing you to upload files and obtain a PDF version of your presentation in just a few easy steps.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines