The rapid advance of computer technology in recent decades has produced a vast array of intelligent machines that far outstrip the human mind in speed and capacity.
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?