A World Without Work

It is easy to lose sight of what we live for — the end to justify our means.  Work, for many, seems to be the entire point of living, if not its focal point.  Worthy of decades of dedication, our work defines who we are and where we are going, or at the very least is a noble distraction from the vicissitudes of consciousness.

The notion of hard work as a virtue has its manifest origins in the beginning of human (and perhaps non-human) history, but that could all be changing in the not so distant future.  The steady advance of technology and recent developments in artificial intelligence signal a future in which all of the necessary work for human sustenance could be outsourced to machines.

Barring some global catastrophe, this future is practically imminent.  Machines and automatas outperform humans in most tasks as it is, and once they become sufficiently advanced, it’s difficult to imagine that any amount of regulation or resistance will prevent their eventual takeover.  Any entity (country, nation) that is able to streamline their processes via machinery has a decisive advantage over those that cannot; the burdens of human resourcing, labor regulations, efficiency, productivity, etc., will be largely forgotten, or simply a matter of a hardware/software upgrade.

Given the current trend in technology, the developments required to bring these ideas to fruition in their purest form are forthcoming, i.e., the complete displacement of human labor by machinery.  Lest one doubts the steady progression of science and therefore the imminence of this future, understand that we need not achieve any more major technological breakthroughs in order to see this scenario become a reality.  Machines are already replacing human employees at a stunning rate, and will continue to do so as the current technology becomes more ubiquitous.  Technology has advanced so rapidly in the past few decades that many employers are struggling to stay up to date, and the livelihoods of many will depend on just how quickly these updates are adopted; accounting software, online retail, warehouse management, human resource software, etc., all exist already and have the potential to replace large numbers of jobs once they are embraced by more people.

My point: technology is already sufficiently advanced to replace a large portion of our job economy — we merely have to wait for its adoption and perfection.  The development of newer, more sophisticated technology will only accelerate the process.

There are many reasons to be wary of this future.  In addition to the mass reduction of the human workforce, the rise of machine intelligence poses many significant risks to human existence, as one philosopher Nick Bostrom details extensively in his book Superintelligence.  One of Bostrom’s most popular illustrations of the threat involves a super intelligent machine that is designed to maximize the production of paper clips.  This may seem innocuous initially, but when taken to the extreme (as presumably a super intelligent machine would do) we can reasonably conclude that this machine would be obliged to deplete many of the world’s resources and build absurd numbers of paperclip production factories, storage facilities, and travel into space in search of more material,  and so on, leaving less and less for human consumption.  Bostrom’s main point is that there are many ways in which the goals and aspirations of a super intelligent machine could diverge from our own, and that we should be very scrupulous in birthing such an entity.

There is however a rosier future in which all goes well and humans are able to harness this intelligence and use it for its benefit.  Imagine that all of our food and water production and distribution is fully automated, or our super-intelligent machines have created a pill in which all of our daily food and energy is contained.  Imagine that everybody in the world has access to clean renewable energy and can exist independently from any grids or power plants.  Imagine that 3D printed shelters are  doled out free of charge to any person without a roof over their head.  Imagine that all of our necessities are complimentary since they cost nearly nothing to produce.  Imagine entire cities that are run solely by machines: transportation, sewage, public works, medical care, law enforcement, etc.  In this future, all of the struggles of survival will be mitigated by default, and every member of society will be endowed potentially with a lifetime of unadulterated leisure.

To some, this may sound like a utopia, but this idea has some very serious implications.  Steven Hawking was quoted as saying:

Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality

Presumably, this technological advance will not take place overnight, and the world in which everybody benefits from the proliferation of advanced technology will follow a more tumultuous period of acute income inequality.  As machines begin to displace increasing numbers of the world’s workforce, fewer numbers of people at the top of their industry will profit from these advances.  The self-driving car, once released for consumption, has the capacity to eradicate any job in which operating a vehicle was its primary focus, leaving thousands of people to search for new work, while the profits reaped from this innovation will go to a much smaller subset of the population towards one end of the income spectrum.

The classic counter-argument to this concern is based on the idea that economies tend to have a self balancing feature in which lost jobs from one sector translate into created jobs in another; Amazon may be putting many local retailers out of business, but they are also employing many people to write software, manage warehouses, deliver products, maintain their facilities, etc.  While this is certainly true in some cases, it cannot be applied across the board, and will be less and less accurate as more advances are made.  Technology is only adopted when it increases efficiency or reduces cost (when it can be done better than a human) and the jobs for which only a human can do are ever diminishing.  Eventually, once the human job market has sufficiently dwindled, the need to make drastic changes in the way our economy operates and income is distributed will become more salient.

It is often imagined that a world without work entails a rise of the elite and creative industries; art, music, and literature will see a resurgence, and all time will be spent honing a personal craft and enriching one’s life.  When all of one’s basic needs are met, and are guaranteed to be met in the future, what else is there to do?  Certainly, this will be true to some extent, but how appealing will a personal hobby or enrichment activity be when there are more effective and immediate alternatives?   Will art retain its value if a computer can generate and print anything you want in seconds? Will musicians continue to be idolized if your iPod can create new music perfectly customized to your tastes on the fly?   When will Stephen King’s novels stop selling because your Kindle can write a new book for you every night?  In so far as creativity can be encapsulated into an algorithm, the arts will not be immune from the rise of artificial intelligence.

What then will be left?  Work is so integral to our lives, that life without it is almost unfathomable — even horrific.  But for others, it will be a much-needed reprieve from immense suffering.  If human beings are able to create and harness machines which enable us to automate our sustenance, we will have taken a major step forward, and will open the door to opportunities for alleviating the suffering imposed upon humanity since the beginning of its history.  Meaning and purpose in one’s life need not come from work, and perpetuating a system from which billions of people suffer from overwork or lack of resources would be thoroughly unethical.  Sam Harris, an author and neuroscientist, sums this prospect up nicely:

The only thing nearly as scary as building an AGI (artificial general intelligence) is the prospect of not building one

The road to a world in which human labor is obsolete is fraught with traps and snares, and will require the best minds humanity has to offer, but it is the end goal, and we should welcome it.