Can we survive in a world without work?
What do we do when we are not working? “Enjoy life” is the most common answer. It poses the next question “How?” You will have read about the rapid progress robots are making, about the driverless car, for example. Think of this: Ten percent of the jobs in America involve driving a car. Quite soon they will become redundant. The Driver Licensor in USA has already said that driverless cars are much safer than those driven by humans.
“We are approaching the time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task,” said Moshe Vardi, Computer Science Professor at Rice University in Texas. “Society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?” “A typical answer is that we will be free to pursue leisure activities,” Prof Vardi said. “[But] I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human wellbeing.”
John Steinbeck expressed it brilliantly in his book The Grapes of Wrath. Writing about the Great Depression in the 1930s in America he said “The last, clear, definite function of man, muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need, this is Man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of manself and to manself to take back something of the wall, the house, the dam.” A beautiful way to express our need to work. What Steinbeck says is so, so relevant today.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now well on the way to making better decisions than humans. Sure, there are aspects of our humanity – capriciousness, for example, and inconsistencies – that make it hard for a machine to imitate us. As Bart Selman, Professor of Computer Science at Cornell University says “Computers are starting to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ as humans do . . . Systems can start to move and operate among us autonomously.” He points out that companies such as Google, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft are increasing investments in AI systems to billions of dollars a year. Machines will copy us and we had better be prepared.
Our original purpose in life was to survive long enough to create the next generation. Then it became to make life easier – no more heavy lifting. After that we wanted fun, to be able to enjoy good food, entertainment, travel. When we were well on the way to achieving this we wanted longer life in which to enjoy these things so we needed better health. We achieved all these advances by working, often very hard. Some of the objectives we have are still unfulfilled for many people but many are on the way to being achieved by billions.
All of this has been done, as the American Constitution puts it, in the pursuit of happiness. Sounds good until you realise that happiness is not an object you can pursue but a consequence of what you do, mostly for other people. Hard physical work brought happiness because it was purposeful – doing something to provide food and shelter for others. When that work moved onto production lines it often brought misery because it was difficult to relate the contribution a single worker made on the line to the final product.
Now the production line is going and there will be less and less work, as we know it. For the human world to become more than a purely commercial fight to acquire the most money we must teach people to appreciate the miracle of the world and discover their potential creativity to enhance that miracle.
Humans have always had creative potential. The development of the human brain is the product of our creativity. Increasingly people are seeing that to create is rewarding both personally and financially. Millions are making apps, others are writing books, others opening up their creative potential by learning more. Good for them, I say. Let creative instincts flourish. Show those who think they have no such creativity that they are wrong.
Mankind may have been created; now it is time for all mankind to become creator.