Given the breakneck pace of improvements in automation and artificial intelligence (AI), fears about job loss and human obsolescence continue to consume the cultural imagination. The question looms: What is the future of human work in a technological age? This question has less to do with robotic genius than they do with our faith in human creativity.
Innovators such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates have done their share to affirm the predominant pessimism, painting a grim picture of a future defined by robot overlords and diminishing human contributions. “At least when there’s an evil dictator, that human is going to die,” Musk recently observed. “But for an AI, there will be no death — it would live forever.”
As for whether this time is markedly different from the rest, once again, the question has to do with whether the depths of human creativity have markedly shallowed. If we only imagine the ongoing developments in robotics, human-beings will surely become the victim. Yet, as those innovations unfold, we should be careful that we don’t dismiss or disregard the creative developments we are bound to see from human minds and human hands.
Whenever a new technology arrives, we can easily see what jobs it might replace. In the early twentieth century, we developed mass production, and then, in the blink of an eye, the Information Revolution was upon us. In the twenty-first century, new technologies arrive, dominate the market, and are themselves replaced by a new innovation within just a few years. In coming years, the disruption will surely be as profound as it was during the Industrial Revolution. All of the new technologies transformed the way we work, and adjusting to them wasn’t simple, costless, or immediate. Yet, if the past is any indication, this radical leap forward in technology is just as likely to create jobs as it is to destroy them.
The problem is that we are really bad at envisioning what kind of new jobs might be born in the future. When we pass off some of the workload to machines it broadened the scope of what was possible. We came up with new ideas, new innovations, and new kinds of work. Most of the great inventions of the past 200 years have been designed, explicitly, to take our jobs, and yet the fraction of people in the workforce is near an all-time high. Even still, much of this depends on our perspectives and cultural imaginations—particularly how we view the human person and his/her relationship to society and civilization.
As Kevin J. Brown recently wrote, much of modern society views the world through a “chaos narrative”, in which “beings that reproduce with superior qualities will outpace and outlive their less adapted counterparts.” Through such a lens, it is no wonder we fret about an economy filled with servile humans, cooperative and compliant with the blind strides of the bigger, broader “evolutionary machine,” human, robotic, or otherwise.
In our digital age, we should write a different narrative, one through which human-beings are not powerless cogs, but deliberately designed and uniquely created.
In contrast to the technophobic discourse becoming increasingly common amongst futurists and financial forecasters, the best ways to prepare for the future lie in remembering what makes human-beings unique, and then developing the virtues which have sustained civilization for centuries.
We are spiritual-beings rather than being simply the sum of our biological components. Nor does our value merely rise to the level of our economic productivity. We have a spirit; a soul.
“Then He fashioned him (in due proportions), and blew into him of His Spirit.” [Qur’an; 32:9]
If we assume the chaos narrative, human-beings have little hope of competing with our robotic competitors in a massive, mechanistic economic regime. Indeed, by using such a view, it is not unreasonable to expect that we would become obsolete and thus replaceable once similar organisms evince qualities better suited for survivability in a competitive landscape.
On the other hand, through the lens of God’s creative design, we see the opposite: human-beings as protagonists in a bigger, more mysterious and varied economic story. Far from human obsolescence, we see the opportunity for the increase and expansion of human relationship, creativity, production, and the abundance that comes with it.
“Do you not see that God (swt) has made what is in the heaven and Earth subservient to you and made complete to you His favors outwardly and inwardly?” [Qur’an; 31:20]
Robots will surely continue to “take jobs” while human-beings will surely continue to create them. They will not look like the jobs of the past, because our world is now a digitally connected, collaborative space with new opportunities; never before have average people had access to the tools and networks which the Information Age places at their fingertips. An information economy, then, is not an economy where mindless machines take over. It is an economy shaped by and fitted for us. It is an economy where human minds, creativity, and freedom predominate. It is an economy where we purposefully in-form the material and social world in more and more elaborate ways.
Work is not going away, and the best way to prepare for economic success is, in some ways, different (new skills, new ideas, new chances) but is ultimately timeless. Through the practice of virtue, man rises to happiness and, in accord with the compensatory logic of the universe, will also find material flourishing no matter what changes arrive.
Ours may be the most disruptive economy in history. However, this disruption holds the key to flourishing. No machine will ever contain the virtues which drive human success. The story of the future is about the five virtues of happy and successful people, each of which matches a feature of the information economy. Courage, antifragility, altruism, collaboration, and creative freedom are the uniquely human virtues which the wise will cultivate to best prepare for this exponentially disruptive market. Virtue will be more vital than ever in our higher-tech future.