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If We Survive, Human Work Will Be Endless

We know the story and how it ends:  

The robots take over.

Give it up for the robots! May they be merciful in their rule!

And as robots and automatons rise, human labor shrinks and shrinks and shrinks…

The only unknown in this story is do we run the robots, or do they run us? 

I don’t accept this story. For me, the specter of enslavement by robots speaks volumes about our collective fears of artificial intelligence (AI) and the total computerization of everyday life. But I have an alternative narrative, a story about endless work and an appealing emerging ethos that is likely to guide future innovation. 

Under the prevailing narrative advanced by both digital savants and neo-luddites, the best and brightest among us will supervise robot armies while the rest of us live spartan lives of enforced leisure, sustained perhaps by meager guaranteed incomes. In this tale of woe, most of us will desperately try to survive in the shadows of robot overlords.

And yes, I do offer an alternative happy scenario of work without end. But the path to it will not be easy. Before humanity gets there, we must first overcome the challenge of a fearsome “extinction epidemic” that threatens all life on the planet, including humans. We face serious risk of climate apocalypse and an escalating global breakdown in the democratic systems that could help us deal with it. Sustaining diverse life and maintaining decent conditions for the human community is growing harder. We may require extraordinary actions to insure adaptation and the survival of valuable portions of the plant and animal kingdoms. 

Predicting the future accurately is impossible, so all I’m doing here is suggesting that even as we work to avoid these dire outcomes, we remain open and full participants in creating an attractive future. 

And we want to work in the future. We want jobs. 

Mine is what I think of as a revelatory perspective. I ask that we rebel against a belief in the inevitability of robot rule, and instead embrace a human-centered vision of communion with all living things.

Yes, creative destruction is alive in the world; I worship at the altar of Schumpeter myself. But while we can easily tally what jobs are lost or are at risk of imminent destruction by creative innovation, the harder task is to imagine where the new jobs will come from. Though novelty assaults and attracts us at every turn, we struggle to see the bend in the river of life. 

Twenty years ago, there was no Facebook, no Amazon, no Instagram, no iPhone. No 9/11. No financial crisis. No President Trump. So while we may bemoan the lack of wage growth and rising costs for essentials, we can’t deny the massive growth in jobs over the past 10 years. 

So my rejoinder is modest: There’s too much uncertainty going forward to accept that shrinking jobs are inevitable. No!

Humans want communion with other humans, face to face, in real time, or intimacy with other biological beings, and with physical places. 

Ask Barbara Streisand why she had a beloved dog cloned at great expense. She didn’t buy a robot dog. Ask me why I traveled to Kenya to witness grazing giraffes or to northern Cameroon to see herds of elephants. What goes for animals goes for human relationships. We want the real thing. 

So my bet is that in the world of work, humans will remain front and center; and hegemony by humans will continue because every human being has a work instinct.     

Each of us has an irrepressible desire to toil, to create something of value. 

Humans want to work, and they want to work on behalf of their own dreams and desires. Of course people also work to satisfy necessities. And I do accept that these necessities, whatever they are, will increasingly be serviced or provided in large part by robots and automated systems. Perhaps, for example, we will get our food thanks to automated indoor agriculture. But there will always be more to be done because humans need more than necessities, and even what counts as essential changes – even expands – over time. 

If we survive as a species, work for humans will be endless, as plentiful as we wish it. Because we are the masters of the worlds we have constructed. We create our own value systems. And no matter how much robots and automated systems do on our behalf, humans will find new ways of working. Humans will reach higher than their automatons. 

But remember, I said if we survive. Because we might not. The global extinction epidemic could also consume us. Many of us. Or even all of humanity.

If humans as a species do survive our arduous journey towards sustainable preservation of ourselves and the planet, on the other side of this epic journey will be a world of work without end.

The driver for all these various and plentiful jobs will be an emerging aesthetic of innovation, which we will require in order to transcend the utilitarian. In short, there will be an explosion of work for its own sake, by humans, for humans and between humans, animals and nature.

Art … Health … and Love–both as felt and experienced by individuals and at global scale–will be the pillars of job growth in the year 2050.

Thirty years from now humans will be in a post-survival mode, and the aesthetics of innovation will be the reigning ethos for innovators. Robot-dominated technologies of survival will deliver functional benefits, such as food, water, shelter, energy, transportation, security, and environmental protection for us and for myriad plants and animals, fish and birds.

But by 2050, those technologies of survival should become embedded and grow more robust and begin to engender a transformation in human values, a collective revelation that will carry human practices into a new stage where beauty and dignity will matter most. This will be true in part because the everyday essentials of life will be more readily provided by automated systems.

Technologies of survival will deliver functional benefits, while innovations in the domains of beauty, health and love will deliver the most value to humans. Work in those domains will satisfy needs that are open-ended. Plastic. Because humans are insatiable. That’s another unique trait of the human brain and human consciousness. Satisfaction is a moving target, and ultimately humans will judge by and for themselves how to meet their protean desires.

It will be a time of elevated companionship within the human community and between humans and animals and all living creatures. I foresee new categories of jobs designed to protect and enrich the lives of animals, plants and other creatures that today are mainly viewed as objects of conservation and protection.

Just as today we provide companion care to the elderly, humans will provide such care to the animals, plants, insects and lands and waters in the places they inhabit. Sustainability requires that we toil on behalf of our wider environment. The rigors, indeed the traumas, of survival will, by the post-survival era, render essential that humans find communion with all living things.

And then there will be additional work required to elevate, educate and amuse  ourselves through art, music and media.

Why will the pursuit of beauty emerge as the defining ethos of innovation? Because creative expression sits at the core of the human story. In the decades and centuries ahead, beauty, art, and the search for new forms of meaning and transcendence will continue to sustain our species. 

Jobs aplenty. That’s if we survive. If we survive, we will employ ourselves in ways that create beauty for one another, and for the animals, and plants, fish and birds, who enjoy the planet with us. 

G. Pascal Zachary is author of Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, and a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation at Arizona State University. This article is based on an April speech at Techfest in Portland, Oregon.

One Response to “If We Survive, Human Work Will Be Endless”

  1. Jonathan Murray says:

    All hail the Utopian ideal. What a wonderful world to look forward to. Unfortunately that future depends on transitioning a global workforce largely educated to fulfill the needs of a Fordist manufacturing and services economy. Those masses will not go quietly into the night as the robots make them
    economically irrelevant. They will begin to realize – as they already do – that the elites at the top of the economic pyramid striving for their utopian future of art, leisure and love have rigged the game and paid lip service to the needs of the less well educated. The death throws of our capitalist human-based labor economy will be violent and brutal. Art, love and leisure may survive but they will be holed up in walled enclave isolated from the disintegrating society they left behind.

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