Humanity’s Search for Meaning in the Age of AI and Automation
In 2013, Oxford University professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne published a now-seminal study on the likelihood that various professions would be automated. In that study, medical doctors were identified as some of the least likely to be replaced by AI and automation. Fast forward to 2018, when an AI system called BioMind developed by research teams from the Artificial Intelligence Research Centre for Neurological Disorders at Beijing Tiantan Hospital and Capital Medical University bested 15 of China’s top neurologists at diagnosing brain tumors in 225 cases—and it wasn’t even close. The AI achieved an 87% accuracy rate compared to the physicians’ 66%, and it only took 15 minutes compared to the doctors’ 30.
From healthcare to law to education to finance, across nearly ever white collar sector previously thought to be safe from obsolescence, Artificial Intelligence is making inroads. This of course is on top of the highly publicized advances it has already made in more blue collar industries like trucking, transportation, and manufacturing. My contention: nothing and nobody is safe—and, if it looks like you’re safe, there’s probably a well-funded tech startup eyeing your industry right now.
In fairness, there are a lot of very smart, albeit biased, people who have suggested that this disruption, like the technological revolutions before it, will ultimately create more jobs and prosperity than it eliminates. While this may be the case, it’s not prudent to discard the scenarios we don’t like. Indeed, there have been a deluge of articles and books published on the potential economic impact of AI and automation rendering many or most professions superfluous, with many authors suggesting some form of universal basic income as a remedy to rampant technologically-induced unemployment. Few authors, however, have discussed what role the human being will play in a post-labor society.
Beyond simply needing jobs to earn income, work gives meaning to people’s lives. It provides people with a sense of pride, purpose, identity, and value. It helps people feel like they’re growing, evolving, and improving. It’s critical to a person’s sense of self worth and sense of belonging. Noted 20th century psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl even cited creating something new as one of the principal ways people find meaning in life. Even famed psychologist Abraham Maslow saw achieving one’s potential as an avenue to self-actualization, the pinnacle of his Hierarchy of Needs.
How will humanity survive in a post-labor society? To where will it turn for purpose, fulfillment, meaning, and motivation? What will the meaning of life be in our workaholic culture in a world without work?
Although these existential questions may seem highfalutin, humanity’s collective response to them could very well determine the future of our civilization. These questions become even more acute in an economy where the majority of the population has to be supported by a guaranteed basic income. With no job and only a subsistence-level income for discretionary spending, the vast majority of people will have far fewer opportunities to cultivate hobbies and engage in social activities. Beyond being terribly unfulfilling and unproductive, this systemic boredom combined with widespread financial hardship would likely lead to an increase in crime, a link that several peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated.
Beyond discussing the normativity of automation, the technology behind it, and its potential economic impact, we as a society need to start considering its social and existential ramifications as well. We need to start addressing the reality that our social constructs and values are ill-adapted for a world without work and that, unless we evolve our own understanding of life and its meaning, our civilization may devolve into a purposeless amalgam of nihilistic automatons devoid of the very animating drives that make us human.
To avoid this eventuality, we may be forced to find new fonts of fulfillment and new mechanisms for meaning. Below are four potential candidates that seem well positioned to thrive in a post-labor, AI-driven society.
1) Traditional and Techno Religions
It’s extremely likely that a post-labor future would see the revival of religion and spirituality in various forms. These systems have historically provided certainty, purpose, and meaning to people’s lives—often during periods of social and economic turmoil. In the decades ahead, they may be called upon to do so again in a world where meaning is scarce. Religion is often criticized for making outlandish claims to truth and fostering radical behavior. At its best, however, religion helps people better understand themselves and make sense of the universe they live in — two things that may be in high-demand in a post-labor society.
Additionally, with the creation of Way of the Future—the IRS-approved religion dedicated to the worship of Artificial Intelligence founded by autonomous vehicle pioneer Anthony Levandowski—the same forces of Progress (with a capital ‘P’) that are transforming our economy have been made manifest in institutional form. Say what you will about it, Way of the Future brilliantly imbues meaning and value in trends that most find intimidating or foreboding. Rather than fear the advent of Artificial Intelligence, you can now join the movement to help proclaim its coming and prepare the way for its eventual incarnation. What better way to reclaim meaning than to evangelize that which threatens to destroy it? If you can’t beat it, join it.
2) Exploration and Education
Human curiosity is in many ways the traditional driver of social and technological progress. It often has no practical utility, yielding simply self-fulfillment, and thus will be important to making life interesting in a post-labor society. Space exploration, for example, holds particular promise as a new frontier that can direct human curiosity in a productive and meaningful way. The growing interest in space from the private sector and the resurgence in interest from the public sector is heartening. Although robots will continue to be a key component in future missions beyond Earth’s orbit, humanity still aims to manifest its galactic destiny, e.g. Elon Musk. Perhaps someday we may even achieve Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future where humans, no longer needing to work, explore space out of pure curiosity. As President John F. Kennedy, channeling the explorer George Mallory, said in his famed “We choose to go to the moon speech” at Rice University, we choose to go to the moon “because it is there.”
Additionally, in a world where technical tasks are managed by Artificial Intelligence, humanities subjects like history, philosophy, literature, art, and theology may once again become the topics de jour. While the study of these humanities have been devalued because of their lack of earning potential, in a largely automated economy, these more abstract subjects may be the only courses of study that have any value at all.
3) Culture and Creativity
Programs can play the piano. Robots can generate a picture. But these are representations, not provocations intended to say something to someone. An enhanced and broad-based appreciation for artistic endeavors that depend on human beings for creation and interpretation would provide a post-labor society with aesthetic value and an avenue for productivity. I am particularly referring to art, in whatever form, that is intellectually demanding — art that requires reflection and introspection to grasp and appreciate. This category also includes food, which is not only an art but one that will still be necessary to human flourishing. Fortunately, food is already a trending topic that will likely continue to play a significant role in a post-labor society—if people can afford it.
An art boom would also create economic value beyond the realms of capital and technology, which are quickly becoming the dominant — and one day, perhaps, the only — economic spheres. Although the art economy already exists, it’s largely confined to relatively small sub-groups, most of which are either financially or socially exclusive. New “games” like blockchain-based CryptoKitties are redefining art and collectibles, and could help introduce new forms of assets that are more resilient to digital headwinds.
4) Escapism and Entertainment
Lastly, and most unfortunately, it seems probable that a large portion of humanity is destined to Netflix and chill their way to irrelevance. In the absence of the structure and purpose that work provides, many people will most certainly elect to spend their spare time spending their basic income on entertainment. While some people might be inclined to believe that the entire objective of pursuing AI and automation is to allow people to veg out—and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a good time—it’s probably not a permanent replacement for a career and likely won’t prove to be a longterm solution to a systemic loss of meaning. It’s important we make a concerted effort to push society toward other outlets so that humanity still has the opportunity to feel both productive and valuable.
While the preceding categories are not unproblematic and certainly not comprehensive, they do represent a few areas society might embrace to ensure human existence remains vibrant and meaningful. But, wherever the conversation on a world without work leads us, one thing is clear: preparing for it will require us to dramatically rethink the meaning of life and the role of people on this planet. Centuries from now, when we look back on this moment in history, we may find that this conversation was the most important one we’ve ever had.
About the author
Remington Tonar is a Partner and innovation consultant at Brandsinger, a NYC-based strategy consulting firm with clients ranging from Fortune 500s to fast-growing tech startups. He holds graduate degrees from NYU (Organizational Communication) and Loyola University Chicago (Theology) and is currently writing his PhD dissertation on technological myth.