Want Your Children to Survive The Future? Send Them to Art School
Dustin Timbrook

Much as I admire the aspirations of a “post-work” society, this really is sheer nonsense.

Sure, it’s enticing to imagine that all fields of endeavor will be covered either by children who grew up to pursue their dreams (when the task is pleasant) or by robotic AI (when the task is onerous). But there is no rational reason for believing this little piggy flies.

Yes, over the course of history, some manual tasks have been mechanized. Yes, new technology supplants old. We are mostly the descendants of farmers and craftsmen, and it’s true that few of us work as they worked. But crucially, we’re still stuck working. Sorry, that doesn’t change.

Right now, I’m looking out the window at a guy repairing the exterior of an Adobe building in Santa Fe. Was manual labor his childhood dream? No, but he has a decent honorable job and is justifiably proud to do it well.

Right now I’m typing on a computer — designed by engineers, produced in a factory managed by humans, reliant on metals mined from the bowels of the earth by miners in mines discovered by geologists. All of those are difficult jobs … and nobody’s childhood dream.

Right now, I’m eating a breakfast burrito prepared by a human. She got up early in the morning to make a large batch for customers. Was it her childhood dream to make batches of food before dawn? No, she probably preferred art. So I guess that means we’ll all be eating food from a 3D printer in the magical “post-work” society. Yum!

When you go to the emergency room with appendicitis or cancer, you’ll be diagnosed by a robot and cut open by a robot. Humans won’t be present because no kid dreams of sitting through a decade of medical school when he could be painting pictures.

Robots will invent new drugs and test them? Robots will study the effects in clinical trials? Robots will publish results, and robots will critique each others’ work in peer reviewed studies? AI will look up the answer and tell you that the new pharmaceuticals are 100% safe, as predicted. And you will swallow that pill?

Will all these careers be replaced by robots? Theoretically, that’s possible in a few simple cases. But think of all the robots — robots to install windows, robots to fix busted furnaces, robots to weed and plant but not weed the desirable plants, robots to take a plunger to our clogged toilets, robots to cut and install tiles, robots to clean the grout, robots to repair the other robots when they get stuck face-first in the toilet, ad infinitum.

Have you ever designed a robot? It isn’t done with a magic wand. Really, it’s charmingly naïve that you think of knowledge as mere reference material … to be Googled. Life isn’t a game of jeopardy with answers known ahead of time and stored for easy lookup. That’s trivia, data, not knowledge. Engineers don’t design computers or robots or AI by looking up predetermined information.

Let me put it this way. I used to supervise nuclear power plants in submarines and decode messages that would be used to launch nuclear missiles. Do you want that job in the hands of AI? Because it wasn’t our childhood dream to get less than 4 hours of sleep per night and spend months away from sunlight and society in a tube. Do you want a crew of robots figuring out some unanticipated nuclear meltdown when a tsunami hits Japan?

On a less glamorous note, part of my job as a junior sub officer required me to climb inside the sanitation tanks (where the sewage lives) and inspect zinc bricks bolted to the wall by pounding on them with a rubber mallet. That’s the only sure way to know that the bulkhead isn’t going to rust through and develop a hole. (Holes in walls are a bad thing when you live underwater.) Meanwhile, I had a rope tied around my waist; and it was another guy’s job to yank me out if the fumes caused me to faint. Not my childhood dream, that. Yet I’d never entrust the job, however nasty, to a robot.

This is reality. Art matters. Creativity matters. The more space we can create in our lives for such things, the better. But unpleasant work is a necessary part of life that simply cannot be outsourced fully to AI and machines. I like my breakfast burritos made by people. And I like my art fashioned by artists who’ve gotten their hands dirty by living through the tedium, the grime, the hardship of real experience.