The library at the Minerva Priory, Rome, Italy.
I recently participated in a meeting of technologists, economists and European philosophers and theologians. Other attendees included Andrew McAfee, Erik Brynjolfsson, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, Father Eric Salobir. One of the interesting things about this particular meeting for me was to have a theological (in this case Christian) perspective to our conversation. Among other things, we discussed artificial intelligence and the future of work.
The question about how machines will replace human beings and place many people out of work is well worn but persistently significant. Sam Altman and others have argued that the total increase in productivity will create an economic abundance that will enable us to pay out a universal “basic income” to those who are unemployed. Brynjolfsson and McAfee have suggested a “negative income tax”-a supplement instead of a tax for low-income workers that would help the financial redistribution without disrupting the other important outcomes generated by the practice of work.
Those supporting the negative income tax recognize that the importance of work is not just the income derived from it, but also the anchor that it affords us both socially and psychologically. Work provides a sense of purpose as well as a way to earn social status. The places we work give us both the opportunity for socializing as well as the structure that many of us need to feel productive and happy.
So while AI and other technologies may some day create a productivity abundance that allows us to eliminate the financial need to work, we will still need to find ways to obtain the social status-as well as a meaningful purpose-we get from work. There are many people who work in our society who aren’t paid. One of the largest groups are stay-at-home men and women whose work it is to care for their homes and children. Their labor is not currently counted toward the GDP, and they often do not earn the social status and value they deserve. Could we somehow change the culture and create mechanisms and institutions that provided dignity and social status to people who don’t earn money? In some ways academia, religious institutions and non-profit service organizations have some of this structure: social status and dignity that isn’t driven primarily by money. Couldn’t there be a way to extend this value structure more broadly?
And how about creative communities? Why couldn’t we develop some organizing principle that would allow amateur writers, dancers or singers to define success by measures other than financial returns? Could this open up creative roles in society beyond the small sliver of professionals who can be supported by the distribution and consumption by the mass media? Could we make “starving artist” a quaint metaphor of the past? Can we disassociate the notion of work from productivity as it has been commonly understood and accepted? Can “inner work” be considered more fruitful when seen in light of thriving and eudaemonia?
Periclean Athens seems to be a good example of a moral society where people didn’t need to work to be engaged and productive.* Could we image a new age where our self-esteem and shared societal value is not associated with financial success or work as we know it? Father Eric asks, “What does it mean to thrive?” What is our modern day eudaemonia? We don’t know. But we do know that whatever it is, It will require a fundamental cultural change: change that is difficult, but not impossible. A good first step would be to begin work on our culture alongside our advances in technology and financial innovations so that the future looks more like Periclean Athens than a world of disengaged kids with nothing to do. If it was the moral values and virtues that allowed Periclean Athens to function, how might we develop them in time for a world without work as we currently know it?
* There were many slaves in Periclean Athens. For the future machine age, will be need to be concerned about the rights of machines? Will we be creating a new class of robot slaves?