I’m a Junior in Dedman College, so people are already asking me those pesky, stereotypical end-of-college questions like “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” and “What are you going to do with an English degree?” and, essentially, “How are you going to get a job and support yourself and not be homeless and starving in 3 months?” Often, if my questioner is older I get, “Aren’t you afraid the robots are going to take all the jobs?” I’ve started responding “God, I hope so.”
I should explain: I truly love my work. Law is a beautiful thing to me, and I would be perfectly happy to work in it until the day I die. Additionally, my wish for robot overlords probably won’t come true, and I’ll most likely have a job. I’m not just an English major, but a triple major, double minor. I’m also studying Political Science, Philosophy, Human Rights, Public Policy, and International affairs, which means I’m headed for law school, a PhD, and then (hopefully) a well-paying job after all that homework. Because my field is old and academic I’m not as likely to be replaced by a robot or an algorithm, which is unfortunate. Regardless of my love of the law, and my relative job security, I hope every day that my dream job gets stolen by AI. I hope machines take your job too, and your mom’s, because your mom is a nice lady and she deserves a vacation.
We often forget that humans, not machines, are the ones who directly benefit when machines “take” jobs. Backhoes are machines that replaced human jobs; less people have to swing shovels in the heat now because of them. Calculators reduced the number of workers necessary for record keeping, and then computers did the same thing to an exponentially greater degree years later, and yet both calculators and computers have wildly increased our quality of life (just ask any student in a stats class). So why do we fear the advent of some new technology that, by reducing the amount of work we need to do, will free us to be happier and more productive humans?
I think there’s a short-, and a long-term answer. In the short-term we’re afraid of losing our jobs because jobs give us money, we buy food with money, and food keeps us alive. So, if a machine takes my job it could also be taking my life. That fear is valid. Since the current growth of AI technology is exponential, as it was with past efficiency increasing technologies, there is going to be a number of displaced workers who suffer the consequences of industry evolution. Thankfully, this isn’t America’s first rodeo with this stuff (see: the industrial revolution). We know what high unemployment does to our country (hint: it’s massive economic depression), and we know how to fix it (hint: it’s redistribution of wealth, education, and public works). Will it be difficult? Yes. Will some people face economic struggles because of technology that later generations will learn to take for granted? Yes. Will the objectively easiest solution seem politically impossible right up until it’s accomplished? Yes. Is that terrible? Yes, but it’s also manageable, and because we know AI is on the horizon it’s something we can plan for.
I think the long-term fear is more interesting, namely, what do we do when we don’t have to work so damn much? In our current culture it is not uncommon to define oneself by one’s occupation or career goals. Whole books have been written on how to attain a positive “work-life balance,” as if work is somehow integral and equal to life. If we define ourselves by our work, then what do we do if work is taken from us? Are we capable of functioning in a post-scarcity society wherein all jobs are autonomously filled, and humans are left to their own devices? Is waking up in the morning worth it if you have nothing you have to do? Sure, the first few years of perpetual retirement would be great, but with so many people finding meaning in life via the solving of problems and the accomplishment of tasks, at what point do you run out of sex and world-travelling and realize you miss having a job?
I think that problem, the problem of how a work-driven people survive in a workless society, is one of the greatest challenges we face. In a world where it is getting easier and easier to work less, and from home, the question of how to spend one’s time becomes paramount and, to many people, frightening. Staring at empty hands and an empty inbox can be much more difficult than we sometimes realize.
If a work-driven, know-nothing student like myself may offer a suggestion: write. Dance. Draw. Climb things and then jump off of them with a backpack full of hope and parachute. For millennia humans have been dreaming of afterlives and utopias where one can wake up and just sing all day, and it’s terrifying but we might just get there soon. If you’re worried about losing your job first learn to code. Then, when you’ve got that out of the way and you know you’ll be able to eat (at least until society is truly post-scarcity and work becomes completely automated), start writing that book you said you wanted to write. Talk to the handsome mystery in the library. Train for a triathlon. Submit to Hilltopics. You may just find a new reason to keep on living.
This article was written by Destiny Rose Murphy. Click here to see more of Destiny Rose’s work.