The Future of Work: But What Will Humans Do?

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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A 16th-century German depiction of the Garden of Eden. (Photo: Public Domain)

A 16th-century German depiction of the Garden of Eden. (Photo: Public Domain)

While artificial intelligence has proved much more difficult than some early pioneers believed, its progress has been nothing short of inexorable. In 2004 economists argued that driving was unlikely to be automated in the near future. A year later a Stanford autonomous vehicle won a DARPA Grand Challenge by driving over 100 miles along an unrehearsed desert trail. A decade later, one hears regularly about the exploits of the Google driverless car. I believe that in 30 years it will be quaint, perhaps even illegal, for humans to drive on public roads.

Moshe Y. Vardi is the George Professor in Computational Engineering at Rice University.

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Once driving is automated, delivery will be quick to follow; companies such as Amazon are already working hard on fully automating their whole supply chain. The list of jobs likely to be automated grows daily, as AI increases its cognitive ability (it won at chess in 1999 and Jeopardy! in 2011), and its situational awareness and physical dexterity.

The unstoppable march of AI suggests that Herbert Simon was probably right when he wrote in 1956 that "machines will be capable ... of doing any work a man can do." I do not expect this to happen soon, but I do believe that by 2045 machines will be able to do much of the work that humans can do. So the question is: If machines can do almost any work humans can, what will humans do?

A typical answer is that if machines will do all our work, we will be free to pursue leisure activities. Of course, our economic system would have to undergo a radical re-structuring to enable billions of people to live lives of leisure. One can imagine perhaps a society of a small number of haves and a large number of haves-not, supported, say, by government subsidies. This is reminiscent of “panem et circenses,” the Roman practice of free bread and entertainment to the masses. Yet I do not find this a promising future, as I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being. Is this our future?

It is instructive to recall the biblical story of the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis (Chapters 2 and 3). God places Adam and Eve in the Garden and tells them: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” The Serpent then tempts Eve, who, in turn, tempts Adam, to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. This leads to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Furthermore, God metes punishment on the Serpent, Eve, and Adam: “And unto Adam he said, cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” So, according to this biblical story, our need to work for a living is an outcome of the failure of humanity to follow the word of God.

But let us contemplate humanity before and after the expulsion. Before the expulsion, Adam and Eve spent their time frolicking naked in the garden, where food is amply available without work; one could say they were no better than apes. One could even see the story as a metaphor for the roots of humanity in pre-human primates. After the expulsion, humans had to work for a living, but they have eaten from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They were inventive. They have learned to hunt, mastered fire, invented agriculture, and eventually launched the Industrial Revolution. We are about to launch another Industrial Revolution, where work will be almost fully automated.

In a sense, humans used the knowledge they gained from the Forbidden Fruit to overcome God’s punishment; they will no longer need to work for a living; no more “by the sweat of thy face.” But can humanity go back to the Garden of Eden? Will we be happy just frolicking? Furthermore, human progress has been driven to a large extent by our desire to eliminate work or, at least, to lighten the toil. What will drive humanity once that goal has by and large been accomplished?

Thus, even if we manage to solve the economic implications of the complete or almost-complete automation of work, the question of the consequences to quality of life remains wide open. The classical Greek philosophers, starting with Socrates, discussed “Eudaimonia,” often translated as “the good life”—in other words, human flourishing. Aristotle viewed this question as one of the most central in philosophy. So the question facing us today is whether we can achieve the good life without work.

I believe the question of how humanity will occupy itself in the presence of intelligent machinery is one of the most central challenges facing society today. To repeat my earlier question: If machines are capable of almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?

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For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

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