Artificial Intelligence, the Future of Work and What it Means to be Human…

Posted by on Nov 30, 2017 in Blog | 5 comments

Have you ever asked at what point technology will have so advanced that the input of humans into life’s tasks will rarely be required? And what does that mean for the future of work? And what does it say about what it means to be human?

A personal anecdote. My family and I had recently arrived in New Zealand from South Africa. In the South Africa we left, the rubbish was collected by a van which rode down each street, the driver being supported by a team of four runners. Those runners would divide into teams of two, one for each side of the road. One would pick up the bag of rubbish and throw it into the back of the truck slowly driving down the street, the other would put out a replacement bag for next week’s rubbish. In New Zealand (and in Australia where we now live) that team has long been replaced by a sole driver for a truck with a mechanical arm which stretches out to each rubbish bin placed by the road, lifting it up and dumping its contents into the back of the van. A team of five had been reduced to one by the advent of that mechanical arm. Interestingly enough, the team of five in those South African teams were almost always all male. But the first driver I saw in New Zealand was a woman… Perhaps there was some significance in that… one woman now doing the work that it previously took five men to do. But the story doesn’t stop there. We are now on the cusp of driverless cars. In the not too distant future that once team of five, currently reduced to one will reduce further to none. A driverless van will sense where each rubbish bin is and will silently empty it, gliding from one street to the next.

And it will impact many other jobs. We’ve all got very excited by the advent of Uber – and the way it has revolutionized the taxi industry. But realistically, if you are now an Uber driver, don’t plan to be retiring from that job in forty years’ time. It will have disappeared long before then.

Actually, most mundane jobs are likely to go. Perhaps you already have an automatic vacuum cleaner – one which starts itself and zips around your home cleaning even in hard to reach corners. The technology for that will keep getting better and better. So if you are a professional cleaner… well, I’d be a tad worried if it was a job I loved. It probably won’t exist in 20 or 30 years. And so we can go on.

It forces us to ask questions about the place of work in life, and what it means to be human. After all, robots able to simulate empathy and to anticipate the sympathetic responses you might be looking for, are already in the early stages of design. Will we bother to form relationships with one another when we can have a smoother and less challenging relational ride with our robot? He or she (and I imagine our robot of choice can be of whatever gender we select them to have) will probably never challenge us but will calmingly agree with our every sentiment, helping to confirm each of our prejudices and preconceptions, leaving us content but undeveloped.

In short, with the rapid advances in artificial intelligence, are there some key theological truths we need to restate so that we guide the flow of progress, rather than simply lament its advance? If we had been aware of the impact of climate warming we might have paced the industrial revolution a little differently. By anticipating the impact of technological advances, perhaps we might tread a slightly different path. Here are four key guiding principles I thought of, and you might like to add some others.

1)     Work matters: While it is true that work became a burden as a result of the fall of humanity, prior to the fall it was a source of joy and creativity. The first human couple had to tend the garden. It was not designed to look after itself. Adam had to name the birds and animals, an act of great creativity, which was done with God watching on but not interfering in the process. Work was designed to be part of a good world, and we are right to assume that it will be part of the ultimate eschatological reality we will embrace. While we should delight in creativity, and celebrate the removal of the need for work which dehumanizes and depresses, we should be wary of creating any form of artificial intelligence that replaces our own need to be intelligently engaged with and creatively interacting with the world.

2)     People matter: All people have been made in the image of God and therefore have enormous worth. Not everyone has an enormous IQ. We must guard against a world where only the brightest and best can be actively engaged in the creative process. The world was not designed for non-participants. We must not redesign the work force in such a way that most find their labor unnecessary. Put bluntly, we must be sufficiently creative to constantly create meaningful and accessible new forms of work

3)     The communal good matters: For most of human history individualism has not been highly valued. How that has changed. While there are many advantages in the turn to the self and encouraging each person to find their own unique voice, we should remember that the only valid self that the Bible knows is the self in community. We are called into relationship with God, with one another and with Creation. How we fare collectively matters. It is not enough for me to look towards the future and to conclude that my configuration of gifts is sufficiently special for me to be unafraid that my skills will ever be redundant, and therefore to conclude that as technology will never make me surplus to requirements, I need have no concern for those who will be impacted by its advance. We need a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of others. And we need to use every ounce of our creativity to ensure that all are actively engaged in the new world that continues to emerge. Put differently, the recent announcement that thousands of jobs in the banking sector are about to be declared redundant as a result of technological advances does impact me… even though banking is not my sector. It impacts me because it impacts others. John Dunne was right. No one is an island, compete in their self. Anyone’s death diminishes me, because I am part of humanity. And therefore I must never send to know for whom the bell tolls… for it tolls for me.

4)     Relationships matter: In a highly individualized world, where the average train is filled with people interacting with their iPhone but rarely with each other, we need to keep opting for relationships. We’re used to being able to select the music we listen to (and why would you care – my headphones are on, so I’m not troubling you), or the movies we watch. The consumer is king, and should never be challenged – or so we think. We’re building a world where we don’t interrupt each other, but do an increasing number of things on our own. Trouble is that we’re forgetting how to be in genuine relationship – and by genuine I don’t mean, “you don’t interfere in my space, and I won’t interfere in yours”. Real relationships are robust, and challenge the deep levels of selfishness found in most of us. Technology might convince me that I need you less and less, but in reality the only less that occurs is that I become a little less human as a result, and my capacity for deep empathy is likely to be swamped by the endlessly instant gratification technology superficially provides to meet my every need.

So should we do an Amish, and say “no” to technological advances? That’s only possible if we remove ourselves from the flow of life, which is neither a viable nor a desirable option. But now is the time to ask more deeply than ever before “so what does it mean to be human?” Our answers should shape the way we respond to technological advances?

As always, nice chatting…

5 Comments

  1. As a former union rep. I have given the work side of this equation some thought. I love the Star Trek ideal that people do not work for wages but for self development. Politically I believe that we need a flat rate tax and a guaranteed minimum income. For example every adult gets $1000 a week ‘welfare” and everyone pays 40% tax. These two amounts are interactive such that if A is the $1000 and B is the 40% any increase in A requires an increase in B. The balance is right when everyone who wants a job can get one and everyone who wants an employee can find one.

    • As a former teacher of unemployed adults, I think this might be far from ideal for the ones who have no interest in working to contribute something to society. Self is all they are concerned about. They are the ones who only attend classes because they don’t want to work, but they don’t want their welfare payments cut. Maybe you have a solution to this problem?

      • If we could see that work was for self development then I think that people would want to work.
        Some of the problems with welfare are
        1. we begrudge those who sponge on the system.
        2. it creates poverty traps so that the working poor are worse off than those on welfare.
        3. poverty traps punish people for working while on welfare giving them the idea that it is no use trying to get off welfare.
        In the future there may not be enough full time jobs to go around but with the plan I propose hopefully people could choose a job that didn’t pay money and live off the guaranteed minimum income.
        But for that to work, somehow, we would have to change our worldview that work was to earn income and instead see work as self actualization.

  2. On the relationship side I believe that it is good manners to do things together. When my wife drinks tea, I drink tea, when my wife drinks coffee I drink coffee. We eat the same food at the same time in the same room. Mostly we watch TV together so some shows I might watch I don’t bother with because she is not interested. (A few I record and watch when she is away – and sometimes she watches one of these with me just because I want to watch it.) For the last 3 years we have attended different churches because seeking to follow God’s call has led us on different paths but it is so good when we can worship God together.

    • Life is ever changing and man has always adapted and made it work. Same applies even now! Life will go on and each person will work and study play as they can afford to with whatever desire and energy they put into their lives. There have always been and always will be people who work hard and people who are not motivated. For me it is about love even for the better or lesser with or without AI.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *