This piece was shortlisted for the people’s choice award in AUTOMATED: The 2017 Honi Soit Writing Competition. To vote, head to our Facebook page.
How quaint it will seem, in the wholly automated future, that we once spent the majority of our existence working to produce the goods and services necessary to sustain ourselves. How pointless, it will seem, to have spent the bulk of our infinitesimally small span of life on this planet hammering metal in a factory, typing endlessly in an office, or cultivating the earth for our basic dietary requirements. The ‘age of work’ will seem as foreign and removed from our present experience as the dark ages do to us now.
As automation accelerates in leaps and bounds, our future looks increasingly reliant on robots to produce the material goods society needs. The OECD predicts that over half our jobs will be automated in the coming decades, and artificial intelligence, robots, and technology are constantly making new ground towards this end. And if this change can be expected within our lifetimes, then what about in the next century?
During the era of transition this will inevitably cause fear and anxiety as traditional livelihoods are made obsolete. The old structures of society will struggle to accommodate the brave new world as welfare states collapse and ideas like universal basic incomes are trialled. Sure, there are some winners from the inexorable rise of automation but initially there are far more losers.
Nonetheless, as these profound changes from automation occur, the structure of society slowly but surely adapts. The concept of ‘work’ changes fundamentally. Inevitably some functions remain only to humans, such as the task of policy making and governing, as well as the design and implementation of artificial intelligence. But these jobs require nowhere near the amount of time traditional jobs needed. It is a lot quicker to write a single program for a thousand robots than to assign a thousand human workers to the same job. And so ultimately the need for humans to work is either vastly reduced or eliminated entirely.
And what then?
According to economists we work in order to satisfy our wants, to purchase the goods and services we desire. The trade off is between leisure and having more things. So if the production process, our means of getting these things which satisfy our wants, is entirely or almost entirely automated then humans will have an unprecedented amount of time for leisure activities.
And this is the key. Without the requirement to work humans can fulfil the untapped potential we all harbour, the pursuits we day dream about if only we had the time at our disposal. We all have goals, we all have ambitions and desires that set us apart from other life forms on this planet. We share with animals the struggle for basic subsistence needs, but our similarity stops there. While an animal may be content surviving, breeding, and simply fulfilling its role in the enduring cycle of life, humans are capable of much more. No other living creature has our creativity or capacity for innovation. No animal looks upon the world and goes about changing it, no animal has our sense of imagination and wonder that allows us to not only live on this earth but also marvel at its beauty. Only humans have the innate potential to create and, with automation, we can release it.
And so liberated, the uninhibited energy of mankind can be turned to creative pursuits. Composing songs, symphonies, melodies, writing and studying literature, creating works of art, mastering crafts, languages, instruments, studying mathematics, physics, medicine, mastering physical pursuits and sports, imitating the classical notion of the philosopher athlete. There is no longer any trade off.
This vision of an automated utopia is not new. John Maynard Keynes marvelled at the economic possibilities of our grandchildren in the 1930s, and argued that in a century hence mankind would have already solved the ‘economic problem’ of subsistence, and moved on to be completely occupied by the ‘art of life’. And while it seems unlikely that we will have reached such a point by the 2030s, Keynes’s point still carries. That we are reaching, via the onwards march of automation, a point where humans turn from the problem of producing to the art of living.
Of course if we are to truly realise the potential of mankind we must also accept its flaws. As long as there are humans there will be war, and war among societies with more time and resources available to them may well be terrible. But this is unavoidable, and is already as much a feature of the unautomated society as it will be in the automated one.
As impossible as it is for us to imagine how life must have been one thousand or two thousand years ago, to imagine the privation, the disease, and the famine, so too will the present seem unimaginable in the future. But with the abundance of time we will have, and the ability to partake in such unproductive activities as self-reflection, we will conclude that ultimately the slow but steady automation revolution was for the better.