AI And The Question Of Technological Unemployment
The first AI winters of 1974 and the late 1980s may now be over. A recent survey conducted by the National Business Research Institute found that 61% of survey respondents
implemented AI in their businesses in 2017.
With the rise of AI also comes a renewed controversy over what John Maynard Keynes, in 1930, called “technological unemployment,”
a threat first felt during the short-lived Luddite movement in the early nineteenth century, then after the Great Depression, and once again during the prophesied “Triple Revolution”
in the mid-1960s
And where do the experts come down this time? (Short answer? Oh vey.)
In 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, both at Oxford University, held that “about 47 percent
of total US employment is at risk” of automation. In 2014, Mark McCarthy argued that, on the contrary, not only is it “a myth” that technology leads to unemployment but also that the “use of software both creates and displaces some jobs, and the net result
has unquestionably been more jobs.” Yet Noah Smith begs to differ: acknowledging that not all human labor is irreplaceable, he nonetheless suggests that “it is quite possible that workers’ share of what society produces
will continue to go down and down, as our economy becomes more and more capital-intensive.” Meanwhile, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, adopting a form of realism, foresee a future “labor-light economy”
while maintaining that, in the short term anyway, people will continue to regard “human interaction” as being “central” to some economic transactions.
So, can we expect AI to bring about technological unemployment? As one of my friends Michael Coren
, in true Alice in Wonderland
style, recently put it, “The juries have spoken. They’ve said lots
, and I have no idea
advised that, in the face of compelling arguments pro
where certain knowledge is in doubt, we should suspend judgment. Once we do so with regard to the question of technological unemployment, we can open ourselves up to asking a more searching philosophical question, one that virtually nobody is asking today: Why do we care so much
It can’t be that the prospect of technological unemployment matters to us in the developed world in the early twenty-first century because of the fear of starvation since, as Yuval Harari shows in Homo Deus, in the twentieth century famine was pretty much wiped out. Starving to death, once a genuine possibility, is now very highly unlikely. It might instead be that we worry about increasing economic inequality or we believe that financial success is a necessary ingredient in a good life, yet plenty of people have lived well without also having achieved financial success and we don’t yet know how such material goods produced by AI would be distributed across society. The latter, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee also point out, is a political question.
It must instead be that the fear of technological unemployment points to a deeper fear we share: the loss of a sense of who we are. In the work society, if you’re not working, then you’re socially irrelevant; if you’re not employable, then you’re useless and, because of this, invisible. And the work society, it turns out, is the product of a profound historical force so woven into the texture of our daily lives that we don’t see it. It’s called total work.
What Makes Us Distinctly Human
In “The Last Things That Will Make Us Distinctly Human,”
Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, asks “a fairly simple question: What’s so special about us, and what’s our lasting value?” He calls it a “fairly simple question,” yet I think it is, for all that, a peculiarly odd one.
Odd and old. Aristotle also asked that question, inviting us to see what was the ergon (or function)
of a human being and identifying that ergon
, according to Thomas Nagel, with the “highest part of ourselves.” Mayer-Schonberger makes no appeal to the philosophical tradition and thus is left ruling out the answers previously given, those such as rationality or linguistic facility and acquisition.
I confess that I’m betwixt three thoughts. One: stark bemusement when presented with Mayer-Schonberger’s claim that what’s distinctively human is an “irrational creativity.” Geez, is that all we’re left with? Some groovy creative class tune? Two: the feeling that we should strike down the question about what is “the” distinctive feature of being human and get on with living more humbly among all other sentient, and now also AI, beings. But that thought, come to that, may be too uncharitable or at least too quick. Ergo, three: the sense that it’s best to grant the question while trying to wring out of Nagel’s line of inquiry something about the life of leisure as well as that of political action.
With this in mind, I turn next to the suggestions that Robert C. Wolcott makes in his Harvard Business Review
piece entitled “How Automation Will Change Work, Purpose, and Meaning.”
(In case you were looking for an SEO bonanza, “AI,” “purpose,” and “meaning” will probably do ya good.)
I say, “Politics and Contemplation!” You say, “Huzzah!”
Wolcott’s short HBR piece is thoughtful. If, in Arendtian language, more and more of us won’t need to labor in the sense of fulfilling our material needs or work in the sense of producing physical artifacts, then what the hell shall we do with ourselves? Wolcott would have us think with the Greeks: Though Arendt privileged the life of public engagement over that of contemplation, “action and contemplation,” he writes, “function best when allied. We have the opportunity–perhaps the responsibility–to turn our curiosity and social natures to action and contemplation.”
Hooah, buddy, responsibility is a big word. Here, therefore, enters the colicky modern skeptic come to announce, with affected disgruntlement, her disagreement: “But come now,” she says. “Total work has created the work society. For at least 200 years, we’ve known no other. From birth to working age to retirement to death. Only look around you, huh?, to see what people are doing each day, what they’re thinking about most of the time, what they’re talking about over cocktails, before bedtime, at the dental office, while being wheeled into surgery. Think back to chattel slaves, to helots, to serfs, to peasants, then think of wage laborers, piecemeal workers, and giggers today. I ask you, ‘Is homo sapiens really, en masse, all that fit for this new, entirely untried social experiment?’ I ask you, ‘Even if homo sapiens is constitutionally fit, have our educational institutions really bred this creature to take responsibility–for his or her attention? I ask you finally, 'Is it really going to be that easy to make the transition from the work society to the leisure society?’”
She exits the stage with proper pride.
In this case, dear colicky skeptic, I agree.
In an important essay penned in 1930, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,”
the economist John Maynard Keynes issues a thought experiment, which involves seeing what life would be like in 2030 (not very far off now, dear readers!) and granting the assumption that human beings living then would be “eight times better off in the economic sense” than they are today in 1930. His “startling conclusion” is that the “economic problem” would, by then, utterly vanish. The problem with subsistence, one that has afflicted homo sapiens
he thinks for all time (but James C. Scott in Against the Grain
would say that this is only true of life under the state and not, therefore, of that of hunter-gatherers), would be up and gone. For good.
I find myself obliged to quote Keynes at length because doing so brings out his doubts and concerns (in what follows, set aside his less than charming views of women):
Will this be a benefit [to humankind overall]? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.
To use the language of to-day–must we not expect a general “nervous breakdown“? We already have a little experience of what I mean–a nervous breakdown of the sort which is already common enough in England and the United States amongst the wives of the well-to-do classes, unfortunate women, many of them, who have been deprived by their wealth of their traditional tasks and occupations–who cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing.
To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed-for sweet–until they get it.
We should take Keynes’ dread very seriously. Why? Because
for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem–how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
Writing in the 1960s, Sebastian de Grazia too once wrote (I’m paraphrasing by culling my memory), “Woe to the country that in times of peace and prosperity has no clue what to do with its newfound leisure.” He was referring to the post-World War II United States.
Quite recently, futurist and Silicon Valley favorite Yuval Harari has argued that should AI create a “useless class,”
then we have every reason to expect more and more people to be hooked on games: “virtual realities,” he writes emphatically, “are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class of the post-work world.” Providing meaning? Regardless of how interesting virtual reality games are, I see this move less as a claim about “providing meaning to the useless class” and more as a rather cynical, or, to be more charitable, overly dispassionate, move to reveal that entertainment
is the mad, man-made substitute for otium:
for stillness, perchance for sacredness, for the gift of time.
Still, what Harari and Keynes both bring to light is that if
my claims about total work are true and if
total work created the work society, that in which we’ve grown up and to which we belong, then how
, assuming AI did create something akin to a post-work world, would we make the transition to a leisure society without falling prey to “nervous breakdowns,” needless aggression and violence, and the siren songs of attention monopolization? What Orien Etzioni says, in Wired Magazine
, about UBI could also apply to a post-work world: “A universal basic income doesn’t give people dignity or protect them from boredom and vice”
I think that ennui, which is nearer the mark than boredom, could, in such a society, become our greatest affliction. In the early modern period among the “leisurely class,” ennui was already in play as the historian Peter Burke has illustrated in his essay, “The Invention of Leisure in Early Modern Europe.” Now an affliction not just for the few but for many? Quite possibly. The Oxford English Dictionary is helpful here inasmuch as it shows that ennui, a French term, is derived from the Latin, in odio (“I hate”) and from thence to the Middle English ennoy, meaning “a troubled state of mind, grief, vexation.” Hence, the loathsome, ornery, irritated feeling associated with ennui–specifically: “The feeling of mental weariness and dissatisfaction produced by want of occupation, or by lack of interest in present surroundings or employments.”
Restless, weary, dissatisfied, vexed–this is more than being just a bit bored or “out of sorts.” I am, in ennui, bordering on not being able to stand myself or to brook life as it is. I can find nothing
to which I can wholeheartedly give my attention, nothing
to absorb my mind, nothing
to quicken my spirit, nothing
to uplift my heart or apply my calloused hands. In ennui, I may become sick of others, of my life without, as Peggy Lee once sung
, also having the desire to “go ahead and end it all.”
Ennui could reveal that beneath our more than 200-year-old culture of total work, frighteningly, dwells nihilism.
Yet Blessed Be The Delightful People
It is not the Keynes filled with dread with whom I shall conclude but the eloquent Keynes for whom poetry just might save us:
We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.
Let us raise our plentiful glasses to the delightful people and, by so doing, become one of them.
- - - - -
Coming Up Next in Issue #4?
Special Thanks To…
Jacqueline Jensen (@JacquelineMJensen
) for bringing to my attention Treehouse’s return to 40 hours; George Lorenzo
who I initially corresponded with over LinkedIn about Josef Pieper on leisure and who recently pointed me to the HBR
article I included in this issue; Paul Millerd (@p_millerd
) who pointed me to the Atlantic
article about AI and the future of work; and to my friend Misha Lepetic (@mishalepetic
) for pointing me to the Politico
piece (as well as many, many, many others).
Comments, Suggestions, Articles On Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, canards, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <firstname.lastname@example.org>.