Will automation take away all our jobs?
Yuval Harari, author of the semi-apocalyptic bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind wrote an article in which he argues what is to be done with the newly-forming, enormous class of excess people. He calls them not just unemployed, but unemployable. No matter how hard they try, they will not find work because there won’t be work available. And it will be because even the worst jobs will be taken by robots, or in other words, artificial intelligence. Perhaps this new class of workers will be referred to as the “silicone proletariat”.
However, the very society that will deprive millions of people of work will be able to pay them a decent living wage: food, housing, clothing, and travel. But what will they do in their “off-time”, except eat and sleep? If you ask people of a particular political orientation, they’ll say that non-working people will surrender themselves to drunkenness, debauchery, thievery, and drugs. They’ll say this even if they themselves haven’t worked in a long time and generously accepts government assistance.
To argue that unemployment combined with prosperity (and to some extent human dignity) will lead to a rise in crime, you need to understand a little something about human nature.
People, in addition to meeting basic human needs, need something more, in contrast with robots – meaning of life.
In nature, the author recalls, there is no meaning of life. We invent it.
So what should they do instead of work? One option, Harari says, is computer games. Let the masses operate in virtual reality, since the brain does not care if this reality is “real” or not. If a current teenager is given a computer, Coca-Cola, pizza, and you rid them of school and their parents, then they wouldn’t leave the house for days.
Harari offers this sort of teenage future to a jobless humanity. At the same time, though, he emphasizes that there is nothing particularly futuristic about it; mankind has been operating in virtual reality for centuries under the guise of religion.
There are even people today (specifically the ultra-Orthodox in Israel) that already live like that. They do not work because their wives usually do, and they get money from the State. They aren’t living very extravagantly, either, but according to polls are very happy since they stay in their favorite virtual reality game all day.
And in Bali, cockfights play a similar role. They’re so embedded in daily life and economy of the island that when the Indonesian authorities tried to ban it, chaos ensued.
The most ingenious part of Harari’s analogy between religion and virtual reality games is about “points”. In popular denominations, it’s sort of inferred that you score points for proper behavior – not eat pork, not sleep with people of the same sex, read a prayer, thank the heavens for food, help church administrators financially, etc. And if you get the right amount of points in this game, you rise to a higher level, or find yourself in a better world.
There’s nothing new under the sun. It seems to me that you could even add in good, old workplace therapy to the games of these happy, unemployed people. If you recall the experience of Tom Sawyer, it’s clear that labor can not only be punishment (customary in prisons, and beyond), but also a reward.
Plus interest groups, language studies, crafts, cooking, and competitions against robots in writing blog posts.
Text: Sebastian Varo
Photo: Eya Ozerova