A World Without Work?

A World Without Work? November 28, 2023

Elon Musk has been warning about the dangers of Artificial Intelligence, including the fear that it would attain consciousness, take over the world, and maybe even destroy human beings as parasites.  But lately the richest man in the world has been more optimistic, even utopian, about what Artificial Intelligence, plus the robotic he is working on, might mean.

The Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall) has published an article by Tim Higgins entitled “What Elon Musk’s ‘Age of Abundance’ Means for the Future of Capitalism,”  with the explanatory deck, “The world’s richest man and others are describing a world with little work.”

Here is some of what Musk is saying, from the article:

“Digital super intelligence combined with robotics will essentially make goods and services close to free in the long term.”

“I wouldn’t worry about…putting people out of a job,” Musk said last year during a TED talk presentation. “We’re actually going to have—and already do have—a massive shortage of labor. So, I think we will have not people out of work but actually still a shortage of labor—even in the future.”

Instead, Musk predicts robots will be taking jobs that are uncomfortable, dangerous or tedious.

“It’s fun to cook food but it’s not that fun to wash the dishes,” Musk said this month. “The computer is perfectly happy to wash the dishes.”

Higgins quotes tech investor Vinod Khosla, who says that within 10 years, AI will be able to perform “80% of 80%” of all jobs.

“I believe the need to work in society will disappear in 25 years for those countries that adapt these technologies,” Khosla said. “I do think there’s room for universal basic income assuring a minimum standard and people will be able to work on the things they want to work on.”

Musk goes further:

Forget universal basic income. In Musk’s world, he foresees something more lush, where most things will be abundant except unique pieces of art and real estate.

“We won’t have universal basic income, we’ll have universal high income,” Musk said this month. “In some sense, it’ll be somewhat of a leveler or an equalizer because, really, I think everyone will have access to this magic genie.”

What would this mean for the economy?  Economic laws have traditionally been predicated on the scarcity of goods, along with their production, distribution, and the means of exchange.  What if goods are no longer scarce, due to robots producing them in such quantities that they can be distributed to whoever wants them, with no means of exchange necessary?

I’m not sure how that would work.  It would seem that the raw materials for whatever the robots produced would still be subject to scarcity.  Robots might account for labor, but there is more to an economy than that.  And surely someone would have to design, program, and input instructions for the robots.  And what would be the incentive to improve products and develop new ones?  This would seem to be a formula for economic stagnation.

But, more importantly, what would this mean for vocation?  What would we do with ourselves if we didn’t have to work?  Spend our time being creative, Musk says, but would we?  Would we compete to acquire what Musk says will still be in limited supply, art and real estate?  But how could we acquire them if we don’t need to work or earn an income?  We could presumably spend our time getting educated in all kinds of wonderful spheres, but would we bother without being driven by preparing for a career?

Of course, we have more vocations than just the way we earn a living.  Not having to bother with that could presumably free us up to spend more time on our other vocations in the family, the community, and the church.

But AI and robotics could also make the vocations of the family obsolete.  Some futurists are predicting the development and implementation of the artificial womb.  Women could be liberated from the pains of childbirth.  And, as marriage and parenthood rates are declining anyway, would we even need the family, if technology can use in vitro fertilization and artificial wombs to manufacture babies and provide robot babies to take care of them and educate them?  We could turn out as many children as we need–but how many would we need if they aren’t needed as workers or loved by a mother and father?

As for the civil vocations, what would be the role of citizens when their every want and need is met by technology.  I suppose the government would orchestrate it all, so there would be slots for rulers, but we would need very few.

I’m not sure what this might mean for our vocations in the church.  Will there be debates over whether pastors need to be human?  Or might we program artificially intelligent robots to preach, lead worship, and give us pastoral care?  Will we even assemble together any more, or will we simply meet online or put on helmets that will take us to a church that exists only in virtual reality?

Now I’m skeptical about all of this.  But I am getting ready to embark, with the help of someone who knows more about the tech side than I do, on a study of how technology impacts vocation, as well as how vocation impacts technology.

In the meantime, I’d appreciate hearing what you think about the subject.

(Note:  The illustration with this post was generated by Artificial Intelligence.  Such images often contain creepy errors.  Look at the human woman’s arm and hands.  None of our machines work perfectly or can function without human input, which gives me hope that technology will not make us obsolete.)

AI-Generated Illustration:  “Humanoid robot and a woman retrieve information from a laptop. The picture was AI generated from the ‘author’/uploader with granted rights. The picture comprises errors – the second fore arm and hand of the woman are unhuman artifacts.” By Polimorph, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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