By Dr. Michael Robinson, assistant professor of engineering sciences
There is a popular YouTube video titled “What if money was no object?” In it we see scenes of modern life, and in the background hear the voice of Alan Watts saying, “It’s so amazing—as a result of our kind of educational system, crowds of students say ‘Well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way.’” His advice is to find something you love, give yourself completely to that thing, and trust that money will come. This video speaks to our desire for a greater return on our work than a paycheck. I completely agree that work must be more than a way to make money, and Watts is right to recommend bravery, but I believe his solution is ultimately mistaken.
My own work is to design and build autonomous systems, and teach others to do the same. For that reason, I can tell you that the workless future could be closer than you think. In the past, robots were limited to dull, repetitive tasks, like painting cars; now, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) could replace even highly skilled workers such as radiologists, meteorologists, pharmacists, and office workers of all kinds. The imminent reality of an event we took for a future possibility can lead to radical change, as it does in movies where a character learns they will soon die. The first thing they usually do is quit their job; it is no longer needed.
Here, then, is a thought experiment: What if we could automate all needed tasks, and money truly became no object? Setting aside the question of whether we should do this (which is important to answer as well), I suggest that this future is possible. Let us assume that everyone could do as they pleased, and the necessities of life would take care of themselves. Would people use their time to pursue passions and interests, as Watts suggests?
The future depicted in the film “WALL-E” seems more likely to me. In it, we see people who have left all work to machines and have become utterly passive as a result. We see no inequality, and everything that anyone could desire can be had at the push of a button, but it is not a desirable future. “WALL-E” is no 1984-style death by tyranny, but it is a death by pleasure. For the time being, the robots are the only ones with the capacity for action. Yet that is the reason the film is compelling; even children would not believe that people could be deeply engaged with life without doing any work.
Opportunity does not equal engagement. This was clearly seen in the rise and fall of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). About a decade ago, top-tier universities started to release free online courses. Articles were written claiming this would be the end of higher education; it was not. In fact, almost no one bothered to complete these courses. In the same way, I have not observed financial freedom lead to more engagement with meaningful personal projects.
I do not know whether Alan Watts or the creators of “WALL-E” and the MOOCs read much of Saint John Paul II, but his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens (On Human Work)” explains why there can be no engagement without work. He distinguishes between two senses of work. The first is the objective sense of work as something that produces goods and services. This sense of work is obviously essential, but even animals work in this way. Truly human work must consider the subjective side of work. It is a person who works, and through work, that person changes interiorly and becomes in a sense more fully human. Automation almost certainly will change the objective side of work, but the greatest risk is that we will be content with having our needs met. We may lose sight of the fact that the real thing we were trying to produce all along is ourselves.
Returning to the solution suggested by Alan Watts—that everyone should find the thing they love and do that—this approach will almost certainly fail because it tends to isolate us as individuals. Genuine human work must bring us into a community where others expect things from us, and we humbly work to meet those expectations. This natural inclination is perhaps why offering free education to students through MOOCs failed—there were no expectations for the students to meet. The French Dominican A. G. Sertillanges said it best in his book “The Intellectual Life”: “Work always then with the idea of some utilization, as the Gospel speaks. Listen to the murmur of the human race all about you; pick out certain individuals of certain groups whose need you know, find out what may bring them out of their night and ennoble them; what in any measure may save them.” Do you want to thrive in the workless robot future? Do not put your hope in becoming a computer programmer; instead, become truly generous. That virtue will keep you at work, and work is something you need more than money.
I have been speaking somewhat facetiously—there is no real threat to human work, except that we may forget that humans had worked before they ever lacked anything. No job caring for others will ever be effectively automated. Perhaps artificial intelligence will diagnose all future diseases, perform all surgeries, and dispense all medicine. But no one will ever want to find out they have a terrible disease from a robot or be cared for by even the friendliest automaton. Despite past increases in productivity, there are essential vocations that go short-handed. Consider the consecrated and ordained life; I have heard that in the 1980s there were 180 priests in the Diocese of Greensburg; now, there are 80. All of these opportunities show that there is more human work to be done than ever before.