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If you’ve been follow artificial intelligence and the coming revolution like I have, you’ve probably picked up on a few common themes:

  1. Universal Basic Income
  2. People are freed of work
  3. Peoples’ lives are less meaningful without work

I’m on board with one and two, but point three is really sticking in my craw.

But let me back up. If you’re not following the general conversation on AI, here’s basically what’s going on. The development of machines eliminated some human jobs (routine manual labor), the development of computers eliminated other human jobs (routine cognitive labor). Up to now, the non-routine, cognitive, and to an extent manual workload has been the safe haven of humanity – machines weren’t able to make the mental shortcuts required for these tasks. Well that day is basically here.

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A few months ago, with the development of “deep learning”, an AI named AlphaGo was able to beat the world champion of Go (a strategy game, essentially chess on PCP). Only months before the thinking was that level of AI was a decade out – not so much. Let me put this in perspective – the game, Go, has more possible permutations than there are atoms in the universe, and by more I mean by a large factor. Traditional computing couldn’t go through all the permutations in a reasonable amount of time to take down the world champion. This AI basically played the game and developed concepts, allowing it to reach deity rank (for the game), something no human has done.

Basically the consensus now is the days of machines out performing humans in all tasks, that is routine manual, routine cognitive, non-routine manual, and non-routine cognitive, is effectively now. The commercialization and deployment of this technology will only be as slow or as fast as the economy mandates, but it’s already taking out call centers (millions of jobs globally), being added to your messaging services, how you buy things, etc.

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A nightmarish depiction of the author via Deep Dream

Even the arts are not free from AI – just last year you probably saw a few Google deep-dream art pieces on your friends’ feeds; well AI is moving into music and writing as well. Given the massive repository of data for AI to digest and learn from, everything is really a matter of time – and not much time at that.

If you’re saying, “So what?” or “sounds good!” we’re on the same page. A world in which machines do the labor while people rest on their laurels sounds like a place that might know no war, know no famine, and is free to pursue higher aspirations, whatever those might be.

The train of thought continues – if there’s no work, then we end up with a universal basic income for all. I think this, coupled with the idea of no “jobs”, is what really bothers a bunch of folks, particularly here in America where some consider hours spent at work to be a status symbol.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a sample from a recent article on theguardian discussing Yuval Noah Harari’s thoughts on the matter:

“What might be far more difficult is to provide people with meaning, a reason to get up in the morning,” Harari says. For those who don’t cheer at the prospect of a post-work world, satisfaction will be a commodity to pay for: our moods and happiness controlled by drugs; our excitement and emotional attachments found not in the world outside, but in immersive VR.

I would counter the Western concept of a life well lived, that is going to work 60+ hours a week and dying of a heart attack immediately after retirement, is not actually in line with our innate biological drives or mechanisms, and at their core I imagine most folks would agree.

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I’m not sure who gets out of bed for this.

In America at least, if you’re not working in coal mines or tied to a desk, you’re usually perceived as a free-rider, a neer-do-well, a parasite. I recall one day in college calculus when a professor at random said to me, “idle hands, Mr. Whalen, are the devil’s workshop.” Strangely I had never heard the phrase before, but this seems to encapsulate the American attitude towards work – if you’re not actively engaged in a task, and by that we mean unpleasant effort, then your are evil. In other words, a life of pain is good, a life free of pain is bad.

I won’t bother delving into the roots of this cultural phenomenon, but it’s fair to say this mental framework is in exact opposition the the biological drives of all animals; avoid stressors, conserve energy. Yes, all animals are driven to eat and reproduce, but not to the extent they create a calorie debt; biologically we are no different.

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Praying mantis in its natural state.

In the cultural context I’m defining work as a non self-fulfilling task which one engages in to obtain either the means to purchase or directly obtain food, shelter, or other goods and services. In this respect an artist who enjoys their work is not engaged in the cultural context of work, even though they may obtain payment for their work. I’m not belittling the value of the artist’s work, simply stating that culturally speaking in the West, this is usually not considered “work” in the classical sense.

So does everyone sit in their apartment, play video games and smoke pot? Maybe, but what exactly is the problem with that? Those individuals are making risk benefit decisions about how they want to live their lives, which frankly if they won the lotto in a pre-UBI world, would not receive as much disdain. Perhaps it is the leveling of the field which bothers many of us so much – that it becomes harder to demonstrate being one up on our neighbors? Perhaps it’s jealousy, of being unable to allow oneself to relax the way one would like to.

When I left active duty in the military I had 75 days of leave saved up. Rather than “buy-back” some of that time, I took the full 75 days off from work. I was not able to play video games the whole time, technically I could have, but I just couldn’t sit around that much. And that’s not because I was an army guy – I didn’t really fit the stereotype (and few of us do). My body and brain needed me to get out and see the sun, to do something, to interact with the world. This is where I think a UBI would take us; to new concept of work.

With UBI, work could become a choice – a task we engage in for the enjoyment of the task or the fruit of the task. Farmers could farm, for the joy of it. Gamers could game, for the joy of it. Writers could write. Hikers could hike. Politicians could… stay at home?

And everyone would have the freedom to change their new work as they pleased. That’s what UBI gives us, a chance to be human beings in the the way our ancestors dreamed of – free to decide when to work, how to work, what work to do, and when not to work. Our ancestors didn’t dream of tethering our bodies to plows, desks, or war machines. That’s just how we got here. 

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This is not the master plan.