At the recent global AI conference held in London in early November, Elon Musk gave an interview to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in which he warned that, pretty soon, the technology might become so advanced it would effectively put the entire human race out of work.
According to Musk, as AI evolves, “there will come a point where no job is needed. You can have a job if you wanted to have a job for personal satisfaction. But the AI would be able to do everything.” This, he said, would be like one of those blessings in an old fairytale which only turn out to be a curse, comparing AI to “a magic genie, that gives you any wish you want, and there’s no limit…[which is] both good and bad. One of the challenges in the future will be how do we find meaning in life.”
The traditional answer was “through religion,” wasn’t it? So, what does the Bible have to say on matters of work, leisure, and laziness?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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A 2021 article in Crisis argued that “Choosing Not To Work Is a Sin,” citing Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborum Exercens (Through Work) which reminded us of the twin teachings of the Book of Genesis that man was made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), and that He placed him within His Creation in order to “subdue the Earth” (Genesis 1:28).
As God had once also performed an act of very hard work indeed when creating the universe in six days, man, fashioned so as to be His miniature microcosmic twin, was intended to copy Him on a smaller scale when carving out a livable niche for himself when tilling his soil, herding his cattle, building his homes, or pursuing trade, business, or some other profession, so the idea went. In Pope John Paul II’s view, it was only through the consequent dignity of labor that mankind truly “achieves fulfilment as a human being.”
It is easy to find guides online explaining the Bible’s wider teaching about work-related matters: everyone is familiar with Max Weber’s old idea of the “Puritan work ethic,” but it seems this was actually supposed to apply to Christians of all other denominations, too. Hard work may since have often been derided as being “Adam’s Curse” following his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, but it turns out that even that particular plot of land, like all gardens, needed its gardeners: according to Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
God may famously have rested on the seventh day, but that doesn’t mean He didn’t pick back up His tools as Great Geometer and start work again come Monday morning. Handy online lists of work-related passages from the Bible seem to prove that sloth really was one of the Seven Deadly Sins:
- The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. (Proverbs 13:4)
- Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)
- For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
That last one in particular sounds like a direct riposte to Elon Musk several thousand years before he was even born: how, exactly, will workless humans of the future actually be able to eat, once AI means there is no more work to speak of left to go around? How, exactly, will workless humans of the future actually be able to eat, once AI means there is no more work to speak of left to go around?Tweet This
Most discussions on the possibility of mass AI-enabled unemployment focus upon just such coldly practical issues. The most common proposed answer is to provide everyone on the planet with a free, government-administered Citizen’s Wage or “Universal Basic Income” (UBI): a free personal welfare check for all citizens each and every month, no questions asked. Then, sluggards can go to the ant, consider her ways, and laugh at her as a naïve, foolish, insectoid dupe—“Only fools and horses work,” as the cynical old saying goes.
Is a UBI really affordable? Skeptics might demur. However, many of the West’s current left-leaning utopian elites seem to find this dream exceedingly plausible. This political divide can be well-illustrated by contrasting reviews given to the British economist and thinker Daniel Chandler’s new book, Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like?, finding UBI-enabled socialism to be the answer to that particular leading question.
Chandler proposes everyone in Britain should receive a guaranteed UBI payment equating to 60 percent of the average national wage, supplemented by a Universal Minimum Inheritance of £100,000 for every child when they turn eighteen, something “easily” funded simply by pushing the total tax rate up to 45-50 percent of national income. Somehow, this would not spur higher-rate taxpayers into fleeing the country nor negatively affect economic growth.
In the left-wing U.K. newspaper The Guardian, Chandler’s book was praised as “a stirring call” for “a free choice of occupation” for all—to which a skeptic might reply, “Who’s going to volunteer to clean all the toilets, then?” In the right-wing U.K. weekly The Spectator, however, it was dismissively said that “the psychology of wish-fulfilment has turned [Chandler’s] book into an answer to a prayer”—to which a UBI true-believer might say “What’s wrong with chasing after miracles?”
Daniel Chandler styles himself as a realistic utopian, which reveals the likely background influence of Rutger Bregman, a young Dutch academic whose (deeply unrealistic) 2017 book Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders and a 15-Hour Workweek was much praised in certain idealistic quarters at the time. One chapter is genuinely titled “Why We Should Give Free Money to Everyone.” Well, why not, if you’re a self-confessed utopian?
Bregman thinks it will be simple for developed nations to transition toward a fifteen-hour work week to share out the burden of labor more fairly once AI takes over, and so he advises the implementation of a generous UBI, together with completely open global borders. He also wishes to place massive taxes on bankers, hoping thereby to force mathematically gifted people out of the profession into becoming inventors instead!
This is Bregman’s view of what could have happened if only hyper-intelligent financial whiz kids had tried to imitate Thomas Edison instead of Gordon Gekko: “Who knows, we might already have had jetpacks, built submarine cities, or cured cancer.” Bregman’s actual serious position is to see limitless reserves of untapped creative potential lying dormant among the currently inappropriately employed Western workforce—limitless reserves which, realistically, may not actually exist.
Admiringly, he cites one couple from a 1960s UBI scheme in Seattle who forsook full-time work and managed instead to become an actress and a composer. “We’re now self-sufficient, income-earning artists,” the woman told government researchers at the time. That’s very nice for them, but I would suggest their particular example is rather unrepresentative of humanity as a whole. Yet, according to the “realist” Bregman:
If we restructure education along our new ideals, the job market will happily tag along. Let’s imagine we were to incorporate more art, history and philosophy into the school curriculum. You can bet there will be a lift in demand for artists, historians and philosophers… The purpose of a shorter workweek is not so we can all sit around doing nothing, but so we can spend more time on the things that genuinely matter to us.
But what if “the things that genuinely matter” to most of us are not creating masterpieces of art, philosophy, and poetry at all? As I have recently shown elsewhere, the actual response of many recently financially-liberated persons to their unexpected new oceans of free time is actually to quietly go quite mad, in a very strange and specific way…
In German author W.G. Sebald’s classic 1998 travelogue The Rings of Saturn, the author describes his (alleged) stay at an old country house in Ireland whose occupants, the Ashburys, were just well-off enough not to have to work. They had, consequently, invented a series of utterly meaningless tasks for themselves to pursue, like a family of voluntary Sisyphuses. “What work they did,” said Sebald, “had about it something aimless and meaningless and seemed not so much part of a daily routine as an expression of a deeply engrained distress.”
The son of the family spent every day building himself a large boat—an object he had no intention of ever launching on water, and of which he had no knowledge of how to actually make seaworthy at all. Like Noah without a flood, his quest was the very definition of futility. The three unmarried Ashbury daughters, meanwhile, would waste away their lives “like giant children under an evil spell,” sitting on the floor in near-silence, endlessly sewing homemade pillowcases…which they would unsew once finished, only to then begin the process all over again—a truly Sisyphean fate.
The mother of the family, the widowed Mrs. Ashbury, set herself the most elaborate task of all. Walking her estate, she would gather flower heads and their seeds in paper bags, labelling them with the species name, date collected, color, and other such data. These would then be tied up neatly with string and brought into the library, where the specimens were hung on a washing line to dry. Once taken down, they ended up being “stored under some inscrutable system” on the bookshelves, which “had evidently long been unburdened of books.”
But to what end? To no end at all, as we may all soon be about to find out. A near-future combination of super-advanced, job-killing AI and Universal Basic Income could well make real-life Mrs. Ashburys out of us all, whether we like it or not.
Once your real job has been stolen from you by Musk’s computerized mega robots, what fake new one are you going to invent to get you through your remaining days and decades instead?
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