Surviving in a World Run by Robots

Artificial intelligence may represent a threat to our humanity – but it might also offer opportunities to enhance it

The future of work has been foremost in the minds of critics of automation since the 1950s. Some of them did not think the relationship between automation and unemployment one of simple causation. In The Human Condition (1958), for instance, Hannah Arendt argued that work was growing scarce in part because it had become unfulfilling. The model of achievement in the modern age had been Homo faber, the craftsman, engineer or inventor who worked to fabricate a human habitat – making wine jars out of clay, building cities of stone and towers of glass and steel. But the environment Homo faber built had ceased to feel hospitable. What Arendt called “world-alienation” had made the human artifice seem more like a trap than a home. The space race enacted a desire for escape: finally, an end to “man’s imprisonment on Earth” was within reach. Homo faber’s new task was to get us out of here. Automation then was not so much the driver of a dwindling supply of work as a consequence of a broader disillusionment. The “work paradigm” was in crisis less because work had grown scarce than because work had ceased to be rewarding.

However, if low morale as much as technological progress lies behind the replacement of humans by robotic systems, then automation – and particularly the AI advances initiated by new machine-learning techniques – could reverse the trend and make work interesting again. Part of the promise of these systems is that by taking over data-crunching drudgery they offer interesting problems for humans to solve.

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