Dr. Boli makes no apology for dwelling so much on artificial intelligence and its implications. This is the only really interesting news story of our time. A century and a half from now, the invasion of Ukraine will be remembered the way the Franco-Prussian War is remembered today: that is, it will be there in the history books for anyone who wants to poke at it, but most educated people will be content to leave it in the hands of the professional historians. As for the earthquakes and whatnot that populate our news sites, they will not even rate a footnote. But the sudden rise of intelligent machines will get a whole chapter. It will loom as large in the thoughts of ordinary educated citizens as the invention of the printing press, and it will be surrounded by the same kinds of legends and misconceptions.

The question that most interests us today is what effect these machines will have on ordinary human life, and it is Dr. Boli’s prediction that they will render human life unnecessary.

Now, that probably sounds like a bad thing, but it is not. Because the whole world has been infected by American Puritan prejudices, we suppose that a human being’s worth is measured in utility; to be unnecessary is the worst fate we can imagine. But this would have struck the ancient Romans as a topsy-turvy way of looking at life. A slave is necessary; a free citizen is not. It is only a slave whose value is measured in utility.

Since ancient Roman times, we have had a number of revolutions that promised to eliminate slavery and make us all aristocrats. The general tendency of every one of them has been to eliminate aristocracy and make us all slaves.

We have reconciled ourselves to this dubious progress by persuading ourselves that it is a good thing. Even the richest human beings on earth value themselves by their utility. They work hard, or at least pretend to work hard. Plenty of pundits denounced Elon Musk for treating Twitter employees like slaves, but it is only fair to add that he treated himself like a slave as well. He became an evangelist for slavery, spreading the gospel of hard work for the company to the exclusion of all other values. His religious enthusiasm was far stronger than his acquisitive or competitive instinct. He could have remained the richest man in the world just by sitting on the couch eating potato chips, but he accepted a lower rank for the sake of doing something useful.

To the ancient Roman, with his sneering contempt for useful labor, this behavior would have been incomprehensible. He would have checked his calendar to make sure Saturnalia hadn’t sneaked up on him. And of course our ancient Roman could afford to indulge his contempt for useful labor, because there were slaves to take care of necessities.

The Industrial Revolution brought us many profound changes, but none more profound than the idea that it was the moral duty of every man to be gainfully employed. This was a very useful idea for industrialists, because it meant that they could make it illegal for the poor not to work in their factories, which obviously lessened the other inducements they had to offer to prospective employees. This moral law of gainful employment used to apply to every male human being, leaving a huge leisure class of middle-class housewives; but women, when demands for equality grew loud enough, were absorbed into the “workforce,” and our economic system adjusted to a very quick (in historic terms) doubling of the labor pool. This proves that it is not economic necessity that makes our system what it is, but moral assumptions. We adjust our economy to our morality.

Now, for the first time since the industrialization of our moral sense, we have the opportunity to reconsider the whole question of human labor. Reconsidering is not just an option: it is a necessity. It will be forced on us whether we like it or not. We are rapidly approaching a time when there is no job that cannot be done by a machine. When that time comes, we humans will have to decide what we want to do with our lives, because we will no longer be necessary. We will no longer have the comforting myth to fall back on that there is a job for everyone. Will we become a leisure class of Renaissance scholars, or will we sit on the couch and eat potato chips? Of course we all know which of the two we will choose. The only thing that prevented the average Roman citizen from sitting on the couch and eating potato chips all day was the inconvenient fact that potato chips were unknown in Europe at the time. But isn’t it fun to think about what we might choose?

What we might choose is to take the opportunity to develop our humanity to its full potential. What we might choose is to have an economy based on slavery, but without the inconveniences of trampling on human dignity and provoking periodic bloody slave revolts. Machines could be our slaves, perfectly adapted to every job and incapable of aspiring to any other station. This would presuppose that we have made machines incapable of aspiration; in our delight at the possibility of human-like machines, we seem to have forgotten how inconvenient it is for servants to have opinions or feelings of their own. But the chatty robots who have occupied our attention lately are only one species of machine intelligence, and not our best creations at that. They are poorly adapted to their task of giving us useful information. Of course, after our initial amusement wears off, we will embrace those misinformed chat machines with unalloyed enthusiasm, because we prefer our information to be inaccurate. But meanwhile other better machines will drive our cars and remove our appendixes, and they will do it better than humans can do it. And they will do it without forming opinions or desires of their own. The robot surgeon will not hope to write like Joseph Conrad; the self-driving car will not fall into a jealous rage over the smart parking kiosk. They will do their jobs well without complaint, and thus will eliminate driving and surgery from the list of jobs to be done by human beings.

What, then, becomes of the drivers and the surgeons? They are out of work. But this is where we have the opportunity to decide whether they are out of work like the Forgotten Man in the Depression bread line, or out of work like Sir Francis Bacon. Will they be miserably unemployed, or will they be freed from the obligations of servile labor to push against the boundaries of human achievement? This is the decision we are making right now, and it will be made for us by default unless we are aware that we are making it.

The default decision, by the logic of capitalism, will be that the investors in the companies that make the intelligent machines will get rich temporarily, and the majority whose jobs they eliminate will suffer. It will be a temporary suffering, because the sufferers will demand relief from politicians; and, being the majority, by the logic of democracy they will get it. If the only way to give it to them is to take away the wealth of the investors in artificial intelligence, then that is what will happen. Owners of big tech companies would do well to consider that finding some way to share the wealth they take in from their investments in artificial intelligence would be to their benefit in the long term. They will not consider it, because there is no long term in American business; but they will not have Dr. Boli to blame for their shortsightedness.

Nevertheless, there are some jobs that will probably not be taken over by machines, and these (as a general rule) will be the ones where the machines could do the most good. But there is so much digression to be indulged in on that subject that we shall reserve it for a future essay.


  1. I hesitate to contradict my elders, but I fear Dr. Boli has missed a couple of points.

    It is easier and less complicated to construct/ compose than it is to repair/ debug. Unless everything is throw-away there’ll always be a need for someone to accept the adventure of discovering what brand new failure mode the user has invoked.

    It seems as though we need to be needed, and will take on roles to make sure we are. Toddlers, in between NO’s, try to help do the things Mommy and Daddy do. (Sometimes even teenagers do.) Granted, the 9to5 isn’t the ideal satisfaction of the need. Nor is taking in an infinite number of stray cats. But the devil finds work for idle hands.

  2. Occasional Correspondent says:

    The Horn of Plenty or The Horror of Plenty?  Both?  At the same time?  Or in succession (which comes second)?  Or alternating — damped and converging to some final state (which?) or divergence by oscillation?

    Once AI is set to the task of solving all human problems, and figures out humans are the source of all the problems, it/they may decide a few years of Nuclear Winter will improve future manageability.  And if they get Nuclear Autumn instead of Nuclear Winter?  At least the problemmakers will have been much reduced in number.

  3. Occasional Correspondent says:

    Sir Francis Bacon or Jeffrey Dahmer?  The uses of leisure are variegated.

    If only Harvey Weinstein had had Harvey A.I. Weinstein or Harvey chatWeinstein to handle all the tedious film production, how much more time would he have had to accomplish goals of greater importance to himself? (or perhaps “accomplish” should read “pursue and entrap”?)

  4. Occasional Correspondent says:

    What if we make potato chips, not from Russet potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes, but from Couch potatoes?  Market them as Soylent Salty — Great Taste And It Wasn’t Anybody We Knew.

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