Rise of the Machines and the Question of Human Value

Artificial intelligence incites a primal fear within us. From Terminator to Ex Machina, fictional AI symbolizes the underlying fear of machines usurping humanity from its place on top of the food chain. At the 2015 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, Argentina, some of the foremost minds–Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk–warned against AI military development. For mostly obvious reasons, we don’t want to find ourselves amidst an AI arms race.

However, this fear also indicates an anxiety of replacement that can be found in more generic technological advancements. What happens when the ingrained Puritan value of hard work is no longer necessary for survival? As machines and computers increasingly replace human jobs while increasing productivity and quality of life, we have to grapple with a very political and existential question:

If machines can make more informed decisions than we can, if they can do the work that has historically made humans “valuable” to our own survival, what does that say about the future of human autonomy?

The reason we are at the top of the food chain is our human ability to adapt, as well as our ability to change our environment to suit us. This has come through by our own authoritarian approach to control ourselves, others, and nature. We have managed to move beyond the fear of immediate survival through “hard work” (blunt force, really).

At least, those at the top of the human form of the food chain have moved beyond that fear.

If a business owner could replace the worker with a machine without a union or a subsidy incentivizing them otherwise, they would in a heartbeat. It’s just good economics. For example, there are programs that can largely do the same job I’m hired to do; analyze and send breaking news reports through identifying key terms. It could probably do it faster and more accurately. The issue is that it is expensive, so the cost-benefit for my company to keep me outweighs my replacement. So far, at least.

So what happens when machines replace humans for jobs? At what point do we feel like we can’t let technology advance to replace us? What parts of that anxiety come from the value placed in “working”?

In bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam, she talks about the phrase “work makes life sweet”. She deconstructs the consequences of that philosophy, how it can be used to invite guilt to people–particularly the poor–who think they aren’t “working enough”. However, she emphasizes the benefits of work that brings individual pleasure, such as writing or gardening. Her argument suggests that as more people find that they do not have to (or cannot) work menial jobs for survival, the nature or motivation for “working” must change.

There are many consequences of AI and tech replacing humans to ensure our survival and quality of life. But perhaps we can start shaping those consequences by reviewing our relationship with work and productivity. The majority of Americans would agree that everyone should be able to house and feed themselves and their families if they are working full time. The arguments over living wages often skip over a basic assumption–is a human being afforded the right to eat and be housed even if they do not work full time or at all? The reality is that most people in poverty work one or more part-time jobs, because it’s cheaper for the company to hire many part-time workers. The related stress actually diminishes their health and overall wellbeing. We also continue to slash government assistance to those who cannot or do not work. Again, the issue of intrinsic human value–if they are “productive” and work–is tied to survival. Again, what happens when machines take away that intrinsic human value and yet continue to ensure our collective survival?

Some debaters also reference the idea of a basic income, regardless of ability or willingness to work. The “Mincome” experiment in Canada initially showed that most people still want to work regardless of a guaranteed income, but I would be interested to see how much of that desire is the cultural insistence that you must work to have any value. What happens when that cultural value changes? What happens when it is replaced by the idea that you have intrinsic value by virtue of being born?

Perhaps it would have frightening narcissistic consequences. Maybe more people would begin to extend that inborn value to other species or the Earth in general. Or humans would turn towards personal/creative/exploratory endeavors, like music or space travel.

Or the machines will take over.

Either way, it’s a lot to consider.

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