In Praise of Idleness on Mars
The virtue of work and the role of technology in increasing the efficiency of work has been uncontested in developed countries for the past 300 years. The reason for this has been the rise of living standards across lower and middle classes from Brixton to Beijing. This is unequivocal based upon economic signposts such as; low levels of malnutrition, infant mortality rates decreasing, increasing education levels and gross domestic product continually rising.
Unfortunately, there are storm clouds on the horizon: the pursuit for greater efficiency driven on by the exponential growth of technology will create the very real chance of zero employment within a few generations. What we will explore here is what future generations and our contemporaries might do with our time. In fact, in a world of superintelligence will there be any point in doing anything at all if something else can do it infinitely better?
In the 1930’s Bertrand Russell defined work as “first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so.” Technology has helped us move matter more efficiently to compensate for the fragile bodies that humans are endowed with. Yuval Nurah Hurari in his book Sapiens narrates the evolution of our species from gatherers who participated in bit of hunting, to being domesticated by Wheat production and subsequently imprisoned by the back-breaking labour of farming. The industrial revolution freed us from much of the rigours of farming, but forced us towards large scale manufacturing in cities, which in turn isolated people accustomed to engaging with the local community. Artisan industries have been largely decimated as people moved to factories, promoting the division of labour and mass specialisation which has arguably made the majority of daily work less cognitively engaging than our ancestors.
However, in the coming 50 years you don’t necessarily need to be a Luddite to highlight that many jobs are ripe for automation and subsequent elimination. More importantly, the time scales over which this will happen will be the fastest in history due to the exponential nature of technological advancement. Research from Oxford University has highlighted that up to a third of the jobs in the UK workforce could be eliminated by automation and McKinsey highlighted 80 million roles in the US could be under threat in the coming years. Historically, new technology has created new industries for work that were previously unimagined. In the same way that most of the employed population today is no longer employed by the farming processes of 50 years ago, in 50 years’ time the jobs that have been automated in the service industry will be created by some other cloud based company or so the argument goes.
It’s at this point I wish to undertake a little time travel. To start with I will borrow Jeremey Rifkin’s synopsis of the future of work described in ‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society’ where he posits that “since intelligent technology will do most of the heavy lifting, in half a century from now our grandchildren may look back at mass market employment with the same disbelief in which we look upon slavery and serfdom.” To remove ourselves from the argument of timelines we will assume that we have passed the Kurzweilian singularity and stop somewhere around 2517, presuming we did not fall off the Skynet option of the strong AI balance beam, then we may well be entering a universe were homo-sapiens are a multi-planetary species, connected to the dataverse by our neural lace and sharing the universe with a strong AI that would have a level of understanding of the universe, similar to our perception of how an ant comprehends the world around them. Ian M Banks suggests in his notes on the Culture essay that “at first the struggle is simply to survive and thrive in space; later – when the technology required to do so has become mundane – the task becomes less physical, more metaphysical, and the aims of civilisation moral rather than material. It is essentially an automated civilisation in its manufacturing processes, with human labour restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby.”