technology

Defining Value in the Absence of Work: A Thought Experiment

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing conversation on Intersect about technology, Universal Basic Income and the future of work. For a different perspective on these topics, read this article.

God makes man in his likeness.
Man makes machine in God’s likeness.
Man “destroys” God.
Machine replaces man as optimal producer.

While advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are not the yet in the same category of the genetic achievements of Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s witty prophecy is easily adapted to our technological moment in time and the implications for the human experience potentially as disruptive as the predatory giants of Jurassic Park.

We generally acknowledge that the human mind is fragile. Vast segments of the American population are resorting to opioids and other prescription medications in record numbers to dampen depression and anxiety or simply handle that last mindless partisan rant on TV. Approximately 59,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016, a 19 percent increase from the previous year.

The reasons for this over reliance on opioids are varied and complex, but one key motivation seems to be a loss of purpose. Many workers not only find economic stability from a career, but also a sense of meaning, purpose and identity. But advances in technology, causing profound industry disruption, are likely to only challenge the sense of purpose and add additional stress, anxiety and depression to what the American worker is already facing. Perhaps, if we start the public conversation about this disruption now, we can mitigate it challenges and aftershocks. But to do so, we need to take an honest survey of the current situation.

Automation and AI are taking their toll on various industries. The trucking industry is, perhaps, the most striking: it’s the most popular form of employment in 29 U.S. states and conservative estimates predict that fully autonomous vehicles will be utilized for shipping and taxiing within 10-20 years.[1] It’s not clear what thousands of truck drivers will do with their time, talents and economic needs.

However, it’s not only transportation and other low-skill jobs that will be disrupted; white-collar workers should expect to be affected as well. Robotics Process Automation (RPA) is a type of software currently employed within hundreds of departments across the federal government; essentially, it automates away millions of mind-numbing swivel chair tasks, the kinds that bog down bureaucracy.

Even doctors are not immune. AI is currently more accurately detecting cancer on radiology films than its human competitors. These advances in technology will force Americans, and humanity generally, to wrestle with drastic economic changes, ones that reshape human concepts of priority and value.

Humans have always found a way to adjust when new, disruptive technologies have reoriented economic trends. However, let’s assume for the sake of discussion, that this time it is different. This time the disruption will come so fast and so pervasively, workers will not be able to adjust. Simply, there will be no task a human can perform that his or her machine counterpart can’t perform faster, more precisely and with fewer errors.

When this disruption overtakes us, a majority of the nation’s wealth will be in the hands of the few individuals that own the AI or sponsor the robotics behind it all. Wealth will need to be obtained by unemployed individuals to acquire the bare necessities of life. In this world, there are two possible scenarios that could unfold:

  • Currently, a popular scenario is a world with Universal Basic Income (UBI). Since America’s GDP would likely remain the same with close to full unemployment, UBI would be utilized to redistribute the wealth created as a result of GDP to its citizens. The government would operate as the distributor of wealth.
  • A second scenario, one that doesn’t include government intervention, would be that private companies–the owners of the technology generating the wealth–provide a portion of the weath back to the citizens out of some combination of altruism and self-interest. After all, if no one has an income, how can the average citizen purchase the goods a company is producing?

No matter which scenario plays out, our shared opinions about what is valuable will undoubtedly change. Today, so much of what we mean by “value” can be described as simply a mathematical spectrum of human preference.[2] Something has value because humanity says it has value. We value an iPhone X over a Commodore 64 because the iPhone is much more efficient at performing complex tasks.

But, perhaps, it’s the ancient theologians and philosophers who can lend wisdom to our efforts to better understand value. Augustine in his work, City of God, made the case that it is more than human preference that determines value. A thing’s goodness and value is, rather, innate and utterly unaffected by a human’s disposition towards it.

While work itself is a good thing, it was present before the fall of man, paid human labor will become less and less necessary. As this occurs our sense of value will adjust. Perhaps, we can return to the three ancient, base categories: of thinker, warrior and priest. Humanity, in these roles, will now be free to (or forced to, depending on your relative sense of optimism) focus on attaining a different, arguably higher, sets of value. This value is no longer uncentered and rootless, hedonistic and consumer-driven by nature. Humans already crave ultimate purpose and value apart from their current utilitarian mindset. As Augustine states, we must find value in the being itself, and not in the ever fluctuating preference of humanity. It is possible that an automated world can help us better value that being. And that project may force us to face our own belief about our origins.

Automation and technological advancements will continue to force our conversations about wealth distribution (merit-based or others) and human value. If UBI, or even a free-market alternative, becomes our new norm, this new model of wealth distribution will disrupt what we currently value. Our sense of value might then be nudged from its modern subjective definitions to a more objective one–one that elevates human being, truth and relationship.

What are we left with?

God makes man in his likeness.
Man makes machine in God’s likeness.
Man “destroys” God.
Machine replaces man as optimal producer. Man discovers that he can’t destroy God and that a search for true value provides purpose and meaning.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing conversation on Intersect about technology, Universal Basic Income and the future of work. For a different perspective on these topics, read this article. 


[1] Andrew Yang, The War on Normal People (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2018), 43.

[2] John D. Mueller, Redeeming Economics (Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010), 24.

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Logan Smith

Logan Smith holds a Bachelor’s of Science from Virginia Tech and a Masters of the Arts from the College at Southeastern. He is currently a senior consultant at a large firm in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @logansmith86.

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