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The Good Life After Work

In order to manage the latest wave of automation, we must have ends that are more compelling than merely wanting more products and services. Without an intelligent definition of wellbeing, we will simply create more and more monsters that feed on our humanity.

LONDON – Almost all “robots are coming” stories follow a tried-and-true pattern. “Shop Direct puts 2,000 UK jobs at risk,” screams a typical headline. Then, quoting from authoritative reports from prestigious institutes and think tanks, the article in question usually alarms audiences with extravagant estimates of “jobs at risk” – that is, percentages of workers whose livelihoods are threatened by high-tech automation. To quote another representative example: “A new report suggests that the marriage of [artificial intelligence] and robotics could replace so many jobs that the era of mass employment could come to an end.”

Sometimes, this bleak outlook is softened by distinguishing between “jobs” and “tasks.” Only the routine parts of jobs, it is said, will be replaced. In these more upbeat assessments of the “future of work,” humans will complement machines, not compete with them.

This sanguine scenario is based partly on what has happened in the past: over time, mechanization has created more jobs at higher wages than it has destroyed. It is also based on more sober assessments of what robots can do now (though there is disagreement on what they will eventually be able to do). Moreover, automation, some optimists believe, will raise the average level of human intelligence. And a richer and aging population will require ever-larger armies of human carers, nurses, cleaners, trainers, and therapists.

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