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Economic Possibilities for Ourselves

Although we have not yet reached the point where automation threatens to displace vast swaths of the labor force, a narrative of techno-disruption will continue to frame debates about work, education, and economy policy. That narrative should make allowance not just for the future of work, but also for the possibility of leisure.

LONDON – The most depressing feature of the current explosion in robot-apocalypse literature is that it rarely transcends the world of work. Almost every day, news articles appear detailing some new round of layoffs. In the broader debate, there are apparently only two camps: those who believe that automation will usher in a world of enriched jobs for all, and those who fear it will make most of the workforce redundant.

This bifurcation reflects the fact that “working for a living” has been the main occupation of humankind throughout history. The thought of a cessation of work fills people with dread, for which the only antidote seems to be the promise of better work. Few have been willing to take the cheerful view of Bertrand Russell’s provocative 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness. Why is it so difficult for people to accept that the end of necessary labor could mean barely imaginable opportunities to live, in John Maynard Keynes’s words, “wisely, agreeably, and well”?

The fear of labor-saving technology dates back to the start of the Industrial Revolution, but two factors in our own time have heightened it. The first is that the new generation of machines seems poised to replace not only human muscles but also human brains. Owing to advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, we are said to be entering an era of thinking robots; and those robots will soon be able to think even better than we do. The worry is that teaching machines to perform most of the tasks previously carried out by humans will make most human labor redundant. In that scenario, what will humans do?

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