On satisfying the human need to work

The Conversation this week had Jean-Phillipe Deranty asserting that robots won’t stop us from working because work is a fundamental part of being human. It’s not clear to me why a human need to work would in and of itself prevent robots from taking said work, and his argument seems to be entirely consistent with a dystopian future of robots driving humans out of the work that humans need to feel satisfied. A more charitable interpretation might be that he means to suggest that we’ll find things to do instead of work as it is presently conceived, but he explicitly dismisses “progressive thinkers” who advocate shortening the working week so that we can do what really satisfies us.

As several of the commenters point out, the article doesn’t clearly define “work”—though its attitude to shortening the working week suggests that it refers to paid work in the present sense— and nor does it say anything about what the appropriate conditions of work might be (do humans need to work for forty hours a week, in an office, for a company, etc.). If humans’ need to work can be satisfied by working on projects of their own choosing, as several commenters suggest and nothing in the article refutes, the progressive thinkers have no case to answer. If one accepts that humans need some kind of work in order to feel satisfied, the real question is how do we choose what to work on while the robots are working on everything else?

If we reject the idea that we should choose this work for ourselves, or deny that projects chosen by ourselves count as “work”, where might work come from? The view most often voiced by mainstream thinkers, of course, is that economic growth will continue to create work for humans even as robots perform more of it. An alternative consistent with the observations in the article would be to have the government offer Sisyphean make-work whose only purpose is to pass the time between birth and death. Yet thinking of Sisyphus only makes me wonder if this sort of work really would satisfy anyone.

Still, progressive thinkers would presumably allow people to work at such things if they wanted to, and I’m sure I’ve read of the idea in a science fiction novel or two. Perhaps Deranty has some other idea that I haven’t heard of, but wasn’t able to fit it into the 800 words allowed by the The Conversation. But until I’ve heard of it, I’m happy to choose my own work.

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