This morning, I was on the Glenn Beck radio program as a caller to discuss his new book, Addicted to Outrage, with him. I read the book, and had a comment about his insistence that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to essentially eliminate all jobs, and that we need to have a serious discussion about Universal Basic Income (UBI) in order to come to some solution for what to do with all of the people put out of work. He doesn’t agree with UBI, but he believes that something must be done, because AI is going to completely change the world within 20 years, maybe 30 at most. If this link does not start at my call, you can go to 43:48 to get right to it.
To be up front, I’m a huge fan of Glenn’s, and listen to his show every day. I therefore know that he is often instructing people not to believe anyone, including himself, just because they tell you something. “Always do your own research” is one of his most frequent refrains, along with quoting Thomas Jefferson, to “question with boldness even the very existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind-folded fear.” I knew going in that I would not have a lot of time to make my points, and yet I still didn’t manage to get to my best points in the time that I had. He did let me talk for a minute, then asked me a question to establish that he is a greater authority on this topic than I am (granted), and then I got to say about one more sentence before he took over. At that point, I could not get back in the conversation. Glenn also frequently says that we need to have conversations about issues, and listen to each other. I would like to take all of his advice. My call was not the best forum for that, so I am going to lay out here the points that I didn’t get to make, as well as address some of the points that he made during my call. In this way, I will continue our conversation here for you to decide.
First, as I told Glenn, I think that we have to be very careful even discussing a topic such as UBI. There are those who are deliberately going to use the fear over the AI takeover of jobs to push us toward a UBI, which is all-out Socialism. In fact, many who are pushing this are at the same time pushing the idea that Capitalism must be dismantled because of AI as well. I am not even going to address this narrative, as it is so destructive and unnecessary, I just want to make clear that I think this is a very dangerous idea to even entertain.
Glenn mentioned that some in Silicon Valley are discussing ways to get to 100% unemployment. First, that is just entirely unrealistic. More importantly, though, Silicon Valley is not the final authority on everything, nor are they always the smartest. Yes, a lot of smart people have moved to Silicon Valley, and yes, Silicon Valley has managed to create an aura of authority for themselves. But just as one example, how many Google Glasses do you see around? Just because Silicon Valley envisions it and actively works on it, does not mean it will be so. All the best ideas will also not necessarily come out of Silicon Valley. They are not infallible there, even when it comes to technology.
The fear that a technological revolution will destroy all the jobs has been a fear since the 17th Century. The Luddites, in the 18th Century, were upset at the idea that the machines would eliminate the need for their labor, and they worked to either destroy the machines physically, or to legislate the continued requirement for human labor. It’s been an ongoing fear since then. Glenn said that this coming revolution is like nothing that we have ever seen before, though, so we cannot base our thinking on what happened in the Industrial Revolution or other technological revolutions, where some jobs were eliminated, but many others were created. This time it’s different. Well Glenn, I’m pretty sure that people who saw the Industrial Revolution, or even the 3rd Technological Revolution of the Internet coming most assuredly had the same thoughts. These were like nothing the world had ever seen before as well, but things worked out. In the 1950s, nobody could even imagine all the people that we now have employed as software engineers or designers, or all the people employed to build the computers, lay the networks, or support the users who have problems with their computers these days. It was so outside the box for their time and place that they couldn’t even imagine it. I personally believe that this is the same thing. There will be new jobs, new industries even, that we just cannot even imagine right now.
We also have to consider the jobs that AI just can never do. Glenn made the case that the experts are working to create AI that will reflect human emotion and seem so real that we will not have any problem discussing our terminal cancer diagnosis with them. It’s possible. Of course, autopilot has been able to fly planes since the 70s, but people today still would never consider getting in a plane that doesn’t have a pilot there. How many people believe that an AI could have landed that plane in the Hudson River, or rather, would have even thought to try? Do you think you would believe it and trust it in 30 more years? I guess some people will, but will millions be able to make that leap? Personally, I’m doubtful. But what about things like psychology? Let’s say they come up with an AI as sophisticated as Data from Star Trek, but maybe is able to come across a bit more empathetic, and is able to exhibit feelings. How would you feel sitting down for an hour of talk therapy with what still amounts to a machine, albeit one that looks and sounds empathetic? Or let’s look at it this way: today, if you are having marriage problems, are you very interested in going to marriage therapy with someone who has never been married? If not, do you think you’d feel any better about talking out your troubles in front of an AI robot that is unable to experience love, anger, frustration, disappointment, hurt, etc.? Then there is religion. I won’t go too far down this road except to say, who is going to want to hear a sermon about humanity, morality, sin, and our fallen nature from an AI?
So I think we can establish that the idea of 100% unemployment is just a non-starter. I could give other examples, but you should get the idea by now that it will simply never get to that point. Keep in mind, too, that even since 2008, as many industries are moving toward more automation, the total US labor force has increased by 6 million people. Still, I will grant that AI is coming with a vengeance and will certainly be putting some entire industries out of business. That is difficult to deny. I believe, however, that at least in the short-term, we will see more of an integration of AI into some industries, where it can help do the mundane or tedious work, freeing up people to handle more of the complex, creative, and people-oriented work. As we have seen throughout time, I believe that we are moving toward another shift in the paradigm of what constitutes a work week. In the 19th Century, people were averaging about 70 hour weeks. Before the Great Depression, it was down to 50. Of course today it is much closer to 40. It was the 1920s when the move from 6 day work weeks to 5 day weeks started picking up steam. I definitely believe that the days of 5 day, 40 hour work weeks are quickly coming to an end. I don’t think that total salary will be heavily impacted, as people working 40 hours today make more adjusted income than people working 70 hours in the 19th Century, though some people probably will see pay cuts, at least in the short-term. Giving people more free time may open up other avenues of work, such as in the entertainment, recreation, and travel fields. Nobody wants to watch an AI singing Lady Gaga’s catalog, or doing Shakespeare, so there are certainly going to be ongoing jobs in artistic fields at a minimum.
Finally, I want to address Glenn’s point that he is concerned that too many people, especially men, find meaning in their work. I think that he has made a grave error is this assessment. It is good, even Biblical, to find meaning in our work. However, we should not find our identity in our work. Defining who we are by our work is a mistake, to be sure. Our identity can be found, as Christians, first and foremost in Christ. After that, we can find identity as spouses, parents, children, friends, active members of our communities, contributors, etc. All of these may also give our lives meaning, but so can our work. Work is also necessary. God assigned us to work after the Fall (Genesis 3), and He expects us to do it. 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 is where we are told that those who will not work will not eat, and are told that we must work to earn our livings. Work is necessary, it is good, and it is Biblical. To even entertain the idea that we should have a society were most people do not work is so far from what God meant for us that we Christians should reject any attempt at such on its face. We should, however, find work that benefits as many as possible, while also providing meaning to our own lives. AI may change the world as we know it in the coming years, but it doesn’t have to eliminate our ability to continue to have jobs that add meaning to our lives.