Last week, I wrote an article as an ode of sorts to automation. The beauty of automation is buried under headlines that read, “Machines kill 10,000 jobs” and “Are You Better than a Robot?” But while I believe automation does harbor an inherent elegance, the sentiment that reverberates out of the anti-automation headlines is not illogical or unfounded. It’s simply giving voice to the other end of the argument.
That other end of the argument is this: machines cannot replace the vitality and passion of human work.
Automation is overrunning the world. Factories are becoming more machine-intensive at an ever-hastening rate; jobs are dying. Whispers of Google’s elusive self-driving car only feed the monster of a skeleton in the closet that machines are going to take over the world. With 3-D printers, machines that can write news stories for Wall Street and computers with nearly incomprehensible power, it feels almost inevitable that machines will overrun the world. And this leaves a perplexing question:
Is there anything left for humans to do?
The answer is yes.
First, glance at history. John Maynard Keynes, the greatest economist in the world at the time of the Second World War, predicted that by now people would hardly work at all—machines would do all the necessary tasks. Yet, humans have kept working and kept pace with a flourishing automobile market, space shuttles and laptop computers. Humans will always continue to invent and create, which will continue to supply work for humans.
But, as fellow George Fox Odyssey writer Greg Conanpoints out, automation is on pace to displace millions of workers, leaving some still asking: is there anything left for me to do? Am I valuable?
The answer is still yes.
Humans excel at the simple. Computers can process millions of finance numbers faster than humans, but humans can fold laundry better. Humans can write more colorfully. Being good at being simple might seem a meager consolation prize. But the simple is what makes life worth living. Feeling the sunshine on your face, snapping your fingers, breathing fresh air—all trivial occurrences. Yet perhaps the most faithfully joyful ones. Humans can enjoy the relational aspect of chatting with an old friend or getting lost in the world of a novel.
“But,” you ask, “how does this give people value over machines?” People can enjoy life as machines can’t, but is joy equal to value? Not always. But, as I mentioned, humans are relational. And that is something machines cannot replace.
Adam Smith, one of the greatest economists of all time, noticed this. He is famous for his work "Wealth of Nations" in which he expounds upon the profits of trade and invention — both of which laid the groundwork for automation as we know it today. But Smith also wrote a lesser-known work, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," that is the other piece to the puzzle of automation.
In "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," Smith recognizes the power of empathy. He concedes that human empathy is inherently flawed; humans cannot perfectly replicate feelings or experience. But true yearning, true seeking for a commonality of soul is real love. And that real, veritable love cannot be replaced. Only a human with the capability to empathize can truly love. Machines cannot replicate empathy. Empathy requires a soul; empathy requires the ability to feel pain; empathy requires yearning. Humans have needs on two levels. Human needs on a physical level can be well-quenched by automation. But humans also have emotional needs. To truly live — to thrive — human beings must love and be loved. People must feel raw pain and pure ecstasy to know the human experience. And machines simply cannot replicate that. Automation has its place—rest assured. But in the wake of ever-increasing automation, let us not forget the humanity of humans.