Sign In

Communications of the ACM


The Future of Work: But What Will Humans Do?

View as: Print Mobile App Share:

While artificial intelligence has proved much more difficult than some early pioneers believed, its progress has been nothing short of inexorable. In 2004 economists argued that driving was unlikely to be automated in the near future. A year later a Stanford autonomous vehicle won a DARPA Grand Challenge by driving over 100 miles along an unrehearsed desert trail. A decade later, one hears regularly about the exploits of the Google driverless car. I believe that in 30 years it will be quaint, perhaps even illegal, for humans to drive on public roads.

Once driving is automated, delivery will be quick to follow; companies such as Amazon are already working hard on fully automating their whole supply chain. The list of jobs likely to be automated grows daily, as AI increases its cognitive ability (it won at chess in 1999 and Jeopardy! in 2011), and its situational awareness and physical dexterity.

The unstoppable march of AI suggests that Herbert Simon was probably right when he wrote in 1956 that "machines will be capable ... of doing any work a man can do." I do not expect this to happen soon, but I do believe that by 2045 machines will be able to do much of the work that humans can do. So the question is: If machines can do almost any work humans can, what will humans do?

A typical answer is that if machines will do all our work, we will be free to pursue leisure activities. Of course, our economic system would have to undergo a radical re-structuring to enable billions of people to live lives of leisure. One can imagine perhaps a society of a small number of haves and a large number of haves-not, supported, say, by government subsidies. This is reminiscent of "panem et circenses," the Roman practice of free bread and entertainment to the masses. Yet I do not find this a promising future, as I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being. Is this our future?

It is instructive to recall the biblical story of the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis (Chapters 2 and 3). God places Adam and Eve in the Garden and tells them: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it." The Serpent then tempts Eve, who, in turn, tempts Adam, to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. This leads to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Furthermore, God metes punishment on the Serpent, Eve, and Adam: "And unto Adam he said, cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." So, according to this biblical story, our need to work for a living is an outcome of the failure of humanity to follow the word of God.

But let us contemplate humanity before and after the expulsion. Before the expulsion, Adam and Eve spent their time frolicking naked in the garden, where food is amply available without work; one could say they were no better than apes. One could even see the story as a metaphor for the roots of humanity in pre-human primates. After the expulsion, humans had to work for a living, but they have eaten from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They were inventive. They have learned to hunt, mastered fire, invented agriculture, and eventually launched the Industrial Revolution. We are about to launch another Industrial Revolution, where work will be almost fully automated.

In a sense, humans used the knowledge they gained from the Forbidden Fruit to overcome God’s punishment; they will no longer need to work for a living; no more "by the sweat of thy face." But can humanity go back to the Garden of Eden? Will we be happy just frolicking? Furthermore, human progress has been driven to a large extent by our desire to eliminate work or, at least, to lighten the toil. What will drive humanity once that goal has by and large been accomplished?

Thus, even if we manage to solve the economic implications of the complete or almost-complete automation of work, the question of the consequences to quality of life remains wide open. The classical Greek philosophers, starting with Socrates, discussed "Eudaimonia," often translated as "the good life"—in other words, human flourishing. Aristotle viewed this question as one of the most central in philosophy. So the question facing us today is whether we can achieve the good life without work.

I believe the question of how humanity will occupy itself in the presence of intelligent machinery is one of the most central challenges facing society today. To repeat my earlier question: If machines are capable of almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?

For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

Moshe Y. Vardi is the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor of Computational Engineering at Rice University, and editor-in-chief of Communications.


cindy maso

A few points:
Slavery or worker? Marx's theories of labour includes the idea that if a worker's value is not compensated with capital, and if the worker's consumption of goods is not explicitly valued in an economy, this is slavery.

Compassion? Cliff Nass's team, among others, has shown there is a rub-off effect between people and gadgets. When robots become our cashiers, will it frighten children? If there is compassionate
interaction, it could be a win-win.

Do androids dream of surplus value? Atle Mikkola Kjsen, class paper online,

Engineering Kindness: Building A Machine With Compassionate Intelligence, C. Mason,
Appears in International Journal of Synthetic Emotions, 6(1) number, June -December 2015

Roland Crespo

While the article discusses an evident change to economics and raises some important considerations and one particularly important question, the article presents no new information and, especially, raises no new ways of thinking.

The important considerations all relate to economics, as we presently know it. That is, as an exercise in scarcity brought about by scarce skills, materials and other constraints useful in establishing market prices, demand, forecasts, etc. The important question: What will humans do? Great. No problem there.

With capitalism, we have circular economics: Those who produce also consume. On one tiny planet, we all work, provide effort to a menu of known jobs and we leverage the product of others. It is a zero sum game. If we want a raise, prices go up. The best we can say is that what humans have learned to be a cog in a machine.

To underscore just how unfulfilling this is for so many, once we understand enough about a thing a machine, a job function, whatever we can explain it to a machine. Nearly every business function, for example, is reducible to a state transition. Software is forever, so every line of code we put down cements that state transition deeper into one application after another, removing those jobs from the economy while preserving their function. So, if your job provided you fodder for your muse, your fine appreciation of music, your operatic sense, fashion sense, etc., you need to find some other revenue stream to keep the lifestyle. Your job or career is not your life, they say. Do not judge yourself by your work, they say. Well, the software that made your job redundant does not need any of these other activities to meet its mission.

And, as we are slowly learning, that same software can adapt to meet any new jobs that might emerge from its use.

So we have the Matt Riddleys of the world giving talks about ideas having sex, about how ideas are not a zero sum game but multiplicative in nature. By every measure, we see a new definition of economics emerge right here. Not one of scarcity but abundance:

Eric Drexler saw this circa 1980 in his Engines of Creation with nanotechnology collapsing entire supply chains. Today, we see 3D printing (additive, personal manufacturing) and DARPAs Atom to Product programs four-year cycle towards the construction of an assembler and its call for business partners. We see Diamandes book Abundance (mostly based on Kurzweil) and Drexler again with Radical Abundance.

The kind of thinking that got us here is not the kind of thinking to take us to the future. References to religious biblical nonsense better left buried in the sands of the Bronze Age have neither applicability nor suitability to the problem at hand. Attempts to bring savagery like this to help guide us to the future simply guarantee more of the same kind of thinking, politics and fear mongering that is useless as a guide.

A better approach, and what I expected of an editor of the ACM to have supplied, is a discussion on how to best migrate the workforce. The simple fact is that Martin Ford has it right: It may be that as our technical infrastructure arises, our only jobs will be consumption. Remember, now we have automated, dedicated and suddenly intelligent devices producing in the same economy along with humans and outperforming humans at nearly every turn. In fact, where such code and devices do not outperform humans already belies a lack of investment fueling research only and not some impossible divine spark separating such devices form people. Why is this important? Even Ford misses the point: Instead of using humankind as a tool, we arm humankind with tools. Instead of a wage-enslaved cog in a machine, we back humankind with the technical infrastructure to accomplish personal and community goals.

What will humankind then do for work? I think learning what it means to be human instead of learning what it means to be a cog will inundate us with work. Kurzweil has it right: We will merge with our technology. I think we quickly reach an inflection point that defines what we become next. The concept that humans need a purpose requiring work obsolesced right when it was first proposed. It shows grandeur only in its depth as a failed idea.

No kind of past thinking serves as a guide here. We must not look to the past for those answers and certainly not to something as disgusting as religion. We are explorers in a new land, seeking out what it really means to be human. It will take every mind to create the next infrastructure and with our new thinking, new methods and ideas, who knows what that next step will look like.
But, I can tell you it wont look anything at all like yesterday.

Arthur Gardner

I wish to complain that the Garden of Eden is getting a raw deal here. What makes you think that Adam and Eve were there just to frolic?

In the first creation account, God tells the man and the woman, Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. In the second, account the Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.

From the beginning, man was meant to work, to cooperate with God, to develop and bring order to the world he had been given. Work is by no means a punishment. The Lord explains to Adam and Eve, rather, that, as a consequence of their act, work is going to get harder. The land will resist being tilled. Their own characters will resist their efforts to live well and intelligently.

If it makes any sense to ask what if in connection with this, I suggest that man would have accomplished far more by now, had he left the apple on the tree.

(Quotations are from the New American Bible.)

Michael Scott

The distinction between "work" and "leisure" may miss the point, I think. In today's economy, in both the developed and the developing world, most people work to survive, not to find personal fulfillment. In a utopian future, I would hope to see automation replace the nonfulfilling work, freeing people to pursue work that is fulfilling but that would not, in today's economy, be adequately compensated. Imagine, if you will, a future full of artists and teachers and artisan farmers -- a future in which anybody who wants a table (or a house or a computer) can get one more or less for free, but the really _cool_ people choose to get one that was lovingly crafted by hand. In such a future, social/economic growth would be measured not in the retail price of commodities, but in human well-being, knowledge, and happiness.

But there are many distopian alternatives. Who will own the robots? _Will_ I be able to get a table more or less for free, or will the benefits of automation accrue only to the owning/ruling class? Will our automated systems work in harmony with nature, or will they serve largely to accelerate the extractive technologies that are destroying our air and water and climate? Will we be able to craft an economy that does not require (as modern capitalism does) ever more tables and toasters and iPads and cars? To fully reap the benefits of automation, I would argue, we will need to completely rethink the foundations of capitalism. For anyone interested in these broader issues, let me recommend Naomi Klein's _This Changes Everything_.

Gary Gocek

Since the blog post dwells so much on the Biblical references, allow me to comment on a couple of Moshe's questions:
"But can humanity go back to the Garden of Eden? ... What will drive humanity once [the goal of eliminating work] has by and large been accomplished?"

I feel like Moshe only read half the Bible. The New Testament digs into these questions. There is indeed a path back to the Garden, but it takes a lot of work.

I'm not concerned that humanity will ever experience a time when there is no work to do.

Displaying all 5 comments