Two recent articles, read side-by-side, capture a common but growing tension between the need for economic efficiency and the needs of human beings.
The first, in the MIT Technology Review (July/August 2017), is based on an interview with Melonee Wise, who runs a robotics startup called Fetch. The company’s robots specialize in repetitive warehouse and factory work, thereby reducing the need for workers.
In response to a question about robots replacing humans at work, Wise responded this way: “There will be displacement. All technology does it. . . . Technology is going to continue to advance, and technology always creates jobs. . . . The question is, will the people whose jobs are displaced be retrained to do the new jobs that are available?”
Wise is also among the growing number who believe that the U.S. should move toward a “basic universal income,” a government-supplied low-level income that allows people to meet basic living needs. This, many believe, could be funded through taxes on companies. It is assumed that businesses will be able to increase productivity and profits by using robotics and artificial intelligence rather than people.
Wise sees these questions as a “socio-political discussion,” at least based on what she shared in her interview with MIT. But what about the human dimensions of this matter? For a perspective on this, we turn to an article in the March 2017 issue of First Things, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City.
Max Torres, a professor of business and economics at the Catholic University of America, asks this question: “What if the primary importance of keeping a job in the U.S. concerns human flourishing rather than economic efficiency?”
That’s a fair question. Torres notes that companies and politicians “assume that market efficiency is the final end purpose of a nation’s economy . . .” and that “most of us adopt the false view that the most important feature of having a job is the income it provides.”
Torres argues that work is about much more than income. Citing Pope John Paul II, he says that humans were created by a God who works, and who gave us work as a fundamental aspect of human nature. Work is an avenue for spiritual and character growth, and it enables us to fulfill our calling to be co-creators with God (“to be fruitful and multiply”). In other words, work is central to what it means to be human.
Torres inserts a theological element in the growing discussion about artificial intelligence, robotics, and the future work. Although Wise and many others see the issue only through a socio-political and “bottom-line” lens, Torres argues that such a perspective is valid, but too narrow. The socio-political lens tends to eclipse the deepest questions about human nature. It avoids the possibility that humans are created in the image of God and therefore need work, not just for an income, but to be fully human.
These are difficult, but fascinating tensions. It would be wrong to frame the question as an either-or debate. Economic efficiency—even when accomplished by artificial intelligence or robotics—can create an employment boom and help people flourish. We’ll have to see. But as the economy changes in response to technology, our business and economic discussions need theological inspiration. If we really care about people, we should take into account that human nature is wired for more than an income.