We read these days that Americans worry automation will soon make their labor obsolete. Although this supposed threat to the employability of millions involves the convergence of multiple technologies—including computer programming, chip design, voice recognition, artificial intelligence, and material science—it is most often identified with the word robot, conjuring dark images of hapless workers callously sidelined by efficient and tireless electronic rivals.
The political solutions for this robot threat are predictable. Those on the Left, inclined to a static view of job opportunity, want a guaranteed income for the growing number of workers they claim will be permanently displaced. Those on the Right, believing machines will require, not fewer, but better-educated employees, demand school reforms to adequately prepare the future workforce.
Yet a metaphysical aspect to automation, although rarely discussed, suggests the current anxiety is more than just economic. By metaphysical, I am referring to the fact that, for robots to even be considered a workplace threat, we must assume the complex tasks they perform are so like what a human being does that their ascendency is only a matter of technological refinement.
Many Think We’re Just Biological Computers
In our post-Freudian world, where mind has been reduced to brain chemistry and the idea of a transpersonal soul long banished from university curricula, this assumption is quite widespread. Taught to think of themselves as biological computers, people naturally fear that real computers—advanced so they can walk, converse, and learn from their mistakes—will inevitably take their place.
Yet history and religious tradition have always advanced another view of the human nature, a view polls show the clear majority of Americans maintains, despite our secular culture. This spiritual outlook concedes that a person’s abilities are largely the product of inherited physiology modified by educational input, but with one critical stipulation. Anyone who has faith in a higher power and obeys Its will also benefits from an intuitive guidance that knows the reality beneath the appearances can foresee the future, and will strategically intervene to insure the believer’s longer term well-being.
For someone with such an optimistic outlook, robot technology represents the same kind of challenge the automobile once did to the religious buggy whip salesman or the electric light bulb did to the devout candlestick maker. It is certainly a good reason to pray for higher guidance in planning or changing one’s career, and to be prepared for any temporary sacrifices that such transitions might require, but it’s hardly a reason to feel oneself obsolete or to believe the future will somehow be worse than the present.
Technology Begins to Pose Problems for Secularism
At a fundamental level, then, the debate around robots is as much a social issue as it is an economic one. People with a secular or materialistic view of what it means to be human have every reason to believe robots threaten their happiness, while those who believe in a transcendent soul understand that any similarity between persons and machines will never be more than a superficial one.
Indeed, the only thing that has kept political commentators from appreciating robots as a social issue is that this is the first time in recent history the anxiety created by a new technology has been a greater problem for the secular side of the metaphysical divide. Whereas advances in areas like birth control and stem cell research put traditional believers on the defensive, it is the materialist whose view of human nature diminished by the coming of seemingly life-like robots.
Unfortunately, as with most social issues, there is not much of a policy middle ground on managing automation. The secularist’s prescriptions for how to cope with the dawning age of intelligent machines are based on assumptions about what it means to be human that the spiritually inclined will never accept. And visa versa.
But at least we can know why it will prove so difficult for the two sides to agree. Perhaps the recognition that technology does not play metaphysical favorites will foster the kind of humility that leads, if not to agreement, then at least to mutual respect.