George Jetson and his family lived in a future with flying cars, a household robot, and other high-tech luxuries. The Jetsons originally premiered in 1962 as a sci-fi fantasy cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera and relaunched in the late ’80s. The Jetsons lived a fairly simple life in the sky with all of the things that we thought the future would hold. Even with all of the luxuries and gadgets that made life easier, George often complained about his job because it consisted of pushing a button repeatedly on the RUDI (Referential Universal Digital Indexer) computer for one hour a day, twice a week. It was too much work for George and his Space Age peers.
In the Jetsons, many of the common jobs that we have today were replaced by computers and robots, leaving humans with little work to do. Is this what the future holds for us as technology continues to revolutionize the workplace? While it might seem laughable to think about computers taking over our work, this concept is a serious consideration for many in the technology field.
We don’t have flying cars or household robots, but we do have self-driving cars that are being tested. Some of us even own a personal robot that is tasked with the chore of cleaning our homes. Technology is growing at such an exponential rate that many technologists are starting to worry about and plan for how these advancements will affect our society at large, specifically as more and more of our jobs become automated. Automation is not a future sci-fi idea but a reality in today’s workplace. The future is here, and we, as the church, need to think critically about the impact that these technologies will have on our lives, especially on our work.
What is artificial intelligence and automation?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an emerging field of technology defined as non-biological intelligence, where a computer system is programmed to accomplish a stated goal based on a set of algorithms or computer formulas. Commonly known examples are Apple’s Siri, Google Home, and Amazon’s Alexa. AI is also used in many distinct fields for an array of purposes. From home automation to image recognition software, AI inhabits a vast landscape and is being used more frequently to automate certain tasks or jobs. Automation is the process in which a goal is accomplished through the use of AI without the need for a manual intervention from human beings.
Think about the emerging concept of the internet of things (IoT). IoT consists of web-connected devices, commonly known as “smart” devices. I have equipped my home as a version of a smart home with certain automation tools that make life easier for my family. From turning on our porch light at sunset to adjusting the temperature based on the occupancy of the house, automation accomplishes pre-set goals without the need for me to tell the system what to do in that moment. I set it and forget it. The AI runs without my help all day and night, monitoring things and completing tasks on my behalf.
Work and AI
So how will AI and automation affect our work? This is a hotly debated question among leading theorists and researchers, but most technologists predict a massive shift in our economy and jobs in the semi-near future. Lower-skilled jobs or ones that require repetitive tasks are being replaced as we speak, and some predict that even higher-skilled jobs will be replaced by AI and machines within the next 20–100 years.
AI is already replacing some jobs we perform because it can be cheaper, quicker, and more accurate. Jobs ranging from manufacturing to data processing are being replaced daily by new technologies using various forms of AI. For example, our factories used to be full of people who worked long and hard hours. Production used to require a high level of human interaction, providing many job opportunities. But today, fewer workers are employed because of the use of industrial robots and computer systems. These have made manufacturing cheaper, faster, and in many ways, safer because they help eliminate human error and fatigue.
In addition, many jobs that were thought to be off limits to AI and technology are now open to automation because of ever-improving technology. Many jobs, such as warehouse workers, cashier clerks, cooks, and drivers, are predicted to be partially if not fully automated in the near future. For example, French officials have already constructed a subway line in Paris that operates without a human driver in the train. An AI interface manages the workflow for multiple trains that operate on the single line of the transit system. This AI system is monitored by one central human controller who can intervene in the case of an emergency or system malfunction. What once took the direct human involvement of many is now being shifted to a single operator.
Certain jobs might not be fully automated in the near future, but many of the tasks that accompany that job will be. Examples included data processing for paralegals, bookkeepers, tax accountants, and personal assistants. Today, you can sign up for an AI personal assistant called Amy/Andrew Ingram (AI) through the company x.Ai. It will help automate your schedule and book appointments for a small monthly rate. This AI assistant doesn’t require breaks, overtime pay, and never asks for a raise (unless the company decides to charge more for their services), making it more appealing than its human counterpart.
The church’s response
The church must respond and think critically about the rise of AI because it will have a massive impact on our lives and those in the communities around us. From job loss to retraining, most of our people are seeing these effects now or will experience them soon, no matter how old or experienced they may be. It is not a question of “if,” but “when?” So, here are two ways we can begin to prepare.
First, we must train the next generation to think critically about what professions they choose to pursue. While a complete AI takeover of the workforce is not likely imminent or even possible at this point, many of the jobs that are currently available might not exist in the near future, or will look very different. We can join the next generation in learning about these changes in order to set them (and ourselves) up for future success. Many schools and colleges are now providing programs and degrees in technology-related fields, such as computer programming, computer development, and mechatronics. The need for these types of jobs will continue to grow as technology becomes more thoroughly integrated into our lives.
Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, gives three questions that I believe are helpful to think about when we talk to our kids about their future careers:1
- Does it require interacting with people and using social intelligence?
- Does it involve creativity and coming up with clever solutions?
- Does it require working in an unpredictable environment?
Tegmark’s questions are helpful because they show that there are certain tasks that AI is not able to perform at this point. The level of intelligence needed to replace humans in these things is probably many generations away, if possible at all.
Second, the church must help cast a vision for work that is more than a means to an end. It is an essential part of what it means to be human. We were given the ability and desire to work by God before the fall, which means work is not a by-product of sin but part of the Imago Dei (image of God).
In a technological age, we might be tempted to seek AI-based machines to work for us so that we have more time for leisure and play. In fact, there has been a rise of robots that take on our chores. From robot vacuums to lawn mowers, these devices can perform tasks for us, saving time and money. But there are downsides that come along with all the benefits of these advancements.
Growing up, I was taught the value of hard work and discipline through mowing our lawn. Mowing over one acre of land was a shared chore between my sister and me. While I would have loved a Jetson-like robot to do my work, I learned about perseverance, the value of hard work, and developing a strong work ethic through the sweat and labor. Simply automating our jobs and life for the sake of leisure misses a crucial aspect of human dignity. We were created to work, not just to provide for ourselves, but to grow us and help us become more like Christ. Work is part of our sanctification, and without it, we will actually become less human.
As the church living in the age of technology and AI, let us commit to casting the vision that work is a good part of creation, and technology can aid us in that calling. New technologies will continue to come and may even perform certain things better than we can, but technology will not and cannot change what it means for us to be a human created in the image of God. We have a choice about the type of future we will inhabit. We need to cherish work rather than teach the next generation that button pushing is beneath us and that life is about procuring leisure with our flying cars, household robots, and high-tech luxuries.
1 Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 121.
Article originally appeared in Light Magazine at ERLC.com