richard_nisbett's picture
Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan; Author, Thinking: A Memoir
Thinking Machines And Ennui

The first time I had occasion to think about what thinking machines might do to human existence was at a talk decades ago by a computer scientist at a Yale psychology department colloquium. The speaker's topic was: "What will it mean to humans' conception of themselves, and to their well-being, if computers are ever able to do everything better than humans can do: beat the greatest chess player, compose better symphonies than humans?"   

The speaker then said, "I want to make two things clear at the outset. First, I don't know whether machines will ever be able to do those things. Second, I'm the only person in the room with the right to an opinion about that question." The latter statement was met with some gasps and nervous laughter.

Decades later, it's no longer a matter of opinion that computers will be able to do many of the astonishing things the speaker mentioned. And I'm worried that the answer to his question about what this will mean to us is that we're going to feel utterly sidelined and demoralized by machines.  I was sorry that Big Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess.  I was depressed for a moment when its successor beat all of its human Jeopardy competitors. And of course we know that machines can already compose works that beat the socks off John Cage for interest and listenability!

We really have to worry that there will be a devastating morale problem for us when any work we might do can be done better by machines. What does it mean to airplane pilots that a machine can do their job better than they can? How long will it be before that occupation, like hundreds of others already, is made literally obsolete by machines? What will it mean to accountants, financial planners and lawyers when machines can carry out, at the very least, nearly all of their bread-and-butter tasks more effectively and infinitely faster than they can? To physicians, physicists, and psychotherapists?

What will it mean when there is simply no meaningful work for any of us to do? When unsupervised machines plant and harvest crops. When machines can design better machines than any human could even think of. Or be a more entertaining conversationalist than even the cleverest of your friends.  

Steve Jobs said, "It's not the customers' job to know what they want." Computers may be able to boast that it's not the job of humans to know what they want.

Like you, I love to read, listen to music, and see movies and plays, experience nature. But I also love to work—to feel that what I do is fascinating at least to me, and might possibly improve the lives of some other people. What would it mean to people like you and me if our work were simply pointless and there were only the other enjoyable things to do?

We already know what machine-induced obsolescence has meant to some of the world's peoples. It's no longer necessary for anyone to make their own bows and arrows and hunt animals for any purpose other than recreation. Or plant, cultivate and harvest corn and beans. Some cultures built around such activities have collapsed and utterly lost their meaning to the people who were shaped by them. Think, for example, of some Southwestern Indian tribes and of rural whites in South Dakota, Alabama and New Mexico, with their ennui, lassitude and drug addictions. We have to wonder whether the mass of people in the world can face with equanimity the possibility of there being absolutely nothing to do other than entertain oneself.

Which isn't to say that cultures couldn't evolve in some way as to make the complete absence of work acceptable—even highly satisfying. There are cultures where there has been little to do in the way of work for eons, and people seem to have gotten along just fine. In some South Pacific cultures people could get by with little other than waiting for a coconut to drop or wading into a lagoon to catch a fish. In some West African cultures, men didn't do anything you would be likely to classify as work except for a couple of weeks a year when they were essential for the planting of crops. And then there were the idle rich of, for example, early 20th century England, with its endless rounds of card playing, the putting on of different costumes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and serial infidelities with really rather attractive people. Judging from PBS fare, that was pretty enjoyable.       

So maybe the most optimistic possibility is that we're headed toward evolving cultures that will enable us to enjoy perpetual entertainment with absolutely no meaningful, productive work to do. However repellent that may seem to us, we have to imagine, hope even, that it may seem an absolutely delightful existence to our great great grandchildren, who will pity us for our cramped and boring lives. Some would say the vanguard is already here. Portland has been described as the place where young people go to retire.