Artificial Intelligence & Human Flourishing: Would life be worth living in a 'jobless future'?
Yousef, a fictitious character conjured up for argument’s sake, recently decided to retrain as an English teacher, after decades of making copious amounts of money as an investment banker left him in the depths of an existential crisis. Not long after retraining, Yousef began working as an English teacher at a local school. Despite having to downgrade his comfortable lifestyle, every morning Yousef gets out of bed with a smile. His new-found sense of bliss derives from his love for working with children; moreover, he now has the time to pursue his passion for literature and desire to have one of his novels acquire the recognition he believes they deserve.
Over the next five years, Yousef’s responsibilities as a teacher gradually become replaced by artificial intelligence (AI): first came the AI chatbots, then automated writing evaluation (AWE), followed by intelligent tutoring systems (ITS). It’s not long until the school hires a robot teacher to assist with classes; this assistant robot is a very fast learner, and within weeks Yousef is made redundant.
He soon discovers that he was not the only teacher to experience this. In fact, robot teachers were being employed – or rather deployed – across the country and teachers were told they were no longer needed. “The government has agreed to pay all former teachers a universal basic income to cover living costs”, he was told. “Just go home and focus on writing those novels you’re always going on about, Yousef!”
The scenario described above is unlikely to come about for quite some time. While AI chatbots, AWE, and ITS are already being used in education, robot teachers able to completely replace humans are not currently on the horizon. It seems more likely that AI will not make all jobs redundant, but that it will change the nature of work, “sapping the elements that give it some meaning and purpose” (Danaher 2022).
However, there is evidence that the AI already used in education are restricting access to some of the non-monetary goods and rewards of work. If we were to one-day arrive at a scenario like Yousef’s, where algorithms, automated machines, and robots can effectively replace most forms of work, we would be entirely free to pursue our hobbies without being coerced into getting a job.
But how would a world without work impact human flourishing? Would we find it easy to lead meaningful lives? Or would we struggle keeping ourselves busy?
A Jobless Future
In The Abolition of Work (1985), the anarchist thinker Bob Black wrote:
Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.
Black considered work to be “forced labour” or “compulsory production” that is “never done for its own sake”. He contrasts this limited definition with ‘play’ – a voluntary activity which is not necessarily governed by rules but rather carried out for its own sake (as an end in itself). In defending his anti-work position, Black describes how work has become institutionalised in Modernity, with almost all people having ‘jobs’ that they are generally forced into. Not only does this appear to contradict the liberal-democratic promise of personal freedom and autonomy but seems to disrupt our capacity to live in meaningful and fulfilling ways. Would our quality of life not be better if these eight hours could be spent engaged in sport, music, and literature?
John Danaher has drawn on Black’s work when considering the possibility of long-term structural unemployment induced by AI in the future. He presents a nuanced case for the desirability of a world without work, pointing out that those made redundant by AI might not need to retrain (as has been the case with mass unemployment of the past) and could engage in ‘playful’ activities in lieu of working. Danaher considers work to be “an activity we perform in exchange for an economic reward” (Danaher 2022). For him, most forms of work are coercive and unfulfilling. In a ‘jobless future’, certain forms of ‘utopia’ could be achieved by integrating ourselves with technology in various ways (Danaher 2019).
The details of these utopias are not relevant to our discussion, but it should be noticed that Danaher has acknowledged that a ‘jobless future’ would likely interfere with human flourishing, particularly if we understand a meaningful human existence to require a combination of subjective and objective  theories rather than purely the former (Danaher 2017). Some thinkers, such as A.J Ayer, defend a wholly subjectivist account of human flourishing, holding that we can live a meaningful life by pursuing our own subjective interests, without engaging in objectively good activities. This seems highly unlikely. A more nuanced account of human flourishing requires a combination of subjective activities - such as Yousef’s passion for writing – and objectively good activities, like contributing to the education and development of children.
Education & Human Flourishing
There are several non-monetary goods which are obtained through work. These include attaining excellence, making a social contribution, experiencing community, and gaining social recognition (Gheaus and Herzog 2016). Before considering how robot teachers might restrict access to these, it’s worth looking at the ways AI is already doing so in the education workforce. The AI chatbots can answer students’ questions without Yousef needing to reply to an email. AWE can guide students on writing style and mark essays without oversight. ITS offer step-by-step personalized tutorials to students which are modified in real-time accounting for their individual requirements. These have a direct impact on attaining excellence and experiencing community.
In terms of attaining excellence, they all reduce how reliant students are on Yousef’s expertise, allowing them to learn more independently. Yousef is required to spend less time communicating with students, marking essays, or identifying which students require extra guidance. AI technologies certainly reduce the pressure on Yousef, but they also prevent him from honing his skills as a teacher. In terms of experiencing community, there is evidence that these technologies reduce the contact hours between teachers and students (Maio et al 2021). They contribute to a more atomised school environment, where students have less of a reason to engage with teachers and vice versa. Yousef would not need to reply to emails, give individual feedback to students on essays, or spend time talking to students about what areas they are struggling with.
Let’s take the extreme case of the Yousef scenario now: where robot teachers make human teachers completely obsolete. Yousef’s opportunity to attain excellence and experience community in the school environment would be completely restricted. Moreover, his ability to make a social contribution by helping to cultivate the next generation or acquire social recognition by going on to hold senior positions in the school, would be impossible.
Yousef’s career change was not financially motivated. In fact, he took a loss on his income in order to work in an environment where he felt his contributions would have a positive impact on society. Teachers have a social function: they cultivate the next generation and prepare them for life as a citizen – an objectively good activity which is an end in itself. Given that a world without work would prevent individuals like Yousef from being able to access objectively good activities such as these, it seems likely that these individuals would find it more difficult to lead meaningful lives.
One might argue that Yousef would have more time to pursue his writing and other hobbies. He would still be able to attain excellence as a writer, experience community by networking with other writers, make a social contribution by using his writing to encourage good behaviour, and acquire social recognition if one of his novels was to become popular.
But what about Yousef’s passion for working with children and helping them grow into mature adults? It seems unlikely that he would be able to acquire this elsewhere in a world without work. Yousef is not able to do what he desires because he now lives in a world where meaningful activities are carried out by technology rather than individuals.
Let’s take the Yousef scenario a step further. After writing novels for another five years, a jobless Yousef is able to acquire all the non-monetary goods of work described above. He has finally found balance in life again. But not for long. AI develops further, and there is now software able to write thrilling novels far more entertaining than anything a human could produce. Writers everywhere sigh; nothing they could produce would ever compare with these new AI writers, and any effort to compete would be in vain. They have an abundance of beautiful novels to read but writing is slowly becoming a thing of the past.
Yousef can’t sleep till late most nights; he sits up wondering whether all this could rightly be called progress?
 Objective theories of meaningful work are to a degree subjective in and of themselves. Reaching a consensus on ‘objective’ goodness or meaningful work is very challenge, but for the sake of the argument being made we are engaging with a thin account of ‘objective’, in contrast with ‘subjective’, theories of human flourishing.
Black, B., 1985. ’The Abolition of Work’. The Anarchist Library, [online]. Available at: <https://theetat.werkplaatstypografie.org/spin/The%20Abolition%20of%20Work%20_%20The%20Anarchist%20Library.pdf>.
Danaher, J., 2016. ‘The Threat of Algocracy: Reality, Resistance and Accommodation’. Philosophy and Technology, 29(3), pp. 245 – 268.
Danaher, J., 2017. ‘Will life be worth living in a world without work? Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life’. Science and engineering ethics, 23(1), pp. 41 – 64.
Danaher, J., 2019. Automation & Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World Without Work. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Danaher, J., 2022. ‘AI won’t steal your job, just make it meaningless’. Institute of Art and Ideas, [online]. Available at: <iai.tv/articles/ai-wont-steal-your-job-just-make-it-meaningless-auid-2082>. Accessed 04/05/2022.
Ford, M., 2015. The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment. London: One World Publications.
Gheaus, A. and Herzog, L., 2016. ‘The goods of work (other than money!)’. Journal of Social Philosophy, 47(1).
Miao, F., Holmes, W., Huang, R. and Zhang, H., 2021. ‘AI in education: guidance for policy-makers’. UNESCO, [online]. Available at: <https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000376709>. Accessed: 04/05/2022.