The End of Purpose: Automation Implications

The whole point of automation is to make our lives easier. Designers aim to take steps out of someone’s day (drive your car, prep your meal, brush your teeth, etc.) and transfer that responsibility to a machine of some kind. In theory, this setup sounds ideal – the more mundane tasks we can transfer to machines, the more time we have to focus on leisure and passion activities. However, in reality, with every advance of technology, we seem to be taking away things that give people a sense or purpose, regardless of how mundane. Moreover, as AI advances further and further and takes ownership of tasks of increasing complexity and importance to our lives, we confuse and lose sight of what it means to be human.

I recently had a conversation with someone about their prediction for the thing that would cripple humanity – not necessarily destroy the whole world, but create a big enough problem that we would be forever changed. Surprisingly, when my own question was turned back on me, what came out of my own mouth was “AI.” This was funny to me since I’d always subversively mocked Skynet believers and doom-sayers who heralded the day when our own AI choose to turn on us and enslave or kill us all. I love the field of automation and feel it to be one of the most important pursuits of the twenty-first century. However, even a robo-enthusiast like me is able to see some looming implications to the transfer of agency we’re currently amidst.

My prediction had nothing to do with a mass cull or global catastrophe. Instead, I envisioned AI leading to a slow erosion of humanity’s sense of purpose and meaning that would ultimately cause an epidemic of depression and suicide the likes of which would force individuals to question the very fabric of our society. While this all may seem a bit doom and gloom, the reality is that the always-connected, everything-automated lifestyle we’ve grown accustomed to is already cited as a source of mental health challenges for individuals and we’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

It may be difficult to imagine that anyone will lose much sleep over a robot that unclogs toilets or chatbot that proofreads newspapers but the reality is that, of the almost eight billion people living on this planet, everyone finds meaning and purpose in something different. Every time we take another task and automate it we not only have to worry about someone losing their job – jobs are easy enough to retrain and evolve – but we potentially have to worry about taking away someone’s passion. That passion could be fighting basic legal battles, writing a book, building cars, cleaning the home, driving a car, composing music, crafting a unique cocktail, or scheduling events – all of which are tasks that we have taught machines to do in recent years.

Of course, just because a machine can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that a human can’t. In ten years, there will still be people who drive classic cars as a leisure activity even if the roads are largely self-driving. By 2035, there will be rare instances of live, organic concerts even if the bulk of society is listening to computer-generated pop streaming into their inner-ear. When I reach old age, I’m sure I’ll still spend the odd night cooking a retro-meal with a loved one even if every other night we eat according to our perfectly personalized and automatically prepared nutrition calendar. Machines will never prevent us from doing any of these things, yet in the name of practicality and efficiency, it simply won’t make any sense for us to do them.

And when the list of automated tasks becomes so long to nearly be exhaustive, what will be left for us humans? A rare subset of the population may find solace and value within extremely specialized skills such as robotic development or technology R&D, but how long will it be before we can even advance to the point of automating our advances? Taken to its extreme, the robotic and AI movements paint a picture of a world where there is nothing left for humanity to do but sit and enjoy ourselves (thank you, Wall-E). But how long will that last?

We’re a species of struggle. We thrive on conflict and the ability to problem solve. We love a good challenge. Our purpose in life is to overcome the obstacles around us and survive long enough to make the world a bit better than what we inherited and potentially leave someone behind to continue our work. However, we are running out of challenges. Not only have we left no stone unturned but at this point, we’ve built stone turning machines so that newcomers can see either side they want at the push of a button. We are slowly but surely converging upon completion and in the process, leaving nothing left for future generations to worry about. I’m not so naive as to deny the massive global issues we’ve created – climate change, global populism, wealth disparity – but for many of us, issues of this scale feel unapproachably huge. Moreover, many technocrats believe that the only way to solve problems of this magnitude is through the use of AI.

And this continual rounding of corners, posting of warning signs, and automating of anything that requires effort is heralding implications both short term and long. In the short term, we are rearing new generations with terrible resilience. By being raised among technologies that automatically offer up an instantaneous response to any request, we indoctrinate a culture of low-effort and high-expectation. This generational helicopter parenting perpetuates a frailty in our society that has become too reliant on the technologies around us while still being told to find meaning and value in a task and calling that you love.

In the long term, we are witnessing the end of purpose. With each child born into a world that expects it to find meaning in a vocation or task that is a part of an increasingly shrinking list of things that humans are supposed to do, we set ourselves up for disaster. Will new jobs emerge along the way? Yes, but not nearly at the rate of evolution of technology and automation. We’ve entered an era of exponential technological advancement and for each step forward that people take, technology takes a running leap. Play this game out long enough and we envision a dark utopia where you and I have nothing to worry about, nothing to fear, and absolutely nothing to do.

More and more I believe that AI will be the end of us all. Though not through some militaristic takeover or killbot infestation – we will back ourselves into a corner of uselessness. And though I believe that it will ultimately be ourselves that pull the trigger on humanity, it will be robots that made the gun.