Back to the Future III: Does the Future Belong to Smart Machines?

In this series of posts, I have been exploring how the future figures into vocational discernment. So far, my explorations have been more philosophical in nature as I have pondered the “prolepsis of vocation” and the importance of Aristotle’s notion of “Becoming.” In this post, I briefly consider how technology will increasingly affect such ponderings.

According to a growing number of analysts, we are on the verge of a technological tsunami that will change the world in ways comparable to what happened during the Industrial Revolution. As late as 1850, more than 90 percent of the humans on earth were still rural peasant farmers, but within a few turbulent decades those realities were overturned. Technological developments such as machine tools, the steam engine, railroads, and the telegraph (and the factories, sociopolitical systems, and capitalist financiers who enabled it all) thrust our traditional agricultural world toward industrial urbanized modernity.

Now more than half of the planet’s population lives in cities and everyone experiences global conditions that would have been unimaginable in 1850. In effect, the Industrial Revolution mobilized a blend of modern forces that changed the world: It changed where we live, what we do, how we interact with each other, how we think and relate to the cosmos, how we plan, dream, and educate our young. We can debate whether to interpret the revolution more in terms of progress or alienation, but it is impossible to deny its significance. [For more on the global implications of some of these developments, see Bren Tooley’s essay, “Vocation in A Global Frame.” – ed.]

And if the analysts are correct, a new and even more dramatic revolution is about to crest.

Reports out of Oxford University and the Bank of England project that, in the next few decades, nearly 50 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by “smart machines” displacing up to 80 million American workers. They also assert that the impact will be felt across a wide spectrum of professions especially as smart machines are increasingly able to perform non-routine cognitive tasks. Books like Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply (Yale, 2015) and Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2016) analyze the employment threats from different angles, and Yuval Noah Harari’s provocative book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harper, 2018) explores the broader philosophical and historical implications. (Harari’s thesis could be a topic for future post).

In terms of employment, this Automation Revolution is already creating new opportunities and jobs as the Industrial Revolution did previously. Some optimists think that the emerging transformations will produce positive results that outpace the challenges so that we will actually witness a huge leap forward in human progress and global improvement. They consider the fearful alarms to be Luddite hysteria stirred up by late-modern Chicken Littles.

But a growing consensus is not so optimistic. At the very least, despite remarkable advancements during the last few centuries, we must appreciate the global disruptions and chaos generated by the Industrial Revolution. It seems likely that we, our children, and grandchildren will soon have to navigate disruptions on an even bigger scale. In other words, the mounting Automation Revolution and all the technological, sociopolitical, and economic restructuring that it is already generating will affect everyone.

We will have to cultivate new virtues.

In Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig assert that the emerging world requires us to transition from the “Old Smart” to the “New Smart.” The Old Smart is the industrial era’s emphasis on quantitative skills which smart machines increasingly perform in superior ways. The New Smart emphasizes qualitative capacities such as emotional engagement, critical and innovative thinking, intellectual and artistic creativity, self-awareness and introspection, compassion and dialogical collaboration. The New Smart is less about information access and more about processing and prioritizing the deluge of information we now experience. Hess and Ludwig broadly characterize these new capacities with the notion of “humility” which they correlate with lifelong learning, open-mindedness, and adaptive agility.

All said, it seems that the best way to prepare for the approaching tsunami is to nurture the most human of capacities especially among the rising generations. As such, NetVUE’s emphasis on vocation in undergraduate education as organic, realistic, embodied, narratively-based, communally-oriented processes is not just thought-provoking, it is critical for the future.

John D. Barton is Director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University where he also serves on the faculties of Seaver College’s Religion and Philosophy Division and the GSEP’s graduate program in Social Entrepreneurship and Change. His areas of interest and research include African philosophy, ethics and philanthropy, and inter-religious dialogue.