The economy of a world without work 

A future where artificial intelligence has eliminated the need for all forms of work is one where AI has become self-aware. If such a future is possible, how would economic relations be organised? Can the current capitalist system function in a world where we don’t have to work?

Published - November 14, 2023 10:34 pm IST

For representative purposes.

For representative purposes. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

At the recently concluded Bletchley Park summit on Artificial Intelligence (AI), in an interview with the U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, billionaire Elon Musk highlighted the disruptive potential of AI. Mr. Musk conceived of a future where AI would substitute for all human labour — both physical and cognitive — and hence individuals would face no pressing need for a job, but would only seek work for personal fulfilment.

While AI may substitute for certain jobs, it generates new jobs in turn, for instance AI programmers. A future where AI has eliminated the need for all forms of work is one where AI has become self-aware — where AI software can not only take on the task it was designed for, but can also design AI to undertake new tasks, and operate and maintain itself. Such a future may be theoretically possible, but practically improbable.

The need for work

A world without work may not be probable, but is it desirable? The history of economic thought reveals different ways in which a human’s relation with work has been theorised. Here one looks at two thinkers with diametrically opposite views on the nature of work — John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx. Keynes was a liberal thinker who extolled capitalism but wished to save it from its worst excesses. He believed that at its heart, work represented a form of drudgery, and a world in which the hours of work could be reduced was one that unequivocally increased welfare. Keynes theorised that technological change under capitalism would eventually lead to a reduction of working hours. Mr. Musk’s comments can be seen as an extension of Keynes’ thinking, where improvements in technological change, if taken to its theoretical extreme, could eliminate the need for work altogether, representing an unambiguous positive outcome.

Karl Marx had a more nuanced analysis. For him, the essence of humanity lies in our ability to materially manipulate nature; work therefore provides meaning to human life. The problem arises within the economic system of capitalism, as the product of human labour is not the labourers’ to enjoy, but is seen as the property of capital to dispose of in the market for profit. Capitalism, in this reading, causes humanity to lose touch with the one activity that provides self-fulfilment. In contrast to Keynes’ view, the elimination of work does not imply an elimination of drudgery, but the elimination of the only activity that gives human life meaning. In Marx’s view, the ideal state is not one where AI replaces human labour, but where individuals can utilise AI to enjoy and elevate their work, without it being appropriated by someone else.

The impact of AI on the economy

One may disagree with Keynes’ notion that decreasing working hours will always increase welfare, for the working world does provide valuable social networks for many. At the same time, one can critique Marx’s view of humanity finding meaning through work, for it does not allow us to conceptualise any kind of future without work at the centre. Yet the views of the above thinkers reveal an important problem in the current discussions around AI — the neglect of the economic system. Assume a situation where AI has advanced to the point that it is capable of substituting all kinds of labour. Under our current system of capitalism, the only way an individual can access material resources such as food and shelter is through income derived from work. In such a system, a world without work does not imply a world without drudgery, but one where individuals who cannot find work cannot access basic resources.

One can make the caveat — as Mr. Musk has — that work would be available for those who desire it for personal reasons. However, in a capitalist world, labour has no choice but to seek out work if they are to feed and clothe themselves. The world as sketched out by Mr. Musk cannot emerge under modern-day capitalism.

A world without work

Imagine an economy where a part of the surplus generated in the productive sphere — where AI is the only productive factor — is transferred to human individuals to meet their basic needs. There is nothing wrong, of course, with postulating such a world. But this is not a capitalist world. It is a world with very different institutional arrangements regulating production and distribution, one where a universal basic income is a major source of income and not wage labour. This throws up several important questions, such as what determines the amount individuals receive, what determines the division of the net product between those who own the machines and those who don’t and what determines the division between future growth versus current consumption. More importantly, is our current society open to devising new institutional arrangements to bring such a future to fruition, given that the current system has led to the emergence of rising inequality and a powerful billionaire class?

A situation where AI reigns supreme may never come to pass, and one may dismiss this article as speculative fiction. Yet the world economy will face disruptions, and it is imperative for us to fully understand the nature of these challenges. The impact of technological innovations cannot be seen in isolation from prevailing economic institutions.

Rahul Menon is Associate Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University.

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