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Musk vs. Ma on AI: Why the future of work is bright

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Given the breakneck pace of improvements in automation and artificial intelligence, fears about job loss and human obsolescence are taking increasing space in the cultural imagination.

The question looms: What is the future of human work in a technological age?

At the recent World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, China, Tesla’s Elon Musk and Alibaba’s Jack Ma weighed in on the topic—offering conflicting perspectives and predictions.

For Ma, machine learning offers an opportunity not just to improve products and services, but to “understand ourselves better” so that “we can improve the world.” Though we may work fewer hours in the years to come, we will be both more productive and more focused on “creative tasks,” living longer and more fulfilling lives.

For Musk, such optimism is severely misplaced. We are already being outpaced by our own creations, and it’s paving the way for severe unemployment. From the BBC:

“AI will make jobs kind of pointless,” Musk claimed. “Probably the last job that will remain will be writing AI, and then eventually, the AI will just write its own software.”

He added that there was a risk that human civilization could come to an end and ultimately be seen as a staging post for a superior type of life. “You could sort of think of humanity as a biological boot loader for digital super-intelligence,” Mr Musk explained.

Both men lead companies with heavy investments in artificial intelligence. Likewise, each as his own particular faith in human possibility. So why the difference in perspective?

It is here where we begin to see that the debate is about far more than mere economic predictions—particular jobs in particular industries at particular periods of time. More fundamentally, it’s about our underlying beliefs about human purpose and human destiny.

Ma digs a bit deeper, drawing our attentions to the real distinction between man and machine:

“Don’t worry about the machines,” [Ma] said. “For sure, we should understand one thing: that man can never make another man. A computer is a computer. A computer is just a toy. Man cannot even make a mosquito. So, we should have a confidence. Computers only have chips, men have the heart. It’s the heart where the wisdom comes from.”

Although Mr Ma acknowledged that we needed to find ways to become “more creative and constructive”, he concluded that “my view is that [a] computer may be clever, but human beings are much smarter.”

(Musk was quick to respond, “Yeah, definitely not.”)

Ma’s sentiments echo those of Kevin J. Brown, a professor of business at Asbury University, who offers a similar perspective in AEI’s recent collection of essays, “A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and the Future of Work.”

According to Brown, our view of the human person plays a significant role in shaping our response to economic disruption and the various threats of artificial intelligence. The bigger question: When human value and “usefulness” are called into question, from what position or perspective will we respond?

For those who share the scarcity-mindedness of Thomas Malthus, the answer typically takes the form of a “chaos narrative,” prompting fears about the future of human utility. “Because beings have specific needs to survive and the resources necessary for survival are limited, they are inevitably in conflict with one another,” Brown writes, describing the perspective. “Further, beings that reproduce with superior qualities will outpace and outlive their less adapted counterparts…Here, human teleology gives way to pragmatism: if it works, it endures.”

Through this vision, Brown explains, technology is a tremendous threat, leading to an inevitable “sunsetting” of human value as we know it. Yet Brown, like Ma, suggests a different narrative, one through which humans are not doomed as powerless cogs, but “deliberately designed and uniquely created,” part of a larger created order and (already) in service to a larger creator being.

Similar to the vision outlined in Acton’s Core Principles, Brown’s “design narrative” reminds us that humans have inherent dignity and worth, regardless of the machinery that surrounds us. “We are spiritual beings,” he writes, born in the image and likeness of a creator God. “We are not simply the sum of our biological components. Nor does our value merely rise to the level of our economic productivity. We have a spirit; a soul.”

If we assume the chaos narrative, Musk is probably right, and humans have little hope of competing with high-speed robot competitors in a massive, mechanistic economic regime. Through such a view, Brown concludes, “It is not unreasonable to expect that we would become obsolete and thus replaceable once similar organisms evince qualities better suited for survivability in a competitive landscape.”

But through the lens of God’s creative design, we see the opposite: humans as protagonists in a bigger, more mysterious economic story. Far from human obsolescence, we see the opportunity for an increase in human wisdom and others-oriented love and creative service. We see the opportunity to better serve our neighbors through new ideas, new relationships, and the economic abundance that’s bound to follow.

The future of robots is bright. But the same goes for our work, if only we’d choose to see it.

Watch the full debate here:

Image: Elon Musk at SpaceX (Public Domain) / Jack Ma at World Economic Forum (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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