When Robots Take Our Jobs

Is there anything more demeaning than to be degraded to the level of a robot and be bullied for being unable to perform like one?

On December 21st, Prof. Victor Tan Chen published a fascinating analysis of the unemployed in America in The Atlantic. Prof. Tan Chen correctly pointed out that the crisis that propelled Donald Trump to victory is a crisis of meaning in life, or as he put it: “The main source of meaning in American life is a meritocratic competition that makes those who struggle feel inferior.” Trump’s victory stems, in large part, precisely from that sense of inferiority. We should not underestimate the importance of the process we are seeing; it is the beginning of an inevitable and irreversible social revolution. The sooner we understand this and properly address its driving forces, the smoother and faster the transition will be. Reluctance to do so will wreak havoc in the US and in the rest of the world.

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Shift Happens

In many ways, the history of humanity is an expression of the evolution of human desires. In the caves, we were not fundamentally different from a pack of wolves. We drew on the cave walls and probably held rituals, but in essence, all we wanted was to sustain ourselves and our clans.

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Yet, the seeds of civilization were already present. The primitive art and rituals indicated that humans were meant to be more than just another species on the food chain. Our desires and aspirations not only differ from those of animals, but have continued to evolve throughout history.

The more our desires grew, the more they linked us together, mainly by exploiting one another. As we became sedentary and began to live in villages and towns, we also created social structures and social classes. Initially, we exploited one another through various forms of slavery. When slavery became less cost effective than taxation, humanity shifted to feudalism. Later, when mass production propelled the Industrial Revolution, capitalism commenced.

In the late 20th century, capitalism incarnated into the most underhanded, meanest form of exploitation yet: Neoliberalism. This form of exploitation has manipulated us into working more hours than our enslaved ancestors, while convincing us that we are free, when in fact we are exploited by a very small group of powerful individuals who maintain the façade of freedom and democracy. Prof. Tan Chen detailed how this elite group tends to its own interests “through lobbying, credentialing, licensing,” while denying “ordinary workers the same ability to do so.”

Over the years, human desires have grown so intense that we have become selfish to the core. Today, the majority of people cannot sustain even the most fundamental forms of relationships—with our children and spouses.

Worse yet, says Tan Chen, “As many have argued, advances in artificial intelligence threaten a net loss of employment (even for the well-educated) in the not-so-far-off future.” Without the most basic social unit, the family, and a reliable source of income, we need “a broader revision of a culture that makes those who struggle feel like losers,” he concludes. Indeed, as I said in the beginning of this column, we are in the midst of an inevitable and irreversible social revolution. Now we must determine whether it will unfold pleasantly and calmly, or painfully and violently, as revolutions often do.

Injecting Sanity into Humanity

In order to shift society from its current unsustainable, exploitative modus operandi, to a more balanced and sustainable paradigm, we need to look no further than our own history—the history of the Jewish people. Midrash Rabah, Maimonides, and many other sources tell us that Abraham the Patriarch discovered why people harmed each other deliberately, while all other elements of nature sustain each other harmoniously. Abraham discovered that human nature is virtually devoid of goodness, or as the book of Genesis says it (8:21): “The inclination of a man's heart is evil from his youth.” It took nearly 40 centuries, but now we know that he was right.

Yet, Abraham also discovered the only remedy for the negative, egoistic force in our society. He found that nature maintains balance through a counter force, a positive force of love and unity, which is absent in humanity. Therefore, Abraham strove to instill this counter force within society. This is why the trait that best describes Abraham is mercy. From town to town and from village to village, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, wandered on their way to Canaan and taught that love of others and kindness are the remedy to human nature’s ills.

Yet, as the human ego developed over the generations, the Abrahamic teaching became insufficient. Abraham’s descendants took the basis of his teaching and adopted it to their times. Thus, the method for instilling love and unity among people evolved.

Finally, a thorough education method was devised. When the ancient Hebrews adopted it and implemented it on themselves, the method fused them into a nation. Its motto, “love your neighbor as yourself,” was the ultimate goal of their education, and the apex of human evolution. Achieving such love meant that you have completely balanced the negative force of egoism with the positive force of love of others. This is why we had established our nationhood only after we committed to be “as one man with one heart.”

The people of Israel experienced periods of separation and hatred, and periods of connection and love. Yet, this was all a part of our development; we needed a growing ego as an incentive to enhance our mutual love. This is why King Solomon wrote (Prov 10:12), “Hate stirs strife, and love covers all crimes.” The early Jews discovered a profound truth: The ego is our driving force of development, but it will kill us if we do not cover it with love.

Despite our education method, two thousand years ago, we grew so egoistic that we could not cover our selfishness with love and became like the rest of the world—selfish to the core. All we had left was a memory of our unity buried deep inside of us, and the motto of love of others we bequeathed to the nations. Christianity interpreted this motto as “Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them” (Matthew 7:12). Muhammad wrote similarly: “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (Forty Hadith-Nawawi).

Yet, we bequeathed only the words, without a way to implement it—the education method that helped our forefathers unite above their egos. As a result, this beautiful motto has become an empty slogan that no one believes is possible. Now, before the ego drives our world off the deep end, we must inject this positive force that Abraham had nurtured back into our nation and into our world, to save us from ourselves. Now we must revive the education that once induced our unity.

Learning to Unite

In order to be able to rethink our values, we must first stabilize society. As I have written before, and as many others have already noted, the first step toward it is the revolution of the job market, or more accurately, the annihilation of jobs. In the coming years, autonomous machines will replace millions of people. These people will find it increasingly harder to find new jobs because the entire job market is undergoing this shift. Robots are replacing manufacturing jobs as well as jobs in services such as banking, legal aid, and even supermarkets. This process will leave governments no other choice but to provide people with some sort of basic income. Some countries are already experimenting with this, and we are likely to see many more programs of this sort being launched, as more and more people become permanently jobless.

One of our biggest problems in the diminishing job market is that our job defines who we are. As Prof. Tan Chen put it in the analysis we referenced earlier: “When other sources of meaning are hard to come by, those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth.” When many millions of people feel worthless and hopeless, violence on a massive scale is unavoidable. Even a bad job is better than no job at all, or as economics writer Derek Thompson phrased it: “The paradox of work is that many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.”

It turns out that providing basic income to the jobless is only half the cure. The other half is providing a meaningful engagement that will replace the job as our source of self-esteem. This is where the ancient Hebrews education for connection comes into play. When people’s social ties are meaningful and positive, they feel worthwhile and happy. If people learn to connect with one another, they will not need even a boring job to sustain their self-esteem; they will derive it from their connections with other people.

In fact, when you consider it, if a machine can do what I can do, then I am as good as a machine. Is there anything more demeaning to a human being than to be degraded to the level of a robot, and to be bullied and humiliated for not being able to perform like one? The one thing we should do, and which machines will never be able to do, is connect among ourselves and provide each other with happiness, real happiness—one that stems from love and friendship.

Jews and Arabs at a connection circle in Eilat, Israel, summer 2014.

Currently, our entire structure of evaluating ourselves is warped. If a woman can marry a robot that she 3D printed by herself, and argue that there is nothing odd about it, then we badly need to reteach ourselves what true connection means.

In the Circle

The book Likutey Halachot (Assorted Rules) writes, “The essence of vitality, existence, and correction in creation is achieved by people of differing opinions mingling together in love, unity, and peace.” As I said above, if we use the ego correctly, it will become a springboard that will lift us to new heights. When we strive to unite above our differences, we set the positive force that Abraham discovered in motion. This force connects us and allows us to experience the power of real human connection.

While the ego is key to our success, so is transcending it. Throughout the world, my students conduct what they have termed “connection circles.” In these circles, strangers, people of different backgrounds, and people who are engaged in active conflicts, learn to care for one another in ways they never thought possible. The idea of a circle is used to indicate that everyone is equal. When this is so, no one dominates or imposes his or her opinion, and everyone listens to everyone else. The goal of the circle is to strive to connect, not to succeed, but simply to strive for connection. Because the participants’ egos interrupt their attempts, their efforts to rise above them invoke the positive force, which then creates warmth and affinity seemingly out of thin air, as the above link demonstrates, and as does this clip, and this (the latter is Hebrew speaking; make sure the Subtitles option is switched on).

Members of the Arvut (Mutual Guarantee) Movement have implemented connection circles and other methods of connection above the ego in numerous places and circumstances. The primary means in this form of education is exercises in connection. Two elements are necessary for successful education for connection: ego (of which we have plenty), and a desire to transcend it.

The Mishnah (Masechet Avot) tells us: “Make his wish as your wish so that he will make his wish as your wish.” This is the ultimate expression of connection, when we care so much for another person that what that person wants becomes more important to us than our own desire. Think of a mother tending to her baby. Whatever the baby wants becomes more important to her than what she wants. If we exert to act this way toward each other mutually, we will draw so much positive force that it will transform our society from the core.

The Human Profession

Engaging in this type of connection will guarantee our future. First, it is the only engagement that machines will never be able to do. Second, it places our values as human beings on our connections rather than on our occupations or possessions.

People who engage in connection do not engage in corruption. As a result of this engagement, social tensions will decline, and violence, depression, and substance abuse will become obsolete as there will be no frustration to vent or to suppress.

Additionally, humanity will need many “professional connectors.” Considering the fact that a circle consists of approximately ten people and a host, many people will be engaged as instructors in this new education. Since basic income will be provided to all, people will be judged by their contribution to society rather than by their wealth. As a result, instructors of connection circles will enjoy high social status, making the new “job” a sought after position.

Indeed, shift happens. Humanity has reached its final stage of evolution—the convergence of desires into one unified entity. The sooner we begin to connect, the better we will feel. The ongoing social decline and inevitable unemployment point to the conclusion that we must reconsider our values in this world and relearn what it means to be a human being, not a robot operating a machine. I am convinced that if we dare to make the first step toward educating ourselves in connection the way our forefathers did, we will be grateful that we did