I find myself, once again, appreciating the tremendous foresight that the rabbis of old had. Although they did not invest their energies in better offensive and defensive systems [which might have saved the Jewish people from the second expulsion from Israel], they definitely contemplated issues of day-to-day life that would not come into play for millennia.
In past blog posts, I have described one of the ancient rabbis’ views of the next messianic period. Given the recent centuries of history at which point the rabbis were contemplating such issues, the whole concept of a messianic period was very much philosophical. At the time that the Talmud was being compiled, no one was practically considering a return of the people of Israel to their ancient land, along with total independence from the surrounding neighbors. This was something that would have to wait until 1948.
Nevertheless, the rabbis try to imagine what the significance of the coming of the Messiah would be, in very earthly terms. One issue that they discussed was employment. As the rabbis saw it, one sign of the coming of Messiah would be the freeing of the Jewish people from the need to engage in regular employment. Rather than this be a formula for anarchy and Epicureanism, the purpose of having this free time would be, as Tevye the milkman sang, “to sit in the synagogue and pray and maybe even have a seat at the Western Wall”.
Clearly, the rabbis saw a Messianic period as one that freed the Jews from physical labor and allowed them to focus entirely on the Commandments in the Bible. This is not in any way or form a hidden pretext to evangelizing a certain way of Jewish life. Given our present-day reality, the point is that we would be freed from the “curse” from the garden of Eden, that we would eat bread by the sweat of our brow. By the way, as to the other “curse”, one only needs to watch the movie “Man of steel” to see that there is a way to avoid the pains of pregnancy and birth.
So 2000 years ago, the rabbis of that time were already dealing with the social problem of the Jews not having to work as physical laborers. The Messianic occupation of the Jews would be to sit and learn biblical studies, endlessly. Some of the Jewish cultural beliefs about heaven include a grand circle of the great rabbis of all time, sitting and discussing Jewish law, ad infinitum. Personally, if there isn’t cable TV in heaven, I don’t see the point. But that’s another discussion.
Is it possible to have a society whereby no human works. I have read, like many of you, many articles about the end of employment. None of these articles, understandably, have a clear and obvious solution. One of the most referenced possibilities is to have a guaranteed minimum income for every citizen of a country. I have to contain my laughter when such ideas are considered in the United States. In countries like Canada and Israel, which are already heavily socialized, it’s not a major philosophical leap to imagine living on a universal stipend. But in the United States, where capitalism is the true founding father of the country, how will people react to not working and receiving a fixed salary, totally independent of their contribution [or lack thereof] to society.
One obvious question will be if such a communist [?] lifestyle will totally suppress ambition. Such has been the argument in the past. When people realize that there is no benefit, in practical terms, to making a greater effort, they will simply stop making any effort at all. But this time, the situation will be fundamentally different, because computers and AI will do all of the work that requires effort. Factories will have no manual staff. Fed will most likely be generated by Star Trek like Replicators, thus effectively killing the restaurant business. And for those who wish to go traveling or to have brunch on top of the Alps, virtual reality [VR] will advance to a point that we will never even be sure that we have taken off our VR glasses.
Will humans have a saving grace? Is there something that AI will not succeed in achieving, at least in the next century, that will still leave room for humans to achieve? What about space exploration? There will clearly be people who are curious about the wonders of the universe. What about those people who are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to get a close look at a black hole?
Considering the distance to the closest black hole, the only way this will be possible is if we somehow achieve faster than light travel, or we invent some version of suspended animation that will allow the travelers to sleep without aging until they reach the closest black hole. Or finally, we will build a city in space that will allow the travelers to have children who will then have children and so on until the hundreds of years have passed until the black hole has been reached.
Of course, once the black hole is observed, all that will be left to do is to gather as much information as possible and then to turn around and head back to earth. One should consider that during this tremendously long journey, it is possible that technology will continue to advance to such a point that the equivalent of the Star Trek Enterprise will be waiting for the space city to arrive, i.e., it was a grand waste of time.
Although it is imagined in countless science fiction stories, the question is if AI will ever achieve self-awareness. Interestingly, going back to Star Trek, the android Data was considered unique because he was self-aware. In other words, even in this grand view of the future with computers on a scale far beyond our imagination, self-awareness was not an inherent part of the most highly advanced AI of the ship’s computers. Contrarily, self-awareness was considered a non-computer characteristic by the Star Trek crew.
Will an advanced AI have ambition? Will it question the meaning of its own existence? Will it be capable of human emotions such as love and hate [and if you have seen the movie “Sphere”, you will hope that this will never happen]. While AI and robotics will eliminate any human effort, will they still replace the human soul? By the way, when I use the term “soul”, I am not necessarily referring to a religious concept. There is something about humans that is more than the sum of our parts. The act of belief is not just the “opiate of the masses”. The concept of devoting oneself to something greater than one’s own existence is not an example of faulty wiring in our frontal lobes.
Perhaps in time, AI will simulate everything that we would call a soul. Perhaps, the day will come when AI decides what is and isn’t moral. But until that day, we still have a purpose. That purpose will not be stacking boxes in a warehouse. And it will not even be teaching children math [which may one day, literally, be beamed into our brains]. But there will still be this entity, that all the code in the world cannot emulate. And if for no other reason than to escape boredom, we will need to build a new kind of society where such soulful activities are what occupy our time.
Thanks for listening