Jonathan Muskat

A Theological Perspective of the Future in a World of Automation

In September 2013, two Oxford researchers published a study entitled, “The Future of Employment,” in which they surveyed the likelihood of different professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years, and they estimated that 47 percent of US jobs are at high risk.  During the industrial revolution, traditional machines replaced our muscles, but smart machines with artificial intelligence may now have the potential to replace our minds.  Wealth and power may eventually become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns all these machines creating unprecedented social and political inequality.

What should be done about this? Some have argued that we need to work hard on vocational training that is constantly updated to stay one step ahead of the robots.  An idea of a universal basic income has gained traction in some economic circles which would tax the rich and big corporations to provide every person of this large group with a stipend covering his or her basic needs.  This benefit would cushion the poor against job loss and economic dislocation and protect the rich from populist rage.  But what would this large segment of the population do with all their free time if they are not working?

Yuval Harari, an Israeli historian, writes about these things and he believes that automation could create a “global useless class” and the political and social history of the coming decades will revolve around the hopes and fears of this new class.  He argues that the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. And he actually suggests that economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time playing computer games because for thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games called religion.

Now Yuval Harari is a secular Jew who doesn’t believe in God, but for those of us who believe in God and apply Professor Harari’s analysis to a world of automation, this new world may have more than economic, or societal, or political implications.  It may have theological implications.

Some of us believe that the creation of the state of Israel is or may be the first steps of the messianic era.  Similarly, might a world of automation also be a sign of the first steps of the messianic era?  After all, the Rambam writes that in the messianic era there will be world peace and we will have a lot of free time “kdei she’yihyu penuyim baTorah v’chochmata,” so that we can spend our days involved in Torah and in its wisdom.  As such, free time is a characteristic of the messianic era.

Are we prepared for a world of automation, for less of a need to work?  Do we understand the potential theological significance of such a world?  Maybe it’s a relevant question for us today, in 2018, because we can ask ourselves, those who us who are not yet retired, are we ready for retirement?  And I am not asking this question from a financial perspective, but I am asking this question from a theological perspective.

The Gemara at the end of Kiddushin states:  Rabbi Nehorai says: “I set aside all the trades in the world, and I teach my son only Torah, as all other trades serve one only in the days of his youth, when he has enough strength to work, but in the days of his old age, behold, he is left to lie in hunger. But Torah is not like this: It serves a person in the time of his youth and provides him with a future and hope in the time of his old age.”  Once we commit ourselves to live a life when we try to find meaning through Torah while we are gainfully employed, then we do not fear retirement, nor do we fear a world of automation because these will be times of meaning for us, as well.  We realize that a world of automation may be a gift from God and possibly even a fulfillment of a messianic or a pre-messianic prophecy!

Rav Soloveitchik has written about the experience of a Rosh Yeshiva who is giving a shiur while surrounded by his young students and he is given the strength to deliver the shiur from all those great Baalei Mesorah who have preceded him.  Rav Soloveitchik concludes the story by writing, “After a two- or three- hour shiur, the Rebbe emerges from the chamber young and rejuvenated.  He has defeated age.  The students look exhausted.”  Torah has the power to conquer old age, retirement and a world of automation.  Professor Yuval Harari may refer to this as virtual reality, but we know it as the life-blood of humanity.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.