Understanding Vocation in a Machine-Filled World

April 10, 2018 Rev. Bill Johnson

Blog-Vocation (1)

There’s a story that’s told of a wise man to whom a king was indebted. The king offered him his choice of any reward in the kingdom, but the wise man demurred. Instead he asked only that the king provide him with a chessboard and a single grain of wheat on the first square. On the second square would be double that amount (two grains), and on the third twice that, and so on. The king readily agreed . . . and bankrupted his kingdom. By the time the board was halfway done, the thirty-second square was worth two to the thirty-second power, or 4,294,967,296 grains of wheat. The final square ended up being worth two to the sixty-third power, which is more wheat than the world produces in a millennium. (For the history and the math, see the wiki.)

This probably doesn’t seem to have much to do with technology or with vocation, but we’ll get there. For decades now the computing power available to your average home user has doubled every one to two years. This is a phenomenon known as Moore’s law, and while its end has been widely predicted, it’s continued to hold true. As time has gone on, computers have moved from massively expensive rarities that required entire rooms and specialized training to smaller, faster, more-connected devices. Today our watches contain more processing power than the first space shuttle that landed on the moon, and the rate of change is increasing exponentially.

The Second Half of the Chessboard

As we move into what Ray Kurzweil has coined “the second half of the chessboard,” the processing available to common users is going to scale well beyond where it exists today, and the rate is only going to increase. Already we’re seeing computers take on previously unthinkable problems such as face recognition, intuitive strategy, and even the massive amount of data processing involved in driving a vehicle. There have been missteps along the way, of course, but the fact that these things are even thinkable (when they weren’t only four or five years ago) tells us how quickly things are progressing.

Any time computers become as good as or better than humans at a task, an economy of scale kicks in and the technological solution eventually becomes low-cost enough to replace human labor. We’ve seen it in manufacturing, but we’re also starting to see it in places like taxi dispatching (witness Uber and Lyft’s automation of this process), legal research, medicine, food service, and transportation. While we may never be comfortable replacing the human element in these areas entirely, there will be less need for humans in many places and skillsets where humans have previously enjoyed a secure advantage.

This has led many authors to sound the horns of doom and gloom, proclaiming that the age of human superiority and perhaps that of human usefulness is at an end. We must, they say, begin to find entirely new economic models based not on the value of human knowledge and labor, but on an economy of plenty where machines can provide all we need and, by implication, humans have limited value apart from being consumers of the prophesied abundance. I am not one of those authors.

Still, as one looks to the future and sees previously viable careers disappearing, it’s easy to get a bit concerned about where humans will find value in this brave new world that awaits us. Be of good cheer, though, because there’s more to this story.

Despair Not!

It’s worth noting that any time there’s a significant technological change, the role of humans immediately becomes a concern, and fear and anger often drive ridiculous conclusions and actions. (Witness the Luddite reaction to the invention of weaving machinery.) Time and again we’ve seen the era of humanity draw to a close, and time and again humans have found new ways to create purpose, meaning, and labor for themselves. Progression in the last few decades has ended careers like switchboard operators and draftsmen but has brought us careers such as life coaches, social media managers, and user interface designers. (We might want to rethink the life coach thing.) Humans will always find ways to have purpose and meaning simply because it’s built into our nature to do so. While progressions in technology might free up our time to do different things, they will never free us up to simply do nothing.

Given the propensity for machines to expand their capability and that of computer programmers to seek to tackle exactly the things that are said to be impossible, it’s a fool’s game to try to predict what sorts of skills might be impervious to the relentless advance of technology.

Certainly there are some professions that seem ripe for augmentation by improving technologies, but the human element at the core seems likely to remain. Teaching, for example, is ripe for disruption throughout our educational system, but no amount of technology can replace the mentoring experience that a truly gifted teacher brings to learning. AI will no doubt soon be able to convincingly imitate human emotions, but imitation isn’t reality. As long as there are humans, there will be a need for human relationships, wisdom, and guidance.

What Is Man?

If we were to leave it there, of course, it would be a pretty weak argument. Saying that humans will always exist and have purpose simply because humans have always existed and had purpose isn’t really much more than saying humans are special because humans are special.

But humans are special. We are created in the image of the living God and are made a little lower than the angels. We are the final piece of creation, the source of its fall and the purpose behind its redemption. Christ came as a human and died and rose for humans. There is nothing else in creation quite like us, and we bring value to our vocations that no AI, no machine, no technology ever will.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet. (Psalm 8:3–6 ESV)

Hear more from Bill as he speaks about this topic live online!
Wednesday, April 18 at 11:30 a.m. (CT) on Facebook

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