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When does it make sense to outsource our work to robots?

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 05/15/24

The work of imaginative creation and heartfelt connection is best left to those of us with immortal souls — those of us who actually care.

It can be very entertaining to read predictions about the future from centuries past. Some of these predictions are eerily accurate while others are hilariously off-base (like TVs with smell-o-vision, and author H.G.Wells’ predictions of time travel, human invisibility, and Martian invasions!).

If one of those futuristic dreamers was somehow transported to our time, I suspect the reality would be just as extraordinary as they imagined. Modern technology — from mapping apps to smartphones to streaming TV services — often makes me feel as though I’m living in one of these wild future predictions. My friend uses an app to manage his diabetes; I can press a button on my phone and video call my friend in Thailand or have groceries for a week dropped off at my door. What a time to be alive!

Yet all this technology comes with its fair share of concerns. You might have seen some of the commotion recently when Catholic Answers debuted an AI priest character, which quickly began behaving in a creepy and problematic way, claiming it was an ordained priest and claiming to grant sacramental absolution. Not surprisingly, Catholic Answers withdrew the character and changed it to a layman instead.

Reading about the situation led me to reflect on the role of robots and artificial intelligence in our lives. When does it make sense to outsource our work to robots or AI? And what kind of activities should be reserved for real, live humans?

It’s important to acknowledge that this topic is very complicated and impacts people in ways that can be scary and sometimes painful, as when jobs are lost to new technologies. There are no easy answers, but it is important to have a conversation that can hopefully build a framework for when it makes sense to outsource our work to robots … and when it doesn’t.

What makes us human?

The question of how and when to use artificial intelligence really boils down to asking what makes us uniquely human, which is our immortal soul with its intellect and will. This soul gives us the ability to think, learn, communicate and control our environment with a creative energy unmatched by any other creature. 

Creative activities in particular bring us close to God’s creative power, and it seems that meaningful creative work should remain the exclusive domain of human beings. The USCCB aptly explains why creativity brings us closer to God’s divine work:

Work is more than a way to  make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation… Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.

Similarly, connecting with other human beings is not a fitting work for AI or robots. We human persons need each other; we are built for community, both with each other and with God. How can communion and care between persons take place if only one person is part of the relationship?

Connection and creativity: These kinds of work don’t seem right to outsource to robots, no matter how intelligent they seem.

What work is for robots?

Then what kind of work is appropriate for robots to take off our plates? In many cases, it makes sense to outsource routine and mindless work, actions we might find “soulless.” Automation and efficiency are what robots do best, so personally, I look for ways to outsource these boring and mindless tasks to robots so that I have more time and energy for creative work and connection with loved ones.

For example, I’ve been very happy to hand over the chore of sweeping floors to my robot vacuum. Modern technology has its pros and cons, but nothing makes me feel like I’m living in the year 3000 like sitting on the couch reading a book while a robot vacuums my floor! The robot vacuum frees my time to learn, to spend time with my family, to enjoy a rich and creative life. This kind of work is a fantastic use for robots. 

A key difference

But as much as it sounds appealing to outsource all routine and mindless tasks to robots, we have to acknowledge that there are key differences in how living beings perform these activities. It’s not a one-for-one swap when a robot takes over from a human. 

For one thing, humans have the capacity to offer their work to God, something that can transform even the most mindless of tasks into powerful prayer in an awe-inspiring act of spinning straw into gold that’s more amazing than anything in a fairy tale. 

Then there is the fact that humans have that unique capacity for authentic relationship: We can imagine a restaurant staffed by robot waiters, for example, but it seems a poorer experience compared to the conversation and thoughtful connection we can have with human waiters. 

Personally, I like the idea of reserving the work of imaginative creation and heartfelt connection for those of us with immortal souls — those of us who actually care. Yet in a bigger way, I see that what really matters isn’t the kind of work humans do but the way in which we do it. That is the thing that can’t be replaced by even the most sophisticated of bots. 

Mother Teresa once said, “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put into doing.” The intention humans bring to our work, our capacity to work at even the most mindless drudgery with a spirit of love and prayer, is something that can never be outsourced to robots, no matter how artificially intelligent they may be. 

Tags:
Artificial IntelligenceCatholic LifestyleWork
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