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Will Machines Replace Us? Jay Richards on The Human Advantage

December 4, 2019 | Lilly Carman

Jay Richards
During his visit November 13-14, Dr. Jay Richards presented a case for how economic freedom contributes to happiness as well as an argument against the prospect of machines replacing humans and causing permanent job loss.

Dr. Paul Mueller hosted a senior scholar, Dr. Jay Richards, on November 13-14. Richards is a research professor in the Busch School of Business at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. He has authored various books, with The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in the Age of Smart Machines being the most recent, and contributes to magazines including the Harvard Business Review and Forbes. His visit is one of several that Mueller secured through a grant.

Richards presented his first lecture the evening of November 13, opening with the question of happiness, especially as it relates to economic prosperity. As a philosopher, Richards said that a desire for happiness can be good, as long as it is rightly defined and rightly ordered. He cited the Westminster Confession, which asserts, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” However, Richards noted that the English word for “happiness” can misdirect. He addressed the commonly equated term, “American Dream,” which is generally understood to be what Alexis de Tocqueville termed in his Democracy in America, “the charm of anticipated success.” It is the classic lure of transcending one’s station. Paradoxically, studies (such as those reported in Ruth Whippman’s America the Anxious) indicate that the more Americans pursue happiness, the less happy they are.

Many studies have attempted to measure global happiness. Richards considers these studies unhelpful due to important variations between cultures. Since 2011, the “happiest” countries in these global studies were all Scandanavian. While this might seem like a reason to emulate Scandinavian culture, Richards points out that the reported happiness in Scandinavian cultures is likely skewed because Scandinavians believe it is impolite to admit being unhappy. Feelings of happiness are also affected by one’s genes and one’s circumstances. While people cannot control those factors, Richards pointed to other variables such as faith, family, friends, and work over which people do have some control. Studies have shown strong connections between religiosity, marriage, and social relationships and one’s general happiness.

While some Christians believe that ordinary happiness conflicts with spiritual happiness, Richards disagrees. He argues that a person can be both naturally and supernaturally happy at the same time – and should strive to do so. Physical suffering is not necessary for spiritual flourishing.

But can money buy ordinary happiness? Richards argues it doesn’t. While studies show that happiness tends to increase with one’s income, that relationship ends once people pass a certain threshold of affluence (roughly $75,000). Above that threshold, more income does not correlate with more happiness. Instead, philanthropic activities seem to add to people’s happiness.

Richards’s main point, though, is that creating value for other people is central to natural human happiness. This can come from honest labor satisfying the desires of your customers, and it can come from using wealth you created during your lifetime to improve the lives of others. Economic freedom, rule of law, and limited government enable greater opportunities for value creation in both work and philanthropy.

At noon on Thursday, November 14, Richards presented on “The Human Advantage: Work in the Age of Smart Machines.” In this lecture, Richards addressed popular arguments that machines will eventually replace humans. He rejects those arguments on philosophical grounds. For machines to replace humans, one must agree that humans are no different from machines. Filmmakers realize this to be false. Movies that feature robots or cyborgs have to “humanize” the machines because otherwise audiences would not really care. (Consider how audiences adore the “empathic” robot, WALL-E.)

Richards went on to explain that, contrary to popular belief, the introduction of new technologies does not cause permanent unemployment. He points to how in 1776, 95% of the population living in the U.S. worked on a farm; in 1900, 50% of the population lived on a farm; and in 2019 a slim 1½% work on a farm. But even though the percentage of people working on farms in the U. S. has declined from 95% to 1½% since 1776, we don’t see 90% unemployment. If technology really harmed jobs, history would be one long trend of increasing unemployment.

Though such steep job loss has not actually occurred, Richards admits that new technologies can be quite disruptive. He describes the shift from “the world of atoms to the world of bits,” referring to how Encyclopedia Britannica no longer requires shelf space because it can exist virtually on the internet.

Because the world of bits complicates economics, Richards explained five characteristics of the information economy: disruption, exponential growth, digitalization, hyper-connectedness, and “ever more information.” In order to effectively combat these, Richards offered five corresponding virtues that students and citizens should cultivate:

  • Courage – persevering in the face of uncertainty, difficulty, or risk
  • Antifragility – “the capacity to improve with perturbation”
  • Altruism – seeking the good of others, but not necessarily through self-sacrifice
  • Collaboration – humility and flexibility to learn from and help others
  • Creative freedom – building one’s capacities through training (constraining one’s choices initially to increases one’s choices in the future)

Richards emphasized, “not only are humans homo sapiens, ‘wise man,’ but we are homo faber, ‘man as creator.’” Richards ended with saying:

Human beings are not machines. We are makers of machines that . . . become prostheses by which we create value that was not there before. And that is exactly what you would expect if we are creators created in the image of God.

Kat Samelson (MCA ’20) found the lecture particularly interesting given conversations she has had on the future of machines in medicine with her father, who is an orthopedic surgeon:

It seems that every sci-fi film focuses on robots taking over and gaining a mind of their own. We often roll our eyes at that trope, but there are some people who truly fear machines taking over. Dr. Richards made a great point though—anything that can be automated will be automated, but that doesn’t mean they are going to become personal agents. My father is an orthopedic surgeon, so I’ve always been interested in smart machines and technological advancements in medicine. Dr. Richards was able to paint a clear picture of the future of smart machines.