What if machines replace brains?

Great changes are taking place in the Western world as technology comes to full fruit. Machines are replacing men and doing their jobs better and faster. Chemistry is transforming the production of foods and fibers. Automation has led to machines that operate other machines. “Cybernation” is the term used to describe the next generation in machine-development—devices that replace men’s brains as well as their hands. Whole categories of jobs are being wiped out. Before all this is finished, man’s life will have undergone one of the most radical alterations the world has seen.

As always when men think about the future, speculation is rife. Dire predictions are made and desperate remedies proposed. Some of this is echoed in the Church. It is proposed that we should accept as inevitable a society in which large numbers will be permanently unemployed. The incentives for working—income and the respect of the community—should be removed. The idle should, we are told, be guaranteed an income, and the “popular Protestant value concept” that assigns dignity to work and not to idleness should be changed. The vision is held out of a society in which 2 per cent of the population will produce all the needed goods and services, while the rest serve principally as consumers.

To many, however, this is no promise of utopia but a threat of hell. Sociologist Eric Fromm fears that we can now develop societies “in which the inhabitants are well fed and well clad, having their wishes satisfied and not having wishes that cannot be satisfied; automatons, who follow without force, are guided without leaders, who make machines that act like men and produce men that act like machines …” (“The Present Human Condition,” in The American Scholar Reader, Atheneum, 1960, p. 390). Fromm hopes we can do better than this. If we avoid the worst dangers of our changing society, perhaps we can achieve the end of “humanoid history,” which he defines as “the phase in which man has not become fully human,” the state of all history until now. Which will it be? A life that is fully human (or more nearly so, if Fromm is too optimistic)? Or one that is increasingly humanoid?

What does the biblical faith have to say to this world in transition, poised between human and humanoid? It has the only word that will make any difference. Life will be no more than humanoid unless we know what man is. This is not a question of technology or of sociology; it is a biblical question.

That is why the Church cannot respond to this hour with a smattering of technical jargon and feelings of justice and compassion. Justice and compassion are noble virtues, but not exclusively Christian. They are, moreover, difficult to put into practice. Compassion not informed by a biblical view of man may devour the people it hopes to save.

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I once knew a young man who was crippled by polio at the end of his senior year in high school. His mother, a loving and compassionate woman, devoted herself completely to him. Her life revolved around the cripple in the upstairs bedroom. There was nothing he could want that she would not get for him. Soon, of course, there was nothing she could get for him that he wanted. But she forgave him his bitterness and despondency, for who would not be despondent in the face of such outrageous misfortune?

Then the boy’s mother died. His father loved him, too, but had a different idea of what a human being is. He forced the boy out of bed and into a wheelchair. He badgered him into enrolling at the state university. The head of the rehabilitation department there was equally loving and pitiless. The result was that the young man got a degree and a job, married a fellow student, and soon had a home and family of his own.

Both parents loved the boy. But his mother saw him only as an object of love. His father saw him more biblically, as a child of God needing usefulness and vocation to be fully human. The mother said, “I love him.” The father asked, “What is a man?”

It is this kind of profound question that Christians must not only raise but also answer, and answer biblically. In fact, it is shallow and potentially harmful to speak of the implications of technology for the Church without raising these questions:

1. What is the relation between man’s dignity as man and his useful vocation? Before we talk about changing the idea that work gives dignity to man, we should ask whether work and human dignity have any deeper connection than custom. If there is none, we can talk sensibly about the right to an income and dignity for those who do not work. We can even rejoice in the opportunity of men to be free of labor. Much of our experience, however, has indicated the opposite. It is fairly well agreed that jobs and sheltered workshops do something for the handicapped that custodial care cannot do. If there is no connection between dignity and work, the difference between the way of life chosen by King Farouk and that chosen by President Kennedy—two rich men who were guaranteed great incomes and could make their own decision about work—is simply a matter of taste. Were this all, we would be quite wrong to respect the one and not the other. The Christian must ask what the Bible says about man, whether employment degrades him, is neutral, or is essential to his character as man. Then we can decide whether custodial care in the age of cybernation will satisfy men—or should satisfy them.

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2. What is the economic meaning of the fact that man is a sinner? Only the Christian has a reason to take sin seriously. Civilization is possible, not because man is good, but because it encourages behavior more socially useful than man would ordinarily choose. Every society depends on a combination of incentive and coercion. The balance between the two can be changed; but if their total force is lessened, then the society begins to dissolve. When either incentive or coercion is decreased, the other must be strengthened to give a shape to the social life of sinful man. The Soviet Union provides an interesting example. The end of the Stalin era brought a marked lessening in the use of coercion in that society. As a result, there has appeared an equally marked increase in the use of incentive, such as increases in consumer goods, more individual benefit to farmers, the introduction of the profit concept in industry. Because man is a sinner, the reverse will be true if the two principal incentives in our society, wage and status, are removed. Fewer carrots mean more use of the stick. Both incentive and coercion are to a degree degrading to man, as man is to a degree degraded. But that does not mean there is no choice between the two. Christians have a clear preference for incentive over coercion. If they think they can get along without either, they have not heard that man has left Eden.

3. What is the essential human quality implied in man’s creation in the image of God? This is the question that must guide the search for new jobs. We should look first for work in which man will be employed as man. Until now, survival has demanded that man be employed as less than man. Before the Industrial Revolution, all but a few men were employed as trainable animals, to perform manual labor. Machines gradually took over these jobs, but they replaced them with a different kind of work. Men were then employed as substitute machines—to make inspections, perform repetitive tasks, and compute. These jobs too are disappearing. Man is not needed as either animal or machine. But man is much more than either of these. He now can be employed as man, relating to other humans, offering understanding, response, and fellowship. It is here that employment is growing rapidly; there are more nursery school teachers, fishing guides, shoe salesmen, nurses’ aids, social workers, and airline stewardesses than in the past. We can now afford to employ human beings as human beings. But we need to ask the biblical meaning of this.

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4. For what is man responsible beyond survival? Across the centuries, the proportion of man’s time needed for survival has steadily decreased. At the dawn of history, man spent all his waking hours in the quest for food. When he gave up the roving life of the hunter and became a farmer (a change until now perhaps the most drastic in man’s history), he had a measure of free time and developed his first civilization. It is a mistake to speak of this free time only as leisure time. The agricultural Indians of Central and South America used it to raise a great civilization. It will be our own fault if we simply bring shuffleboard to a new peak of development.

So far as possible, Christians have a responsibility for guiding the new society technology is certain to create. A non-working society divorced from incentives may be possible, as a few prophets believe. But the Christian must judge this possible society in the light of his knowledge of man. He must help turn it in directions that will enhance man’s life as man. Significantly, the prophecies that chronic unemployment will unavoidably result from the technological revolution are somewhat like the predictions Marx made about the Industrial Revolution and the accumulation of capital. This does not mean that the prophets are Marxists; indeed, nothing could be farther from their thoughts. What it does mean is that they are repeating a mistake that has been made before. Marx spurned the Christian view of what man is. As a result, what he thought was a prescription for fuller life was in fact a sentence to humanoid existence. But there is no excuse for Christians’ making this mistake. They of all people ought to know what man is.

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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