The theater is packed. When the curtain goes up, we meet Marjorie, an 86-year-old woman in intimate and flirtatious conversation with a doting, handsome young man. Their dialogue reveals a long marriage complete with a grown daughter. The scene is jarring. How can this be? After a while the audience figures out that he is a human-like robot who has been programmed with Marjorie’s memories, her companion. He’s created to look, talk, and move just like her late husband, but when he was younger. He’s non-human, but seems to keep her from feeling lonely. The play is Marjorie Prime, a Sci-Fi Pulitzer Prize finalist. I have been unable to get it out of my mind, not because it’s scary, but because I find it intriguing.
While we know how technology has displaced workers in factories, farms and finance, we’ve maintained that the human touch just can’t be replaced. But is that true? Can the human touch be augmented? In the play Marjorie Prime, we seriously consider that question.
Smarter machines, smarter policies
Currently, many of us rail against the dehumanizing effects of technology, but machines are tending more and more to our needs. If we urgently need a copy of, say, “Underground Railroad,” a click on the Amazon website will rush the book right into our homes in a couple of days, or on our Kindles in minutes. Those 30,000 bots at work in the Amazon fulfillment centers are far more efficient than the people they replaced. No holidays, no sleep, no illnesses, no moods, no strikes. Based on Amazon’s success, there’s probably no going back. And robots are getting smarter all the time. Just try beating one in chess.
The result of these advances means fewer jobs for people worldwide. In a stark example of shrinking jobs, the application “Whatsapp” was acquired by Facebook for 22 billion dollars, and the company can fit its entire workforce into a Greyhound bus. But smart machines must be met by smart policies, and our policy advances have not kept up with our tech world. I believe a guaranteed basic income is a solution. Why? Because in a technological economy, we see that new wealth does not have to create new jobs. Yes, factories will come back, but with robots. But if there are so many fewer jobs, what will people be doing?
Ethical Culture as a model
I believe Ethical Culture has two important contributions to make in a more automated society. One is to promote its values, and another is in modeling its practices. To honor the dignity of another is at the center of our mission. In Ethical, dignity is not set by the salary we earn or the size of the investments we manage. We believe people have inherent worth and need purpose. We can model this value of respect in the larger society by insisting we honor the work of the unpaid citizen. For example, does the town need a park? We can celebrate and elevate the volunteer team that presents a landscaping plan to the town council. The Ethical Culture Society is also well positioned to provide meaningful volunteer jobs of our own. Skills Auction Chair, Program Committee member, yoga, storytelling, Social Action activist work, Sunday greeter….nobody need feel superfluous.
Ethical Culture values make us more human
We may make good use of technology to augment our work in the tasks of our Society, but we can only really flourish buoyed by the creativity and participation of our human members. If one of our members were Marjorie, what would we offer as an antidote to help alleviate her loneliness?
I don’t rule out the aid of robots and other non-humans, surely Ethical Culture Society member Barbara Landberg would bring her a service dog. The Caring Committee might arrange phone calls or visits. We might encourage her to tell her stories at Do Tell! Ethical Culture’s core value of dignity for the individual continues to make us ever more human. Our community and its outreach will not be dehumanized by new technologies, quite the opposite.
With fewer paid jobs, guaranteed incomes, more time and more volunteers, we will be better able to advocate for social justice, another of our values. Faced with a technological future, we can be certain that our values will not only endure, but we can become a beacon of light in a new landscape.
(Marjorie Prime has been made into a film. It opened in January 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival.)