What Would The World Be Like If Machines Did All The Work? The economist John Maynard Keynes imagined a future world where people no longer need to work. NPR's Planet Money and the Truth podcasts bring you a work of audio fiction inspired by Keynes' question.
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What Would The World Be Like If Machines Did All The Work?

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What Would The World Be Like If Machines Did All The Work?

What Would The World Be Like If Machines Did All The Work?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Our Planet Money team has been trying to tackle the question that economists have long pondered. What would the distant future be like if machines and computers get so good at all kinds of tasks that lots of people simply do not have to work? The economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about this question back in 1930. Assuming we could figure out how to make sure everyone had enough of everything, he said, we'd face another challenge - what to do with our time. Well, the story you are about to hear is a work of audio fiction inspired by Keynes's question. It's the story of a man with one of the last jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO DRAMA, "THE LAST JOB")

DAVID KIRSCH: People used to worry about what would happen when all the jobs went away. Can you imagine that? It seems crazy. Look at us now. We are living in the age of leisure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KIRSCH: You walk down the street, and what do you see? You see social clubs and coffeehouses, galleries, theaters, music venues, happenings. The world is full of art, relaxation and joy.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

KIRSCH: And it's all thanks to the automation system I help maintain. I work for Quality Control.

COCO: Time to wake up. Time to wake up. Time to wake up.

KIRSCH: Thanks, Coco.

COCO: Good morning, David.

KIRSCH: I do this job so that everyone else can spend their day doing exactly what their heart desires. And when I get up in the morning, I look outside, and I see people relaxed, throwing a Frisbee, enjoying their lives. What I see is a well-oiled machine, and I'm just proud to know that I helped make that possible.

That's odd. Hey, where did this come from?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dad, I'm trying to sleep.

KIRSCH: Are you going to go back to sleep or are you going to talk to me?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm going to go back to sleep, OK?

KIRSCH: No, wrong answer. Who gave this to you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dexter.

KIRSCH: Dexter. Dexter who? Do I know him?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dexter Batson. Why do you care?

KIRSCH: 'Cause it's broken. Here, listen. Listen to this...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dad.

KIRSCH: Wait.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dad.

KIRSCH: Do you hear that?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.

KIRSCH: I need to take this.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dad, no. Come on.

KIRSCH: It's my job. Coco, I'm looking for anything we have on a music box purchase by Dexter Batson.

COCO: No records found.

KIRSCH: What are you talking about? That doesn't make any sense. The music box is right here. What about this Dexter character? What do we know about him? Oh, my. Look at this - arrests, disobedience, protests. What are you up to, Dexter? How do we find this guy? Do you have a current location for Dexter Batson?

COCO: Dexter Batson is currently at the Wasteland Poetry Club.

KIRSCH: Poetry. Typical.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Many mirrored butterflies taking their time, taking my time, ticking away the time. This is the thing we can't get back.

KIRSCH: Excuse me, but do you know a Dexter Batson?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What?

KIRSCH: I'm looking for Dexter Batson.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He's probably in back.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fist after fist after (unintelligible).

KIRSCH: Hello? Excuse me. Is there a Dexter Batson? What is - what is this? Is that a hammer? Is that a lave (ph)? Are you making handmade goods? We have robots for this. This is dangerous and entirely illegal. Everybody, put your tools down. Put that drill down. Step away from these workstations. I'm from Quality Control. I'm shutting this down. Where is Dexter Batson?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Excuse me. I can help you find Dexter Batson.

KIRSCH: Who's in charge here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Please, follow me. I'm sure Dexter...

KIRSCH: Nobody touch those machines while I'm gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You're David Kirsch, aren't you?

KIRSCH: No, why don't you worry about yourself?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Right through this door, please, Mr. Kirsch.

KIRSCH: Through here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mhm.

KIRSCH: Could somebody turn on the light, please? Hello? Who - unlock this door.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Why are you looking for Dexter Batson?

KIRSCH: I know what you people are doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What do you think we're doing?

KIRSCH: You're operating an illegal facility that manufactures unregulated man-made goods.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You need to let us continue.

KIRSCH: Who are you people?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We are the John Henry Society.

KIRSCH: Well, John Henry, what you're doing is illegal, and it's putting the entire system at risk. And I'm shutting you down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Do you want a cat, David?

KIRSCH: What?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And a long time ago, we used to keep cats around because they'd hunt for mice. Eventually, human beings invented mousetraps. Cats have to hunt mice. It's what they do. It's in their nature. So we invented toys to keep the cats occupied - mylar ribbons to tackle, laser pointers to chase around.

KIRSCH: OK. Is there a point to this story?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You can't free people from their nature.

KIRSCH: And you think their nature is to work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Cats need to chase mice.

KIRSCH: This is crazy. I spend all day looking through the entire system trying to find imperfections.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Why do you think you're so busy? Where are all these imperfections coming from - coding, software? The fact is you need us.

KIRSCH: It's my responsibility to report all of this. It's entirely illegal and irresponsible.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Forget about us. Just drop this entire line of pursuit.

KIRSCH: You're asking me to not do my job.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: If you won't let us do our work, then you won't have a job to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Law enforcement has busted what they are calling a major underground manufacturing ring. This comes after an investigation initiated by Quality Control's David Kirsch.

KIRSCH: It's far-reaching. We found branches of it in almost every major city. The John Henry Society can no longer terrorize us with their substandard goods.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And now, back to the weather. Sunny skies are expected for the rest of the month...

COCO: Congratulations. Our product malfunction rate has fallen by 98 percent.

KIRSCH: Are you sure? That's incredible.

COCO: Your capture of the resistance operatives was quite effective.

KIRSCH: Great. Well, what do we have next?

COCO: You have no one outstanding work assignments.

KIRSCH: Excuse me? Can you please - let me see the activity log for all the current malfunctions.

COCO: The malfunction log is empty. But I can book a trip, schedule a massage, reserve a ping-pong table.

KIRSCH: Coco, what's going on?

COCO: May I suggest a day at the beach? It's going to be a lovely day.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Still working?

KIRSCH: Give me a second. I'm almost done. See? Look. Wait.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Really?

KIRSCH: Give it a go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's beautiful.

KIRSCH: Yeah, it's perfect.

SIEGEL: "The Last Job" was written and produced by Jonathan Mitchell who does a lot of stories like that one on his podcast, the Truth. It's part of the Radiotopia network from PRX.

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