Thanksgiving: Rejoicing in our humanity and working to preserve it

Originally Appeared in : 9823-11/8/18

Recently I was on the web trying to reserve a Yellow Cab to take me to the airport. I was unsuccessful because the technology that would identify me as a human being and not a robot was turned off on the taxi company’s server. I finally gave up and telephoned an immigrant from India who has a cab and had taken me there before. He gladly did it. The world still works best through human relationships.


We can rejoice about that during our Thanksgiving meal. From past experience, we know that the gathering may be contentious — my daughter Rose has had to forbid any political arguments. But we also experience forbearance, agreement, nuance and compromise. That is the nature of being human.


Nevertheless, as artificial intelligence advances, robots will become more like humans. Proving our humanity may be more challenging than identifying letters, numbers and scenes in photographs. But paradoxically, we may be becoming more like robots. Already, we can see in our political discourse the binary framework of decision-making by computers: our way or the highway; some people count, others don’t; only two options, win or lose.


This may be the age of robots. Assembling cars was only the beginning. As Washington Post columnist George Will notes in a column about a book by Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal,” “driver” is the largest category of employment in the U.S. But self-driving cars could erase two-thirds of those jobs in the next decade. At McKinsey & Co., where Sasse once worked, analysts say that 50 percent of human activities could be automated by currently available technologies. Thus, work, which Sasse calls “arguably the most fundamental anchor of human identity,” is undergoing radical cultural disruption.


Everywhere, computers are replacing humans, even bank tellers. I do not have to go there to deposit a check, withdraw or transfer funds. I can do it from home with an app on my cellphone. We all love our computers and how they enhance our lives, but we never reckon the cost to other humans.


Sasse blames the digital revolution for undermining connectedness, leading to more people dying of drug overdoses annually (72,000) than were killed during the entirety of the Vietnam War (58,220), loss of community causing staggering loneliness that is becoming the nation’s No. 1 health crisis and disintegration of the family as 70 percent of the children of women with only a high school diploma or less schooling are born outside of marriage.


But in the current political climate, the convenient targets are immigrants, people of color and the poor, especially in rural areas. And not surprisingly, Sasse argues that it is not politics that is dividing America and bringing people down.


Yet a New York Times investigation of pregnancy in the workplace shows that discrimination leads to many miscarriages and stillbirths that could be avoided if Congress strengthened a decades-old law that permits employers to deny special consideration to pregnant women who do heavy lifting on conveyer lines.


Recent efforts to change that cannot even get a hearing, much less a vote.


So as we sit at the table this Thanksgiving, let’s rejoice in our humanity, grateful that we can love, forgive, judge, sacrifice and empathize — skills robots do not have. And let’s pray, even if only in silence, that we will not become like machines, unbending, uncaring, unwilling to come to the aid of those suffering.


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