On labor, books before the printing press, and the future of robotics and AI

I was watching today's Idea Channel, and I had an idea.

As you will know if you clicked that video, today's episode was about the ethics of AI -- specifically, Mike explored the claim that it's ethically mandatory to continue to develop AI and replace humans doing jobs.

Now, I think that would be a great thing, because once there are fundamentally no real jobs to be had, civilization will probably give up on the idea that being employed in a way that directly serves other people is a mandatory prerequisite for a life longer than 17 years.  I'm not, however, confident that we won't just come up with new ways to make everyone fill up all their time with stuff they don't want to do.  Not that I'm pissed about the information revolution or anything, but there was once a time when we believed work was to accomplish goals, not to prove that you're trying hard enough to keep existing, and if something useful happened as a consequence, fine, whatever.

Anyway, that wasn't the thing I was thinking.  The thing I was thinking was, Mike brought up the printing press.  This image showed up in the corner:

Image via Quickmeme


And it inspired a mental image that I wanted to share:  a writer, trying to create and distribute a novel, prior to the invention of the printing press.  I realize that the modern novel came about well after the invention of the printing press, but it's a fun, though kind of terrifying, idea:

The novelist, sitting alone at her or his desk, writing out an entire book, longhand, as a duplicate from the previous copy.  She or he might notice errors, imperfections, bits of dialogue that might be better if put just slightly differently... does she or he change them?  Obviously.  Who could resist?

And which one does she or he sell?  The new one, with the latest corrections?  Or the old one, so the new one is there to copy from?

It's absurd -- and it also makes it a little more obvious why the only books that got widely reproduced before the printing press were religious texts.  You'd probably have to think what you were copying was literally the word of God, to resist the impulse to just fix little things here or there.  And I'm sure some people didn't manage to resist.  I know what was a unicorn in the King James Version of the Bible is an ox in the New International Version.

So I wonder what kinds of work will exist, once stuff that you'd have to do a thousand or more times now, you'd only have to do somewhere between once and a dozen times with the technology of half a century from now.  I wonder what kind of stuff (apart from movies, which, obviously) are going to go from being something only incredibly well-resourced people can do, and only gets done for things that are understood to be very important, to something people can do in their free time between shifts at work.

Or, y'know, all the time, because there will be robots for the work.