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What is Work?

Updated on June 27, 2017
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Jack is currently a volunteer at the Westchester County Archives. Jack has worked at IBM for over 28 years.


In past times, we can clearly delineate between work and leisure activities. Work is usually involve some manual and mental activity which required some skill and knowledge. These skills and knowledge are acquired by training or studying. The end result is that a job which requires a certain amount of work has value in terms of wages. You get paid for work where as you have to pay for leisure activities such as going on a vacation.

- June 2017


In recent developmemt, some technology companies are toying with the idea of a robot doing work that humans do. They will replace the labor of a human. From an economic point of view, it makes sense. If a robot can do the work more cheaply, why not? However, it begs the question, what is work? Is it still work if a machine does it? Will it get paid a wage? Or is the real work just being moved from one area to another. The work of the engineer and programmers that design and build the robot in the first place. The robot is just a step in automation. Just like the assembly line, the efficiency of mass production is what made some products such as the automobile affordable. Could it be, in the near future, a fast food joint will be manned by robots to produce a cheaper burger?

Definition of Work Revisited

Back to the definition of work, what is it? It is an activity that produces some added value. What are the values? A new design, a better mouse trap, an improvement or added features, an original idea or concept. Also, work is an activity that produces a product or services that people want and are willing to pay for it.

Where does a robot fit in? It cannot do the first? Add or create something new? Only a human can do that so far...

A robot can make a product such as a burger and I as a human will be willing to pay for it and consume it. Can a robot do the same? Of course not. A robot is a machine just as a car or a computer. It is a tool to an end. It can help us do things faster and better. It consumes some energy and it deliver some end result. The added value of that "work" is what makes it viable.

Another aspect of work is the dignity it brings to the worker. This cannot be overlooked. Part of doing a job, is the recognition that a person receives. Not only in the wages he or she receives, but in the pride that goes along with doing something worthwhile. Can a robot "feel" or have "pride?" I think not.

Perhaps the answer is we will need a new terminology. A term to define what a robot does versus what a human does as work. That term may be - automate. A robot automates while a person perform work.


In summary, if we break down the components of work performed by humans, they can be categorized as a three major parts. There is the creative element, a repetitive element and a complex element. The creative element is so far only in the domain of humans. The repetitive element has already been replaced with automation in most tasks. The future will only bring more use of automation and tools to assist humans in their work. That is progress and efficiency. The last part, complex part, is what is being developed. In some cases, these jobs, though complex, can be automated to a large extent by intelligent robots.

© 2017 Jack Lee


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    • Siwan Amit profile image


      16 months ago from INDIA

      To use our mind


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