I’d become friends with a Public Intellectual. He handled everything: scandal, sex, politics, political sex scandals, racism, weather, the racism of weather, Japanese cartoons. Everything was under his purview, but his specialty was the Future. He was a much more successful colleague at the university where I would occasionally adjunct. Several years ago entirely by accident, when collecting some papers from our department’s office, not knowing who he was, I saw him standing next to the faculty mailboxes with a copy of a book I’d just read. I was younger and new to the place and excitable – and so I started up a brief conversation about the book. I think because I wasn’t awestruck, because I’d no idea who he was, the conversation went smoothly. And a few days afterward we continued the conversation, which was rather pleasant, and soon after we more or less became friends. We had some important interests in common but these did not overlap so much that there was any real sense of competition between us. In other ways, we were a good match: he was about a decade older; we were both divorced and had daughters about the same age.
After that first meeting I googled him and realized who he was and that he was famous. Academic famous not TV famous but still. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t known who he was, or anything even about his work, but I also was emboldened by my ignorance. It gave the situation a kind of ease, which somehow, especially at the beginning, was necessary and also gave things momentum. We had to play-act a little, if this makes sense. Both of us had to continue the idea of my ignorance even if it had become a fiction, to maintain our enthusiasm.
But, also, just after I found out who he was and the fact that he specialized in, and was renowned for, a sharp-eyed, bullshitless analysis of the future, a question started to shift the gravity in my mind. Though this is difficult to admit in mixed company, perhaps this is because I am the daughter of quote striver immigrant parents. And so slowly, while maintaining an attitude of nonchalance and casual good humor, I found myself yearning to ask him something. This was a question that had long been on my mind but to which I didn’t think I’d ever find an answer. It was similar to when you by chance meet an orthopedic surgeon at a party and try delicately to bring the conversation around to your chronic and exquisite lower back pain – that kind of egotistical, obvious yet helpless maneuvering. My burning question was this:
Will there be any jobs in the future? What are the good jobs of the future? And what kind of jobs do you think our children might have in the future?
I know that this is three questions but it really is just one question disguised as three questions.
When I finally gathered the gumption to ask, the Public Intellectual was kind. He struggled in only a barely perceptible way to hide his contempt for such a crude and banal and selfish question. In addition he was, it should be said, quite practiced, as would become evident, in answering such questions and so had made a career of answering them as warm-up or filler to or, most often, as comedic relief from, the more refined, profound questions which he intensely wrestled with during his more solitary hours.
So to my question, the Public Intellectual said, ‘Here’s what I say to people when they ask. This is what I say.’
‘Yes?’ I prompted.
‘I say, “You know how our pets are to us?” ’
‘Our pets?’ I said.
‘Yes, you know. Our cats and our dogs.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and our cats.’
‘What about them?’ I asked.
He said, ‘We keep our pets because they are interesting to us.’
‘I see,’ I said, not seeing.
‘In the future . . .’ the Public Intellectual continued.
‘Yes?’ I said.
‘In the future we have to be as interesting to the AI as our pets are to us.’
‘The AI?’ I said.
‘The AI,’ he said.
I looked bewildered so he dumbed it down for me. ‘The robots. The machines.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I see.’
‘The AI,’ he said. ‘We have to be as interesting to them as our pets are to us.’
‘Hmm,’ I said.