The Power of Obligation in the Age of AI
How our Presence is better Protected by Obligation than Intention
In a somewhat ironic turn of events, humans, who spent the last two centuries striving to match the efficiency and specialisation of machines, now find machines competing with our creative attributes. As AI systems begin to embrace the arts, writing poems, composing music, and venturing into the realms of messy probabilistic thinking, we face a vital question that exposes our fragility: what makes us distinctly human?
As the UK’s late former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, wrote in his book Morality, “If we seek to preserve our humanity, the answer is not to elevate intelligence … [It is] self-consciousness that makes human beings different”. The solution, I believe, comes from one of the oldest ideas of humanity — obligation. A driving force that can help us maintain our distinct identity and edge in a landscape dominated by AI.
The Concept of Obligation
One of the benefits of, say, going to a yoga class or church or a playground with your kids is that it’s impossible to work while you’re there. Presence is better protected by obligations than intentions.
In this article, “obligation” refers to our commitment to responsibilities and relationships rather than merely external pressures. An obligation is more than being forced into fulfilling tasks or roles by external factors. It represents a deep-seated sense of duty that has guided human societies for centuries and is unlikely to be replicated by AI systems any time soon.
Obligations could include anything from attending a close friend’s wedding, volunteering at a charity, simply being present when a family member needs you or meeting a deadline.
Caring about obligations is crucial because they help us focus our attention and immerse ourselves in the task at hand, leaving no room for distractions. Obligations are rooted in our social and emotional development, making them a distinctly human trait. Psychologist Michael Tomasello’s research on the moral psychology of obligation highlights how historically, obligation distinctly motivates people and is a force with insistent nature that bonds us with others and encourages us to honour agreements.
When we fulfil our obligations, we fortify our social ties and preserve our collective identity within the joint ‘we,’ thereby fostering motivation, focus, and personal growth. Contrarily, machines and most animals exhibit a glaring lack of obligation. An AI bot, not unlike a pigeon, is void of any real drive for communal improvement, self-improvement or aspirations of avian prowess.
Recognising and embracing our obligations is essential in a world of distractions, as it anchors us and prevents us from becoming idle passengers drifting through a sea of superficial engagements.
For instance, the fact that someone took the day off and decided to spend it with you doing something fun suddenly becomes meaningful. The fact that someone would take the little time they have to find a way to live in service to others through a sense of obligation suddenly becomes a sacrifice we all respect.
Cultivating obligations need only start with a calendar and a notepad. Start by identifying areas where you feel unfocused or disconnected and set specific commitments with action plans, deadlines, and measures for accountability. Start with constructing a daily framework that fosters focus by booking time for various activities, including work, reflection, and personal life.
All it is is a plan — even if you do nothing else, doing this first step is valuable for reminding ourselves of the value of respecting our time, presence and intent.
Examples of cultivating obligations include:
Reserving time for leisure activities, such as playing with your kids, meeting friends, helping your parents or engaging in hobbies
Blocking our time to work on a particular task for a dedicated amount of time to enhance motivation and concentration
Caring about cultivating obligations is essential because it helps protect our biological, psychological, and social presence.
For example, committing an hour to work on a particular task can amplify our motivation and concentration, as opposed to letting our attentions drift aimlessly. If you’ve scheduled time to play video games, there’s nowhere else you should be nor anything else you should be doing. Enjoy leisure time without guilt!
Personally, I’ve found that keeping a daily diary is one of the most effective tools for cultivating, tracking and reinforcing my obligations. To get started, create a template with crucial questions, such as “What’s top of mind right now?”, “What would make today great?”, “What am I thankful for?” and spending the first 10 minutes of each day answering them. Having a practice of keeping such a daily diary and simply writing all this stuff down has helped me out a lot.
For those looking to streamline the process, I suggest checking out tools like Obsidian, which can help simplify and enhance the journaling experience. I’ve written about my daily process here for those interested.
“Show me your calendar, and I’ll show you what you value,” Stanford business school professor Joel Petersen famously tells his students. We mostly think we should invest in activities only if we find them meaningful. Still, I believe the causal relationship more often goes the other way: we find activities meaningful through our investment in them.
Obligations needn’t be a source of stress and dread. Embracing obligations can allow us to connect with our uniquely human traits and forge meaningful connections in a world filled with more AI and automation. By taking time to cultivate obligations in our personal and professional lives, we can remain grounded in the present moment.
Happy obligating everyone.