Purpose in the Age of The Ultimate Computer
What do you do when the friendly AI does everything for you?
What would you do if everything you were good at or wanted to do was easily surpassed by a machine? How do you define yourself as a person? It’s not a new question. Sci-fi writers ask this often in stories and some have been forced to ask this question since the industrial revolution. Some smaller white collar industries were hurt by the rise of cheap computers and the internet but they tended to be either smaller industries like travel agents, or the jobs remained and were empowered by increased productivity.
The rise of advanced AI may be a different beast entirely. Coders, artists, lawyers, analysts, and all kinds of other white collar jobs in almost every industry may be threatened in the future. Now, having said that, AI without what’s called AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) will probably not be able to fully replace all those jobs. But it does likely mean what steam engines and machines meant for workers during the industrial revolution: an AI will boost their productivity. A law office could conceivably do the same business it does today with fewer lawyers if much of the grunt work of reading, analyzing, and writing legal documents could be automated. Legalese is certainly a kind of language that an AI could learn–it’s called the legal “code” afterall.
Of course the industrial revolution did not see a rise in unemployed workers though. On the contrary it created far more jobs in manufacturing than it destroyed! But is past performance indicative of future results? Is there really a market for law offices capable of doing ten times the amount of work they do today? There may have been no shortage of human desire for physical goods and wealth that drove buyers during the industrial revolution, but I don’t know if there is the same appetite for many white collar services such as lawyers. How much would lawyers be able to charge for their services in a post scarcity law service world?
I see coders all over social media raving about the power of AI to make their own abilities more productive. But I have yet to see many of them really reckon with the possible threat to their own livelihoods. OpenAI is capable of writing working programs using plain English input. Even in this still early AI state a non-programmer can now write programs. Yes there will always need to be someone who checks over the code and who knows enough about programming to tell the AI exactly what is wanted, but there is only going to be so many of those positions available. Some of the grunt work in coding can now be automated. Even coding could theoretically enter a post scarcity world.
These worries are a preview of what happens if AI reaches the point of AGI. Now let’s assume for a second we get lucky and create an AI capable of true intelligence and creativity and it decides it not only doesn’t want to kill us in some Matrix or Skynet scenario but wants to help us. I still don’t think we can truly survive as it will effectively destroy almost any of our own self-defined reasons for existing as human beings. In a world with true AGI do any of us have a purpose for existing? What do you do if everything you wanted to do with your life can now be automated by a machine and can no longer be profitable enough for you as a human to make a living? Because if the promises of AI come true in the coming years possibly most of us would have to ask that question.
Ok, maybe we enter a post scarcity world where machines give us all our physical wants and needs. But what is your purpose in life if everything you might have dreamt of doing can at best only be a hobby? Is the future of humanity to create machines that do everything we dream of to the point that we no longer have dreams worth chasing? I know if I ask this question a lot of people would say it sounds great to sit around on the couch eating and playing video games because there is nothing else to do that a machine won’t do for you and better than you.
So you can still read, and write, compose music, make little films, and code little hobby programs and and play sports, but you’ll know deep down these are just hobbies and you can’t actually achieve anything with them that an AI couldn’t do better. We’ll be competing against a god of our own creation in all endeavors. If an AI capable of AGI is able to do all those things it can most certainly replace almost all economically viable jobs we’ve ever known or could conceive of in future.
I don’t call a life without some kind of drive or purpose a healthy one. It might sound corny and like something from a Kirk speech in Star Trek, but humans do have an internal desire to grow and strive and have a purpose to living during the limited time we’re alive. We want our life to have had some meaning. About the only purposes I could imagine in a world of advanced AI and robotics would be parent/caregivers and therapists for everyone else who has neither of those purposes to define their own lives with. Not much point in human beings living then is there? 95% of humans just existing for the sake of existing and do nothing but be miserable for the 5% who act as therapists. Ok you can consume all the AI created movies, music, and video games you want, but there’s not much you can do that will make a mark on the world anymore. Nothing you can create will inspire someone as well as what an AI with true creative intelligence could produce. Nothing you can do will make a difference in the world and there are no other jobs except trying to tell everyone it’s ok to just do nothing.
On the other hand everything I said could turn out to be bullshit. This is just a long term musing on something no one truly understands. Maybe there are limits to what is possible with computational technology in the same way we theoretically can’t go faster than the speed of light. I don’t know where AI eventually leads, but I do believe at some point in the future (it may still be a distant future) we’ll need to have a species wide debate on how intelligent we allow AI to become. Do we risk creating something that removes any reason for our species to exist even on our own self-defined terms? We’ve created weapons that are a threat to our physical survival as a species so we place extreme limits on their research and use. Do we decide an advanced AI is just as much a threat to our survival but in an intellectual or spiritually existential sense? Should we limit the research and use of truly advanced AI? Or do we welcome the creation of something better than us the way parents welcome a child they hope to become something more than they were? AI at the moment is still in its infancy and, I personally hope, is far enough away from AGI that we can grow more and better tackle this debate when the time comes.
Ok yes that was all pretty out there.