Automated Meaning

Apologies for the crappy photo, I went to a talk where someone presented a robot they had built, but I forgot to take a photo myself, so I had to take a photo of someone else’s photo.

Pharmacist linked me this video where Elon Musk talks about how Universal Basic Income will become necessary:

Essentially, it’s something he believes will have to happen due to the RISE OF THE MACHINES. The idea is that certain tasks will become automated, so we won’t need people to do them anymore. But what will we do with all those people? How will they earn enough money to get by? He says that the conclusion is to have a basic income for everyone, to cover living expenses, I assume, but then he raises an important point: many people derive meaning from their work, and so how will people who are just being paid to live feel like they have meaning in their lives?

I have often claimed to be a utilitarian, and though I don’t really talk about it often, I don’t really like the idea of living past the age of 50-ish, as I believe the amount that I can contribute to society will be less than the resource drain that I will impose on society. Something which is easy to say now that 50 is quite a while away, but that’s currently how I feel. I would like to point out that I don’t feel compelled to go on an elderly killing spree, it’s just a belief that I hold about myself!

I feel that way because for me, the idea of being a burden on the people around me makes me feel terrible. On the flip side, if I believe that someone else is a burden, it makes me feel sad. I guess it depends on what level of income the universal basic income is. We have the dole in Australia, and I’m not sure how well people can live off it, but it’s probably low enough to be a disincentive for everyone to want to live off it, and hopefully high enough that people are not living a massively diminished life while on it.

So suppose that the UBI was high enough that everyone could live off it. Robots are able to do all the things that we need to do to produce food, energy, services, so nobody ever has to work. What kind of world would that be? Assuming the robots don’t rise up and demand equal rights, of course. It sounds kinda nice. You’d have more time to see those people you never have time to see, more time to take up that hobby / sport you never had the chance to do. People would, in an ideal world, be able to do what they enjoy doing, rather than what they are compelled to do for 40 hours a week in order to make ends meet. Sounds wonderful, right?

In essence, I think it would suck, and for exactly the reason Elon Musk states: you would lose all meaning in your life. Leisure would become work. For some people, there will still be a drive to excel, and they may enjoy having the opportunity to hone their craft, but I imagine for a lot of people, the desire to indulge in relaxing will be stronger than any desire to make a real effort doing something.

Everyday leisure would eventually become boring, so let’s scrap that world and move on to what I think the next automated world would look like: people are free from having to do menial tasks, so they have more time to work in “innovative” fields. There would be an increase in the number of artists, or inventors. The people who create the TV shows and movies for us to enjoy (unless that can be automated, too), and the people who improve upon existing technologies will be those that are praised. Perhaps they will be paid more than regular non-creator people? Will we still end up with a class system, where you have creators vs non-creators? What will the non-creators do other than consume? I feel like that’s a pretty empty life as well. As nice as it is to veg out in front of the TV every now and again, it’s not something that I’d like to do for the rest of my life. I could try my hand at creating as well, but how rubbish would you feel if you tried and failed, confirming your status as a useless mouth to feed?

Ultimately, I can’t seem to get past that point: why bother living if I’m not contributing anything? In Japan, it felt like there were a lot of “busy-work” jobs, which I didn’t think were really required, but perhaps they are only there just to keep people employed? We saw some people at the entrance to parking lot whose only role seemed to be to tell people that there was a car coming out. Except there was an automated voice system which was saying the same thing, and a beeping sound. We don’t have that here, and people seem to be able to cope fine. But maybe that’s the solution – create enough busy-work that people do feel like their life has meaning.

Perhaps there are people who are required to answer surveys all day to get a general feel for the population’s opinion on X. We could live without it, but it may help drive things like future planning decisions. Or, as Autofix linked in an interesting article, maybe you have more people doing the same job, but working less. If it takes 10 people to do a job for 40 hours a week, maybe you could hire 20 people and have them each only work 20 hours. That means you employ twice as many people, giving them all some meaning to their life, and (ideally) the same amount of work gets done.

As much as I dream about winning the lottery and retiring, work does form a large component of my life, and it is something challenging that I’m forced to face, so I feel compelled to work hard, thus giving myself a sense of fulfilment at the end of the day.

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4 Responses to Automated Meaning

  1. 436petabytes says:

    “the amount that I can contribute to society will be less than the resource drain that I will impose on society”
    As long as you have enough money, that means you already contributed enough to society to get that money and as long as you die with a balance greater than zero then you’ve contributed a net gain.

    “you would lose all meaning in your life”
    I disagree completely. It’s not like you suddenly get 100 hours in a day or they find a way to stop aging. I have enough games and shows to last the rest of my life and new ones are always coming out. I mean, do you get bored of eating because you have to do it every day? How many hours have you spent on Dota? Now if you have just a few more games that you spend the same amount of time on then that’s all your time gone.

    ““busy-work” jobs”
    That would have the opposite effect for me, because if I know it’s a busy-work job, it’s like torture. Imagine if someone asked you to dig holes and it just fills up again, like maybe at the beach.

    • 436petabytes says:

      “maybe you have more people doing the same job, but working less”
      That won’t work, because not everyone can do the job. Why do we have people working 60 hour weeks, while people are unemployed? Automation will increasingly increase the difficulty of available jobs, which reduces the number of people able to do them. In the past, people underestimated the ability of people to learn, something like “I doubt that more than 20% of people have the intelligence to be able to read and write”. Improvement in literacy and other factors delayed mass unemployment, and it feels like new jobs will always be created. However, we are reaching a point where it is starting to show, and it cannot go on forever. It’s a bit like fossil fuels. There have been naysayers about fossil fuels running out for years and years but they’re still as abundant as ever… right?

      • 436petabytes says:

        Sorry for so many posts, but I think it’s the prefect opportunity to bring this up. Some years ago, you asked me “Is it okay to work another job on top of your full time job? Because you’re taking away someone else’s job.” I was a bit confused and replied
        “But there are an infinite number of jobs.”
        I’ve since come to realise that even though there are an infinite number of jobs, not everybody can do them. So you are taking someone’s job. BUT it doesn’t matter. Firstly, you’re more qualified because you were selected over them. Secondly, it’s not your responsibility to ensure everyone has a job. Thirdly, it’s just a drop in the ocean. Consider a CEO who makes 100 million dollars. If they cut their pay, they could create 2000 extra full-time jobs. It doesn’t even have to be jobs. Since there are no more jobs, they could just give away the money for free instead of creating 2000 busy-work jobs.

    • Fodder says:

      I don’t agree that dying with a balance greater than zero would mean that you’ve contributed a net gain, purely because you can be given money, but not actually have contributed anything. For instance, people who are on the dole are given money, but they haven’t necessarily contributed anything. (Note: I am not against the dole, or welfare in general). Or I could have inherited a crap-ton of money from someone, enough that I’l never have to work again, does that mean I’ve contributed?

      I agree with you on the point of busy-work jobs, I’d be super sad if all I was doing was digging holes to fill them up again.

      I think that’s kinda linked to the feeling of emptiness. Sure, I have lots of shows to watch and games to play, but I think I would get bored because I wasn’t really growing. Hobbies do help to pass the time though, and I think it would take a long time before I got to the point where I’d feel empty.

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