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Purpose, Pleasure, and Meaning in a World Without Work (with Nicholas Bostrom)



Purpose, Pleasure, and Meaning in a World Without Work (with Nicholas Bostrom)

Intro. [Recording date: May 1, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is May 1, 2024. My guest is philosopher and author Nicholas Bostrom from the University of Oxford. This is his second appearance on EconTalk. He was here for the first time in December 2014 and talked about his book Superintelligenceabout the dangers of artificial intelligence – of AI – and he worried about that early on.

His new book, and our topic for today, is Deep Utopia: Life and Meaning in a Dissolved World. Nick, welcome back to EconTalk.

Nicholas Bostrom: Thank you. And there it is, yes. No. 2014. It’s been a while.

Russ Roberts: Yes. And I’ve been a lot smarter since then. I’m sure you are too. But neither of us are really super intelligent; but there are some things that are interesting. But that is not our subject.


Russ Roberts: Our subject is your new book, and before we begin, let me say that this is a wonderful book. It’s mind-blowing. It’s poetic. It moves. It is funny. The writing is great. Every page is full of ideas. And it’s about what you call ‘deep utopia’ – the world we seem to be heading towards, a world of unimaginable material abundance, robots, AI that can do everything better than us, which seems to lead to a world of almost… .if not literally: endless free time.

And in such a world you wonder, among other things: what would become of us? What would give our lives meaning and purpose in a “solved world,” as you call it? And what would we do all day?

And I think, as you point out, thinking about these issues forces us to think not-utopian issues – the question of how we live our lives now and what for many of us is almost a utopia; and for many not so close.

But let’s start by saying something very encouraging. I think a lot of people are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of ​​a solved world – with the idea of ​​all the free time we want all the time. Discuss why people are concerned about this and why you think those concerns are not as concerning as some people think.

Nicholas Bostrom: We have built our image of ourselves and our dignity in large part on the idea that we can make a useful contribution to the world, whether on a large scale or just in your family or in your community. And so, to the extent that that is the foundation of your self-worth, if that foundation is removed, you might find a kind of vacuum under your feet that would be disturbing.

So in a solved world where all practical problems have already been solved, we don’t need to solve any more problems, or to the extent that any practical problems remain, they would be better solved by advanced AIs and robots. And so there would be nothing of practical use that would require human work anyway.

This therefore forces a fairly radical reconsideration of what the basis of a good human life could be. And undoubtedly it would be necessary to jettison some valuable assumptions about what life should entail. And I think that’s part of where this sense of unease would come from.

There may also be more mundane concerns that people would have if they couldn’t have a job, how would they make a living? But I’ve kind of put that aside in this book in order to actually get to the point where we can ask what fundamental values ​​are at stake, assuming we solve all the practical problems that lie between where we are now. and where we are now. this hypothetical outcome.

Russ Roberts: And it’s somewhat reminiscent of the conversations that some people have been having around the idea of ​​a universal basic income [UBI] where many people have suggested that even if we could budget-wise ‘afford’ to care for people at a fairly high minimum standard, it would be a mistake because people would then have no reason to work, and then they would… I don’t know if you’re quoting it or not, but there’s a certain cultural feeling, I think, that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. But you disagree, I think, and that’s very eloquent.

Nicholas Bostrom: Yes. Well, I think this may be true for some people, in the sense that more free time is bad and some people, I think, need a lot of outside pressure to maintain their upright posture, psychologically speaking. And I’m, I guess, cautiously hopeful that if this were the only change – what if there was a huge economic windfall, like the way a Gulf state or something finds enormous wealth underground and then can live off the rents. from that. Sometimes it works out well and sometimes not so well. I have a tentative hope that, at least in theory, we can bring about a cultural change that allows people to be raised to have good leisure time rather than to be productive workers. I think the school system right now, as far as it focuses on a particular outcome, is clearly focused on producing disciplined workers. As you were told[?taught?] to sit at your desk. You are assigned small tasks to do. Why? Because the teacher tells you to do them; and then you get scored and graded and there’s a quality control stamp at the end.

And then you can go and work in an office building or a factory, depending on the level of – I think in light of the future, this is hopefully a sad model of what human development could be. It’s a bit necessary now because there Are all these jobs that need to be done, so we need workers to do these jobs. But if you imagine a scenario where there were not all these jobs that needed to be done, then I think we can think of better ways to raise children, perhaps through the appreciation of art and literature, the fine art of conversation, a sense of humor, physical activities, appreciation of the to cultivate nature, all these things that are currently being relegated to the sidelines.


Russ Roberts: And it’s one of my favorite themes: culture is on the rise. It’s not under anyone’s control. It responds to all kinds of forces in the world, economic improvement and so on. And we’ll talk more about this, because you have some very interesting things to say about how things might change in another world.

I think there’s always an interesting question about the speed at which culture might change relative to the speed of technology. Much suffering and challenges could arise if that culture is slow to respond.

The example that I think about a lot is smartphones. When smartphones came along, I, like others, sometimes said, “Oh, well, our culture is going to change in terms of what you can do.” And the has changed; and it’s changed that you can just sit there looking at your phone and answer your phone in the middle of meetings and scroll through your social media feed when you’re eating and in all kinds of ways that don’t seem to me to be so consistent with the human flourishing.

And I say that as someone who do some of those things sometimes. So the cultural norms I think ultimately shall change, but I think there is a question of speed – but maybe we have a lot of time.

Nicholas Bostrom: Yes. So I don’t say we would use the increased free time to positively affirm life, and that’s what I do[?] say that in theory this possibility seems to exist.

So I think there are multiple layers of this onion, and what I see as the outermost layer – and that’s where most of this conversation begins and ends – is that we’re considering a scenario of a moderate increase in automation. Maybe some people will become unemployed, and maybe the answer to that is retraining or a flexible labor market so they can find it new jobs.

We have a lot of jobs today that didn’t exist a hundred years ago when almost everyone was a farmer, so analogous to that. And then, combined with a kind of cultural adaptation to the new technologies. Hopefully we will encourage more positive use. So I think if the technology were basically frozen in time where it is now, or if there were still a few more years of progress and then just applications, I think that would be the right question and the right answer. [More to come, 9:51]