Robots Gives Us More Time to Find Meaning

Yuval HarariThe other day, I saw this exciting headline, Yuval Harari on Why Humans Won’t Dominate Earth in 300 Years. I’m interested in this because I just don’t think humans are long for the universe. We’re at the top of the food change to start with. But more than that, intelligence just isn’t that great an evolutionary trait. It’s worked really well for us in the past. But I fear that time is past. Humans seem to have reached their peak as a species. Now, we are creating problems faster than we can solve them.

So I was interested in what Yuval Harari had to say. But he doesn’t think in this way at all. Instead, he thinks that robots (or robot-human hybrids) will take over. He thinks that humans won’t be of any value once we have AI. We won’t need humans to drive our cars or diagnose and treat our illnesses or pretty much anything. I don’t buy this idea on a number of levels. One is simply that I just don’t see AI developing the way that most people do. (I will give Harari this: he at least understands that intelligence does not equal consciousness.) But I’ll yield the point: robots are going to be able to take over all our jobs.

Yuval Harari Is Not Saying Anything New

If that’s the case, the conclusion is not: humans don’t matter. Although Yuval Harari is clearly much smarter, he really isn’t any different from the “robots will take all our jobs” crowd. All of these people suffer from the same unstated assumption that the economy we live in now is somehow natural and not the result of explicitly enacted law to benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Look at the following graph created from Talking Points Memo using Economic Policy Institute data (Licensed under Fair Use):

Productivity vs Wages

What you see is that there is a choice. When productivity goes up, it can be shared by workers and owners alike. Or, it can be given just to owners. (It could also just be given to workers, but we haven’t seen that happen in the history of the world.)

Robots Would Be Good for Us — If We Let Them

If robots got so good that they could drive cars and diagnose and treat illness, it would represent a huge increase in productivity. As long as we had an economic system were productivity gains were shared, it would mean a huge rise in the standard of living over everyone. People could spend most if not all of their time doing the things that they enjoy. Their lives would be edifying. Humans would be doing better than ever.

Is this a hard thing to understand? I don’t think so. But again, I think we get into this whole issue of unstated assumptions. This would only be a hellish world for the same reason that the world is hellish today for so many people. As long as we as a society decide that robots are going to improve all lives and not let ridiculous notions of intellectual property owners get in the way of worldwide happiness, robots would be a great thing.

The Horror of Hedonism

Yuval Harari also touches on the other side of things: that we would all turn into hedonists. Well, I don’t see that as a problem. People imagine a hedonist as someone who is only interested in pleasures of the flesh. But I’m most happy when I’m working on some cool project with other interesting people. And frankly, that’s already the world we could be living in. The uncertainties in our lives are artificial: placed on us by our economic system.

The only time that Yuval Harari talks about meaning is in the context of everyone getting lost in playing virtual reality games. He’s proposing a world in which humans don’t have to work. And he thinks that in that world, it would be harder for humans to find meaning than in a world where everyone is worried that they’re going to lose their job next week because the company decides to move or because the person has gotten too old and therefore too expensive. That doesn’t make any sense.

Give Us More Robots

All forms of innovation that reduce work are good. The question is whether we allow them to make everyone’s lives better, or just a chosen few. We will all find it easier to determine the meaning of life not having to worry about rent and sending our kids to college in a few years. Having to do some annoying job or constantly hustling to find work might provide Sudoku Meaning. But it doesn’t provide real meaning.

As for being the “dominant” species: were African Americans the dominant race in America in 1850?