How A.I. Could Eliminate Human Meaning and Purpose
Are We Starting to Face a Crisis of Meaning and Purpose?
Could technology be making many of us less well off by forcing people to sacrifice meaning and purpose in their lives for short-term pleasure and convenience?
First, it’s important to understand psychologists believe there’s a big difference between ‘meaning’ and happiness. Most experts agree meaning involves an element of purpose and personal goals, which differs from happiness, which has to do with having short-term needs satisfied, getting what you want, and feeling good in the moment.
Plus, researchers believe meaning is essential for well-being. Psychologists and psychiatrists such as Carl Jung and Victor Frankel have written in length about why humans need meaning in their lives for sound mental health in addition to just happiness, and studies continue to corroborate their work.
However, research increasingly suggests that the more humanity embraces technology, the more we exchange meaning and purpose for short-term happiness and convenience.
For example, because of technology…
- Relationships are deteriorating and individuals are becoming increasingly isolated, as indicated by research.
- Automation appears to be destroying more jobs than it creates, and employment is a main source of meaning and purpose for people throughout history.
- Jobs that will be created by technology and automation will be increasingly low-paid, unstable, and without benefits.
- Income inequality continues to get worse, not better, giving more opportunities to fewer ‘haves,’ and fewer opportunities for the greater number of ‘have nots.’
- Technology appears to be contributing to mental disorders such as anxiety, ADHD symptoms, and worse.
- We’re becoming more addicted to the short-term pleasures of technology, hindering our ability to accomplish personal goals.
- Many tasks that used to provide a sense of accomplishment, like researching the answer to a question, are fully automated by technological services (i.e., Alexa, Google, etc.).
- and many more issues such as the global warming crisis, increasing debt, etc.
A.I. and Technology to the Rescue
However, many experts and scientists claim that if we continue to develop and embrace technology for a long enough period of time, eventually it will take care of all of the issues it caused that I outlined above and give humans the opportunity to create more meaning and purpose in their lives than ever before.
Futurists, scientists, and philosophers who study and embrace the philosophy of transhumanism believe that through technology and science we can greatly enhance human intellect and physiology for the better by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies in a variety of fields.
We’re talking about drastic changes here. In fact, a few tenets of transhumanism include we’ll…
- never work a job again if we don’t want to (technology could be so advanced that a machine could supply us anything we need for little to no cost)
- experience anything we want, especially through virtual reality as games would be so life-like we won’t be able to tell the difference between VR and real life
- eliminate aging and even possibly death
- even eliminate suffering for all conscious beings, and more.
In fact, David Pearce, a philosopher and founder of Humanity+ Inc., arguably the most influential transhumanist organization, has outlined how pharmacology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and neurosurgery could converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experiences from human and non-human life, replacing suffering with “gradients of bliss.” If we all hold out long enough, we could find ourselves in a utopia where we never suffer and get whatever our hearts desire whenever we want it.
So, there’s a great deal of argument to be had if we can ever accomplish any of those tenets outlined above and probably an even greater argument as to whether they would be made available to everyone.
After all, with income-inequality continuing to increase, wealthy individuals could use this advanced technology for themselves turning themselves into almost into god-like beings, or as philosopher Nick Bostrom calls them ‘posthumans’ before it’s ever made available to the wider public.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say one day this technology is developed and these tenets are accomplished and made available to the public. Would this solve our question for meaning in life forever, now that there are endless possibilities and supposedly little to no suffering?
Why Finding Meaning May Get Harder, Despite an Over Abundance of Resources
Well, let’s skeptically examine the four tenets I went over, of course, there’s much more, but you’ll get an idea that finding meaning despite an overabundance of resources, may be harder than you think.
Tenet #1.Analyzed — Advanced Technology Will Make It So We’ll Never Have to Work a Job Again
Having an occupation is a healthy way to feel a sense of purpose, even if you’re not happy 100% of the time with it.
All the resources we need will be provided so cheaply that there’s no need for a salary and A.I. technology will automate every job needed and do it far better than any human ever could.
First, many may argue that automating every human job is impossible. After all, what about jobs in healthcare like doctors and nurses that require compassion as well as advanced skill levels or judges and lawyers that need a deep understanding of ethics.
Well, far more intelligent people than me such as Elon Musk and Nick Bostrom, have argued how A.I. will be able to perform these jobs for us and in fact, perform them so well it may be unethical for humans to perform them.
For example, they could design humanoids that look exactly like biological people, that through smart technology, are actually more empathic and far superior at their job than a real person. Technology will become so smart that it may be unethical to go to a human to have surgery because of the human potential for mistakes that artificial intelligence would never make. Doctors may not even be an occupation that’s needed by that time.
A.I. could even take over meaningful no-pay jobs like volunteer and charitable work. For instance, if there is an unethical issue in the world such as racial injustice or saving an endangered species, it would be more ethical to allow more competent technology to solve the issue faster and more effectively, than a human or group of humans. Then the injustice is brought to justice faster and less damage is caused putting more people out of meaningful work.
But, perhaps our hobbies like art or music for instance provide us with personal meaning and service as a type of occupation, right? Yes perhaps, but the meaning we derive from them could be very little in comparison to what it is on average today even though we have more time and resources than ever to dedicate to them.
Why could this potentially be so? Well, if A.I. can perform any occupation 100x better than humans, it can and will create art 100x or even a million times better than the greatest human painter making human works of art less meaningful. Sure, nothing is stopping us from creating a good old fashioned oil painting or watercolor painting that is technology-free and it giving us personal meaning, but the art we create will look like child macaroni drawings compared to the ‘Sistine Chapelesque’ art of technology which devalues its meaning in society.
More likely, is that we’ll be integrated with the A.I. technology in some way which will do most of the art and creativity for us. We can see this playing out already today as cameras, Photoshop, and technology can do much of the artistic work for photographers now. If we’re relying on tools to do our creative hobbies for us, then doesn’t that greatly hinder the meaning and satisfaction we’d derive from it?
Now, what we call an occupation or job may change in the future drastically. Some futurists like Yuval Noah Harari theorize that humans will invent new systems or meaning just like we have been doing for centuries already. In particular, these can manifest themselves in the world of virtual reality where meaning is now being found inwardly, not outwardly.
Tenet #2. Analyzed — Experience Anything We Wish Through Life-like Virtual Reality
If you think about it, virtual reality and technology should allow us to experience just about anything we want in the far future if computing power continues to exponentially increase like it has been as demonstrated to theoretically do so by futurist Ray Kurzweil.
Games and simulations would be so life-like they would mimic real life, and just like today, we can interact with other people through the games and assign ourselves meaningful roles.
This could be an answer to creating purpose and meaning in the far future, but an interesting point was brought up by Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick several decades ago which he dubbed ‘The Experience Machine’.
Nozick asks if there were a machine called the ‘Experience Machine’, something like where you could plug your brain into it and it would simulate the happiest reality possible for you and you wouldn’t remember you’d plugged into it (think like, The Matrix where you live this happy and fulfilled life in simulated reality) would you plug into it?
Nozick says you wouldn’t and it wouldn’t be good for you because it’s not real life. We want to live our real lives and be a certain kind of person with end goals, instead of a blob of matter connected to a device.
We would be creating meaning and purpose in virtual reality, but that meaning and purpose isn’t real life, so how meaningful is it then?
Plus, if you can have anything or experience anything instantly without having to work for it, doesn’t that devalue the meaning it has?
Yes, we’re experiencing happiness and instant gratification, but as I spoke about in previous videos, happiness and meaning are separate things. Meaning has a cognitive past and present element and comes when we work hard over time for something.
The British philosopher Alan Watts talked about how if you had the power to dream any dream you wished each night, eventually, you’d get bored of the dreams where you get everything you want easily and gradually introduce suffering and struggling into them. Eventually, he says, you would end up just wanting to dream your normal waking life because happiness and contentment alone do not make for a good life.
What about the final two points, the ability to end aging and suffering forever?
Tenet #3. Analyzed — We Could End Aging and Possibly Death
Transhumanists believe that not only could we end aging since many researchers believe it’s a disease that can be cured, but potentially avoid all forms of death though theorized technology like mind-uploading or clone replication.
Avoiding death sounds like a great thing at first, but isn’t death what gives life meaning in the first place? If we’re just going to live forever, there’s not a lot of pressure, if any, to connect with and appreciate the people in our lives today since we can see them anytime in the infinite future.
There would be no need to push ourselves to accomplish any goal we have since we have infinite time to do it, nor work as hard, or if at all, to make the world a better, more meaningful place. There wouldn’t be as much value placed on human life since we will be able to just resurrect people on a whim.
Tenet #4. Analyzed — We Could Eliminate Pain and Suffering Entirely
As far as ending suffering forever, there was an interesting idea put forth by philosopher R.N. Smart called the “benevolent world exploder” that argued against systems of morality that claimed humanity should ultimately work toward ending suffering for all. It stated the fastest way to end suffering is just for a Benevolent World Exploder being to wipe out the human race without any pain, then we would never suffer again, which obviously would be a bad thing.
Now, transhumanists aren’t arguing for anything like that, in fact, they claim humanity will be able to live in ‘shades of bliss’ and never experience suffering or pain again.
That may all sound like an ideal destination for the human race at first, but it’s very difficult to predict exactly what that utopia will look like.
Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that getting to this point will involve a high degree of fundamentally changing who we are as humans.
If we radically change our minds that much by integrating the emerging technology and rewiring ourselves to never feel suffering, there’s a good chance we may forget what it meant to be human in the first place.
We would certainly merit the label of a posthuman being, meaning much of what it meant to be a human will be a thing of the past including human concepts of meaning and purpose.
If that’s the case, it seems that we’re back to the Benevolent World Exploder again. Only, instead of an all-powerful being wiping out humanity, we did it to ourselves in what could be a peaceful process.
In Conclusion — What Do You Think?
Is humanity destined for a Utopia filled with mindless, painless zombies (or “posthumans”) who have no element of human meaning in their lives?
Of course, no one knows exactly what the future will bring. But if you thought this article had any truth to it, it may be worth pursuing answers today before we run into a crisis of meaning tomorrow.
Answering this question would most likely take another complete article or series or articles, but a few ideas worth exploring could be:
- Program AI to account for human meaning — If AI finds that society is becoming more depressed and less fulfilled, it could act in various ways to increase the overall meaning for each person and human society as a whole, including reducing its influence.
- Actively choose to stop embracing new technology — Some groups of people may choose to stop embracing technology or certain aspects of it in order to preserve meaning in their lives, while others continue to embrace it. The lower-tech tribes could be delegated their own land to build a society where they could live peacefully, undisturbed.
- Create Worldwide Bio-liberty laws — Bio-liberty laws could include the right to not have anything technological implanted into us or collect information about us unless we consent to it, the right to die when we want using assisted suicide (if aging is eradicated), the right to not be genetically altered while in utero or as children (think designer babies), and more.
Let me know your comments and thoughts on meaning, happiness, and far-future technology.
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