Will we all be workaholics in the future?

Economist Robin Hanson has long argued that in the future, most sentient beings on Earth will be computer-simulated people (for technical background on this issue, I recommend Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap). Hanson has made predictions about the details of how this will play out that look pretty dystopian: most of these beings will be be slaves, working constantly for a subsistence-level existence. But Hanson recently came up with a clever argument that this won’t be so bad.

Hanson cites a documentary about a workaholic sushi chef named Jiro. He seems to do nothing but work all day, and also seems to be perfectly happy doing this. He’s considered the world’s best sushi chef, and so must be very rich, but because he works all day he doesn’t have much to spend his money on. Most people who see the documentary wouldn’t doubt for a second his life is worth living.

Then, Hanson says, suppose we change the story. Suppose Jiro is not rich. Does it matter? Well, he doesn’t really use his money anyways. Suppose he’s in a lower status occupation. Well, he’s still the best in the world, so what if his status in the world is lower? What if, as amazingly skilled as he is, we imagine changing the world so that there are countless other people who are equally skilled? Surely the existence of these other people doesn’t make Jiro’s life any less worth living, does it? Hanson then concludes:

Some of you probably see where I am going with this. Imagine we take the few hundred very best most dedicated workaholic humans, and fill a world with trillions of em [computer simulation--Hallq] copies of them, so that they are mostly working at near subsistence wages, yet have enough food, warmth, health, etc. Is this a world full of creatures with lives worth living?

It’s an interesting line of thought in terms of the goodness or badness of possible futures, but how likely is such a future, really? I don’t see any technical challenges here in terms of making the “ems,” as Hanson calls them. What I wonder, rather, is whether the economics make any sense. If most people are workaholics, consuming little, where is the demand for their prodigious output? In the future, you need people to consume the outputs of future civilization.

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