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.

  • unbound

    What if they change their minds and don’t want to do it anymore?

    And your point is dead-on regarding the economy. It doesn’t make any sense from the current mass production / large group services economy that we function in today.

  • pipenta

    Haven’t seen the film.

    There are all different reasons to be workaholic. Passion is wonderful. Compulsion, not so much.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Regarding dedicated workaholic humans, Vernor Vinge introduced a concept in A Deepness in the Sky where prisoners undergo a technique that turns them into obsessively focused passionate savants that work tirelessly at their jobs. At the end of the story, after several years, when the prisoners are restored to a normal mental state, many elect to go back, preferring life in the savant like state.

    Once we’re uploaded digital entities, I think all bets about how personhood works get called into question. Suppose I’m a digital copy of the original me, except that I’ve turned off all those pesky emotional impulses, including the survival one, because they interfere with my judgment. Maybe at that point, I decide it’s more logical to merge my knowledge into the overall database and cease any separate existence. Such a society may ask, why keep any workers or specialists around except the very best worker or specialist and just clone them for the required workload? Over time, it’s hard to see these entities staying human like in any recognizable way.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    I don’t see any technical challenges here …

    Ask a computer-savvy neurologist, or a neurologically-aware computerist.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Maybe “challenges” was the wrong word. I meant any technical reason why it wouldn’t happen eventually; any reason why it would be impossible.

    • Pierce R. Butler

      Even so, the difficulties in replicating a neurohormonal matrix in a digital framework are categorically different from, say, running Windows in Mac OS.

      Particularly since a comprehensive “translation” would involve duplicating the complete sensory apparatus for a body existing only in simulation or robotics – most of which paraphernalia the “copied” “consciousness”, once it realized its actual situation, would probably cast off or radically simplify within a few seconds.

      And how would the original and the software individuals be able to decide with any confidence whether the reproduction was successful (past the point where they could readily agree it was not, that is)?

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