Would Maximally Efficient Work Be Fun?

Excerpt from Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick Bostrom (pg. 207-210).

Would Maximally Efficient Work Be Fun?

One important variable in assessing the desirability of a hypothetical condition like this* is the hedonic state of the average emulation**. Would a typical emulation worker be suffering or would he be enjoying the experience of working hard on the task at hand?

We must resist the temptation to project our own sentiments onto the imaginary emulation worker. The question is not whether you would feel happy if you had to work constantly and never again spend time with your loved ones–a terrible fate, most would agree.

It is moderately more relevant to consider the current human average hedonic experience during working hours. Worldwide studies asking respondents how happy they are find that most rate themselves as “quite happy” or “very happy” (averaging 3.1 on a scale from 1 to 4)***. Studies on average affect, asking respondents how frequently they have recently experienced various positive or negative affective states, tend to get a similar result (producing a net affect of about 0.52 on a scale from -1 to 1). There is a modest positive effect of a country’s per capita income on average subjective well-being.**** However, it is hazardous to extrapolate from these findings to the hedonic state of future emulation workers. One reason that could be given for this is that their condition would be so different: on the one hand, they might be working much harder; on the other hand, they might be free from diseases, aches, hunger, noxious odors, and so forth. Yet such considerations largely miss the mark. The much more important consideration here is that hedonic tone would be easy to adjust through the digital equivalent of drugs or neurosurgery. This means that it would be a mistake to infer the hedonic state of future emulations from the external conditions of their lives by imagining how we ourselves and other people like us would feel in those circumstances. Hedonic state would be a matter of choice. In the model we are currently considering, the choice would be made by capital-owners seeking to maximize returns on their investment in emulation-workers. Consequently, this question of how happy emulations would feel boils down to the question of which hedonic states would be most productive (in the various jobs that emulations would be employed to do). [Emphasis mine]

Here, again, one might seek to draw an inference from observations about human happiness. If it is the case, across most times, places, and occupations, that people are typically at least moderately happy, this would create some presumption in favor of the same holding in a post-transition scenario like the one we are considering. To be clear, the argument in this case would not be that human minds have a predisposition towards happiness so they would probably find satisfaction under these novel conditions; but rather that a certain average level of happiness has proved adaptive for human minds in the past so maybe a similar level of happiness will prove adaptive from human-like minds in the future. Yet this formulations also reveals the weakness of the inference: to wit, that the mental dispositions that were adaptive for hunter-gatherer hominids roaming the African savanna may not necessarily be adaptive for modified emulations living in post-transition virtual realities. We can certainly hope that the future emulation-workers would be as happy as, or happier than, typical workers were in human history; but we have yet to see any compelling reason for supposing it would be so (in the laissez-faire multipolar scenario currently under examination).

Consider the possibility that the reason happiness is prevalent among humans (to whatever limited extent it is prevalent) is that cheerful mood served a signaling function in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Conveying the impression to other members of the social group of being in flourishing condition–in good health, in good standing with one’s peers, and in confident expectation of continued good fortune–may have boosted an individual’s popularity. A bias toward cheerfulness could thus have been selected for, with the result that human neurochemistry is now biased toward positive affect compared to what would have been maximally efficient according to simpler materialistic criteria. If this were the case, then the future of joie de vivre might depend on cheer retaining its social signaling function unaltered in the post-transition world: an issue to which we will return shortly. 

What if glad souls dissipate more energy than glum ones? Perhaps the joyful are more prone to creative leaps and flights of fancy–behaviors that future employers might disprize in most of their workers. Perhaps a sullen or anxious fixation on simply getting on with the job without making mistakes will be the productivity-maximizing attitude in most lines of work. The claim here is not that this is so, but that we do not know that it is not so. Yet we should consider just how bad it could be if some such pessimistic hypothesis about a future Malthusian state turned out to be true: not only because of the opportunity cost of having failed to create something better–which would be enormous–but also because the state could be bad in itself, possibly far worse that the original Malthusian state.

We seldom put forth full effort. When we do, it is sometimes painful. Imagine running on a treadmill at a steep incline–heart pounding, muscles aching, lungs gasping for air. A glance at the timer: your next break, which will will also be your death, is due in 49 years, 3 months, 20 days, 4 hours, 56 minutes, and 12 seconds. You wish you had not been born.

Again the claim is not that this is how it would be, but that we do not know that it is not. One could certainly make a more optimistic case. For example, there is no obvious reason that emulations would need to suffer bodily injury and sickness: the elimination of physical wretchedness would be a great improvement over the present state of affairs. Furthermore, since such stuff as virtual reality is made of can be fairly cheap, emulations may work in sumptuous surroundings–in splendid mountaintop palaces, on terraces set in a budding spring forest, or on the beaches of azure lagoon–with just the right illumination, temperature, scenery and décor; free from annoying fumes, noises, drafts, and buzzing insects; dressed in comfortable clothing, feeling clean and focused, and well nourished. More significantly, if–as seems perfectly possible–the optimum human mental state for productivity in most jobs is one of joyful eagerness, then the era of the emulation economy could be quite paradisiacal.

There would, in any case, be a great option value in arranging matters in such a manner that somebody or something could intervene to set things right if the default trajectory should happen to veer toward dystopia. It could also be desirable to have some sort of escape hatch that would permit bailout into death and oblivion if the quality of life were to sink permanently below the level at which annihilation becomes preferable to continued existence.

Unconscious outsourcers?

In the long run, as the emulation era gives way to an artificial intelligence era (or if machine intelligence is attained directly via AI without a preceding whole brain emulation stage) pain and pleasure might possibility disappear entirely in a multipolar outcome, since a hedonic reward mechanism may not be the most effective motivation system for a complex artificial agent (one that, unlike the human mind, is not burdened with the legacy of animal wetware). Perhaps a more advanced motivation system would be based on an explicit representation of a utility function or some other architecture that has not exact functional analogs to pleasure and pain.

A related but slightly more radical multipolar outcome–one that could involve the elimination of almost all value from the future–is that the universal proletariat would not even be conscious. This possibility is most salient with respect to AI, which might be structured very differently than human intelligence. But even if machine intelligence were initially achieved through whole brain emulation, resulting in conscious digital minds, the competitive forces unleashed in a post-transition economy could easily lead to the emergence of progressively less neuromorphic forms of machine intelligence, either because synthetic AI is created de novo or because the emulations would, through successive modifications and enhancements, increasingly depart their original human form.


* Scenarios where sentient emulations are being used to do maximally efficient work.

** Footnote: “An ethical evaluation might take into account many other factors as well. Even if all the workers were constantly well pleased with their condition, the outcome might still be deeply morally objectionable on other grounds–though which other grounds is a matter of dispute between rival moral theories. But any plausible assessment would consider subjective well-being to be one important factor. See also Bostrom and Yudkowsky (2015).”

*** World Values Survey (2008).

**** Helliwell and Sachs (2012).

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