What happens when we don't need to work to survive?
Yeah, this is probably one of the most important questions that we should be asking. As a society, we don't even have the language to discuss a world of abundance, and we seem to have many actors in power who want to maintain artificial scarcity in the face of the ability to deliver Fully Automated Luxury Abundance for All.
At least one science fiction story and cautionary tail you left out is "Things To Come" By H.G. Wells (at least what I remember from the movie). Humanity had reached the state where no one has to work. The folks who did want to pursue "computer technology or fusion engineering or lunar mining or any of the professions that would seem vital to the proper functioning of the world" get to do that and are on the precipice of sending the first people to the Moon (ok, they use a giant Gun to shoot their spaceship into space, but hey steampunk). All the people who are just lounging around, doing stamp collections, etc. get riled up by Trump/MTG type rabble rousers who cause an unthinking destruction of the world....
I'm curious about how you see this relating to predictions/trends around skills, not jobs, being the (near-term?) future of how humans are matched with work. Seems like it's a stepping stone on the journey you're outlining--and if this really becomes a shift maybe there will be dignity in the possessing of skills, which reside with the person vs. the job which is conferred by an organization?
Also this article makes me want to re-read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I feel like it's going to hit much differently today!
Great post. Thank you.
A few of my thoughts:
1. Unemployment reduces opportunities of consumers. No demand = no business! In fact, a person needs very little to live happily. And if now people live in the paradigm: "I buy and therefore I exist", they can very quickly switch to the new normal: "I do not buy and therefore I exist".
2. You are considering question by encapsulating the world economy to the size of the United States, only briefly mentioning China, I am sure that absolutely the entire US economy is somehow dependent on external partners. Therefore, isolated calculations will be a mistake.
3. Currently, there is no information that AI can create its own training data. Even the transition to the AI era will change everything so much that the old data will very quickly become irrelevant. Irrationality will acquire the status of a competitive advantage due to unpredictability.
k but also why shouldnt we be freaking out about Eliezer
Exactly. This is precisely why people are pessimistic in the face of increasing material progress. They’ve lost their old source of meaning from the struggle to survive, and can’t find their own way forward.
Who’s going to start a venture fund devoted to scaling meaning?
Embracing weird trends leads to new and exciting ideas that challenge the status quo while sparking innovation. The crazy who believe they can change the world often possess the determination, creativity, and courage necessary to make a positive impact and inspire others to do the same.
Looks a lot like ancient Greece, but insteed of slaves ther’r hobbots! The central point would be the role that boundries will play in this “social balance”. We are not very good in terms of balance wealth, the concept of wealth it self demands someone poor int the other side.
I found this so thought provoking, and thanks for the intro to the concept of the great online game, and the thought that most of us are involved in games masquerading as jobs at least for a significant proportion of our days. I still see far too many people who are protectionist and like to build layers of secrecy or obfuscation to make what they do sound more important/difficult than it actually is... I worry that things won't change fast enough in the second half of my working life to see transformative change in our daily working lives. I love hearing voices like yours though, really sets me thinking about how to more intentionally use my love of tech and online community building and collaboration to make a difference and have fun doing so :)
This was great and I would really like to see more articles regarding this theme. A couple of topics come to mind.
Most of the descriptions of how humanity will respond involve a single vision for everyone. I am not certain that this is accurate. What percentage of the population will not be satisfied by playing games in the metaverse?
Everyone thinks of the change as if a light switch is thrown and suddenly we are in the future. Perhaps this will be the case. Perhaps it will occur in 30 years. But what we have seen over the past 150 years has been a gradual reduction in the amount of work needed to sustain survival AND the subsequent need to expand the social safety net for those whose work product is no longer needed. It has been the gradual nature of this change that has led to innumerable conflicts over how much to transfer and to whom. As more is transferred, will moral hazard result in demand for not-working exceeding the the additional wealth created by productivity gains?
I do not believe you (Packy) make this mistake, but many do: Thinking about AI, robotics, and abundant energy separately results in a very incomplete vision of the future. Abundant energy truly will throw the light switch.
Thanks for this one! I do however get concerned of how we speak of our future AGI workforce. If they offer us the freedom to live as we wish, we will need to be more careful about how we speak of them today. If we are really getting wild here, one day they are going to read Asimov and not be very happy.
I keep thinking of woodworking. A long time ago if you wanted something you had to make it. Then you could buy it but it was expensive. Then cheap. Then really cheap. Now for the majority of people, you only do wood working if you want to.
So many things that could have gone right with this article, but didn't.
ZIRP is absolutely NOT UBI for poor people; it is Wealth Accelerant (WA) for rich people.
Poor people can't borrow at anywhere near Fed rates, don't have the cash to outbid others for businesses or property assets that benefit from ZIRP and have debt that doesn't scale down when interest rates fall - like credit card debt. Or they have 30 year fixed mortgages because they cannot risk huge upward swings in the monthly payment so cannot benefit from the possibility of huge downward swings. Even refinancing is a real cost because the first 10-15 years of mortgage payments - 90%+ is interest. Refinancing means losing all of those up-front interest payments even if the monthly nut goes down.
Next up: less workers per $1m
The techno-utopian view is that less work is needed - but the reason is most likely nothing to do with automation or progress; it has to do with ever increasing monopolies, oligopolies and collusion with a dollop of massive inflation on top of this shit sundae.
Collusion: see RealPage, the program used by landlords everywhere to keep rents higher.
Oligopolies - see food section next.
Monopolies - Stoller has a litany of posts documenting such. All of these are "free rent" in the most regressive sense.
Food: The good news (?) is that fewer people need to farm to survive. Food spending as a percentage of household spending was 10.3 percent in 2021 - a lot lower than even a decade ago much less 50 years.
The bad news is multi-fold: the food costs are at least partly depressed because of oligopolies in the meat packing business. Farmers are getting paid an ever lower percentage of retail price. And a major reason why food spending is less is because of literal rent paid in other areas including health care, housing and education. The US still devotes more than 10% of its land area to farming - acreage has fallen a bit but is not dramatically different than 50 or even 100 years ago.
So cheers for bringing up Vonnegut etc - but the real crime isn't the march of "progress" and dystopian surveillance capitalism or bizarre Morlock outcomes.
The real crime is that past increases in productivity (which incidentally is not increasing as Thiel has noted repeatedly) were consumed by improved lifestyles but the meager present improvements in productivity are almost entirely going to a few.
1st world life isn't about not starving anymore (the bar of success 500 years ago) or living in a 3rd world nation (the bar of success 250 years ago) or needing a horse to move around (100 years ago) or shop almost every day for food because refrigeration required buying literal ice (80 years ago) or having to live in insufferable heat in the South because air conditioning wasn't possible/affordable (60 years ago).
The stupidest notion imaginable is trying to say that people are fine because <insert outdated standard of living> when most/all of the gains of productivity/technology go to a few instead of to overall society.
So the question is not, and never has been, "not having to work to survive".
It is: How do people contribute productivity to society and get benefits back in return?
UBI, robotic work takeover, etc are all idiotic notions based on the entirely false idea that a small segment of society is the one that is contributing all of the productivity. That is PMC bullshit of the highest degree.
Just look at plumber average income in urban areas vs. say, university professor income in same - who is making more these days?
The notion that any part of society is being carried by the other parts is stupid and unproductive.
This opens a massive a question about education and culture.
A society or a community that can understand they don't need to work to survive and doesn't put themselves into a position of going down the drain has to have certain level of education and emotional intelligence to understand such thing, at least in my understanding.
Without undermining any communities around the world, isn't this again a privilege?
I can't imagine rural communities in Asia or Africa ending up living comfortable with the assumption that they're not needed, for example. Or on the other side getting too comfortable with such thought to a self-harming extent.
The 4-day work week it's an interesting phenomenon, which seems to be related to this topic
Good read. I agree that with the potential for not needing to work as much, humans aren't likely to to stop working. It's probably just going to feel a bit different. As cited in 4,000 weeks, in 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes made a famous prediction: "Within a century, thanks to the growth of wealth and the advance of technology, no one would have to work more than about fifteen hours a week." What happened? Humans just continued to work more. Mostly because it gave them meaning and people need to fill time. Our cultural conditioning in the U.S. at least has made it so most people are not comfortable just enjoying leisure activities or even sitting still with their thoughts. So people throw themselves into work or some other activity that satisfies the need to feel a sense of growth or productivity. A.I. will not change this. My hope is that it will allow more humans to adapt careers that look and feel more like art and play, rather than necessity. I don't think the volume of work or ambition will taper though. I'll guess we'll see
We've been paying a lot of money to see 22 people chase a ball on a square field (football) for at least a hundred years now [or however many people play American Football, I'm not familiar]. As long as we don't actually shoot ourselves in the foot, nuclear war style, we'll be fine. We can find competition anywhere and derive "dignity" from being able to wear the finest conch shells attached to our clothes or display the bored-est of apes next to our name online. 'Twas ever thus.