Dostoyevsky said, “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” So our purpose today is, well, purpose. Purpose is a pretty tricky topic for Futurism because one of the major purposes of technology is to make life a lot easier, and the basic purpose of humanity is to survive, and help the tribe survive. That’s wired into us by Evolution, and in truth almost all our day to day motivations can be traced to have some connection to it. So when technology comes by and grants near universal prosperity, our purposes from day to day survival should decline if not outright disappear.
Should that happen, we must ask what will fill the void? It is entirely possible a lot of folks might simply pursue happiness and pleasure as their main purpose, hedonism, and while that’s not for me and I take a dim view of that mindset nowadays, it’s hard to condemn when the individuals aren’t causing other folks any problems. Nor is personal happiness a bad objective, but most of us feel a life devoted only to the pursuit of maximum happiness and pleasure is a hollow one. Imagine for the moment our default post-scarcity civilization from the perspective of an individual living in it. And I don’t mean the blatant Utopias, or those that seem to be, but hide some terrible problems down underneath with the Morlocks.
I mean the kind implied by a lot of the tech we discuss here. It’s the year 2300 and you are living on Earth. You’ve been doing it for a very long time, since I do mean you and I, not our descendants. As we’ve discussed before, there is a decent chance we, personally, will still be alive and kicking in centuries to come. You are a cyborg. You probably don’t look like it, but your body is flooded with tiny little machines that fix damage and you’ve probably got millions of tiny bits of circuitry woven around your body and brain.
You can probably remember watching this episode quite clearly, though of course could easily pull it back up again if not. You do not have to exercise, your body just stays in shape. You can eat as much as you want of whatever you want, and whenever you want it. You can have that slice of cheesecake without thinking of calories, and then go run a marathon and, even though you’re not that great at it, you would have broken every Olympic record set back in your youth. The concept of ‘youth’ is also fairly arbitrary to you, since you can pretty much look like whatever age you choose. You don’t really think of yourself as particularly impressive, weighed against your friends and neighbors, but if we dropped you in the past you could beat up a whole platoon of elite soldiers while speed reading an entire book. You learn fast, and you never forget what you learned or observed unless you want to. You never get sick or old unless you want to. While you’re not really any smarter, stronger, healthier, or wealthier than the average, you live in a mansion and can buy pretty much anything you could ever have reasonably wanted in your youth, so long as it isn’t ridiculously over the top, unique, or requiring another person, and you can get most of the more ridiculous things in virtual reality anyway.
Plus there are really good psychologists you can visit if you’ve developed some addiction to collecting or hoarding. They’re good too, they could sit down with someone with nicotine addiction from the twentieth century and that person would walk out without ever having so much as a craving again. Your civilization presumably has some way of keeping excessive things reined in, be it simple cost draining your bank account or social scolding from the town council that has to approve more over-the-top acquisitions like when your neighbor decided he wanted a solid gold house and they said no. You are not a lazy, stupid two-legged cattle enjoying some paradise, all but vacant of mind and ability.
You’re more like Bruce Wayne, rich, athletic, and smart, only you are not the Batman because there’s no crazed villains going around and everyone you know is more or less on your level. Most folks you know are carrying around knowledge equivalent to Ph.D.s in many fields, because they learn easier, teaching technology has vastly improved, and they are often centuries old. You’re a superhero, but with no one to save. There is no global hunger to fix, no homeless folks to build houses for, no vast injustices to deal with anymore. You can certainly spend a lot of time kicking around your palace having fun, but you won’t really loll around the place because you don’t really get tired. You might not even need to sleep, but if you do, you wake up full of energy and you don’t have days where you are under the weather or your allergies are bugging you or you’ve got cramps or a migraine or any other minorly annoying ailment.
You will die someday, but mostly likely at a time of your choosing, or by some pathway of intentional risk. You might remove the various safeguards that keep you alive, and start doing risky things until you either die or change your mind and restore those safeguards. Hunting lions with nerf bats was a popular activity for a while, until people complained it was upsetting the lions and banned it. You’ve heard that jumping off the Orbital Ring without a parachute into shark infested sections of the ocean has become popular as a replacement.
You basically have anything you could ever want in life, and access everything else through virtual reality, and have eons to enjoy them, all guilt and shame free, since everyone else has that same access, and no one is less fortunate. So what do you do with your time? What, exactly, is your purpose? I encourage you to think of yourself in this context, not some hypothetical person, as it helps to circumvent the assumption everyone would turn lazy and useless. We tend to have a higher opinion of ourselves and we generally know our own motives and goals better than others.
I tried to think of what I would do. That one was easy enough in some respects, I’d probably keep doing some variation of the stuff I do now. I like my work and while I love having a larger audience these days, I was quite happy when the channel had hundreds of subscribers, not hundreds of thousands. External validation is nice, and useful too as it helps you keep on track and refine and improve what you do, but it’s rarely our main motivation for our hobbies. Hobbies, assuming you can make a living at it, also make for great jobs and the general point of a post-scarcity civilization is that you can do something you want without needing to worry about where you next meal is coming from. A thing that gets missed a lot in conversations about robots replacing workers to increase production at lower costs is that motivation begins to trail away when nobody much cares about cost anymore.
I tend to suspect you get a tipping point where improved automation shifts away from cost efficiency toward trying to eliminate positions where the supply of folks wanting to do it is way less than the demand. That might help a little with folks trying to find purpose in existence. Particularly on things such as creativity or scholarship, vitally important but not part of our core production for survival, we already tend to view that as something for humans, not automation. Partially because such things are harder to automate, but I also suspect because we feel those are our tasks and perhaps should remain so even if they could be automated. And that’s the key point of course. A future high-tech civilization might turn into one where nobody works or learns or ever stirs themselves from the couch because they don’t have to and don’t want to, but I don’t think that scenario is too likely. More likely is that most people want to be doing something, have a megaton of skills and talents, and have problems finding anything to do, so end up sitting on the couch, same as some second-string player on a championship team waiting for the coach to call them off the bench.
That might be a rough existence, regardless of what luxuries life affords you, if you always feel like a backup being held in reserve. We should also consider the effects of post-scarcity on our current perception of what qualifies as ‘purpose’. Humanity has been focused on immediate survival and resource acquisition for as long as we’ve existed. It seems fair to assume that no longer having to worry about such things would probably change our psychology to some degree. Given the chance to do and be whatever we please without having to worry about the minutiae of everyday tasks, we’d likely find our society beginning to change its core views and ideals. Without having to worry about keeping the factory running, food on the shelves, or staying in ideal health, humanity might begin thinking on scales which seemed previously out of bounds due to considerations of the logistics and manpower involved.
With these no longer at issue, humanity might just start moving toward ever larger endeavours. What tasks can occupy the mind of an immortal? This, in many ways, is why it’s so easy for me to imagine us building all those megastructures we discuss and colonizing the galaxy. This is also why I suggest thinking of yourself in these conditions, not other people. It’s easier for us to assume other folks will turn selfish or lazy than ourselves, and that outcome is possible, but I think it far more likely the citizens of such a civilization would be rather impressive in terms of things like knowledge and experience and motivation.
And it could be us too. Any time in the next few decades some laboratory somewhere might announce they managed to make a tiny little robot that was able to follow very simple orders, one of which included making a copy of itself from materials on hand. A few years after that it’s over, because that’s a universal assembler and if you have those you’re instantly post-scarcity and instantly biologically immortal. Such a technology is not guaranteed, see the Drexler-Smalley debate for the potential hurdles and how they might be insurmountable, but that’s not the only path to either of those, just one that definitely does both. Given something like that, we, you and I, might be sitting down a few centuries from now chuckling about this topic. I can’t see myself or most of my friends going to seed. While I can see a lot of them saying they would, since many are older than me, those who either talk of retiring or have even done so are back doing stuff a couple months later. They’re not doing it full time, they travel, spend time with the grandkids, putter about with their hobbies, etc.
Many get up an hour later and sit about in their pajamas, but many also do not, waking up and getting at it just as early as before, and the ones who do just go about it at their own pace. They are certainly no drain on society, either ethically or in terms of resources, and the latter is fairly irrelevant in a post-scarcity setup. Of course most of those folks also have some sort of cause, usually several, that keep them motivated. And we certainly have no end of good causes for folks to jump on board these days, we have a lot of work to do before we have a society where peoples’ only concern is finding something to do with life.
When those go away, we do have a problem. Now mind you, not every purpose has to be grand and noble. Indeed, those doing them don’t even have to believe they are grand and noble but often feel that way even when it’s probably not that important objectively. If someone’s purpose is designing the very most fashionable clothing for dogs, and they feel that’s very vital to civilization, I’m not going to pretend I think it is, but I won’t knock it either. “Whatever keeps you going” is a phrase I use with a lot of my friends these days, and I don’t think most catch what I mean by that, which is that I don’t really care what they do so long as it keeps them happy, and isn’t destructive to them or others, but it’s a sentiment I suspect will get a bit more common as time goes on and technology progresses. In the grand view, and in the long term, they probably don’t matter too much, but then again, I’m not so sure anything else does either.
I usually find the best way to deal with Existential Dread about the purpose of one’s existence or the meaning of life is just to pick something that feels right and roll with it, and cheerfully ignore such contemplations. I suspect that is also a sentiment that will get more popular in time. We have things a lot better off in almost every respect than our ancestors did, but at least most of them didn’t have to worry about problems of that sort much. Admittedly it’s kinda hard to worry about whether or not existence matters or free will truly exists when you’re engaging in hard manual labor all day hoping to avoid disease or injury long enough to see half your kids survive to adulthood.
I don’t think I need to sell the point too hard that people need a sense of purpose to life, or that any community or culture needs to have some mutual goals and aims in order to stay bound together. We’ll list that one down as a self-evident truth, indeed in our original discussion of post-scarcity civilizations a couple years back, we actually made a sense of purpose one of the six criteria you had to meet to be considered one. The question is what those are. Again they don’t necessarily have to be grand and sweeping, or even be perceived as such, a coach of kids sports team certainly can point to that as a good purpose serving a lot of good ends but I don’t think most would call it world-changing.
You’ve got skills and you put them toward some good end, and it makes you feel like there is a point to getting out of bed in the morning. The problem is, again, in a post-scarcity civilization there’s a lot less of these, even of the mundane kind. There’s no soup kitchen to go donate money or time to, because nobody needs that, and you probably can’t even go feed animals because someone will have already taken that in hand. Don’t put it past us to decide to tweak nature so every lion on the planet just thinks it ran down and ate an antelope, and every cat got its mouse, even though the mouse is just fine and isn’t over-breeding because we released some virus or nanobot system to lower their reproductive rates. Same thing goes for building great big megastructures or launching colony ships, our topic for two weeks for now. I get asked why I always aim for very big colony ships with lots of people, or even manned ones at all when some self-replicating robot could probably get there faster and terraform the place, and quite probably even populate it with vat-grown kids it raised and taught itself.
Personally I don’t think we’d do that much, because I tend to assume we’ll actively sabotage things which eliminate purpose. A concern for high-tech civilizations is that an AI might come into existence, get very smart very quickly, and wipe out its creators. That’s a valid concern, but another is that even if it’s very friendly toward people and benevolent, it might basically turn us all into its pets. We’ve talked about that before and I’ve suggested that it would be smart enough to see that problem and probably start making up important stuff for us to do that it couldn’t. A common hand wave in science fiction is to have tasks that for some reason only people can do, not computers, to ensure that there’s a reason to have crews on board ships. Tons of examples, in Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda for instance they had method of space travel called a Quantum Slipstream that had to be navigated and for some reason an Artificial Intelligence had only a 50/50 chance of getting it right whereas an organic person could do it right 99.7% of the time by “Biological Intuition”.
That’s obviously a bit of handwaving nonsense by the writers to justify a crew in the show, but I could easily imagine an AI making something like that up to make folks feel needed. Indeed that’s my preferred theory for the Matrix Trilogy. The idea presented, that the machines keep people around as batteries, is dumb. So is the alternate one where they used us for certain specialized processing. However, the idea that the whole thing, including the so-called real world in its post-apocalyptic dystopian glory, was just a simulation by an AI programmed to make folks feel happy, fits better. That the world outside the Matrix is just another layer meant for folks with a rebellious streak. Thing is, you don’t have to be an AI to come up with this plan. You could have the powers that be, regular old humans, just conspire to come up with stuff like that to make citizens feel useful, and indeed, they and their minions get a nice sense of purpose engaging in a struggle to keep the masquerade going.
It’s not too hard for me to imagine that happening. Not just that some folks might think there’s a need for it and contemplate doing it, or try to do it, but that by and large people will turn a blind eye to it. Even if it was something that seems patently absurd, like the government coming out and telling everyone there was an unknown threat they didn’t dare disclose, and the only way to combat it was to make widgets, ones that had to be crafted or at least tested by actual humans, I think that might actually work. Amusingly those folks running the show could cheerfully sit down for polygraph tests because they’d think it was true, the unknown threat was just purposelessness, and anyone who saw behind the curtain is probably a good convert to help run the show.
But I don’t think, ultimately, that it would be necessary. You can find stuff for people to do that probably does matter, and no one really has much motive to peek behind the curtain or believe folks who have and shout out about what they saw. Not because they’re dumb or gullible, but because we all know we need a purpose and don’t see any advantage to ripping apart ours or anyone else’s. A few weeks back we were talking about whether or not aliens would find us boring and never visit Earth for that reason. We poked some holes in that, and one of those was the notion that super-intelligent entities are better at multitasking. Talking to a single normal human might be very boring to them, the capacity to simultaneously talk with hundreds or even quintillions of them probably changes that. That episode hasn’t aired yet at the time I’m writing this one, but I would guess someone will object on the grounds they’d have more interesting things to do. I might be able to keep track of a dozen mice at once, but I’d still rather play a video game or chat with a human friend, and presumably the same might apply to an advanced intelligence.
I can’t actually argue that point, but I’d note two things. First of all, that very argument is predicated on the assumption there are more interesting things to do, which presumably means a lack of purpose isn’t an issue for them and thus also presumably means it wouldn’t be for a post-scarcity civilization. But secondly, I’d ask what exactly that is? What do they do? Folks talking about this will often suggest, half-jokingly, that maybe the megabrain super intelligence spends its time trying to find the last digit of Pi. But they wouldn’t, they know there isn’t one and if they’re that smart they would also know there’s no intrinsic value to that. You don’t even need the first 40 digits of Pi to have a value accurate enough to calculate the volume of the Observable Universe down to Atomic precision, and we had that back in the 1600s, and the mathematical proof it was an irrational number, one which has infinite digits, in the 1700s.
Don’t go digging for some purpose to efforts to calculate it, the only one I’ve ever heard is that it’s a handy way to test supercomputers or generate random numbers. Neither of those is limited to Pi and both imply another useful purpose rather than those digits themselves. Obviously some folks find it interesting, but I think it’s mostly just about setting a new record. Again, whatever keeps you going, but I can’t really see a supermind finding it anymore fascinating than I do. And for the most part I tend to be more interested in what cool things science can do for us rather than the specific rules themselves and for their own sake. I think you either have a limit, at which point you have actually figured out all the laws of the Universe, or maybe it is one of those endless things with another box inside a box every time you open a new layer. If the former, you have to find something else to do with your time, and if the latter, there’s presumably a point where, like calculating digits of Pi, you decide it is a box in a box in a box and also stop seeing any tangible return on your investment of time and decide to call it.
If it’s just endless rules, than it becomes like the rulebooks for a role-playing game, where you initially are glad at all the new options each additional supplementary rulebook offers but eventually get irritated they keep adding to it as it offers no new substance. In regard to the Fermi Paradox, I consider that a decent rebuttal to the idea aliens just all have some great purpose they share that keeps them too busy and interested to ever say hi to primitive neighbors. In regard to our topic, I just point it out as an option for folks who are bored with their fellow man or need some purpose to throw themselves at for eternity. I just don’t see it as particularly more compelling than many of the other options on the table or particularly more noble a quest than someone spending a century building a new sandcastle every day to be swept away by the tide. If they enjoy it, and it keeps them going, and they’ve nothing more important to occupy their time, have fun.
Even if you did feel you had no great purpose and felt you needed one, you could trick yourself into having one, even without using a high-tech path like visiting a brainwashing center to have yourself convinced manufacturing paperclips was your calling in life and the most noble goal. That’s another point back to AI of course, and one advantage of researching them, by trying to figure out how to give artificial minds a purpose that keeps them safe and sane, we also can figure out better how to do that for ourselves.
We’ll talk more about brainwashing later in the year. Fundamentally though I just don’t see us running out of purposes, and of course we talk about a lot of those on the channel. Colonizing Space, Mega-engineering, and projects closer to home like geoengineering and ecological repair. And those will be common topics in our schedule, which we’ll get to in a moment, for the next few months, and later this fall we’ll look at some truly staggering projects we can do right here on Earth like Colonizing the Oceans or turning desert or tundra into rich ecosystems. But Ecological Repair, like reforestation, isn’t something that has to wait till the distant future or requires vast national efforts.
There’s a lot of groups working on that right now and one of them is our new partner Ecosia, they’re a group that raises funds by having a search engine where the ad revenue it generates is used to plant trees. Something just that simple and they’ve already planted about 30 million and are adding a new one every second. Good search engine too, they don’t sell or give out anyone’s data, on the other hand, they do make their fundraising and expenses very visible and transparent, so you can see how effective they are. If you’d like to help them out, you can just take the link in the video description, ecosia.co/isaacarthur, install it for free, use it for free, and every time you use it you’ll help plant a new tree.
All right, as mentioned we’ll be looking at colonizing space for the next few weeks and we’ll start by visiting Ceres, the largest of our asteroids or the smallest of our dwarf planets, and discuss ways to colonize that and talk about colonizing the asteroid belt in general. The week after that, we’ll take a first look at Generation Ships, mighty arks in space for transplanting civilizations to distant stars, something we’ll spend a few episodes examining, how we make these ships for settling the galaxy.
And then the week after that we’ll join up with John Michael Godier to discuss some of the implications for a galaxy that’s been settled by us, if we never encounter any other civilizations in it. For alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to subscribe to the channel, and if you enjoyed this episode, hit the like button and share it with others. If you’d like to discuss this topic more, you can leave a comment below, or join in the discussion on our Facebook or Reddit Groups, Science & Futurism with Isaac Arthur, or our new Discord Server, all of which are linked below in the video description. Until next time, this is Isaac Arthur saying thanks for watching, and we’ll see you next week! .