The implicit value of a mind

People will always think differently from AI, and our added perspectives can only enrich what AI has to offer

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I don’t believe in a jobless future, or that automation will relieve humanity of our need to work. A mind is a useful thing to the world, and we owe it to each other to use it in productive ways. Work helps us do so, while also providing positive aspects to our lives that are otherwise hard to replace. As a father, I enjoy contributing to the welfare of my progeny and knowing that my efforts are making a positive difference to the people I love. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of improving my skills. I enjoy the recognition of a job well accomplished, and the empathic reward of seeing your own praise brighten someone else’s mood.

We are a social species driven toward collaboration. We are also a striving species seeking self-improvement and success. Finally, we are a philosophical species striving to be part of something larger, to see meaning in our actions, and to leave an imprint on the world after we’re gone. Can these emotional needs be met in other ways? Certainly. Perhaps in some future millennia we’ll devote ourselves instead to art and the cultivation of nature, to religion, to games and sports, or to philosophy. If AI does eliminate the absolute need for labor, individuals would become free to pursue their own paths towards happiness.

People react well to productive collaboration. And, although some people fear that AI will completely replace the need for human work, they’re wrong for two reasons.

First, there’s no reason for a person to stop doing something simply because a robot now can. I enjoy cooking. Should I just stop and let a robot do it for me? Similarly, why should a quilter find a new hobby? A factory can produce quilts for everyone, but that doesn’t mean some quilts can’t be handmade. There’s still value to that labor on a personal, social, or even economic level, even if it can be completed by a robot. Take climbing as an example. There is no economic value to going through all the pain of working a route when often you can simply walk to the top from a different way. The joy is in the doing. Wouldn’t it be nice to have more time to devote to these activities? Electronic music production right now is verging on being completely computer-driven, and the person simply acts as a “tastemaker”—and the music is just as good as ever.  The interesting side effect of this is that the genres of music have exploded to fit smaller and smaller niches—which is great as it can be more and more personalized, until the machine is fitting a niche of one. You can still have as much input as you want, from collaborating with the AI to giving it feedback.

Second, many tasks are not inherently bounded. Computers doing science doesn’t obviate the need for people to do it. Why not have one more mind thinking about a problem? Take disaster preparation. We’re still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and its siblings. Working together with AI, people could help identify and mitigate the challenges posed by future natural disasters. How can we reduce the damage that would occur? What paths should individuals fleeing take to avoid traffic jams? How much food do we need to store and where? Every additional intellectual resource working on this problem can improve our degree of preparedness and the number of scenarios we can consider.

We’ve already optimized our society by reducing extraneous work. We seek out the minimum effort required to reach a point of diminishing returns and then we stop. But that mindset applied to the future with AI results in mass unemployment in a world where computers do all the jobs and people have nothing productive to contribute.

But if we instead take the mindset that there are billions of people capable of doing something productive, there are endless opportunities. Can we ever have too many scientists? Too many artists? Too many people planning? Too many people designing a terraforming plan for Mars?

People will always think differently from AI, and our added perspectives can only enrich what AI has to offer. Some people believe that AI will bring about the death of work, creating either a dystopia of mass poverty or an idyllic utopia of leisure. But work is an integral part of the fabric of human society, and one that will be with us forever. And that’s the implicit value of a mind.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.