Agency and Self-Worth in the Age of AI and Automation

Ben Goertzel

Sorry about the hiatus, y’all! I kept thinking about and meaning to post that I was going to the International Students for Liberty Conference but never got around to it. Typical slacker, right? Anyways, I had a blast, sold most of the remaining copies of my book which was great and gave me some much needed money to help finance the trip to DC.

I got into some really engrossing discussions about anti-work and folks criticisms of it and once I hear their reiterations of the criticisms they had I’ll do my best to respond to them. They were fairly challenging and given my mental state at the time (tired) I wanted to give them a fresher look and more thorough response online, which I excel at more.

But let’s move on to talking about Artificial General Intelligence.

Linked above is a brief talk by Ben Goertzel who specializes in artificial intelligence.

I’ll highlight the particular sections I found relevant to anti-work:

The modern vernacular what we can say is the first human level AGI, the first human level artificial general intelligence, will be the last invention that humanity needs to make.

And the reason for that is once you get a human level AGI you can teach this human level AGI math and programming and AI theory and cognitive science and neuroscience. This human level AGI can then reprogram itself and it can modify its own mind and it can make itself into a yet smarter machine. It can make 10,000 copies of itself, some of which are much more intelligent than the original.

And once the first human level AGI has created the second one which is smarter than itself, well, that second one will be even better at AI programming and hardware design and cognitive science and so forth and will be able to create the third human level AGI which by now will be well beyond human level.

This was one of the reasons I’ve argued before that automation and technology more generally will assist in an anti-work future happening. Having robots that are this smart, capable and able to self-reproduce is a critical part of making human labor, by and large, obsolete. Gone will be the need to produce things so that we can secure the basic things in life and instead most of our efforts will be towards pursuing things like virtue and pleasure.

So instead of relegating creative minds to laborious tasks, we can better unleash the currently suppressed energies of people who want to produce beautiful art but have neither the time nor the energies. Automation and general AI would allow for them to be able to much more easily pursue these dreams of theirs. And I think we’ll be able to derive much more value from ourselves and our actions when they come from self-interested actions than ones we feel compelled to act on because of artificial economic need. That’s not to say scarcity isn’t a real problem or even one that could ever be completely gotten rid of (in some absolute sense, time and energy will always be limited if nothing else) but that it’s worth pushing as far towards post-scarcity as possible, so that we can all live a better and more meaningful life.

For example, now and then I work on a comic book and I’ve finished an issue and a half over the course of a year. My progress is so slow in large part because I have many projects I try to tackle at once but also because of the many (ultimately unnecessary) stresses of modern life under capitalism and the state. Living in a society that has a strong commitment to an individual’s self-interest and projects would mean I could work on this much more consistently.

In such a society I wouldn’t be worrying about whether robots are going to replace my job or whether I’m needed in society or not. It seems unlikely that even artificial general intelligence is going to make me not want to write poetry or produce comic books, compose music or hang out with friends and watch movies. It’s not going to make me want to stop being intellectually curious, read books, pursue romantic relationships or develop myself to be the best I can be.

My claim isn’t that the anti-work society would be utopia or that we’d never struggle, be stressed, run into issues or that everything would go perfectly. But I think the level of problems we have right now would be so radically diminished that we’d see notable and varied benefits to society that we’ll never achieve so long as work is so centered in society.

Goertzel also considers the issue of creative energies as well as transhumanism

Does that mean humans will not ever make any more inventions? Of course it doesn’t. But what it means is if we do things right we won’t need to. If things come out the way that I hope they will what will happen is we’ll have these superhuman minds and largely they’ll be doing their own things.

They will also offer to us the possibility to upload or upgrade ourselves and join them in realms of experience that we cannot now conceive in our current human forms. Or these superhuman AGIs may help humans to maintain a traditional human-like existence. (emphasis mine)

I don’t think an anti-work society would be one without production or effort, I just think it’ll take a lot less to get what we need. And those who want to do much more than what they need should be encouraged to push as far as they need to. Perhaps transhumanism can help that pushing, though I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on how that’d play out.


I mean if you have a million times human IQ and you can reconfigure elementary particles into new forms of matter at will then supplying a few billion humans with food and water and video games, virtual reality headsets and national parks and flying cars and what not – this would be trivial for these superhuman minds. So if they’re well disposed toward us people who chose to remain in human form could have a simply much better quality of life than we have now.

You don’t have to work for a living. You can devote your time to social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual and creative pursuits rather than laboriously doing things you might rather not do just in order to get food and shelter and an internet connection.

I think a lot of what makes things like this scary is that we’ve invested so much of our self-worth into work.

We’ve entrapped our identities into corporations, nation-states, hierarchies, bureaucratic organizations and so many other authoritarian relations that encourage us to think it can’t be any other way. But not only is that false it’s also a damaging way to look at reality. If we think we can’t demand anything less than a radically better future for ourselves and for how we obtain meaning, then we are doing ourselves a disservice.

We do all of ourselves a disservice when we don’t resist work.

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