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Money, staying busy, and social stability

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Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a frequently discussed subject among futurists, and has entered the mainstream debate. As machines get more advanced, there are growing worries that they will replace human workers, leading to social instability and possibly collapse as people starve for lack of money and suffer from idleness. A UBI would hopefully placate the masses, just like a modern day "bread and circuses." Optimists hope that, with their basic needs covered, ordinary people would be able to lead happy lives pursuing their passions and doing more creative work. 


I am not so sanguine about how things would be in such a scenario. I think large numbers of people would choose hedonism over doing anything productive or creative, and would contribute nothing to the world. I also think the creativity, probably every type of talent, and self-discipline are unevenly distributed across the human population (think of a bell curve), so most of the people who chose to pursue their passions would fail to make anything noteworthy, or at best, enjoy middling success. We'd discover the Pareto distribution was an inescapable force of nature, and the different fields of creative human endeavor in the "UBI Era" would still be dominated by small numbers of hyper-talented people, much as it is today. Widespread envy of those privileged people--which would also prove itself a trait integral to human nature--would lead to the same kinds of politicking and class-based aggrievement we observe today. In short, even a generous UBI won't make everyone happy, though paying people to do nothing, or finding ways to keep them occupied with careers that could be done better by machines will probably keep things stable.  


It just occurred to me that this "futuristic" economic setup might not be so exotic. The American economy has long been built on consumerism, excess, and tricking large numbers of people to misallocate national resources. As a result, many people have jobs that pay enough to support their essential and mid-level needs, are unsatisfying or "just O.K.," keep them occupied and fixed to designated places where they can be monitored, but which add nothing of real value to the world. 


I could think of a disturbingly large number of examples of these kinds of jobs, but for the sake of time, I'll focus on one. 


Consider the practice of "planned obsolescence," in which companies engineer their products to fail after a needlessly short period, forcing consumers to buy replacements. Hand-in-hand with that is the practice of frequently discontinuing old product lines and fielding new ones which look a little bit different but in fact are not better. Design differences will ensure that none of the parts are interchangeable between the older and newer versions of the product, meaning there are no spare parts available to help consumers who want to fix their old products when they break. An entire vacuum machine or something will be thrown in the dumpster because one, custom-sized component in it breaks. The irritated consumer has to buy a new vacuum cleaner from the company. Money changes hands. As a result, the low-morale workers at the vacuum cleaner factory keep their jobs, as do the company's engineers, who are under orders from management to deliberately design vacuum cleaners that are much flimsier than they could be. The engineers also comply with the odious orders to redesign the machines every few years to ensure there is no backwards compatibility of parts. It's a cynical environment that involves little stimulating work. 


This documentary delves into the issue more: https://youtu.be/zdh7_PA8GZU?t=1250


Now, you'd think that it would be better if these profit-maximizing practices were ended, and the company focused on making the best vacuum cleaners possible. They might design five different vacuum machines for the key uses cases and price points that would collectively satisfy the needs of 95% of their consumers, and only sell those five models until the end of time. Design changes would be made only when they were proved to be absolutely necessary, and backwards compatibility of parts would be upheld to the maximum extent. Consumers would get high quality, highly-optimized vacuum cleaners that would rarely break and be cheap and easy to fix, and even if the up-front costs of a machine were higher than today, the consumer would save money and trouble in the longer run. The vacuum cleaner factory would downsize, freeing up most of its engineers and factory staff to do more productive work elsewhere. The nation's resource use efficiency would nudge upwards. 


The problem is, what if there aren't other jobs for the workers who leave the vacuum cleaner company? What if every other industry in America, from manufacturers of cars, stoves, and light bulbs, adopted the same philosophy? With all inefficiencies cut out of the industrial sector, tens of millions of people would be out of work. There would also be large, secondary job losses at malls and other retail establishments because consumers wouldn't need to buy replacement goods as often. We're plunged into the disaster scenario of high unemployment, idleness, and instability. And no, we can't necessarily "make up new jobs that no one foresaw before" for all of them or even most of them, partly because they lack the innate talents (unevenly distributed) for the purposeful job fields that remain. The guy laid off from the vacuum cleaner factory isn't smart enough to get the job on the team researching the secrets of fusion power. The engineers who were laid off might not be, either. 


If you're the master social engineer with a Gods-eye view of all this, pulling all the puppet strings from your secret underground base, you reach the disturbing conclusion that the wasteful, consumption-based economy is the best that could be hoped for. Without it, the U.S. would be plunged into suffering and chaos, and the gross level of "national utility" would be much lower than it was in under the old system of bullsh*t jobs, pointless consumption, and making bad products. 


We as futurists worry about the day when machines will take away the vacuum cleaner factory worker's job, and we speculate that we'll have to implement a UBI and other forms of social engineering to keep him alive and placated. I argue that the vacuum cleaner factory ALREADY IS a sort of UBI and social engineering. It provides the worker with enough money to pay his bills and survive, keeps him occupied and unable to cause mischief for half his waking hours, and provides him with a tolerable level of life satisfaction and daily challenge. At the same time, his labors are mostly wasted. It's, at least to me, a very disturbing observation to make, but I think there's a lot of truth to it, and it's troubling to ponder how much of the American economy is like this. We have to impel the people doing truly productive work to spend their money or else the vacuum cleaner factory worker will go broke, riot, and maybe starve. It's like being on a merry-go-round that no one can jump off of. 


Here's further reading about how this manifests itself in the white collar world: https://www.strike.coop/bullshit-jobs/


While few American workers can wrap their minds around the full scope of the phenomenon and see all its interconnections, they're aware that their jobs are pointless or at least inefficient.  


As a final side note, all of this makes me realize how badly AGIs will outcompete humans in the future. If they're clearheaded, in control of their own thinking and impulses, and insusceptible to consumerism. They'll be dramatically better at identifying and doing real, productive work and accumulating resources. 




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Well, I do think UBI would be a better form of "social engineering" than the system of useless work we have right now; and we might actually end up with a kind of Epicurean society, rather than a purely hedonistic one:
How is this not pure hedonism?:

Hedonism vs. Epicureanism

Although some of the principle ideas of Epicureanism are similar to those of Hedonism, and Epicureanism is a form of Hedonism; there are differences.
Hedonism- is " pleasure in itself is good. Pleasure refers to positively enjoyable experiences or sensations, not just the absence of pain."
Epicureanism- is the view that pleasure is obtained by knowledge, positive relationships (e.g. friendships), living a virtuous life. Pleasure is obtaining from bodily desires (such as sex). Epicureanists believe that you should not eat rich foods because it could lead to later dissatisfaction.

And, as you can see from that video above, Epicureanism was very popular throughout Europe. It would be more-or-less the system we have today, were it not for the fact that Epicureans were peace-loving, and so were easily defeated by military force.


I can think of a worse fate from AGI than the possible bother about hedonism -- and other than runaway superintelligence. This fate has not been well-articulated, because people focus too much on irrelevant things:

There is a widespread belief -- but not a majority belief -- that the more talented one is, the more moral one is; and that "good" derives from the talent. The sign of "talent" is a sign of a "good person". And we want to reward the good people for doing good things with prizes, that go by names like CAREER, Sloan, Waterman, MacArthur, and Nobel -- or even Olympic medals, Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys. The sports star scored the winning touchdown, therefore he must be a good person. The scientist uncovered a new principle of physics and won a Nobel, therefore he must be a good person.

Even though people suspect that some are naturally more talented than others, and therefore luck played a large role (luck from birth), still in the back of their mind they can't help but equate talent with goodness.

Consider Olympic doping scandals. Why are drugs disallowed? Because there is the presumption of a level playing field -- that everyone is equal, and that the person who tried the hardest will win, usually; and so there's their justification for why they are "good". Of course, they're not all equal -- the justification has a flaw -- so I see no reason to disallow the drugs -- in fact, allowing them might bring us closer to that "level playing field" of myth.  Likewise, if NZT-48 were real, give it to everyone, and then everyone can do Nobel-quality work -- so who's good, then?  Who can we lift up as a hero?

There's another problem here, which is that even if everyone had equal natural physical ability, say, those that train hard also probably are lucky to have genes that code for motivation to train hard. So, even with a level playing field, luck rules again.

So, we end up at fatalism. I actually happen to agree strongly with fatalism, and have no problems with it. But I worry that people are not ready to accept it, and to have their understanding of "the good" be drastically rearranged for them, a world with no heroes.

When AGI shows them just how easily it can perform their jobs, they will come to realize that there isn't anything special about what they do. It's just a computational process; and some people with more luck, more biological compute, can also do it better. I'm already seeing the signs from people in the math community worried about automated theorem-proving -- it's only at the fringes (though elite) at the moment; but it will grow, the more powerful the AI becomes.

Recording people's I.Q. and personality and productivity scores will reinforce the sense of fatalism, pulling them in deeper and deeper. It will lead to political polarization worse than today. I think much of the support for Trump in "the Heartland" is a reflection of that. They see Harvard-educated liberals on TV spouting things they don't understand, and want someone who can come down to their level to smash it.



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Empirically speaking, social stability tends to increase as people work less. Also, I challenge you to go to one factory or logistics facility where the primary objective is not to increase efficiency and thereby reduce costs, and, of course, as a consequence reduce the amount of workers.

Of course, as I've mentioned before, when people used to work for 16 hours a day the idle elite used to bemoan what the masses would do when they didn't have something to keep their idle hands busy. Additionally, keeping people fed, entertained, and content is really a matter of increasing productivity and thereby growing the economy. Concomitant with this must be the redistribution of wealth as human performance is so disconnected from human success. There are millions of people at the same IQ level, possessing the same skill set, and work ethic and yet a large gulf in their level of success. E.g. there is only one Jeff Bezos but thousands of competent entrepreneurs and CEOs whose ability is hardly inferior.

Increase productivity, redistribute wealth, and stop worrying about what people will do when they aren't working 40 hours a week. We've reduced the amount of hours worked by half since the beginning of the industrial era, and we now have less riots, violence, and unrest- not more.
The growth of computation is doubly exponential growth.




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Well, I do think UBI would be a better form of "social engineering" than the system of useless work we have right now
I agree it would probably be better. The real point of my OP was to make the case that we're already living in a sort of engineered economy where people are paid money even though their labors are often pointless and minimally satisfying. 
In a future UBI world where AGIs exist, people would also be paid money, and their labors (if they chose to do any) would also be mostly pointless, and satisfying to an uncertain degree. At least under today's paradigm, the worker in the vacuum cleaner factory is probably unaware that most of the machines he's building are unnecessary, and he derives a sense of mastery and competence from being able to build the vacuum cleaners. In the future, if someone on a UBI decided to build vacuum cleaners because he found it pleasurable for some reason, his feeling of mastery and competence from doing so would be undercut by the knowledge that the intelligent machines all around him in the world could do the same work better and faster. Under those conditions, it's hard to say how satisfying it would really be for humans to be free at last to pursue their passions and hobbies. 



we might actually end up with a kind of Epicurean society, rather than a purely hedonistic one


That's a fair point. I've predicted that personal assistant AIs will someday know us on an individual level better than we know ourselves, and they will grasp the intricacies of human nature and what our enlightened self-interests are better than we do. They could guide us, on a daily basis, towards activities and other people that will provide deeper satisfaction that instant gratification from, say, doing drugs or having endless sex in FIVR. This technological assist could make the difference between leading an Epicurean as opposed to hedonistic lifestyle, and we'd be better off for it. 




There's another problem here, which is that even if everyone had equal natural physical ability, say, those that train hard also probably are lucky to have genes that code for motivation to train hard. So, even with a level playing field, luck rules again.


Yes. Moreover, people are shaped by their environments, and the conditions into which people are born are mostly determined by luck. Most of those Olympic athletes are not only born with genes suiting them to specific sports, but they're also born to parents who have the personalities, free time, and money to get them the training they need to reach the elite. 




So, we end up at fatalism. I actually happen to agree strongly with fatalism, and have no problems with it. But I worry that people are not ready to accept it, and to have their understanding of "the good" be drastically rearranged for them, a world with no heroes.


I also strongly agree with fatalism, and it's been my observation as well that few people--particularly younger people--can bring themselves to accept it. As I said earlier, I worry about how the knowledge that humans are inferior at everything will affect us as a species, even if we're all getting a UBI and can do whatever we want. Moreover, an arrangement in which our ever-improving, hyper-efficient machines stay subservient to us while we hog resources for our entertainment won't stay stable forever. 

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