AI Utopia: A Paradox of Progress

In “Permutation City” by Greg Egan, Peer achieves immortality in a virtual reality he controls, but finds himself bored. He engineers new passions, but his fickleness raises a deeper question: What happens when technology solves humanity’s biggest problems? Nick Bostrom’s “Deep Utopia” explores this idea. In one scenario, AI can do all economically valuable work at near-zero cost. In a more radical scenario, AI surpasses humans in tasks like parenting.

Bostrom argues that the first scenario, a “post-scarcity” utopia, would reduce the need for work. John Maynard Keynes predicted a century ago that his wealthy descendants would work only 15 hours a week in the future. While this prediction hasn’t fully materialized, working hours have declined significantly. In the rich world, average weekly working hours have dropped from over 60 in the late 19th century to under 40 today. Americans spend a third of their waking hours on leisure and sports. With AI assistance, the space of possible experiences for humans could expand beyond our current understanding.

Bostrom’s “post-scarcity” label may be misleading, as the economic explosion caused by AI would still be limited by physical resources like land. There are also scenarios where humans develop powerful intelligence but don’t become space-faring, resulting in immense wealth but potential absorption by housing and positional goods.

Economist Fred Hirsch argued that as wealth increases, a greater fraction of human desire consists of positional goods, leading to increased competition and a rise in their share of GDP. This pattern may continue in an AI utopia, although some competition, such as sports, has intrinsic value and may be worth preserving.

Beyond the post-scarcity world lies a “post-instrumental” world where AIs become superhuman at child care. Keynes expressed concern that the wealthy classes of his time didn’t know how to enjoy leisure, and the Bible warns against “idle hands.” These dynamics suggest a “paradox of progress”: the pursuit of a better world through technology could lead to a loss of purpose.

Bostrom believes most people would still enjoy activities with intrinsic value, such as eating tasty food. Utopians might challenge themselves or seek new adventures, but even these could eventually lose their appeal. It’s an open question how long humans can find happiness hopping between passions like Peer in “Permutation City.” Economists traditionally believe humans have unlimited wants, but an AI utopia would test this assumption. The result could have profound implications for our understanding of human nature and the future of society.

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