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The Future

Philosopher Nick Bostrom’s predictions on life in an AI utopia

Big Think recently spoke with Nick Bostrom about how humans might find fulfillment in a post-scarcity world.
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Key Takeaways
  • In his 2024 book Deep Utopia, philosopher Nick Bostrom explores a potential future where AI eliminates most resource competition and human conflict.
  • If technology renders human labor unnecessary and eliminates many of our daily struggles, it could allow people to spend more time on fulfilling activities.
  • Bostrom explores the implications of a post-scarcity world — and our ability to adapt to it.

In 1954, psychologist Muzafer Sherif engineered a tribal war between two groups of 11-year-old boys in two camps inside Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. They were given tasks, rewards, and objectives — the kind of thing that would be prime-time reality TV these days. Before long, the two camps had established tribal identities. They had their own culture, norms, and behavioral standards. They were The Eagles and The Rattlers. And, other than a few insults and scowls, the two camps lived in peace.

But after five days, Sherif upped the game. He had the two groups compete for food. He limited their resources. It was a fist-swinging, curse-hurling, dust cloud of a mess. When a few punches landed, the adult researchers had to step in, adults with notebooks holding back furious Eagles and violent Rattlers.

Sherif concluded that scarcity was one of the main drivers of all human conflict. War, violence, invasion, and theft were all born of wanting a limited resource. The history of all humanity seems to support the hypothesis: We fight over water, cattle, arable land, ore deposits, oil, precious stones, and so on.

Big Think recently spoke with Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom about his new book, Deep Utopia. He’s got good news. Bostrom argues that the future will do away with the need for conflict over scarce resources. To him, the future is plentiful.

An age of abundance

So much of nature is based on resource scarcity. All species are locked in an evolutionary struggle to eat to survive and survive to pass on genes. And so, a lot of human behavior and the intuitions we’ve built around it stem from the need to compete. So, what happens when you take away the source of that competition? Human compassion and magnanimity may kick in. 

“It generally becomes easier to be generous if you’re doing well and you have a big windfall, [because] when there isn’t enough for everybody, it’s just a question of who is going to starve, and then everything becomes much tougher,” Bostrom told Big Think.

If the AI revolution really does succeed, Bostrom argues it would do away with much of the drudgery of everyday life. It would provide “an enormously big pie” to share. In his book, Bostrom calls this a “post-scarcity utopia,” where “the right economic policies would inaugurate an age of abundance.”

For Bostrom, this is not just “world peace and harmony.” It will transform the everyday humdrum reality of everyday people. We can spend more of our lives simply having fun or doing things we find meaningful. That’s largely because time is the ultimate resource. A human life is measured by how much time it has to offer and on what. AI, automation, and technology could soon allow us to devote more time to the things that make us happy — what Bostrom calls “pleasure, in the sense of the authentic article. [A pleasure that] genuinely feels good and fills our spirit with a warm affirming joy; and, whatever we may tell ourselves, some core part of us cannot help but really like it.”

The grind of everyday life

Of course, as the ancients knew, there is a difference between pleasure (hedonia) and the deep, purposeful happiness of human flourishing (eudaimonia). In this post-scarcity utopia, what room is there for overcoming, fortitude, resilience, and growth?

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World presented the archetypal example of a “dystopia full of pleasure.” In the final chapters, the “savage” meets one of the leaders of this always-pleasant, never-painful world and says, “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, and I want goodness. I want sin.” The confused leader, Mustafa Mond, shrugs his shoulders and says, “You’re welcome to them.”

The entire book is set up for us to view Mond as some kind of alien — a man who misunderstands humanity and the deeper things in life. Bostrom sympathizes with Mond.

“I mean, it’s easy to say, and it’s what we want to hear,” Bostrom said. “If you’re reading a novel, it makes for a more interesting novel. If you’re watching a theater play or movie, you want those to be full of drama and suffering and overcoming and defying, and all of this stuff. But I think that’s not ultimately the right question. We’re not talking about which future would be best to look at from the outside in but which future would be best to live in. And the answer to that might be quite different. What makes for a good story is war, murder, and tragedies. That’s not necessarily what you would want to spend the rest of eternity in that condition.”

Bostrom essentially makes two points against the “suffering is good for us” argument. First, most people don’t actually mean that. Intellectually, I can appreciate the historical importance of war on human progress, but I don’t want to die in a war zone or have any of my loved ones maimed by a bomb. In fact, most people, if push came to shove, would happily live a life free of “suffering.” Second, Bostrom is keen to point out that a post-scarcity utopia, especially one driven by AI, is more about removing the day-to-day misery that occupies an actual person’s life. As Bostrom put it:

“If you just zoom in on an average person in a wealthy country — a middle-class American, or whatever — and see how much discomfort and pain and limitation and then decay there is, it’s not even some kind of beautiful, melancholy, tragic moments that have greater significance and cause a spiritual awakening, but just kind of boring headaches and like feeling kind of dissatisfied because, you know, you have some medical condition or are bored at the eight hours you have to spend at work every day — the kind of grind of everyday life.”

This kind of misery is not theatrical, and it’s not Shakespearean. It’s bloody annoying, and most people would be happier without it.

Wired for pain

The Matrix imagines the world as an undetectable simulation. We are wired into a virtual reality that we think is real, but is actually the sensory stimulation of future robots using our bodies as batteries. In The Matrix, the robot-representative Agent Smith says, “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program… I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”

Agent Smith’s point is that since our evolution has been full of misery, scarcity, conflict, and setbacks, everything about our physiology and neurology is wired for pain. So, how does Bostrom approach this problem? Is the human mind ready for utopia?

“I don’t think we should take our instructions from what has been selected for evolutionarily,” he said. “And I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of our human biological nature, which we seem quite willing to grasp whenever we get the chance. We think our immune systems are not good enough, so we try to develop vaccines. Our vision is not good enough, especially as we get into middle age, so we have glasses or contact lenses. I mean, it’s kind of quite ingrained in human nature itself to want to modify yourself, develop, grow, or change.”

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More than a penchant for suffering, and more than a need to challenge ourselves, humans are a species that can adapt. In times of flux and epochal change, there’s often a peculiar strain of natural law among nervous, conservative minds — the “natural” way of man is right, so don’t meddle with it. This strain was there when we developed immunization, organ transplants, contraception, and anesthetics. It’s there now with AI.

Bostrom put it well: “Past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Out of all the possible modes of being and all the different people with different values we could become, it would be really surprising if ‘remaining exactly the way we are now’ would be the best possibility for how we should spend the next million years.”

The past made us who we are today, and the future will make us into something new. And, if Bostrom is right, it’ll make us happier.

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