Are Workaholics Human?

I might better ask “Are workaholic lives worth living?” — I’m taking about “human” here in the sense that we call “inhuman” people who do things we disrespect, or whose lives lack enough input from the “humanities.” The question is: are the lives of the workaholics around you are within an order of magnitude of being worth as much as typical human lives?

Why ask this? Because this is a key issue for judging if the coming em (whole brain emulation) revolution is glorious or horrifying. I’ve talked about how there’d be a huge em population and that wages would quickly fall to near “subsistence” level. But the images that the word “subsistence” brings to mind often mislead people here I think.

This isn’t world of much famine, disease, war, or pain, of severe isolation, or of drawing-with-sticks-in-the-dust level entertainment. The costs of high bandwidth long-distance communication and vast detailed arbitrarily-luxurious virtual reality would be small compared to the cost of just running an em brain, so the main limits to em enjoyment would be status and time. If you want something because it is in short supply, you may well not get it. And among all the humans available for scanning, the first generation of ems would select for humans who are both very productive, and willing to work very hard. So ems would be world-class-capable workaholics who stop working not much longer than needed to recuperate and rest.

I’ve known quite a few workaholics (many are engineers), and it seems to me that, compared to average lives, workaholic lives are usually no less than half as worth living, and often far more. To me, such folks are quite recognizably human, expressing qualities I respect, and many of the values celebrated in the “humanities.” Yes, workaholics consume fewer stories, and spend less time in idle conversation and play, and ems bodies would alienate them a bit more from their distant human ancestors and feelings. But since such ems seem to me quite “human” with lives well worth living, that suggests the em revolution is more glorious than horrifying.

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  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    Every workaholic I know has a serious attachment problem, bordering on a personality disorder. I dated a workaholic (lawyer) for a long time, and she was one of the most emotionally needy, miserable people I’ve ever met (although very kind and even altruistic, and nonsuicidal for the most part). All the workaholics I can think of off the top of my head were either sexually abused or emotionally neglected (in a severe way) as children, and use work similar to how others might use drugs or alcohol – to numb their pain.

    I wonder how we’d even begin to judge a worthwhile life with anything other than idiosyncratic personal impressions.

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      Sister Y, I think your observation is correct because being a workaholic is a mitigation strategy to deal with PTSD.

      Why were the 1950’s and 1960’s so productive? Because the veterans who survived WWII, needed to work to keep their PTSD demons at bay. They worked as hard as they could, but for the most part tried to be fair about it because they had been to war, had looked death in the face and knew that but for the Grace of God (and their companions) it could have been them. To survive it was “one for all” and “all for one”. It was also a war that needed to be fought.

      Many of the present workaholics have PTSD from being bullied or abused; mostly as individuals. They don’t have the experience of community and shared risk. They were abused alone and dealt with their abuse alone. Their PTSD didn’t come from something that needed to be done, it was either gratuitous bullying, abuse, or being cannon fodder in Vietnam or now Iraq or Afghanistan. It is “every person for himself and devil take the hindmost”. This mindset is what brings us the tea partiers, health insurance companies that dump those who need coverage, lobbyists for corporate welfare, and those that caused the financial meltdown.

      Some victims of abuse with PTSD can identify with an abused group and so can be non-abusive and can channel their need to be a workaholic in a productive direction, for example veterans. Some can’t and they channel it into exploitation and become perpetrators.

      Robin’s obnoxious comment that workaholic lives are worth less than non-workaholic lives is a typical observation by a bully that the victims of bullies are of less value than the bullies are. This is exactly how bullies feel, and why bullies then feel justified in abusing them.

      It is analogous to the “observations” by slavery apologists that slaves “liked” to be worked hard. It is a statement from such a position of privilege that the speaker can’t even conceive that is is possibly mistaken. The same as the observation that the poor without health care don’t want health care. That the poor don’t want to eat healthy food. The observation that gay people can’t possibly experience love or can’t possibly be lovable. It is pure projection based on xenophobia triggered by the inability to understand. Such people live in the conservative echo chamber. They are not even able to consider that reality is different than they want it to be.

      Such people know perfectly well how to judge the value of a life. If that life benefits them, it is worth living, if it doesn’t, then it is not. They are not able to emulate the thinking of people that are not like them, so if you are not like them, then your life can’t be worth living because they can’t conceive of anything you could do that is worthwhile, except to be a slave to accomplish things for them, but that type of life is only worth half as much.

      • http://williamsawin.com Will Sawin

        You completely misinterpret the framework in which Robin Hanson is measuring the value of lives and the value he gives.

        The framework: A utilitarian sees the value of live as how much better off one is for having been born. Someone could theoretically be bullied so much that the would be better off not-born, this would not mean that the bullying was justified – quite the reverse.

        I think Robin Hanson enjoys saying things that sound shocking, but it is important to understand the things he’s actually getting at.

        The value: He says that workaholic lives might be worth less or possibly more. In particular he says at least half as much. That is, he is giving a lower bound, not an upper bound, on the value.

  • JGWeissman

    >So ems would be world-class-capable workaholics who stop working not much longer than needed to recuperate and rest.

    Ems would not need to recuperate and rest. Workaholic ems would not stop working. They would not run parallel processes while working that do not contribute to working. They will not perform computation in an ineffecient way to be aware of and take pride in their work. They will become inhuman in a way that modern flesh and blood workaholics cannot match.

  • Aron

    Since these ems are intended to displace the jobs of fleshy humans, while profitting those that own the machinery that build them, one anticipates a lot of resistance. If an iHuman (don’t sue me Steve) wakes up and goes ‘the horror! the horror!’ that’s gonna be bad PR. More likely than not this is solved by not having the ems be particularly human, but that contradicts the premise of your hippy trance induced vision.

  • Robert Koslover

    Yes, workaholics often sacrifice their free time and social lives in order to be more productive in their work. For many of them, they live for their work. But that makes them no more crazy than the many brave soldiers who willingly sacrifice their time and risk their lives for our freedoms. And no more crazy than many hopeful Olympic athletes, who devote all their youthful years to seeking perfection in their sports. And no more crazy than any typical great composer, great artist, great scientist, great mathematician, etc. We rightfully honor America’s soldiers, for we are in their debt. We owe a similar debt of gratitude to many of America’s workaholics. Now, that said, whether it is wise to marry a workaholic is a very different question!

  • rapscallion

    I need to know more about the rights and liberties of ems in this near-subsistence future. Will hardware-owners effectively be slave masters—able to delete slacking programs at will, to make room for new, more productive programs? If so, this future is horrifying; the lives of organ slaves like in the movies like The Island and Never Let Me Go are worth living in the sense that almost all life is worth living, but I still think allowing organ slaves is horrifying social policy because it forces cruel things upon people.

    If ems own their own hardware, on the other hand, things might be considerably better, but it’s my understanding that a future where ems own their own hardware might not work the way you’ve predicted.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    JGWeissman, your claims are surely not true of the early em era, as at that point there would be few chances to human brain design. Eventually our descendants will diverge from us – that is only a matter of when, not if.

    Aron, again, given that all one has early on is small modifications of human brain designs, it isn’t clear “not human” variations are even feasible. And even if they are, inhuman ems would seem more likely to be “bad PR” sometimes unhappy ems.

    rapscallion, the basic physics and economics do not dictate the rights. Those will be determined more by local politics.

    • http://williamsawin.com Will Sawin

      I’m pretty sure the correct response to “when” is “It had better, dear God, be as late as possible, and I’m willing to die to forestall it!”

      Love is not very adaptive when reproduction occurs by mass production, but it is necessary to a life worth living, as are a thousand other quirks of the AEE.

      Presumably you disagree, but you have let to mount a moral defense of the late em era comparable to our defense of the early em era.

      • Hedonic Treader

        I live a live worth living (currently). I am not loved, I love no one, and I have no desire to change that state of affairs. So your case is already disproven. I don’t enjoy work as much as other activities, but most of the time, it’s better than non-existence. Given possible future tweaks to mind design, these lives may very well be worth living.

        It is also worth noting that any sophisticated work will need broad knowledge, memetic input, creativity, communication – all values we don’t associate with dull inhuman worker bees. This also reduces the risk of slavery by those who have power over the ems, or a desperate, fear-driven struggle for existence. You don’t get the best creative and ingenious work by threatening your workers with torture or death – you get it by selecting minds who are intrinsically motivated and then give them the opportunity to live that motivation.

        If carrots rather than sticks are the currency of em replication, it could be worth it… if minds can be designed so that they are mostly free from suffering. A gradient of “this is neutral” to “this is extremely good” could drive much adaptive behavior. Let’s hope there don’t have to be too many error signals and desire frustrations that drag the whole thing down to sub-zero.

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  • Spamfarm

    Thought experiment time, go!

    You’re an em. You rent your hardware; you earn barely enough to run yourself in real-time. However, you can easily rent additional processing time or copies of yourself for big jobs, allowing yourself to “speed up time,” snapshot yourself, or run in parallel. You just don’t usually have the funds for this except for when you’re on a gig.

    Would you be willing to sacrifice some capital (money/kilowatts/credits) for a vacation simulation and motivational simulation, with a big catch at the end? A month in simulated paradise, followed by three weeks of personal training by a Tony Robbins em. Here’s the catch: you snapshot yourself the night immediately following this investment. You run that snapshot in parallel to your “main” consciousness, and reset it after every big job. This allows you to have a perpetually happy, well rested, eager and excited, super high productive version of you available at any time. Except that that version will be reset (die?) after every job.

    If you woke up as the energetic version, knowing you’d be shut down at the end, would that cancel out all the tony robbins motivation? Or would knowing you’d be doing a service for your main consciousness be enough of a motivator?

    Your workhorse snapshot wouldn’t ever “learn” from experience, but perhaps that can be augmented via simulated training experiences for new jobs. It would be an interesting economic experiment: which is more efficient, high motivation with spot training vs normal motivation and ongoing learning.

    Now imagine you don’t rent your own hardware; you are instead owned. You do not have a main consciousness. Do you think a corporation would hesitate to give you the motivation/vacation package and save your snapshot at that point forever? I don’t think anyone would consider that “a life worth living.” It’d be ground hog day forever, except he wouldn’t even remember the previous one.

  • consider

    Why were the 1950’s and 1960’s so productive? Because the veterans who survived WWII, needed to work to keep their PTSD demons at bay

    The 1950s and 1960s weren’t more productive than 1995 to 2010.

    • Tony B

      Yes they were. Much of the ‘value’ produced in the last 15 years was vacuous paper wealth that does very little to actually benefit people. Not so in the earlier periods.

  • Prakash

    I don’t think that even motivated and productive people want to become sisyphus. Almost every one who is aware of the possibility of emulation will seek some kind of cryptographic proof of non-deletion or continuance of existence.

    Corporations which use ems would almost certainly become a target for attacks by hackers, who might, on the other hand, end up using ems themselves.

    The only way to make an em a tool will be to strip them of them their humanity. That seems wrong and horrifying.

  • Evan

    I think the main question would be whether the workaholics enjoy their work, or use it as a coping mechanism, like the people above mentioned. In the first case, their lives are truly worth living, because they aren’t working at all, they’re just having fun that other people happen to value. If it’s a coping mechanism than it’s likely that they’re lives are worth living, but from a utilitarian perspective it would be better if they modified themselves to get rid of their psychological problem and work less. Obviously modifying ems directly to love working would be bad PR at best, and create a Paperclip Maximizer at worst.

    For the em revolution to be glorious, it’s not enough that people’s lives be worth living. They also have to be awesomely fun. If their lives are just “worth living” then it’s not glorious, it’s “moderately good” at best.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    The claim about PTSD -> productivity sounds quite bogus to me. Any evidence that people just below the cutoff for enlistment were less productive? Frontline troops more productive than those who worked in rear-echelon positions? Tyler Cowen seems to think that total factor productivity was greatly increasing in the 30s/40s but disguised by macroeconomic problems, with the end of the war America got back to business.

    Robin, isn’t politics & property-rights to a significant extent endogenous to economics? Take Serf’s Up! for example.

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  • Tony

    Aren’t workaholics motivated to be so in various degrees by their desire to raise their relative status? Wouldn’t an em’s prospects of achieving this be dramatically different in a world where they (or similars) are cloned billions of times over? Not equipped to think through the effects but I’m not sure you could predict that an em copy of a workaholic in the context of our economy would exhibit the same traits in an environment where they have billions of clones of themselves around. Is it possible that the cloner would want to optimize for someone who enjoys work less but copes with being “nothing special” better?

  • http://www.tiac.net/~sw Steve WItham

    I guess I don’t doubt being alive would be perceived as okay by the ems themselves. Is that all you’re asking?

  • Mal

    Presumably you mean workaholics are too busy to examine their lives. So your question is merely a variation on the ancients’ question: is the unexamined life worth living?

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    At some point does personality, “theatre of consciousness”, and expenditures to determine if “life is worth living” become an efficiency drag for algorithms in competition for resource control/perseverence?

    I think that would predict for the end state of both ems and “non em” humans. If productivity rapidly rises with ems, I think that end state might come comically soon, like a few years or less after the appearance of ems.

  • Jehan

    I read this stuff, and I am reminded of hovercars

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