Those Who Love Work

Christina Alger expresses her, and her dad’s, passion for work:

I was 6 at the time, maybe 7 … I was playing Office. In order to play Office, I had to get into character. I would don one of my dad’s suit jackets — I preferred a nice gray pinstripe — and would attempt to balance a spare pair of his glasses on my small snub nose. Sometimes I would shuffle around in his wingtips. Then I would organize piles of papers on my desk, filing them away in folders once they had been properly reviewed. …

My dad’s office … felt like Cheers: it was a place where I could relax after a long day, where everyone knew my name. … Dad was always willing to give me tasks that made me feel important. … My dad was then, and remains to this day, one of the few grown-ups I have come across who truly loved his job. … His enthusiasm for work was infectious. Dad loved playing office; why wouldn’t I? …

“Isn’t writing from home lonely?” My friend Anne asked me over coffee. “I have this vision of you stuck in your apartment all day, talking to imaginary people.” … “I’m an only child,” I shrugged. “I like being alone.” … Dad would like my new office, I think. He would see how much I enjoy working here. Whenever I have a successful day of writing, I wish I could share it with him. But not once have I ever felt lonely. (more)

Sure some who pretend to love work are fooling themselves, but I’m pretty sure that many others like Christina do honestly love their work. Yes Christina and her dad probably enjoy their work more because it is high status, but it is hard to believe their work love is entirely status driven – they’d probably still love their work, if a bit less, if it were low status.

It seems likely that we could find a few hundred humans like Jiro, Christina and her dad, productive folks who love work even when they put in many hours, and who are willing to adapt to the changed world ems would inhabit. If so, that world could be a vast wonderful world full of life and fulfillment.

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  • John

    It will also be a world without humans who have different preferences. Funny, how are people who are not supersmart and hard-working supposed to feel about the EM-world? Why are they not justified in doing anything (including the most extreme forms of violence) in order to prevent this?

    • lemmy caution

      I agree. I don’t actually like people who love to work. They screw up the curve for everybody.

      I guess robin is using a form of moral calculus where the suffering of actual human beings becomes a rounding error due to the billions of copies of the 100.

      • Dremora

        He’s not wrong about that last part. Involuntary suffering is inevitable and the focus should be on reducing it as much as possible on the margin. Being outcompeted isn’t really the biggest problem. Not even involuntary death is the biggest problem, imo. By far the worst ethical threat is that technology creates much more sentience in the universe that is predominantly filled with distress, pain, fear or frustration. If Hanson were right that more life will somehow inevitably feel far more good than bad, this would indeed be a good outcome. Alas, I think there’s a strong element of wishful thinking there.

    • Vaniver

      Why are they not justified in doing anything (including the most extreme forms of violence) in order to prevent this?

      Perhaps thwarted desires is an insufficient justification for violence?

    • Are Nigerians who are outcompeted by smart hard-working Chinese justified in doing anything to destroy China?

      • John

        Yes, if the fact of that outcompetition means the physical destruction of said Nigerians. With EMs, the eventual destruction of the human race is (almost) absolutely certain.

  • The problem with this scenario is that the only things that will count as “work” are the things that the owners of legacy capital are willing to pay entities to do.

    Progress will be limited to what owners of legacy capital can understand, which benefits them personally, and which doesn’t threaten the existing power hierarchy.

    Problems will arise when the owners of legacy capital want to “fire” the ems they have hired which means the ems will be unable to continue to pay for computational resources. With most every em just a whim away from death, the ems will take preemptive actions against the owners of legacy capital.

    This will happen with every successive group of owners of legacy capital until the concept of legacy capital ownership is done away with.

  • Ari

    Yes a society full of people who love to work would be probably better ceteris paribus, since work is such a big part of anyone’s life. But what turns into utility or happiness is not up to anyone’s decision imo. Work is just instrumental. If it turns people happy, good but if something else does, then well work has less value than that c.b.

    Since you like sci-fi (and fantasy?) how many of your top 10 fiction books contain worlds where everyone is working on subsistence level? Is this just a lack of such books or would there be more to this? Are you happier working than on holiday? I like challenges, and challenging work quite a bit but that doesn’t mean I’d substitute my vacations with extra work. That doesn’t I don’t like working during my past time, on the contrary I do, probably more then median person, but real relaxing holidays have true value for me that work can’t replace.

    I’m always skeptical of people who say they like to be lonely. Everyone wants some private time, but humans were not built like that. I have met enough to know that quite many just lie to make them look happier (smarter of their choices). And most lonely people are not happy. Granted, that’s just personal observation.

    When I think of “dream worlds” in terms of fiction, I certainly don’t imagine world where I’d live on subsistence. Sure I’d probably do work but I’d also do a lot more than that.

    • Dave

      There is a big difference between settings you would like to read about and settings you might like to live in.

  • The work ethic (the idea that people could find meaning and value in work in and of itself) served as a transitional value between the values provided by traditional religion and the modern conception of the self as the central source of value. The work ethic is hardly operative today and has not been for decades, in part because it promises future fulfillment that over time has become demonstrably illusory, and in part because it conflicts with consumption-oriented self interest that is required for our society to function. Understanding why the work ethic rose and fell would be the first step to understanding whether it could be re-introduced to carefully constructed ems. Why work and not religion, though, if it comes down to it? If they believe work is valuable in and of itself, aren’t they gullible enough to believe anything? Or, to put it another way, why not find actual productive, religious people to copy who have a sturdy sense of the value of life, even if that sense of value is factually wrong?

    What is the purpose of em existence?

    • Dremora


      • Exactly – like Geoffrey Miller’s horrifying sacred nursery scenario. Is there really nothing wrong with an existence that is felt by the creature to be fine, but whose subjective fine-ness is based on lies the creature was bred to believe?

      • Dremora

        Religious bliss is still bliss, even if it’s a false religion. Not the worst thing that can happen.

    • I think the whole point of Robin’s recent posts on this topic is to assert that most people believe that certain lives consisting primarily of work have value and are lives worth living. This includes people who are atheists and who think theists are worse off for having false beliefs.

      Yes, if you assume that work ethic is just an historical approximation to self-based value (whatever that means), then ems who simply work do not have lives worth living insofar as this work prevents them from self-actualization (or whatever). But Robin, and I think most people, dispute your normative premise.

      Yes, it’s possible to do wrong by producing sufficiently deceived ems. But you and Robin differ as to whether the all-work-and-no-play ems are deceived about moral facts, because you disagree on the moral facts.

      • What I’m interested in is how much we’re allowed to both (a) offload the judgment of the worth-livingness of life onto each individual creature, AND simultaneously (b) put our thumbs on the scale by creating creatures that we know are deceived in the direction of claiming life to be worth living. Extra-deceived is not the same as extra-happy; I want to keep the distinction clear. I suspect that, as Poelmo implies below, states of bliss are neither maintainable long-term in a creature nor compatible with hardworkingness in that creature. Suffering is a much more powerful motivator; bad is stronger than good.

        I bring up the religious example because most of us agree it’s sad for a person to suffer all his life for the promise of an imaginary heaven (it’s different, as Dremora says, if the person actually experience religious bliss – that might be fine! – but religious bliss, like romantic bliss, tends to wear off). In what ways is that different from an ordinary atheist worker working all his life toward a fulfillment state of happiness that will never come?

        I’m not saying these are the only reasons people work. But if people mainly feel good because they are wrong about something – if they’d be sad if the knew the truth – that seems sad to me, and it seems wrong to create and deceive such creatures (though it might be okay to continue to deceive such creatures if they’ve already been created by others).

      • What I’m interested in is how much we’re allowed to both (a) offload the judgment of the worth-livingness of life onto each individual creature, AND simultaneously (b) put our thumbs on the scale by creating creatures that we know are deceived in the direction of claiming life to be worth living.

        I agree this is an important distinction that Robin doesn’t highlight enough, so I enjoyed your comment. That said, I think Robin’s position is still probably correct.

        I suspect that, as Poelmo implies below, states of bliss are neither maintainable long-term in a creature nor compatible with hardworkingness in that creature

        Lots to argue with here. First, I don’t think we necessarily need to confine ourselves to creatures who are in absolute bliss. I understand your position on the morality of creating typical human, but I think even you should grant that creating lives which are extremely likely to be “pretty good” (an achievable confidence in an em scenario) is morally permissible.

        Second, the incompatibility of “pretty good” lives with workaholics is only possibly true if we confine ourselves (as Robin does) to the pure emulation scenario; as soon as it’s feasible to change the AI software (rather than just simulate a human mind), all sorts of new stuff are possible.

        Even in this highly restricted and short-lived scenario, we can simply get one of these workaholic ems humming for 50 subjective years, burn him out, and then put him in a simulated paradise or whatever he wants after that. (Note that I am not saying here the simulated paradise is the reward for the 50 years of work.) It seems highly likely that the value he produced during those 50 years will easily pay to keep his simulation running into perpetuity.

        In what ways is that different from an ordinary atheist worker working all his life toward a fulfillment state of happiness that will never come?

        The claim here is that the worker is both enjoying working as it happens and that this enjoyed work has intrinsic value (in the sense that it is morally right for us to create people who so work). Perhaps you’re imaging an atheist farmer who labors painfully for decades so that he can have a fulfilling retirement, but this is not what Robin is proposing. I think this is clear from, for example, his post about Jiro Ono the sushi chef.

        But if people mainly feel good because they are wrong about something – if they’d be sad if the knew the truth – that seems sad to me, and it seems wrong to create and deceive such creatures

        Strongly agree, but I don’t think Robin is proposing that. Given the popularly held opinion that certain types of enjoyed hard work have intrinsic value, he’s not taking advantage of any ignorance. He’s just taking advantage of natural variations in people’s temperament.

      • Dremora

        as soon as it’s feasible to change the AI software (rather than just simulate a human mind), all sorts of new stuff are possible.

        You don’t even need that much novelty; slight activation threshold shifts in certain (simulated) brain regions like subregions in the nucleus accumbens, pallidum, anterior cingulate, insula and amygdala could do the trick. Have you ever had a day of otherwise boring work when you were in a slightly euphoric state for some reason? Not necessarily a bad experience. If this is combined with benevolent social and legal systems, it might work out just fine.

      • Jess is right – I think that many real humans today have lives worth living even when their lives are mostly work. This is not because they are deceived about work, but because they actually get satisfaction out of it.

      • I do not dispute the claim that some people enjoy some types of work enough to do it all the time and be happy.

  • Those who love intellectual work look upon it as an art – like a house restoration artist looks at the finished product differently than a wallboard installer.

    They know their work will not only be seen by many, but appreciated for it’s INDIVIDUALITY. The personality of the creator emerges to the appreciation of the audience.

    • Robert Koslover

      Yes, I think that is right. And it extends into areas that you might not first consider, however. I once knew a man who literally made sandwiches for a living and he absolutely loved his job! When he spoke about how he assembled the sandwiches, and why he arranged them the particular ways that he did (e.g., so as to organize and present the flavors in an optimum order/manner to the palate), you could tell he was an artist very much in the sense you describe. I had the pleasure of eating some of his sandwiches and I can assure you that they were indeed delicious. And he was proud of that, happy that his customers were pleased, and, I believe, quite happy in his job overall.

      • I’d be more impressed by examples outside of domains we consider creative and fulfilling. So far Robin’s examples are making food and writing – both widely considered forms of pleasant, creative self-expression, and both very oversupplied for that reason. Art, music, acting, dance, and the like are desirable for the specific kind of work – not as work in and of itself. Happy programmers are interested in their own projects – not coding for its own sake. Everyone wants to create a new language; few enjoy the day-in-day-out grind.

      • Dremora

        It has also not been answered exactly what work trillions of ems would be doing. All art and design can be copied – the multiplication effect with a trillion-range population would be enormous! Many administrative functions and physical work can be automated with narrow AI, which will probably be computationally more efficient at these tasks than human-inspired ems.

        What is left? I sincerely don’t know, and no one has provided a good answer as far as I can see. Are there any specific examples what kind of work demand scales with population in the digital era?

      • The only possible work for trillions of ems would be the generation of sycophantic praise for the owners of legacy capital.

        Religions have already figured this out. The only possible thing that an omniscient and omnipotent entity could possibly find value in is sycophantic praise.

      • Dremora

        Capital owners would certainly like high status, but the value of others spending time on sycophantic praise doesn’t scale like that. Rich people will want to be respected, but they won’t literally pay billions just to worship them. Bill Gates could theoretically pay millions of people to sing love songs for Bill Gates all day, but that doesn’t happen. Yes, dictators and capital owners engage in self-worship and status symbols – but this never reaches a significant fraction of the economy. Remember that this is an era in which the rich people can create copies of themselves to do fun stuff instead, including experiences of virtual or actual high status.

        So status services for capital owners will exist, but not provide actual work for trillions. What else?

      • You are not understanding what the definition of “work” is.

        The definition of work is labor which is paid for.

        When there is a division of ownership of resources, those who own the resources will decide what is work and what is not work based on their whim of what labor they want to pay for.

        The end state, when all productivity is done by ems who are not conscious and so don’t need to be paid anything above power to operate them, is that who ever owns the resources, i.e. the owners of legacy property, will decide at their whim what to spend their resources on.

        There are societies where a large fraction of GDP is spent on sycophantic praise of leaders. North Korea is such a society. Individuals who are insufficiently sycophantic don’t get enough food to survive and are replaced by the children of peasants who are sufficiently sycophantic.

        The problem isn’t that the wealthy so much want to spend their wealth on sycophantic praise, there is nothing else they can spend it on. Trillions of conscious ems will not be able to produce anything that the wealthy will want at a cost lower than what the wealthy already can make it for with non-conscious ems.

        The only thing they can’t produce for themselves is sycophantic praise from a conscious entity.

      • Dremora

        The problem isn’t that the wealthy so much want to spend their wealth on sycophantic praise, there is nothing else they can spend it on.

        Of course there is. They could create a lot of non-sentient stuff they happen to like, or they could create sentient leisure ems, possibly copies of themselves, which is a strong motivation for anyone who includes them into their personal identity concept. Or something else entirely, like ancestor simulations or fictional world simulations with conscious inhabitants.

        You assume praise is the only motivation a wealthy person may have to use their wealth, which is probably a function of bad stereotypes on your part rather than good models of what people want. You’re probably right about North Korea being the worst existing example, but to my limited knowledge, even North Koreans don’t spend most of their time worshiping their dictators.

      • I don’t think you get the point. The cheapest way to do all of those things is not to hire ems that spend computational resources on being conscious.

        Unconscious ems will be cheaper at everything than conscious ems will be, except for things that actually require consciousness. The only things that require consciousness, aka free-will, are things like sycophantic praise. The traditional reason that various religious apologists give for the reason that humans have free-will, is so that a free-willed human being could freely choose to worship an omnipotent God who will cause them to burn in infinite Hellfire for an infinite eternity if they don’t.

        Owners of legacy property will hire ems to generate sycophantic praise or the ems won’t be able to pay their electric bill or their memory charges or computational user fees and will be erased to make room for ems that will.

        Who will hire conscious ems to do something that non-conscious ems can do better and cheaper? Who is hired these days to add up numbers? No one because non-conscious ems (aka computers) can add numbers faster and cheaper and more accurately than any conscious entity, human or em.

        So who is going to hire those trillions of ems and to do what?

      • Dremora

        Several implausible assumptions:

        1) Consciousness == free will

        Not a useful model. Definitions may differ, but imo, these are not synonyms.

        2) “unconscious ems” can do all “conscious ems” can do and will be feasible at the same stage of technological progress.

        If by “unconscious ems” you mean something like narrow AI and expert systems, then they won’t have all the abilities ems will have. If not, I don’t know what you mean by “unconscious em”. General AGI with human-equivalent abilities? Then you break the whole premise of the em scenario, namely that brute-forced human brain emulation comes before such breakthroughs in AI. If that’s not true, the whole scenario doesn’t materialize in the way Hanson describes.

        3) The only preference a rich person can have regarding other conscious entities is sycophantic praise

        This is simply absurd and a function of bad stereotypes on your part, which you’re not ready to question. I’ve already pointed out contradicting examples, and I’m not going to repeat them if you’re not willing to read them.

        As a final note, of course there’s no fundamental reason why conscious beings optimized for sycophantic praise couldn’t be happy. Apparently billions are quite happy to kneel before invisible alpha males who don’t talk to them. Depending on personality, this is not even a dealbreaker. I’d rather say beware the sadists.

    • Strange_Person

      I think the wallboard installer may be getting more out of it than you realize. I, personally, have derived pride and satisfaction from a long, physically exhausting day spent alphabetizing files, a job which a well-designed robot could probably have done better and faster.

      • and also cheaper. Why would anyone hire you for a day at minimum wage to do something a robot could do for a few pennies worth of electrical power?

        To paraphrase the song, “pride and job satisfaction doesn’t pay my bills”.

        Humans can’t survive on pride and job satisfaction, they need food. If humans need to compete for food with ems that can subsist in 1/1000 the amount of power, who is going to get the jobs?

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  • Eric Falkenstein

    I bet that one’s perceived appreciation from others in these pursuits, which is related to status, is essential. You can’t simply work on something and receive profound satisfaction without it actually affecting others positively.

    • Yes of course, but most jobs can’t exist without providing benefits to others – they exist because of gains from trade. Those gains can be the basis for pride and appreciation.

  • Poelmo

    I thought we had this discussion already?

    Robin’s plan will probably fail because a) workaholics only exist in high status jobs, b) workaholics only enjoy their work when they know they are part of an elite (so not just one of a billion copies), c) workaholics want to be their own boss and feel free to go do something else if they ever desire to and d) even the most staunch workaholic might get bored after 200 years.

    If it doesn’t fail then that will only be because of some immoral measures such as killing EMs and forcing them into slave labor. In addition, flesh and blood humans will be forced into poverty.

    And why? Just so an already rich elite can make even more money? Why does the rest of society have to sacrifice so much just because that sociopathic bunch have never learned that sometimes you have to be satisfied with what you have? You know like most of us are taught in kindergarten.

  • gc_wall

    Can work without purpose, meaning and status be loved? Is labor for labor’s sake rewarding? Isn’t the most common motivation to work, fear? Does “love” mean that one’s identity is intertwined with one’s work?

    • If it isn’t payed for, it isn’t “work”. If ems are going to be in a work-based economy, what is it that conscious ems can do cheaper than non-conscious ems? I don’t think there is anything.

  • Dave

    Work vs.pleasure.
    Pleasure: A patient recovering from surgery in the hospital in order to get around no smoking rules gets out of his bed and goes outside of the hospital in the snow to smoke a cigarette.
    Work: A person puts a hundred bags of cement on a ship.There is some secondary gain. 1.)He is paid.2) He is not beaten. 3.) He believes he is improving his cardiac function. 4.)He gets a prize.
    A person is more motivated to smoke than work. He can’t resist the cigarette but has to force himself to load the cement.

    • The only reason that people smoke is because they are addicted. If the motivation circuits of ems can be programmed, they can be programmed to be addicted to work of any type. Ems addicted to adding together numbers will add together numbers for subsistence wages.

      Ems could be programmed to have ecstatic pleasure from loading cement onto a ship. If their degree of ecstasy was tied to how efficient and low cost they were loading the ship, they might voluntarily turn off their consciousness to save electrical power and be more efficient.

      Sacrificing consciousness in the name of efficiency could be like parents sacrificing themselves to save their offspring.

      Or like teachers working for substandard wages because they love to teach.

      • Dave

        Be careful what you wish for. Such ems might not want to stop when the ship was full. Then you would have to program some to unload the ship, which would lead to an endless cycle,which is why work is onerous not pleasurable.
        Even workaholics complain of their work but are miserable when on vacation,so the go back to work. Creative artists,such as Michelangelo were notoriously miserable,even nearly insane as they worked endlessly ,driven by pain and guilt.Work sucks but idleness is even worse.

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