A Purposeful Life in a Land of Robots

Bill Gates writes on Yuval Noah Hattari’s most recent book Homo Deus:

I am more interested in what you might call the purpose problem. Assume we maintain control [of robots and artificial intelligence]. What if we solved big problems like hunger and disease, and the world kept getting more peaceful: What purpose would humans have then? What challenges would we be inspired to solve?

In this version of the future, our biggest worry is not an attack by rebellious robots, but a lack of purpose.

 Yes, all the current signs are promising. Despite the perception we might get from mass media, violence and war are at historical lows (and declining). Technological innovation should on the whole improve our quality of life and make significant progress in reducing inequalities in medical care, access to food, and education opportunities. 
And still I struggle with the idea we might solve the world’s problems and reach a utopian state. While I don’t ascribe to an apocalyptic future ruled by robotic overlords, I’m less convinced than Gates that we reach, let along maintain, the higher state he imagines. Certainly the trajectory looks better than ever, but I wonder if we can ever close the gap without new chasms opening elsewhere. 

The greatest force on this planet is our own agency and I believe one of the great life-long tasks before each of us is to control and direct our agency for good. In many ways, our purpose in life is simple. No amount of innovation will solve this “purpose problem.” While the definiton of “good” might change and evolve in subtle ways overtime and we might use different tools to implement good, the basic precept will remain largely intact. Being more self-aware and less selfish will never be “solved.”

Moreover, I’m not convinced we can successfully unite everyone along a shared and collective use of their individual agency. It would seem that there will always be those who seek outcomes that differ from what the collective social norms might suggest is optimal. These might be age old inclinations like selfishness and pride or could be more nefarious actions and acts. I think there will always be private deals designed to advance some while disadvantaging others. The tools we employ will evolve but inequalities of varying sorts will seemingly remain. 

For me, the most interesting questions center on how to fulfill our purpose here while our lives become more mechanized and digitized. In all our discussion on a future filled with robots, automation, and artificial intelligence, this one seems to be missing the most.