After we make peace with robots doing all the work, will our lives have meaning?

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The novel Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut ran through these arguments way back in the 1950s. It’s closing is brilliant.


This question is most often posed by people who already do not have to work in any meaningful historical sense.


A thought experiment.

A robot can make a perfect guitar for $1.

Does that deprive my life of meaning while I fell a tree, season the wood for a decade, plane the soundboard, carve the neck, and bend the sides?

All for a guitar that is worse than one that costs $1?

Nope. My life still has meaning. The people and process one goes through in that decade is the meaning. Even if my guitar is wonky and breaks strings all the time.


I’m mostly uncertain that it would even happen. Automation got us down from 100 hour child labor conditions, but we’ve pretty much plateaued at 45-55 hour work weeks, and increasing automation is just increasing the amount we work.

I for one would love to have a robot take my job, but I don’t think it will actually happen that way. I think “robots will mean we won’t have to work anymore” is one of those ideas that was popular in the 50’s but that is fundamentally flawed as a concept, much like “exponential population growth is the biggest problem of the modern world”.


It’s especially ironic, given how often wage slavery is used to rob life of meaning, even today.


Robots and other AI will recognize - better than most of us do - the technological excellence of natural life forms and ecosystems, and will punish humans who threaten the integrity of those systems. The human enterprise will become re-learning respect for nature, under the guidance of our robot masters. Our privilege will be to re-enter the Garden, this time to experience awe and enjoyment and inherently rewarding service to nature, without the burdens of ignorance and need that lead to exploitation and destruction.

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…assumes that after the robots take all our jobs, and after the economic justice of figuring out how to share the productivity games can be equitably shared among the robot-owning investor class and the robot-displaced 99%…

One thing at a time people.

But I suppose we already have our answer in the fact that as soon as people retire they all commit suicide because of their feelings of worthlessness.


I was recently laid off from my unfulfilling (yet good paying) corporate job, and now my spouse is making enough money to float us a bit while I explore and figure out what is going make me happy for my next chapter. I have never felt so free to pursue my hobbies, to explore those hidden alleys, to make new friends that are more like me than the corporate drones I knew before, my wish list is no longer dusty and neglected but now it is a celebration of my life and what my future means to me!
Of course there will be whole societies of drop outs with an automated world, but I’m guessing there will still be A-typers as well, just like we have today. Maybe I’m simply unable to enjoy the theoretical exercise, but I have a difficult time connecting the human drive with unfulfilling and meaningless jobs.


stupid fucking protestant work ethic that took root in 'murrica.


Before or after they have decide to exterminate us all as superfluous to their existence?


I will happily betray my own to the robots… humans have not done the best job so far.


I’m with you.

I don’t crochet hats, scarves, cozies and whatever else because I can’t buy them. I crochet because I enjoy it, and it’s the only way to get the very specific hats/scarves/doilies/toys/whatevers that come at the intersection of my hands and that yarn. I dislike making something from instructions, because I don’t want the thing in the picture, I want a thing which has never before existed.

If robots did all the work, and I didn’t have to toil for money, I would definitely have meaning in my days. I would make all the pretty things I wanted, and give them away for the pleasure of seeing people’s faces.

Also, if I want to, I can find meaning in making patterns in knots in string, whether anyone else ever sees them or not. I’d make an excellent hermit.




A related question is how we will share values that accept other people’s lives have meaning regardless of whether they use public benefits like child care, medicaid or rental assistance.

If it helps, pretend democratically funded and administered robots are delivering the child care, medicaid or rental assistance.


This is an erroneous conflation of work (the effort needed to accomplish anything) and employment (literally - being used by people). There is always a lot of great, fun, meaningful work to be done. But most people are instead bogged down by prostituting themselves for money.


First spotted in Creative Computing around 1974:

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

© Richard Brautigan


Philosophers will still philosophize… or will philosophers be replaced by AI and no longer be able to find meaning by finding meaning?


The idea that “work” provides meaning to life falls apart under close inspection.

Like, in my life, being a good husband/son/brother/citizen/BBS member all provide some meaning.

Work is just what I do so that I don’t starve while trying to do those things that ACTUALLY provide meaning.


Or, we all become lazy, apathetic, and no longer strive to do things.

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