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AI, Mass Automation, and the Evolution of Human Dignity

Syllabus for a two part seminar at MIT’s IAP 2017.

Thu 12 Jan 12:00PM-02:00PM 4-153
Fri 13 Jan 12:00PM-02:00PM 4-153

Civilizations from the ancient Greeks to our own have looked at work as one of the primary sources of meaning and dignity in life. Perhaps it has been useful evolutionarily to esteem work over hedonism, but if we imagine a world of super-technology, where there is no need for most humans to work to provide for the survival of the species, how will our concepts of human dignity shift?

In this class, we’ll consider various perspectives on this question, and the class will culminate in an essay, story, or video that explores the future of dignity in a (perhaps dystopian) world of abundance.

All participants should read / watch all background works prior to attending the seminars, which will be a roundtable / discussion format.


Classical Perspectives

conceptions of liberal education are rooted in the teaching methods of Ancient Greece,[12] a slave-owning community divided between slaves and freemen. The freemen, mostly concerned about their rights and obligations as citizens, received a non-specialized, non-vocational, liberal arts education that produced well-rounded citizens aware of their place in society. At the same time, Socrates emphasized the importance of individualism, impressing upon his students the duty of man to form his own opinions through reason rather than indoctrination. Athenian education also provided a balance between developing the mind and the body. Another possibility is that liberal education dates back to the Zhou Dynasty, where the teachings of Confucianism focused on propriety, morality, and social order.

Work, Art, Play

Session 1 Recap

Thanks for an excellent first session!

Some thoughts I jotted down during the talk / things to think about for next session:

Re: being seen vs seeing as how we find meaning in life. The observation that different cultures ascribe value differently to these modes was probably the most interesting thought of the session to me. I’m curious how others reacted to these. Perhaps it is an artifact of my culture that I deeply value being seen, but my initial reaction was to think about being the only human left alive / (desert island experiment). This seems to me a lonely, unfulfilling existence. To put it another way, are humans inherently social? Do we need to be acknowledged by other humans to be fulfilled? cf I see you or sawubona.

Re: we still enjoy playing chess even though computers are better than any human at it. True, but do we find deep meaning / dignity in playing chess? Or is it a frivolous leisure activity?

Re: “human dignity” is a human-centric perspective of dignity. Excellent point. What does a broader, more encompassing idea of dignity entail. How might we get there?

Re: the pace of technology vs pace of ideology. Historically, cultural beliefs about dignity have had time (generations at least) to evolve as our environment / technology changes. As the speed of technological advancement increases, will we need a more malleable view of dignity, that can change for an individual many times in a single lifespan, be necessary for our survival?

Re: capitalism in a fully automated world. Will capitalism survive as automation advances accelerate, or, will technology breed even greater disparity necessitating some other form of government / wealth distribution?

Re: dignity of caretaking. I thought it was interesting when someone made the point about friends finding joy in caring for dogs they also use the word “distracted by” the caretaking. Is work, art, caretaking all just ultimately a form of distraction? From what? Also, it was interesting to learn about the attempts to transition blue collar men into healthcare jobs failing due to the perception of these roles being gendered.

Here are some links that people mentioned in (or emailed me as germane to) today’s session:

Will your job be automated? - Planet Money

I Robot - Isaac Asimov

Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren - JM Keynes

via Lee. Bullshit Jobs - STRIKE!  // This is great!

via Daniel. Buckminster Fuller on “earning a living”, Why are there still so many jobs? - David Autor, Zero Marginal Cost and the Decline of Capitalism - Jeremy Rifkin

Re: slavery and robots, via Akshita: Alexander Weheliye (an Afro-Futurist) writes about the laboring black self in Habeas Viscus. I’d read this in tandem with Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (review)…. A couple of articles that tie these themes well are Bina48: Gender, Race, and Queer Artificial Life and Study Slavery to Study the Impact of Robots on Workers by Dietrich Vollrath.

Session 2 Recap

Re: art. I found it interesting that someone felt the same exact poem would hold different meaning to them if they discovered it was authored by software and not a human. On the one hand, this makes some sort of intuitive sense, but on the other hand, it also seems completely absurd. It raises the question to what extent (if any) creative intention plays a role in the value of art, or is the value all in interpretation / perception?

I also loved the idea of the chess playing robot that decides to play poetry instead.

Re: vulnerability and empathy. It was interesting to arrive at these as the things we look for in human art that we felt could not be produced by software. Why can’t robots / software express vulnerability? Why can’t we feel empathy for them?

Re: compassion. Someone asked about my own views of human dignity – these are always evolving, and I’ll caveat with a Reading Rainbow “don’t take my word for it…”

One of the things that I think is really cool about humans is our capacity for compassion. There are a lot of cases where biologically/evolutionarily there might be no advantage for the species to care about an individual or group’s survival, yet somehow we still extend compassion in these cases. To me, it feels like a transcendence of the indifference of nature / evolution, and I think it’s worth recognizing as pretty amazing.

This compassion can extend beyond members of our own species to others (I’m not sure if compassion for other species is uniquely human, but it might be). I hope we remember this compassion as we progress technologically.

I feel grateful everyday for my own life, and wouldn’t want to deny this experience to others or to future generations. I think it would be a shame if all life as we know it for all species we know ended when the sun burned out, so I see it as a kind of responsibility of the human species to figure out how to perpetuate life beyond the end of the sun, via space travel or other means. The trees are certainly not going to get us off this planet.

Re: Re: compassion. Someone presented a good counterargument to my views on compassion: ie, compassion is evolutionarily helpful / pragmatic, so it’s hardwired in the general case, and when we feel it towards an individual/group that is effectively genetically worthless, this is a sort of acceptable side effect. A bit more pessimistic, but plausible.

Someone else raised a good point about overriding compassion via culture / marketing: we feel much more compassion for dogs because they are part of our home culture than we do towards smarter animals like pigs or octopi.

Someone also raised an argument that compassion is a luxury you can only indulge in once your basic needs are met. If not absolutely true, certainly it’s easier to be compassionate if you’re safe.

Re: live performance. The discussion about why we enjoy live performance got me thinking about the excitement of the interplay between human performers and audience, as the performance responds to the energy of the crowd. Theoretically, if you had computers with good enough sensors, you might be able to achieve this to an even great extent with software.

Re: benevolent aliens thought exercise. It was interesting to see how people reacted differently to this thought experiment than towards AI, since in many ways they raise the same questions. I really like the way someone framed the attitude of the benevolent, super-intelligent alien’s view of us like that a human toward a pet dog. The idea that we might still organize into social structures despite the need to contribute in anyway towards a great good of the planet / species, “like prisoners in a prison,” was also provocative.

Re: Play. Is all that remains when we can no longer contribute meaningfully to art, science, or technology a purposeless world of play, a life that resembles dance as Alan Watts describes in the talk we listened to?

Here are some links to some of the works people mentioned in the session or emailed to me afterwards:

The Heart of a Dog - Mikhail Bulgakov

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Men Like Gods - H.G. Wells

The Machine Stops - E.M. Forster

Questions to Think About Before the Sessions

Humans Need Not Apply

Consider that many white collar jobs involve just information processing (accounting, law, software engineering, etc) and no physical work. Do you think we’ll automate pure information tasks before we fully automate work that requires physical robotics?

What do you think will be the last job held by humans (vs software / robots)?


What is the significance of Theodore’s job? What does it say about the types of work that lend themselves (or don’t) to automation? What are the implications of the industrialization of this activity?

Do you think Samantha’s evolution is informative / instructive at all in thinking about human evolution? If so, how?

The Last Question

What do you make of Multivac’s (and it’s successors’) answer to the last question?

The Protestant Work Ethic

Imagine you were designing a society / culture / ideology / government from scratch, today, and could decide whether or not that society would value something like the Protestant work ethic. Would you instill this value? Why or why not?


How does Achilles’ tone toward battle, glory, work, life, and death change from his initial refusal to fight and then later decision to enter battle?

What is the significance of all the imagery on Achilles shield?

How does Achilles tone again change in the Odyssey? What do you make of his response to stories of his son?

The Liberal Education

How does the modern college education in the United States compare to the classical liberal education?

How would you approach college differently if you knew you didn’t have to work for a living?

Craft: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Flow, The Fingers of Your Mind

What values does Jiro Dreams of Sushi celebrate? Contrast this with the views on flow skills in The Fingers of Your Mind. Which perspective do you think is more accurate? More useful? Why?

The Myth of Sisyphus

Why does Camus celebrate Sisyphus and imagine him happy? What is his victory? How does this relate to the rest of the works we’ve read?

Recurrent Neural Networks, Art

What do the posts on composing music or generating Shakespeare using recurrent neural networks suggest to you about artistic creativity?

Many have argued that when robots / software do all the important work, humans will be left to do art. Do you think this argument holds up if software is capable of producing great art?

Can a robot / software empathize with our knowledge of our own mortality?


How does Alan Watt’s talk on play differ from other perspectives on work and dignity we’ve discussed?

Basic Income

What side effects of mass automation does Basic Income seek to address?

What potential problems does it fail to address?


What other works should we be reading / watching for this discussion?

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