This essay draws upon a longer and more business-related article on Emerj.com titled Ambitious AI, which may be of interest for readers who want to go deeper on this topic.
Ambition has always required sacrifice.
Anyone who strives to be powerful (in business, government, science, etc) will use AI and other emerging technologies to minimize their time spent in unproductive activity, and maximize their time spent on productive activity.
Bill Gates doesn’t play tennis because he likes doing so more than working on his businesses and charities, but because some level ph physical exercise and diversion maintain him, and keep him optimally capable to do as much work as possible.
Soon, AI and other emerging technologies will allow ambitious people to forgo these unproductive “maintenance” activities – including time spent on hobbies and human relationships.
I’ll explore this by contrasting the habits and behaviors of ambitious people today – with those that are likely to be possible in the near future.
Productivity and Power – Today
Today, people who strive to be maximally productive are forced to sacrifice much in the face of their productive goals. They take far fewer vacations, have fewer hobbies, spend less time with friends and family, and often much less time on sleep.
But they still have to “check the boxes” that keep humans sane and balanced. They have to do the unproductive “stuff” that keeps the monkey suit working – so that they can remain high-performing during their work time (i.e. the vast majority of their waking hours).
Here are the “boxes” the even powerful people must “check”:
- Exercise – even Gates plays some tennis)
- Sleep – even Oprah needs more than 4 hours – she apparently gets around 5.5 per night)
- Time with loved ones – even Musk wants consistent loving time with a romantic partner, and most powerful people have a spouse and kids)
- Some activities that are “fun” or renewing – even Angela Merkel shops for her own groceries and makes a mean plum cake)
Even the most powerful people on earth today need to do these things to remain optimally productive – but they don’t want to need those things.
Musk would definitely prefer not to have to stop working in order to eat, and I’m sure Oprah wishes she didn’t need sleep at all. Both wish they didn’t have to brush their teeth and clip their toenails. But it goes further: Not only would most powerful people forgo sleep and meal time if they could – they would forgo fun hobbies and relationships, too (by the way, I’m not morally judging them, I think this is completely logical).
Think about it this way:
- If everyone competing against Musk was able use a new technology to go completely without sleep (and replace that time with work), he would be at a massive disadvantage by still taking 4-6 hours a day of non-work activities.
- Similarly, if everyone competing against Musk was able to use technology to forgo the need to feel fulfilled by romantic relationships or children (and could instead replace that time with productive work), he would be at a massive disadvantage by leaning his wellbeing on time-consuming interactions with children and romantic partners.
This takes us to the future.
Productivity and Power – Tomorrow
In the future, AI and emerging tech will help ambitious people to drastically increase the number of hours they spend in productive work (and the percent of effective hours worked) – and drastically decrease the hours they spend on non-work tasks. This will involve significant breaks from the current human condition.
Here are a handful of hypothetical examples of what might be possible in the coming 5-15 years:
- Reducing Sleep:
- VR / EEG tech allows users to gain the benefits of “rest” while still doing productive tasks, by calibrating sensory experience in a way that allows productive thought while still “renewing” the brain in important ways.
- EEG / sensor tech allows users to calibrate their amount if sleep (and precise sleep habits) in order to optimally renew themselves and engage in maximal amounts of productive work.
- Reducing Meal / Body Maintenance Time:
- Reclined seating pods are developed in order to take in nutrients (tastes good, super-calibrated to be healthy), and remove waste, and even handle cleanliness, all in one place without having to move to the kitchen, shower, etc (read: Husk).
- Improving Hours Worked / Productive Percentage of Hours Worked:
- AI-augmented VR work environments will be calibrated to maintain optimal focus (based on the mood / preferences of the user, and the nature of the task), by altering the music, appearance of the physical environment, etc.
- Augmented reality and non-keyboard (voice / gesture) interfaces allow users to work productively on certain kinds of tasks (responding to emails, reviewing a colleague’s work, managing budgets, etc) while exercising, eating, showering, etc.
- Reducing Time Spent with Loving Human Relationships:
- AI-generated friends will give phenomenal advice on life, love, personal development, etc – and share all kinds of enriching experiences with users – all without any self-interest of their own… thus “checking the box” / getting the psychological benefits of “enjoyable friendships” in more optimized ways than “real” humans could offer (read: Programmatically Generated Everything).
- AI-generated lovers will hyper-personalize their appearance, voice tone, personality, etc to the preferences of the user, creating hyper-pleasurable experiences (physically), and hyper-customized kinds of bonding experiences… thus “checking the box” / getting the psychological benefits of “sexual and romantic connection” in more optimized ways than “real” humans could offer. It’s inevitable that ambitious men would leverage their inner circuitry of “earning a woman’s love” – and use these virtual lover entities as fuel to focus more and work harder. Think of a kind perfect AI muse… encouraging their highest efforts and promising the greatest romantic rewards to their man (the user). A weak man will escape into VR sexual pleasure, but one who wishes to remain strong will want this kind of muse to pull at his heartstrings (and loins) to garner his highest daily effort.
- AI-generated pets or children might be AR-imposed in to your space, … thus “checking the box” / getting the psychological benefits of “nurturing” in more optimized ways than “real” pets or children could offer. It’s possible that ambitious men might leverage their inner circuitry of “providing for children” – and use these virtual child entities as fuel to focus more and work harder.
- ^ Sounds sick and perverse? Sure. Your life sitting on a computer all day and swiping on an app to find a sexual partner would have been sick and perverse to your ancestors, too. (Note that I am not advocating that being childless is “best”, I’m just saying most people won’t do it when more fulfilling alternatives exist – dealing with the resulting depopulation is not my area of expertise. I digress…)
NOTE: Absolutely all of the elements above will have their “envelopes pushed” by brain-computer interface and other transhuman tech, and they’re all slippy slopes leading us towards transhumanism (read: Transhuman Transition).
The outlandishly great economic and military advantages of this kind of super-performance tech is way too high for it to not be developed (are you unaware how much the US DoD invests on this kind of research already?).
Will there be hiccups and dead ends in these innovations?
Will there be seemingly “productive” tech with terrible, unproductive side-effects?
But that won’t stop them from coming. Whatever facets of our unproductive lives that can be shaved off in the interest of “net gain in productivity” will be shaved off, and AI and emerging tech will open up entirely new vistas for this kind of “shaving” in the coming decade.
It’s Not Dystopia – Buckle Up
What I’m painting above isn’t a dystopia (check yourself), I’d argue:
- It’s essentially unavoidable that our non-productive needs will be fulfilled by tech, and that ambitious people become World Eaters
- There’s nothing inherently “dystopic” about this future of hyper-productivity and separation from the current human experience
Today’s CEOs and aspiring politicians don’t have the the option to take long vacations, or to sleep 9 hours a night, or to not use cell phones and laptops 16 hours a day. Similarly, ambitious people in the future will be compelled to adopt and push the envelope on technology that enhances their productive powers and maximized their work time.
An immediate objection to this “ambitious tech” use-case might be:
“But Dan, people in these horrible, depressing conditions wouldn’t really be more productive at all, they’d be miserable!”
I’d respond to this with two points:
- Imagine you went back in time and told your great grandparents about your daily routine and use of tech today (16-hours on screens, swiping on your phone to find love, riding airplanes and Ubers with strangers). They’ll call it hell – but here you are, bucko – and you don’t even want to go back to the primitive lifestyles of your great grandparents. You like it here. You have no damn idea how these future tech users will feel. It’s seems likely that (a) they’ll experience a radically different day-to-day experience than you’ve had in the 2000’s, and (b) it’ll be perfectly normal for them.
- If the technology makes people miserable and unproductive, it’s not doing it’s job. Ambitious AI / ambitious tech, as it develops, will have to make humans at least reasonably fulfilled and happy. You might argue that you’re less happy watch Netflix than your ancestors were while listening to the radio by the fireplace – but look at you today – still watching Netflix. It’s more convenient and fulfills your needs better, so you use it. And so it will be with other future tech.
If your goal is to maximize your productivity or power, then you have no choice but to prepare to radically alter your life in order to maximize their output. The technologies of tomorrow will open up huge opportunities to gain advantages – and as always – they’ll involve sacrifice.
Header image credit: Portrait of a Man – Parmigianino