Universal Basic Happiness (Not Income) – The Result of AI and Abundance

Many renown technology pundits, entrepreneurs, and inventors have posited a similar vision of an artificial intelligence-enabled future:

  • Artificial intelligence and other future technologies will amass tremendous wealth in the hands of a few powerful, dominant companies
  • Many people will not have any truly marketable skills, and will be left out of the capitalist system
  • Broad programs of wealth distribution (like universal basic income or UBI) will be enacted to ensure that the whole of a society benefits from technological abundance
  • With their physical needs met will need to find meaning and purpose in new ways in order to be happy

I posit that once something like UBI is implemented, people will ask for more than wealth, they will ask directy for happiness – through pills, fulfilling virtual experiences, and eventually brain augmentation.

Overcoming of the need for humans to work (if we get there) is merely the beginning of a much greater trajectory that ultimately ends in a post-human transition, initially with cognitive enhancement, and eventually with full-blown mind-uploading to a drastically non-human, non-physical conscious existence.

It plays out as a relatively continuous path towards greater abundance and greater emphasis on human wellbeing.

Wellbeing and Society, Over Time

An oversimplified history – and projected future – of the value of “wellbeing” or “happiness” in society might look like this:

  1. The dawn of time: If you want to stay alive to be happy you will work, and whoever can’t work to pay their way will starve (state of nature)
  2. 1935-ish: Those who can work should, those who cannot should be supported by those who do (Welfare, social security, and other such programs to help the disadvantaged)
  3. 2023-ish: Even if there is no work for us after artificial intelligence, we should be able to be supported physically so we can pursue happiness (universal basic income, and other such potential programs)
  4. 2030-ish: Opportunities should not only be provided to people to be supported physically, but to have purpose and meaning, a key for real happiness
  5. ???: Meaning and purpose, and all components of human happiness, is based on precarious and arbitrary evolutionary nonsense, and we should have new, rich, sustained forms of happiness available to anyone (advanced happiness-inducing pharmaceuticals, customized and fulfilling virtual experiences on demand)
  6. ???: This whole human form is arbitrary and we should be able to transfer our consciousness to something more capable of bliss, more creative, and less fragile than this monkey suit we’ve been thrown into at birth (brain-machine interface or mind uploading)

If automation really did concentrate unimaginable wealth, then it does seem best that some fair and just means of distributing it would be best – even if it implies that most of humanity can serve little economically productive purpose. Whether universal basic income (UBI) or some other means, abundance should be shared and no massive portion of society should be left destitute.

That said, UBI or other means will not provide people with purpose or meaning – and indeed efforts to “give” people purpose and meaning cannot possibly give them what they’re after: Happiness.

Beyond UBI – Fulfillment Requires Augmentation

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology (the study of human wellbeing), has claimed that the goal of positive psychology should be to have 51% of the human population flourishing (read: fulfilled, eudaemonic) by 2051. I argue frankly that this cannot be done without altering the hardware and software that fetters us in pain and anxiety. This should be done as safely as possible, and with proper testing and iterations, but it’s required.*

A government that genuinely cares about the “net tonnage of human happiness” (a term from Martin Seligman that I rather like) of its people will move swiftly from providing for people’s needs, to augmenting their minds, and eventually to creating vast vistas of fulfillment beyond the human condition in some other substrate than the limited and hampered human mind.

The crux of the matter is that human beings aren’t happy animals. I’ve elaborated on this in great depth in my article about the biological impediments to human wellbeing. To quote Montaigne:

“Is it not a singular testimony of imperfection that we cannot establish our satisfaction in any one thing, and that even our own fancy and desire should deprive us of the power to choose what is most proper and useful for us? A very good proof of this is the great dispute that has ever been amongst the philosophers, of finding out man’s sovereign good, that continues yet, and will eternally continue, without solution or accord.”—Montaigne, Of a Saying of Caesar

“Universal Basic Happiness” – Governments and Wellbeing in the Future

Here’s how I suspect we’ll have to evolve beyond some kind of UBI scenario:

  • Well-fed people who don’t have to work but benefit from the abundance of some small set of super-productive companies will – of course – remain dissatisfied with their condition.
  • By this time – let’s say it’s the 2030s – some huge portion of society (particularly young people in the First World) will already be living 50% or more of their lives in entirely virtual reality space – mostly pursuing pleasure, but some for productive work as well. Some neural prosthetics (memory enhancement, wellbeing enhancement) will be available by this time. In general, the younger generation (Millenials and younger) will already consider happiness
  • Governments will attempt to provide virtual experiences (possibly combined with some pharmacological treatments) that provide more sustained wellbeing for the masses of people who, living in abundance without a way to contribute to society – or the happiness they might have imagined they’d have, wish to escape to something more pleasant than the human condition
  • People will initially derive happiness from traditionally human kinds of experiences – such as love, sex, creative expression, etc, but this will give way to augmented senses and sentient experience, and a vastly wider range of – reaching it’s height when (or if) human minds are uploaded into another more capable computational substrate

I consider Japan’s hikikomori phenomenon to be an overt precursor to this kind of future – as well as the video game obsessions of the youth in South Korea and the Netherlands. Once a civilization has achieved abundance, and happiness still isn’t there (given human mental hardware and software, there is no sustained happiness), what other option is there but escape?

We claw and scramble towards what we think will yeild our own wellbeing, and that road eventually leads beyond the human condition. In this way, human motives and drives will indeed tear us from humanity.

People may be happier when they are freer, but freedom and material wealth have done little to stave off depression and suicide in the developed world. An embarrassingly large part of our ranks pay for medication to improve their emotional state, despite the fact that we live like gods compared to our ancestors just two or three generations ago. People turn to the government to look out for their (the people’s) own best interest.

“Best interest” is a euphemism for happiness. End of story.

People want Universal Basic Happiness, not Universal Basic Income – the latter of which is a meager proxy for wellbeing, but not the emotional experience itself.

Eventually, governments will have to manage the lotus-eating portion of their population who demand sustained wellbeing without the hinderances of the human condition. UBI will – if enacted – showcase poignantly, that happiness can’t be found in our current form.

Grand questions loom:

  • Should we try to convince humanity to “work” even if there is no economic value to it?
  • Should the equivalent of wireheading or virtual escape be outlawed or looked down upon?
  • Who will have the position of greatest power ever on earth: The management of the computational substrate that houses most of human experience (i.e. who will own the virtual world simulations that people live in, and the AI that supports it)? (read: Substrate monopoly)

Those questions will here be left unanswered – and I don’t have a dogmatic answer to any of them, they’re all valid questions.

What does seem clear, is that the demands on governments will not ultimately be to provide citizens with “wealth” or “meaning”, but with “wellbeing”, and that this will involve a potentially very dangerous transition to augmenting our brains themselves. No technological abundance can compensate for the hedonic treadmill. Only new mental substrates can.


**Disclaimer 1 – I have nothing against the human mind. I’m grateful to have one, as it is the only thing we know of that would permit me to express my thoughts this way. What I’m getting at in this part of the article is that the mind is – on the whole – exceedingly limited in its ability to understand the cosmos, and in its ability to sustain wellbeing (see: “hedonic treadmill”, or the above quote by Montaigne).

**Disclaimer 2 – I received my Master’s degree in positive psychology from UPENN, in Seligman’s program. I have a respect for the discipline and its general direction, and I hope that its researchers and proponents will think about the future of fulfillment, and the direction of fulfillment beyond the current human condition.

Header image credit: Artvalue