The meaning of life in a world without work

May 18, 2017

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. Many new professions are likely to appear: virtual-world designers, for example. But such professions will probably require more creativity and flexibility, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old unemployed taxi drivers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if the ex-insurance agent somehow makes the transition into a virtual-world designer, the pace of progress is such that within another decade he might have to reinvent himself yet again.

The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

The same technology that renders humans useless might also make it feasible to feed and support the unemployable masses through some scheme of universal basic income. The real problem will then be to keep the masses occupied and content. People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day?

One answer might be computer games. Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside. This, in fact, is a very old solution. For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions”.

What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).

As religions show us, the virtual reality need not be encased inside an isolated box. Rather, it can be superimposed on the physical reality. In the past this was done with the human imagination and with sacred books, and in the 21st century it can be done with smartphones.

Some time ago I went with my six-year-old nephew Matan to hunt for Pokémon. As we walked down the street, Matan kept looking at his smartphone, which enabled him to spot Pokémon all around us. I didn’t see any Pokémon at all, because I didn’t carry a smartphone. Then we saw two others kids on the street who were hunting the same Pokémon, and we almost got into a fight with them. It struck me how similar the situation was to the conflict between Jews and Muslims about the holy city of Jerusalem. When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.

The idea of finding meaning in life by playing virtual reality games is of course common not just to religions, but also to secular ideologies and lifestyles. Consumerism too is a virtual reality game. You gain points by acquiring new cars, buying expensive brands and taking vacations abroad, and if you have more points than everybody else, you tell yourself you won the game.

You might object that people really enjoy their cars and vacations. That’s certainly true. But the religious really enjoy praying and performing ceremonies, and my nephew really enjoys hunting Pokémon. In the end, the real action always takes place inside the human brain. Does it matter whether the neurons are stimulated by observing pixels on a computer screen, by looking outside the windows of a Caribbean resort, or by seeing heaven in our mind’s eyes? In all cases, the meaning we ascribe to what we see is generated by our own minds. It is not really “out there”. To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. The meaning of life is always a fictional story created by us humans.

In his groundbreaking essay, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1973), the anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes how on the island of Bali, people spent much time and money betting on cockfights. The betting and the fights involved elaborate rituals, and the outcomes had substantial impact on the social, economic and political standing of both players and spectators.

The cockfights were so important to the Balinese that when the Indonesian government declared the practice illegal, people ignored the law and risked arrest and hefty fines. For the Balinese, cockfights were “deep play” – a made-up game that is invested with so much meaning that it becomes reality. A Balinese anthropologist could arguably have written similar essays on football in Argentina or Judaism in Israel.

Indeed, one particularly interesting section of Israeli society provides a unique laboratory for how to live a contented life in a post-work world. In Israel, a significant percentage of ultra-orthodox Jewish men never work. They spend their entire lives studying holy scriptures and performing religion rituals. They and their families don’t starve to death partly because the wives often work, and partly because the government provides them with generous subsidies. Though they usually live in poverty, government support means that they never lack for the basic necessities of life.

That’s universal basic income in action. Though they are poor and never work, in survey after survey these ultra-orthodox Jewish men report higher levels of life-satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society. In global surveys of life satisfaction, Israel is almost always at the very top, thanks in part to the contribution of these unemployed deep players.

You don’t need to go all the way to Israel to see the world of post-work. If you have at home a teenage son who likes computer games, you can conduct your own experiment. Provide him with a minimum subsidy of Coke and pizza, and then remove all demands for work and all parental supervision. The likely outcome is that he will remain in his room for days, glued to the screen. He won’t do any homework or housework, will skip school, skip meals and even skip showers and sleep. Yet he is unlikely to suffer from boredom or a sense of purposelessness. At least not in the short term.

Hence virtual realities are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class of the post-work world. Maybe these virtual realities will be generated inside computers. Maybe they will be generated outside computers, in the shape of new religions and ideologies. Maybe it will be a combination of the two. The possibilities are endless, and nobody knows for sure what kind of deep plays will engage us in 2050.

In any case, the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles. Eighteenth-century English country squires, present-day ultra-orthodox Jews, and children in all cultures and eras have found a lot of interest and meaning in life even without working. People in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.

But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already.

  • Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/08/virtual-reality-religion-robots-sapiens-book#img-1

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The Internet Allowed Us to Learn Anything—VR Will Let Us Experience Everything

January 23, 2016

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I have something to admit—to this day, I’m in awe of Wikipedia. Humanity has created a massive repository of our knowledge available for free to anyone with an Internet connection. All of our presidents and kings, theories and discoveries, just waiting to be read about and discovered. About once a month I’ll lose an afternoon to some obscure topic.

It’s not just Wikipedia, though. The Internet has liberated information from the constraints of the physical world and essentially made the sharing of information free and unlimited for everyone. From communicating with friends on free Skype calls to taking university-level classes on Coursera and Udacity, our current access and connectivity dwarfs anything we’ve seen before.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember what an astounding leap we’ve made in our ability to share information. Reading books used to be the domain of only the privileged elite, while long-distance communication was either impossible or prohibitively expensive. Now both are cheap, convenient, and nearly instantaneous.

By democratizing the availability of information, the Internet has massively evened the playing field around the world by allowing anyone to contribute and learn from the global community.

The problem with the Internet is that while it is a fantastic tool for spreading information, sometimes information without experience can lose its impact. Massive open online courses have fantastic content, yet a very low percentage of students end up finishing them. It’s great to see my friend’s posts on Instagram and Snapchat, but nothing beats being together in person. And no matter how many times I’ve read about the Apollo 11 mission, I’ve never taken a step on the moon.

But that’s all going to change. Just as the Internet and smartphones have enabled the rapid and cheap sharing of information, virtual reality will be able to provide the same for experiences. That means that just as we can read, listen to, and watch videos of anything we want today, soon we’ll be able to experience stunning lifelike simulations in virtual reality.

And just as the democratization of information reshaped society, this is going to have a massive impact on the way we work, live, and play.

The Teleportation Device

By now, you’ve probably heard about the virtual reality resurgence led by Oculus. Virtual reality is an extremely hot field, with hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and basically every big name technology or media company getting in on the VR gold rush.

And if you’ve met VR true believers, you know the near fanatical interest they have in VR.

But why? What is it about these goofy ski goggles that has so thoroughly captured the hearts and minds of technologists across the globe?

It all boils down to one word: presence. Presence is the phenomenon that occurs when your brain is convinced, on a fundamental and subconscious level, that the VR simulation you are experiencing is real.

This doesn’t mean that you forget you’re in a simulation. But it does mean that when you ride a VR roller coaster, you feel it.

The Internet made the world smaller. VR is about to make it exhilarating.

Want to watch the Super Bowl from the fifty-yard line? Be on stage at your favorite concert? Or just visit and explore a faraway country? Well, that’s exactly what Mark Zuckerberg wants you to be able to do on the Oculus Rift.

Welcome to virtual reality in 2016. You can do all of this today, and it’s only going to get better. Lifelike, immersive, and available to anyone with a VR headset. Using 360-degree video and light field technology, we can now capture real-life events and distribute them to anyone, anywhere.

Soon you’ll be able to explore every city, watch every sports game, and explore the universe in VR. Content plus presence is an extremely potent combination.

But everything is more fun with a friend. Luckily, you’ll never have to be alone in VR.

The Magic Mirror

Part of the great sadness of the modern world is being able to text, call, and video chat with friends and family from all over the planet but never truly feel like you’re with them. Sometimes this ghost of a connection can paradoxically be worse than nothing, being just realistic enough to make you miss your loved ones without feeling the true warmth of their presence.

We now know that the very magic of virtual reality comes from presence. Multi-user virtual reality can enable a specific kind of phenomenon—social presence.

Just as presence in virtual reality occurs when your brain believes on a fundamental level that the scene you are experiencing is real, social presence can convince your brain to believe that the other people in the VR experience are really there with you.

That means that all of those experiences we’re excited about in VR, we’ll be able to experience with anyone we choose as if we’re all really there. An average Tuesday night in the VR future could include dropping into a professional conference with a coworker of yours, watching a football game with your father on the other side of the country, then hopping into a VR concert with your best friend from high school—all without leaving the house.

Now, nothing is going to replace spending quality time with the people around you, but technology at its best expands the opportunities for human creativity and communication to flourish—and VR is a massive step forward for this.

The Next Revolution

The rise of the Internet was one of the most profound developments of the past century. The Internet famously allowed the futurist Ray Kurzweil to conclude that “A kid in Africa has access to more information than the president of the United States did 15 years ago.” Well, pretty soon, that kid is going to have more opportunity for experiences too.

Pretty soon, we’ll be learning in virtual-reality classrooms, shopping at virtual-reality stores, and even working in virtual-reality offices.

We can only begin to speculate on the long-term consequences of this. How are cities affected when the VR office becomes the standard? How will the entertainment industry respond to live-streamed VR sports and concerts? Can we finally create a digital university that surpasses the quality of our oldest and grandest learning institutions?

Sometimes this all seems hard to fathom. Could we really see these massive changes coming in just a few short years?

When I consider the nearness of these changes, I keep returning to the Internet, to Wikipedia—one of the greatest creations of the Internet and the democratization of information.

After that, it doesn’t seem so unlikely after all.

http://singularityhub.com/2015/12/29/the-internet-allowed-us-to-learn-anything-vr-will-let-us-experience-it/?utm_content=buffer3b7c7&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Virtual reality, the death of morality, and the perils of making the virtual ever more real

October 12, 2014

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As the technology that underpins virtual reality develops and the experiences become increasingly more real, I’ve been pondering a particularly morbid thought: When will we have the first VR-induced death? Will a realistic rocket launcher blast in Team Fortress 2 or VR version of Silent Hill give you a heart attack? Will watching the chase sequence in Casino Royale in full VR 3D pump enough adrenaline into your system that your heart beat becomes arrhythmic, eventually leading to death? Will a a VR experience be so realistic that you get so swept up in the moment that you run into a wall or jump out a window?

I’ve always been fascinated by the interrelationship of real and virtual worlds, and how technological advancement has brought them steadily closer and closer together until it can be very hard to discern the virtual from the real. The simplest virtual worlds — those created in your head with your imagination, perhaps with the aid of a good book — are very easily differentiated from reality (by most humans, anyway). Early digital virtual worlds, like EverQuest or Discworld MUD, started to blur the lines with persistence, graphics, and other interactive elements that trigger very real-world reactions (both physical and psychosomatic). And now, as we move into an era of ultra-high-resolution displays, 3D audio, and advanced AI, it’s possible to create some very real virtual worlds indeed.

I don’t think we’ve yet seen someone actually scared to death by a modern 3D/VR setup, but it’s only a matter of time. The precedent hascertainly been set over the last few years, though, especially when it comes to MMOs and other “grindy” games — there have been a handful of cases of people dying of exhaustion because they neglected their basic needs (food, sleep, exercise). In some cases, these people had some kind of underlying condition that made such physically and emotionally intensive experiences more likely to cause death — but as the technology becomes ever more immersive, and designers and architects create games and virtual worlds that are indiscernible from the real thing, I think VR death will be a somewhat regular occurrence.

Even if you don’t agree that VR will scare people to death, at the very least I think we can agree that full VR experiences will be incredibly absorbing. If an MMO like World of Warcraft or Lineage can keep people sitting down for days on end, VR will up the ante considerably. I’m not saying that people will start dropping like flies as soon as the first immersive VR experiences become readily available, but there will definitely be more deaths from exhaustion and users generally not looking after their physical and emotional needs.

Kil'jaedan kill shot (Iron Edge, Delling)

This is before we consider the other inevitable VR-related problems that will be caused by misuse of the technology, irresponsible developers, and dozens of other indirect issues. If an iPod and some headphones can distract someone enough that they walk into the path of some traffic or an oncoming train, imagine the perils of using VR outside the safety of room; even wandering around your house could be dangerous. Despite the relatively low-quality VR produced by Oculus Rift, there are already reports of people experiencing the odd sensation of a fraying, blurring divide between real and virtual that persists for a few minutes after detaching from a VR device. A curious and/or malevolent game developer, after getting a taste for the immersion provided by VR, could easily craft an experience that’s intended to cause mental or physical harm.

Indirectly, but still significantly, a whole host of issues might arise if a significant proportion of the populace are constantly strapped into their VR setup. There have already been a few sad cases of parents being so engrossed by a virtual world that their baby/child died from neglect — or worse – and I’m sure it’ll only get worse as advanced VR tech matures.

http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/190612-virtual-reality-the-death-of-morality-and-the-perils-of-making-the-virtual-more-real

 

This weird exoskeleton adds the sensation of touch to virtual reality

October 5, 2014

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Virtual reality is so much more than visuals, but most of what we’re used to seeing is little more than head-tracking and 3D imagery in a head-mounted display. For real immersion, VR is going to need to take advantage of the other senses as well. Touch and smell are just as important as sight and sound, but those are much harder problems to solve. Thankfully, a company by the name of Dexta Robotics is developing a peripheral to simulate the sensation of touch in a virtual world.

We’re on the brink of a massive wave of consumer-friendly virtual reality solutions. The Oculus Rift has stirred up enough interest over the last year or two that everyone from tiny engineering projects to giant corporations are investigating VR. However, nearly everything we’ve seen is focused on the motion-tracking and display parts of the VR equation. Thankfully, this mechanical exoskeleton dubbed the “Dexmo F2” is being designed specifically to give you the experience of touching a solid object.

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/B1ZQSoBAP7o?list=UU72fspx0dMe4EnGQJzoa6oA

In a Q&A on Reddit, a Dexta representative went into the details of how this oddball mechanical skeleton works. In this early model, the pointer finger and the thumb are fitted with a tiny disc braking system that prevents the joints from moving past a specific point. If you’re trying to pick up a virtual object, your finger and thumb will actually meet resistance like it would if you were picking up an object in the real world.

Unfortunately, this prototype doesn’t have the ability to convey exactly how firm the object in question is. As it stands, the brakes are either on or off — there is no middle ground. It’s disappointing, but remember that this is extremely early on in the life of virtual touch. To keep costs down, this early model doesn’t even have the ability to simulate touch on the other three fingers. The prototype will supposedly be available through a Kickstarter campaign later this month for under $200, so keep that in mind before you go off and pre-order a Dexmo F2 for your very own.

This implementation is bulky, cumbersome, limited in scope, and extremely unattractive, but don’t let that fool you. If we want real virtual reality, we have to go through some growing pains. Of course your grandpa is never going to strap on this weird mechanical spider, but this kind of research is a stepping stone to true Matrix-style immersion.

http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/191404-this-weird-exoskeleton-adds-the-sensation-of-touch-to-virtual-reality