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Is AI redefining how we find meaning?
Jasmine Wang and Iain S. Thomas on how AI will redefine the ways we approach meaning, identity, and labor
“There is something scary in the fact that one of the scariest things that we can think of right now is the idea that we might have to work less. What does that mean about us as a culture?”
–Iain S. Thomas
Technologist Jasmine Wang and poet Iain S. Thomas fed the Bible, Koran, and other texts by authors like Marcus Aurelius, Maya Angelou, and Leonard Cohen to an AI. Then they asked it questions about life, including: Where we do begin? What does it mean to love? Why do we suffer? Jasmine and Iain share the AI’s responses and their thoughts about how AI could change the way we pursue meaning in our lives.
You can catch the complete episode (1 hour, 3 minutes) on YouTube.
During the pandemic, Iain’s mother passed away. Unable to be with her, Iain describes her death as a traumatic experience that left him unable to explain what happened to his children. Through their work together at a copywriting AI startup, Jasmine introduced Iain to GPT-3. Fascinated by the technology, Iain asked it, “How do I explain death to my children?” GPT-3 gave a poetic response, inspiring Iain to explore AI further and collaborate with Jasmine on what eventually became their book, What Makes Us Human? The book compiles all of GPT-3’s answers to some of life’s hardest questions.
Since Jasmine and Iain trained GPT-3 using spiritual and philosophical works like the Bible, Tao Te Ching, and Koran, they describe their book as a conversation with “a chorus of our ancestors.” In a way, GPT-3’s responses act as a reflection of humanity’s wisdom. Three common themes appeared throughout its answers:
The most important thing is love.
We must focus on the present moment.
We are fundamentally connected to each other and the world around us.
Iain and Jasmine share a positive view on AI as a way to connect people across religion and politics. Hoping that it can bring universal basic income into reality, Jasmine believes AI could even raise our baseline standard of living.
AI will force us to rethink fundamental aspects of our identity, like our role in society. We so often define ourselves by our work (hi workism). In the U.S. in particular, hard work is central to the American dream. But as new advancements continue to displace workers, Jasmine and Iain agree that AI will upend how we view ourselves.
“We currently see ourselves almost as purely economic beings,” Jonathan observes. “You come into somebody at a party and within the first few minutes, you ask them, ‘What do you do for a living?’ So much of our status and who we are is derived from what we do for work, how we create economic value within culture—and I think that’s crazy.”
In other words—if AI will eventually be able to do much of our work, how will we derive meaning from our lives? If there’s no economic gain, will we still pursue mastery of certain things? Or will we just do things for joy alone?
Jasmine doesn’t believe AI makes any activities less meaningful. She points to things like riding horses and drawing with pencil and paper—people continue to do these in spite of there being tech that serves the same purpose. Ideally, by taking over work that’s dangerous, monotonous, and not high-leverage, AI will free people to pursue more of the things they want to do.
If one sentence could capture the last 12 months’ general sentiment about technology in the workplace, it would be this: “AI is coming for our jobs.”
I have heard this, I have read this, and I have felt this—especially as someone who writes for a living. But unexpectedly, Jasmine and Iain turn this idea on its head for me because rather than talking about AI with doom and gloom, they offer a brighter view of what AI could actually mean for our day to day. Like having more free time to do the things you want to do and maybe being less likely to measure your self-worth by your work output. It’s a much rosier take on the reality of AI-driven job displacement.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to this future, good and bad. (According to Iain, the upsides and downsides of AI are infinite.) But when AI inevitably comes for our jobs, it’s certainly nicer—even kind of exciting—to think about its impact in these less threatening terms.
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