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Nick Bostrom’s Deep Utopia

Courtesy nickbostrom.com
Courtesy nickbostrom.com

Review of Deep Utopia: Life and Meaning in a Solved World. Nick Bostrom. Ideapress publishing. March 27, 2024. 536 pages

I read Nick Bostrom’s new book Deep Utopia shortly after turning 30. It made me question the meaning of my existence. Bostrom, an Oxford University philosopher, explores what he hopes will happen if AI succeeds. He organizes the book into a series of dialogues between himself, students and fictional characters. Yet he forgets that no matter how equal humans are in utopia, some will be more equal than others. 

In his 2014 New York Times bestseller Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers and Strategies, Bostrom envisions what can go wrong when AI becomes smarter than humanity. In Deep Utopia, he imagines what could go right. How will we find purpose if superintelligent AI is able to do everything better than us? If all else fails, Bostrom continually reminds us we can use neurotechnology to feel perpetual bliss. 

The book is worth reading because the coming times are nearer than they appear. While most Homo sapiens are focused on today, Bostrom and his colleagues centered in Oxford at the Future of Humanity Institute are looking at the “deep future.” Where will we end up if we do not destroy ourselves first? It is no wonder why forward-thinkers like Bill Gates and Elon Musk as well as governments and insurance companies are interested in and fund this work. 

Yet we should all be inquisitive. If you are not already engaged, reading Deep Utopia is a good place to start. 

AI & the future of humanity is in the air. Carl Frey and Michael Osborne at the Oxford Internet Institute released a paper on workforce impacts of advances in technologies like ChatGPT a few days after Deep Utopia came out. Whereas Benedikt and Frey are focused on the short-term, Bostrom is looking at the long-term. 

Professor Bostrom builds off Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island. Island is the utopian opposite of Huxley’s earlier anti-utopian novel Brave New World. In the same sense, Deep Utopia is the opposite of Superintelligence. 

In his 2022 book Automation and the Future of Work, Syracuse University political scientist Aaron Benanav offers a fresh pessimistic view. He argues elites will be: “more focused on escaping in rockets to Mars than on improving the livelihoods of the digital peasantry who will be left behind on a burning planet Earth.” On the other hand, British writer Aaron Bastani expostulates that we can have “fully automated luxury communism.” 

Bostrom describes the first phase of deep utopia as a governance & cultural utopia, whether feminist or marxist or some other form. The second phase is a post scarcity utopia. Resources are abundant, but we have to work to put them to use. In the third phase, a post work utopia, nobody has to toil. We would be freed from the compulsion to sell our labor. 

Though nobody has to work, some may still do so to increase their social status. Status is a scarce commodity. Only so many people can go to Oxford or Harvard. Groucho Marx explained it best; He did not want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. 

Bill Gates does not have to work and could probably get into any club he wants. But for now, he still has to brush his teeth. He will be freed from this monotonic task in the fourth level, a post instrumental utopia. Gate’s teeth will be perfectly clean before he even realizes it. At the time of writing, Gates still has to go to the gym and exert effort to stay fit. But there will be no need to exercise when he can pop a pill or use nanobots and get better results. 

With the onset of the “global biomedical happiness revolution,” the problem is deep redundancy. Why do anything at all? Bostrom wonders: “What if we solved big problems like hunger and disease, and the world kept getting more peaceful: What purpose would humans have then?” 

Sensitive people can experience through others, and thus can enter into a world much bigger than their own with the help of a coffee pot, a stack of books and a recliner. For those who suffer from “boring proneness,” he suggests building sandcastles, bird watching and engaging in witty banter. Even if: “Brawling, stealing, overeating, drinking and sleeping late may not make for the best life, but even that could be a lot better than one of deprivation or incessant grind under the thumb of some mean and vexatious taskmaster.” Which is worse, being bored or exploited?

Bostrom writes about his friend who never seems bored. This friend is interested in and writes papers on many topics and attends all kinds of conferences. Some activities are autotelic, or inherently stimulating in their own right regardless of whether or not the activity is useful.  

In the final stage of plastic utopia, we can configure ourselves anyway we would like. Everything will be malleable, hackable and transferable. We would have control over our mental states. Brain editing will allow us to learn new skills and forget those that are no longer relevant on a whim. Our most useful option will be to serve as “feedstock for the machines.” 

If everybody is able to have a luxurious lifestyle, population growth would shoot up, meaning that in order to get population growth back down everybody would have to give up their utopia, ending the experiment in its infancy. Building off Fred Hirsch’s 1978 book The Social Limits of Growth, not to be confused with the Club of Rome’s 1972 book The Limits to Growth, Bostrom argues that because land is finite, human population must be controlled transnationally. In a past essay The World in 2050, Bostrom writes: “Even rapid space colonization…..will not be able to keep up with a free-breeding population of uploads.” 

Technology makes global coordination paradoxically easier and more difficult. “Some of these maneuvers may need to take place before technological progress pulls the knots so tight that no fingers can untie them.” Otherwise we will destroy the planet. 

Rates of growth a few hundred years ago would be “imperceptible” to people alive today. This began to change with industrialization and the spread of capitalism. Harry Braverman notes in his 1974 book Labor & Monopoly Capital that at the Ford Highland Park Plant: 

“Within three months, the assembly time for the Model T had been reduced to one-tenth the time formerly needed, and by 1925 an organization had been created which produced almost as many cars in a single day as had been produced, early in the history of the Model T, in an entire year.”  

According to the law of accelerating returns, growth is exponential: “We tend to think of this condition as normal, but if we zoom out we see that it is the most remarkable anomaly. It is as if our civilization is a powder keg, and we are witnessing it at the exact moment of ignition.” 

Bostrom mostly neglects class relations. During the first industrial revolution, Karl Marx showed that “free time for a few” is possible only because of this surplus labor time of the many:

“Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are the organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified.” 

In his 1930 essay “Boundaries of Utopia,” Aldous Huxley proclaims, “Every right, as we have seen, is something which we have at other people’s expense. The machine is the only ‘other person’ at whose expense we can have things with a good conscience and also the only ‘other person’ who becomes steadily more and more efficient.”

The difference between the fourth, fifth & sixth industrial revolutions from the first three is that machines will be able to generate new ideas. Humans will be irrelevant, unless they rush to merge with these machines. This truly will be the end of history. 

Yuval Noah Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and founder of Tel-Aviv based Sapienship & Sapienship.lab, argues in his 2017 bestseller Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow: “this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo Sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance.” He continues: 

“The main products of the twenty-first century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be far bigger than the gap between Dickens’s Britain and Mahdi’s Sudan. Indeed it will be bigger than the gap between Sapiens and Neanderthals. In the twenty-first century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.” 

Perhaps this is the most dangerous thing about Bostrom’s vision. Whether or not he is right, if some adopt his teachings as religion and believe it will happen, then everything that comes between arrival, no matter how terrible, can be justified. 

Take, for example, a suicide bomber. If they honestly believe that after dying they will go to paradise, then regardless of whether this is true, the act is in their eyes worth it. If some truly believe a Deep Utopia is possible, they may give grounds for anything done to reach it. Eric Burns wrote: “Humanity can be quite cold to those whose eyes see the world differently.”

Economist Friedrich List argued: “It is a very common device that when anyone has attained the summit of greatness, he kicks away the ladder by which he has climbed up, in order to deprive others of the means of climbing up after him.” He is referring not just to individuals, but entire nations. Will Silicon Valley elites redistribute their income to, say, the people of Pakistan or Chad? Probably not. Harari argues in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

“Perhaps the worst sin of present day science fiction is that it tends to confuse intelligence with consciousness. As a result, it is overly concerned about a potential war between robots and humans, when in fact we need to fear a conflict between a small superhuman elite empowered by algorithms and a vast underclass of disempowered Homo Sapiens. In thinking about the future of AI, Karl Marx is still a better guide than Steven Spielberg.”

For Yuval, “There is no justice in history. When disaster strikes, the poor almost always suffer far more than the rich, even if the rich caused the tragedy in the first place.” The wealthy and powerful could upgrade themselves to “superhumans” while leaving the rest of humanity to rot. Whereas in the twentieth-century liberalism focused on the importance of the individual, the underlying economic rationale was that elites needed employees, soldiers and farmers. In the twenty-first century, the elites will no longer need the masses and may abandon them.

Bostrom writes: “With sufficiently advanced automation technology, capital becomes a substitute for labor.” It is not the worker who makes use of the machine, but the machine that makes use of the worker until it no longer needs them.   Historians Elizabeth Fox Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese wrote: “history is the story of who rides whom and how.” This raises the question: utopia for who? 

David Noble, a social historian of labor and automation, argues: “Finally, if technological development is a social process, it is, like all social processes, marked by conflict and struggle, and the outcome, therefore, is always ultimately indeterminate.” Whereas Garrison Keiler focuses on Yoshua Bengio’s worry that robots will kill us all in his recent Jacobin cover story, Harari argues we should be worried that this ends in the extinction of most, but not all, of us. Alex Press’s recent Jacobin column chronicles how Amazon and Walmart are using emerging technologies to surveil and speedup workers. She quotes a worker: “I feel like we’re living through . . . a Gilded Age where these people are getting so wealthy and consuming so much wealth, and what you’re seeing is that none of that wealth is trickling down to the people who made it happen.” You would have to be a prozac-addicted optimist to think the future will be as utopic for workers as it will be for Jeff Bezos and the Walton family. 

AI is a force that can be used for bad or good. +972 magazine recently revealed the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are using AI to bomb targets in Gaza. To quote William Gibson: “the future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” 

Nick Bostrom’s thought-provoking book raises essential questions about the value of existence and our potential future. While it presents a compelling vision of a world where suffering is eradicated through advanced neurotechnology and drugs, the book overlooks the complexities of class relations. Bostrom’s work challenges us to consider the implications of a “solved world” and engages us in an age-old philosophical conversation about finding meaning in life. We must carefully navigate the ethical questions and potential pitfalls that arise from our pursuit of unending bliss, fostering meaningful dialogue about the transformative power of emerging technologies

About the Author
Dan is a historian and human rights advocate
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