The fundamental complementarity of consciousness and work

Matter can experience things. For instance, when it is a person. Matter can also do work, and thereby provide value to the matter that can experience things. For instance, when it is a machine. Or also, when it is a person.

An important question for what the future looks like, is whether it is more efficient to carry out these functions separately or together.

If separately, then perhaps it is best that we end up with a huge pile of unconscious machinery, doing all the work to support and please a separate collection of matter specializing in being pleased.

If together, then we probably end up with the value being had by the entities doing the work.

I think we see people assuming that it is more efficient to separate the activities of producing and consuming value. For instance, that the entities whose experiences matter in the future will ideally live a life of leisure. And that lab grown meat is a better goal than humane farming.

Which seems plausible. It is at least in line with the general observation that more efficient systems seem to be specialized.

However I think this isn’t obvious. Some reasons we might expect working and benefiting from work to be done by overlapping systems:

  • We don’t know which systems are conscious. It might be that highly efficient work systems tend to be unavoidably conscious. In which case, making their experience good rather than bad could be a relatively cheap way to improve the overall value of the world.
  • For humans, doing purposeful activities is satisfying, so much so that there are concerns about how humans will cope when they are replaced by machines. It might be hard for humans to avoid being replaced, since they are probably much less efficient than other possible machines. But if doing useful things tends to be gratifying for creatures—or for the kinds of creatures we decide are good to have—then it is less obvious that highly efficient creatures won’t be better off doing work themselves, rather than being separate from it.
  • Consciousness is presumably cheap and useful for getting something done, since we evolved to have it.
  • Efficient production doesn’t seem to evolve to be entirely specialized, especially if we take an abstract view of ‘production’. For instance, it is helpful to produce the experience of being a sports star alongside the joy of going to sports games.
  • Specialization seems especially helpful if keeping track of things is expensive. However technology will make that cheaper, so perhaps the world will tend less toward specialization than it currently seems. For instance, you would prefer plant an entire field of one vegetable than a mixture, because then when you harvest them, you can do it quickly without sorting them. But if sorting them is basically immediate and free, you might prefer to plant the mixture. For instance, if they take different nutrients from the soil, or if one wards of insects that would eat the other.

7 responses to “The fundamental complementarity of consciousness and work

  1. I’d like to add one more reason: If we conscious beings become totally alienated from the process of production, we will surely miss out on opportunities to improve on the production techniques. With human outsourcing, we generally have the process engineers in the first world and the floor workers and managers somewhere in the third. But I’m pretty sure that it will be whose people on the floor who will be the first to spot the bugs in the processes and to invent ways that those processes can be improved. That’s a key mechanism behind the knowledge transfer that comes with outsourcing. But now imagine that there is nobody on the production floor. It’s not hard to imagine the process getting stuck at sub-optimal equilibria.

  2. This seems true and important. There also seems to be a thing where people who assume that specialization along this axis is better in the long run aestheticize it, and try to behave as though it were already the way to go, even in cases where it is clearly not.

    For instance, while some consumption of Soylent seems to be beneficial on the margin for some people, I get a strong vibe that many people who badly need more access to embodied cognition are consuming it as part of an aestheticization of disembodiment. Even if the glorious transhumanist future would be specialized in this way (though you bring up powerful considerations that point the other way) we’re very much not there yet.

    • To unpack the Soylent example a bit: there are two sides to this dichotomy people can take. You can choose to identify as a consumer / moral patient, or you can choose to identify as a productive cog. Either way you end up alienated from your labor. In the first case, at least you have some nice things along the way, if you still have enough good taste to recognize them. In the second case, you reject nice things as useless luxuries.

  3. The point about people tending to be satisfied when they do useful work seems kinda irrelevant. I mean we are considering futures where we are able to engage in fairly extensive modifications of the way experiencing matter is structured so presumably one could just make that matter satisfied with sitting on its ass.

    Or are you suggesting some kind of fundamental law connecting the possibility of experiencing pleasure with doing useful tasks? I’m skeptical.

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  5. This is a very plausible claim. But I think your list is missing perhaps the strongest argument for it (unless this is what you meant by your bullet point #2, in which case I apologise). It’s that we know that matter *can* be conscious and happy while doing productive work, and so unless we have some reason to expect matter specialised to be conscious but also sedentary to be far more effective at having positive experiences than working matter, we’re overwhelmingly better off having our conscious matter recoup the cost of generating its experiences as far as possible, as it does while working, rather than eat resources and recoup nothing, as it does while sedentary.

    Imagine if instead of positive conscious experience, we wanted to maximise purple things. The obvious best way to do this would not be to have non-purple machines make purple cushions (or similar). It would be to have purple machines make more purple machines. It could be the case that some machines are so much less productive when purple that we’re better off painting them some other colour. But for the purple things we do make, it seems almost inevitable that we’d be better off having them be machines too – even if they would be less productive than non-purple machines – unless for some reason purple cushions or some other unproductive item can somehow be much more purple than purple machines can. And even then the difference would have to be pretty significant in order to not make it worth producing *any* purple machines.


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