“If you had a machine that could do anything, what should it do?”

Artificial Intelligence is going to change our society in ways we cannot currently imagine. This is going to be a question we find ourselves facing: How should we use this powerful AI as it emerges? Within the AI community, there’s lots of speculation about what this future will look like. And more recently, people beyond AI are starting to think about how AI will affect our material well-being. In this Substack, I will explore the impact of AI on what it means to be human.

This project has two parts:

One is to talk about AI with people who aren’t directly involved in it. Part of the problem with current AI discourse is that it’s dominated by people who spend almost all their time thinking about AI. They read the same books. They work at the same companies. They live in the same cities. They dropped out of the same undergraduate major. They more or less share a worldview, and therefore tend to see things in the same way. What do other people—who may be less familiar with the technology, but are concerned about a different set of problems—see when they look at AI?

The point of the Meaning Lab podcast is to talk to experts, scientists, authors, poets, practitioners, novelists—anyone who is thinking about aspects of AI that might not be obvious to the kinds of people who are developing it.

The second part of the project is to grapple with how AI will change our conception of ourselves as humans and our place in the world. For example, deindustrialization had a serious impact on the American middle class. We’re still dealing with the consequences of populations of people who used to work in steel mills and coal mines, and then were forced to take up jobs as Uber drivers or Amazon warehouse workers. It’s not just a problem of how much money they’re making; it completely changed their sense of identity and purpose. Imagine if the same thing happened today, but to the class we normally think of as the “knowledge worker.”

Overall, my goal is to answer this question about what we should do we increasingly powerful AI from a diverse and humanistic perspective. My hope is that not only will it help us figure out what to do with emerging AI technology — but will also uncover something fundamental about what it means to be human.

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Cody finished his PhD in experimental psychology from Oxford in November 2022. He writes and hosts the Meaning Lab blog/podcast. He currently splits his time between London, Saigon, and Seattle.