Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Purpose7 min read

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The AI revolution is here. In the next few years, it may radically change the way you live, or at least the way you work. The work you do will likely be replaced by bots who can do it better than any human ever could. How can we find purpose in such a world? Will we still be needed? This article is my take on this problem, informed by my optimism and spiritual nature.

Many are concerned about the economic and sociological aspects of this change. If AI is going to replace most jobs, how will we survive? Some people argue that we are moving to a post-scarcity world, where everybody’s basic life needs will be met, as we all receive a universal basic income. This is not my area of expertise, so I won’t speculate.

The deeper question for me is: how will we find purpose? Even if our survival and physical needs are all effortlessly met in this futuristic utopia, what guarantees that we will not end up like the consumerist characters of Wall-E—addicted to dopamine and devoid of any meaningful pursuit in life?

In the past decades, our world has moved in this direction rapidly—most people are addicted to the ongoing dopamine hits delivered by various apps, services, and technologies. The result of this we all know: a rise in depression, suicide, and several mental health conditions, together with an epidemic of loneliness, and a crisis of meaning.

Mindful Self-Discipline goes in the opposite direction. It is all about finding and living your aspirations, prioritizing purpose over pleasure, and fulfillment over comfort. It’s about mastering the first and last challenge of mankind: instant gratification. From the metaphorical apple in the Garden of Eden to the sea of never-ending overstimulation that technology can provide, the challenge has been the same.

It is only when we are fired up with a sense of purpose that we can win this battle. It is our aspirations that prompt us to focus all our energy on one thing, find strength to go through ordeals, and tap into our full potential. Without a sense of purpose we can live, but not thrive; we can function, but we won’t become what we were born to be. We would be living unconsciously, in automatic mode—not unlike the machines we may come to resent.

Finding purpose and living an aspiration-driven life will become more important than ever. In fact, in the next few decades, survival of the fittest might mean survival of the purposeful. The disciplined shall inherit the earth.

Finding Purpose in Work

There are three main ways we can find purpose in our lives:

  • Through work
  • Through connection
  • Through growth (personal and spiritual)

Most knowledge work will become obsolete very soon. Machines are becoming intelligent, and trying to compete with them will be pointless. Our brains will not be needed for that type of task. Unfortunately, that will lead to many people ending their lives—not because they are losing their jobs, but because, being devoid of the meaning provided by purpose, they are losing their minds.

Work that is not solely cognitive will stay around for longer. Likewise for work that requires a genuine human connection. AI will likely replace doctors, lawyers, and programmers more quickly than hairdressers, cooks, and therapists. So I predict more people will embrace these types of work.

Finding meaning through knowledge work will still be possible, provided we tap into our inherently human qualities: creativity, intuition, and emotion. These are things that robots can try to imitate but never really have.

  • They can find novel solutions to problems by linking billions of data points, but they can’t connect to the universal mind or collective unconscious (however you want to call it) to “receive” a solution from that infinite intelligence.
  • Future humanoid robots might be able to imitate emotion quite well, by saying the right words and producing the right facial expressions, but they can’t create the felt, subjective, and energetic aspect of an emotion, because they do not have it.

Here is where many people might disagree.

Look at consciousness as a function of matter and you have science. Look at matter as the product of consciousness and you have spirituality.

— Nisargadatta Maharaj

Those with a spiritualist worldview believe that intuition, creativity, and feelings come from our consciousness, not from the body. Even though they have correlates in the body and the brain, in the form of electrical impulses and chemical reactions, that is the effect of the real phenomenon, not the cause. It is the smoke, not the fire.

Those with a materialistic worldview believe that the brain produces consciousness; therefore, they naturally believe that any physical device capable of replicating the brain’s functions will be able to create emotion and consciousness. They also believe that what we call intuition is nothing but the brain linking previously stored information without our conscious awareness of it. They see only the smoke and find no reason to believe that there is fire behind it, for no modern scientific equipment has been able to measure it.

Needless to say, materialists will have a much harder time finding purpose. They already do.

Finding Purpose in Connection

We also find purpose through human connection. When two minds are in sync and two hearts are beating together, we have a reason for being. We are happy to be alive, and in that moment have no doubts about the purpose of life.

This can happen throughout the myriad of human relationships—in family, romance, friendship, sports, mentoring, and social work. As our consciousness expands beyond the limits of our ego, it gives us access to a wider and deeper life.

I’m optimistic that, over time, technology will help us be more connected. Not because it will make instant communication even easier, but because, in replacing all the need for knowledge work, it will force us to reconnect with the parts of ourselves we have left behind: our body and hearts. Either we will do that, or we will perish for lack of meaning.

Since the Enlightenment period, we have valued reason, thought, and logic above all else. As a result of this, in the last 300 years, humanity evolved science and technology to great heights. There was the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, then the digital revolution. Throughout these, the nature of work became more and more cerebral.

With the AI revolution, we are soon getting to a point in this cycle where this type of work is no longer needed. Collecting information, processing it, and spitting it out in a different format will soon no longer be a job humans need to do. Some people will take this as a precious opportunity to leave our screens behind, stop trying to be productivity machines, and re-discover what it means to be human.

The supremacy of reason over emotion, analysis over intuition, work over connection, and knowledge over art, might be coming to an end. Reason, analysis, work, and knowledge will be things that the machines we’ve built will do for us; emotion, intuition, connection, and art will be the things that we do.

Finding Purpose in Growth

The third way we can find purpose in an AI-dominated world is by seeking growth. When you are pursuing mastery over any topic, skill, or art, you are moved by a purpose. You feel more energized, more focused, and more engaged with life. The joy of exploring new worlds, expanding your horizons, and breaking through your limitations is its own reward.

There are endless avenues to explore human growth. Some will be moved to explore physical growth through sports, strength training, and health optimization; others might be interested in mastering a musical instrument, foreign language, or art form. Some people will only find meaning in exploring philosophy, psychological growth, and spirituality—a deeper and irreplaceable form of connection.

Whatever shape that takes, pursuing growth and mastery will remain a source of purpose in human life, even if there is no particular use for it in society. The growth itself is the purpose.

  • People still train in martial arts even though we have invented fire weapons (a much more efficacious form of self-defense).
  • People still lift weights to make their bodies strong, even though that is not required for their daily lives.
  • People ride horses, even though we can travel faster by car, train, or plane.

Some people still memorize whole books or train for memory championships, even though we can have quick access to all information with the tap of a finger.

So people will still draw, write, and imagine, even though we can ask a bot to create something simply by asking. The purpose here is not the utility of the end result, but the transformation of the process itself. Every creative process, every process of growth, is at the end a process of self-mastery.

People will still love to create even if robots can create better, because the creative process is, in itself, meaningful. You conceive of a possibility and then stretch yourself to actualize it into a reality. There is something sacred and awe-inspiring about that. It is the manifestation of the creative potential of consciousness—perhaps the very purpose of existence itself.

Final Thoughts

A human being wrote this article. At this point, AI can’t really write an article like this (I tried). In the near future, it might be able to, but I believe it still won’t be the same thing. It can say similar things, but it won’t have felt those words; they will have come from data points, not unique insights. They won’t have any prana in them. Some people won’t care because they can’t see the difference—just like many people eat junk food and don’t care. But others will.

Maybe this is me as a writer deluding myself about the future need for my job. It doesn’t matter. Writing is my craft, and the process itself is meaningful and transformative, even if a bot can write better.

We are in the early days of the AI revolution, and a lot of people are panicking about what it will mean for their livelihoods. While that is an important problem to solve, the deeper problem is how we will find purpose—so that we not only survive but thrive. Without a sense of purpose, we ultimately become just consumers, dopamine addicts to a world that no longer needs us.

Finding purpose through creative work, human connection, growth, and self-mastery is now more important than ever. Are you giving this the space it deserves in your life?

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