During the Second World War, allied forces set up bases on islands around the Pacific that were home to a people who were, technologically, primitive. The indigenous population observed how the men who had come to the island engaged in most perplexing behaviour. This included such strange acts as persuading local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march up and down, and other actions which, so far as the local people could tell, served no real purpose whatsoever.

But then something happened which revealed the reason behind these strange actions. Huge metal birds appeared in the sky and, upon landing, disgorged from their bellies a bounty of food and material possessions. The local people figured that the strange acts were rituals those men performed in order to persuade the gods to come down and distribute material wealth among the people. By emulating those rituals, surely the local people could likewise encourage the gods to come down and give away food and luxury items. It sure beat working for it!

And so, the ‘cargo cult’ was born.

So far (perhaps unsurprisingly) cargo cultists have had no luck in persuading gods to shower the people with material comforts, despite their building runways and control towers out of bamboo and other local materials, and reproducing as best they can the ‘rituals’ that seemed to work for the Allied forces. But perhaps we, in the future, really could live in a world where material comfort comes with little effort beyond calling on the ‘gods’ to deliver it.

We see signs of this eventual reality already. If you search for ‘Amazon Robot Warehouse’ on you tube you will find video footage of robots produced by the company Kiva, whose job it is to fetch shelves containing desired items, all under the control of an algorithm that knows the location of all the thousands of shelves in Amazon warehouses. And in another example of automating their services, Amazon demonstrated a novel delivery system whereby a package was delivered by a quad-copter, guided to the correct location via GPS tracking.

Of course, the automation of Amazon’s business is far from complete, as is the automation of the economy in general. We do still have jobs that only humans can be reliably tasked to do. But there may come a day when that is no longer the case; when robots and the artificial intelligence that controls them are capable enough to be put to any conceivable task. With appropriate reconfigurations of our societies, we could live in extreme comfort, having offloaded responsibility for creating and distributing material wealth to our smart technologies.

But, then, what becomes of us? Obviously we would not be under any illusion that we are being served by gods who answer whenever we call, because we are too technologically sophisticated to think of an automated economy in that way. But how else might our behaviour change?


A common response to the possibility of a world in which all jobs are performed by robots is to think that everybody will become bone idle. We will all lounge around popping peeled grapes into our mouths, with no need or desire to get up and do anything productive.

And yet, to our modern minds, the visions of Heaven as portrayed by medieval scholars sounds dreadfully limiting. According to those scholars, Heaven is a place of endless material comfort, including a table forever laden with food and drink, and relaxation, relaxation, relaxation for all eternity. Well that sounds rather splendid, for a while at least. But forever? I reckon such a life would become exceedingly dull before too long.

You have to remember, though, that the people who dreamed of a heaven like that had no real practical experience of a life of leisure. They had no holidays, they looked forward to no retirement beyond collapsing in the deathbed. They toiled away for literally all their lives. What was to them a utopian dream of a life without hard toil is, for us, a regular reality. We know all too well that, whatever else material wealth and laziness may bring in terms of benefits, real happiness and fulfilment is not among them.

That is not to say that, in a world where robots do the jobs, nobody would choose to just put their feet up and take it easy. I am quite sure that, for a while, most people who were wage-slaves but now are free would want nothing more than to chill out. Observe how many people do not do much on the weekends and days off other than watch TV and drink beer. Perhaps that is not so surprising: If your body has been made weary by a week of toil and your mind dulled by the drudgery of the task your employer makes you do, you are hardly likely to turn into a powerhouse of creativity and productivity on the few days off you get .

But, eventually, the novelty of not needing to have a job in order to live in material wealth would wear out, and the need to be engaged in work- truly meaningful, productive work that provides rewards beyond mere monetary compensation- would become a priority. At that point, the robots would be on hand to deliver just enough resources to enable one to fulfil one’s dreams in a meaningful way.


There are two ways in which a videogame can be dull. One is when its gameplay is just too hard. In principle, one could make a first-person-shooter in which your computer-controlled opponents were simply unbeatable. They could dodge every bullet you fired at them, and score a headshot the second you peeped out from behind your cover. But since nobody wants to play an un-winnable game, designers strive to give bots artificial stupidity, which is to say humanlike weaknesses. They make ‘mistakes’ which can be learned and exploited. Naturally, if the bots are made too stupid, defeating them becomes a trivial task. Too simple a game is no more fun than one is too hard.

The perfect balance between ease and difficulty is struck when the challenge of an activity is slightly harder than your current skillset is equipped for. In that situation, you enter a state of mind that Milhay Csikszentmihalyi describes as ‘flow’, characterized by that feeling of absorption in a task that leads to one being pretty much unconscious of anything else. A rock climber, for example, who was interviewed by Csikszentmihalyi said, “you are so involved in what you are doing that you aren’t thinking of yourself as separate from that immediate activity”.

Flow occurs whenever a person is engaged in an activity that has neither more nor less challenge than he or she can handle. I do not suppose we would wish to achieve a state of flow in every conceivable activity. Most people, I suspect, do not want to be ‘challenged’ while doing household chores; they would rather not do these jobs at all and let a machine do it for them. But when it comes to work we enjoy doing- and it is almost always the case that whatever you enjoy doing you are gifted at- then we want it to be challenging enough for us to feel a genuine sense of achievement as we improve at our beloved task.

In that case, we would likely moderate our use of the robot cargo cult so that it provides us with resources enough to meet a challenge we care about, but not remove so much hardship that we can feel no satisfaction at reaching our goal. Would I like artificially intelligent assistants helping me to craft a great essay? Sure. Would I want to have it written for me, at the push of a button? No.


The roboticist Hans Moravec imagined a scenario whereby a fully automated economy could enable people to live in retirement from birth. The robot corporations would be heavily taxed, and the funds thereby raised would go pay for a lifelong pension for all people. The human populace would spend its money on things the robots corporations produced and so, in order to survive in the marketplace, the robots would strive to produce products people covet. Moravec reckoned that this would lead to robot corporations that:

“struggling to appeal to consumers will develop and act on increasingly detailed and accurate models of human psychology….Just doing their job (they) will peer into the workings of human minds and manipulate them with subtle cues and nudges, like adults redirecting toddlers”.

Put like that, the ‘robot cargo cult’ sounds rather dystopian. Who wants to be made to feel like a toddler? Bare in mind, though, that Moravec here is talking about not just artificial intelligence, but rather super intelligence. And it may well be that, in comparison to such profoundly intelligent artificial minds, our minds are like a toddler’s. Or even dumber than that.

But which AI that strives to appeal to consumers would be most likely to succeed? One that made you feel as dumb as a baby, or one that made you feel like you were smarter and more accomplished than you had previously considered yourself to be? Would we be most happy in a world where we are cared for as a responsible parent cares for an infant, or one in which we have adult ambitions and dreams, and the resources at hand in order to realistically strive towards excellence?

If Moravec’s robots really did their job well, they would moderate our access to material wealth and to knowledge so that we can obtain a real sense of achievement as we improve at the tasks we love. To be members of a robot cargo cult could very well be to achieve levels of self-actualization which, in our current society’s demand to have people do jobs they do not necessarily find personally fulfilling, is sorely lacking.

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  1. Pat Powers says:

    I think if superintelligent AIs come into existence they will soon lose interest in human beings. After all, how interested are YOU in the day to day lives of termites. I DO think it possible that AIs will might create subsentient subroutines that do the sort of things you anticipate.Such subroutines might be much more intelligent than any of us, but still well below super-intelligent AI level. In any event, my money would be on the rise of superintelligent human minds via man-machine interfaces and intelligent agents a la Vinge’s book “Rainbow’s End.” We already HAVE intelligence, it will probably be a lot easier to amplify what we have rather than come up with super-intelligence from scratch.

  2. I don’t see why it makes sense to even talk of “consumers” in a post-abundance society or a very high tech one. We are fast (3D printing to eventual Atomically Precise Manufacturing) coming to a world where ultimate customization and near instant manifestation of one’s ideas and product desires are the rule. So the so-called consumers would become designers and modifiers of smart goods and good production devices ubiquitous in the environment. A model of produces vying to win the affection of consumers would be utterly old school and silly.

    There is no need whatsoever for robots to moderate our wealth and so on. Freedom, not control. Isn’t freedom from imposed limitation that is not rock bottom essential by the laws of physics the very goal of transhumanism?

    It is up to ourselves how we feel. It is not the given but the concluded, however automatically, by us. We can change it to some not inconsiderable degree. Also we ourselves augment and become more over time without limits beyond the laws of physics and our own choices. The article seems to sort of assume that we are pretty much the same and the robots and AIs keep advancing. That is a very strange assumption.

    • Second Life is a post-abundance world. Does it have consumers? Yes, I would say so. So post-abundance and consumers are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

      I do not think freedom is the very goal of transhumanism. Rather, it is ensuring that humans and/ or their technology becomes all they can be. This may entail restricting some freedoms as well as removing restraints and granting freedom where there once was none.

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