Our dearest premises of purpose and meaning will be challenged by AI’s increasing role as an observer of our lives.

Socrates was famous for challenging pretty much everything he thought, saw, or heard. It made him both impressive and insufferable as he used what seemed like a child’s approach of asking “why” over and over to shake loose important questions after every answer.

He believed that such curiosity and self-exploration was what gave life meaning, even if it looked like impiety and corruption to the Athenian authorities who put him on trial. He famously said something like “an unexamined life is not worth living” before he received his death sentence.

Scholars can argue about what the ancients believed about free will — Socrates seemed to think it was the result of someone’s knowledge and beliefs, which is kinda free but also kinda not — but I think it’s clear that he believed committing those ethereal qualities to real experience through debate and self-questioning was what made us alive.

Will AI watching us accomplish the same things for us?

Already, our every digital interaction is captured, crunched, and shared. Cameras and microphones monitor analog spaces across cities, in restaurants, and other places where we interact.

The argument in favor of this surveillance is that it results in better access to things and, with increasing regularity, automates solutions that we may not have consciously requested (but nevertheless likely need or want, according to the data).

Digital tech empowers (and frees) us to make better decisions. Only AI promises to supercharge the automation powered by that surveillance.

We’ll be able to safely outsource more decisions to it because it’ll possess more data and crunch it more quickly and reliably than any human. We’ll continue to give it greater access to our lives and, in exchange, it’ll smooth over many of the sharp edges that complicate our experiences.

Why spend hours sitting with a group of people debating some arcane aspect of life when GPT-4 can summarize the conversation and provide a conclusion for you?

Why try to figure out how to travel from one point to another if an AI-automated traffic control system will maximize the efficiency of every route? What happens to free will when an AI knows who you’ll vote for, what you should do for a living, and when you will die?

I know this line of questioning risks coming across as a curmudgeonly defense of a past in which things had to be difficult in order to have value — “I walked uphill to school both ways, and I liked it!” — but I swear that my memories of batch processing FORTRAN programs running on punch cards are anything but pleasant. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone.

But the Greek Chorus of technologists goes to the other extreme, regularly pointing to the friction, inconveniences, and imperfections of daily experience as things that should be overcome. If only we could spend less time figuring out how to live our lives, we’d have more time to live them.

I wonder. If AI watches over us, what will be left for us to examine?

Isn’t the experience of examining one’s life the point of living it?

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