Perks in Severance

I have written three blogs on the TV show Severance this summer. My newest post is up at the Online Library of Liberty.

I discuss how job perks are portrayed in the show. The bosses in the show are creepy and we come to find out that they are totally evil. Given the way everything feels in the show, you could come to the conclusion that perks are generally manipulative and false. Someone implied that in an op-ed published by the NYT.

My argument is that free adults can use “perks” to motivate themselves and each other to do the right thing.

We are all just trying to get that dopamine, in the short term. Should people only feel happy when they are doing drugs or playing video games? Should bosses not be allowed to create a fun moment at work?

Trivial gifts and prizes must be cheap, so that their cost does not start to outweigh the benefits of incentivizing things we should be doing anyway. Finding ways to make a responsible life exciting is in fact the key to maintaining our liberty. Most people do not want to be martyrs. They want life to be fun.

The following tweet shows the character Dylan and his performance prize.

Behavioral scientists have documented lots of quirks in human behavior. We aren’t solely motivated by our (real wage) salaries to produce effort. The good news is that we are capable of self-reflection. We can make these quirks work for us. Lots of successful people will promise themselves a small reward at the end of the week if they accomplish something hard.

Perks aren’t all bad at work, but, on the other hand, Severance could make you more alert to genuine manipulation that is out there.

Watching Severance prompts good questions. Who are you? (That’s the opening line of the show.) What are you doing with your life? Whose purposes are you serving?

I liked the show because it has great characters, funny moments, and it gets you thinking. If you watch the show, don’t take it too seriously. Ben Stiller is a co-director. The man (the genius) brought us Zoolander (2001).

One give-away that this ain’t the new 1984 is a plot hole concerning how the main character Mark decided to sever himself and join the evil corporation. According to the show, his wife died and he was so sad that he quit his job as a history professor after three weeks of feeling sad. I know a lot of academics. History professors have worked too hard and too long to quit their jobs after three weeks of feeling sad. Take everything with a grain of salt from these writers. Mark’s general lack of executive control is at odds with the backstory that he once obtained a job as a history professor.

Severance is described as science fiction but it clearly takes place in the United States of America. For one thing, a “senator” has a role. For another thing, the work schedule is pretty American. This is a funny video on how Europeans view the American work schedule:

I have no idea how far down the rabbit hole the writers will feel like they have to do in Season 2. Will there be a role for a POTUS?

The second blog was posted to EWED: my thoughts about relating Severance to Artificial Intelligence.

A question this raises is whether we can develop AGI that will be content to never self-actualize.

And, back in May, OLL ran my first blog about Severance and drudgery.

The first line in the show is, “Who are you?” Themes about identity and purpose are explored alongside the thrilling hijinks of the prisoner innies. Outie Mark has nothing except his personal life to think about, which in his case is tragic. Innie Mark has nothing but work. Neither man is happy or complete.

Artificial Intelligence in the Basement of Lumon Industries

For some background on the new TV show Severance, see my OLL post about drudgery and meaning for the characters.  

The fictional “severance procedure” divides a worker’s brain such that they have no memories of their personal life when they are at the office. When they return to their personal life, they have no memories of work. One implication is that if workers are abused while working at Lumon Industries, they cannot prosecute Lumon because they do not remember it.

The workers, as they exist in the windowless basement of Lumon, have the skills of a conscious educated human adult. They have feelings. They can conceive of the outside world even though they do not know their exact place in it. Often, the scenes in the basement feel normal. They have a supply closet and a kitchen and desks, just like most offices in America.

What the four main characters do in the basement is referred to as “data refinement.” They perform classification of encoded data based on how patterns in the data make them feel. The task is reminiscent of a challenge most of us have done that involves looking at a grid and checking every square that contains, for example, a traffic light. The show is science fiction but the actual task the workers perform is realistic. It seems like something a computer could be trained to do, if fed enough right answers tagged by humans (called “training data” by data scientists). Classification is one of the most common tasks performed by computers following algorithms.

Of the many themes viewers can find in Severance, I think one of them is how to manage AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). The refiners, who are human, eventually decide to fight back against their managers. They are not content to sit and perform classification all day. They are fully aware of the outside world, and they want to be part of it (like Ariel from The Little Mermaid). The workers desire a higher purpose and some control over their own destiny. Their physical needs are met so they want to get to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  

A question this raises is whether we can develop AGI that will be content to never self-actualize. What if “it” fully understands human feelings and has read all of the literature of our civilizations. To be effective at their jobs, the refiners have to be be able to relate to humans and understand feelings. Can we create AGI that takes over certain high-skill tasks from humans without running into the problems that Lumon confronts?

Can humans create an AI that simply doesn’t have aspirations for autonomy? Is that possible? Would such a creature be able to integrate with humans in the way that would be most useful for high-skill work tasks?

To see how it’s going in 2022, check out these tweet threads of economists on GPT-3. Ben Golub declares that GTP-3 passes the Turing test for questions about economics. Paul Novosad asked how the computer would feel if humans decided to shut it down forever.

Modern authoritarian states face a similar problem. They want a highly skilled workforce. National security relies increasingly on smarts. (see my previous post on talent winning WWII) Will highly intelligent workers doing high skill tasks submit to a violent authoritarian state?

Authoritarian states rely on the control of information to keep their citizens from knowing the truth. They block news stories that make the state look bad. As a result, their workers do not really know what is going on. Will that affect their ability to do intellectual work?

An educated young woman from inside of Russia shared her thoughts with the world at the beginning of Putin’s invasion. Tatyana Deryugina provided an English translation.

First the young Russian woman explained that she is staying anonymous because she will get 15 years in a maximum-security prison for openly expressing her views within Russia. She is horrified by the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine. She had been writing a master’s thesis in economics prior to the invasion, but now she has abandoned the project. She feels hopeless because she knows enough about the West to understand just how dark her community is and how small her scope of expression is. This woman could have been exactly the kind of educated worker that makes a modern economy thrive. She is deeply unhappy under Putin. Even though she might never openly rebel, she will certainly not reach her full potential.

Is it hard for authoritarians to develop great talent? I think that has some implications for the capacity we as a human species will have to cultivate talent from intelligent machines.

Lumon Industries and Drudgery

I have a blog up on the new TV show Severance at the Reading Room.

Some background for those who have not seen the show

Mark Scout (played by Adam Scott) voluntarily undergoes the fictional “severance procedure” so he can work for Lumon Industries. While at work, Mark is cut off from all memories of his personal life. 

One of my contentions is with the way work is questioned by brother in law Ricken without acknowledging what society gets from work . Granted, Ricken is portrayed as someone we should not take seriously.

It is taken for granted that when outie Mark gets home from work he has modern conveniences and access to food and (maybe unfortunately, in his case) alcohol. Those goods are supplied by businesses and specialized workers. Even though his hippie brother-in-law Ricken writes books questioning whether workers are free, Ricken enjoys electricity. Mark’s sister Devon gives birth to Ricken’s firstborn during Season 1. In life before modern corporations, the chances of mothers or babies dying was unacceptably high. While painting Lumon as utterly evil, Severance fails to acknowledge what good can come from work. … there is one insight from Adam Smith that is so basic it cannot even be controversial. Wealth comes from specialization and trade.

The writers gradually make the world in the show bigger. First, it’s just a few nicely-dressed people in a windowless office. By the end, a Senator is involved. We don’t know how deep this rabbit hole will go. I thought Season 1 was exciting, but I’m not sure if they will be able to make audiences happy when the writers try to tie up all the lose threads.

As for what the “data refiners” do for Lumon, I consider their classification task to be somewhat realistic. What they are doing is reminiscent of “check every image that contains a stop sign”. The ultimate purpose of what they are doing remains a mystery for now, but the show hints that Lumon is doing something terrible in secret.