A while back I watched a movie called “The Room” that was based on an interesting concept. A couple moves to a house, where they discover a hidden room that gives them anything that they wish for. The only issue is that nothing can be removed from the house as it will instantly age. I won’t ruin the movie for you, so go and watch it.
But, it did make me think. What if we did have such a room? What opportunities and downsides would this bring? And so, here is another one of those thought experiments that I sometimes do.
So, let’s set the rules as they were in the movie.
- Absolutely anything can be asked.
- Nothing can leave the building in which the room belongs without quickly ageing and thus disintegrating.
So, the issue that nothing can leave the building is quite annoying, as it stops some of the most prominent and beneficial uses of the room from being available, as otherwise it could essentially be used to create an infinite amount of resources for the world or for yourself.
The characters in the movie were quite disappointed when they discovered this, for obvious reasons. While you can have anything you want, not being able to go outside the house and take advantage of this does negate a lot of the positive effects.
This raises the age-old question of what a human would do if there were no one else to share the planet with. Or, if you could do anything without consequences. Would we care about material possessions if there was no one else to observe us? Would we pine after sports cars, the latest fashion, fancy watches, and so on if this did not affect our status — because nobody would be around to observe? Is everything that we do want in life-related to the status games that we all play each and every day, or are some things, apart from the basics such as water, food, and shelter, objectively good to have regardless of what other people think?
My opinion is that, yes, some things are worth doing for their own sake, and this is where intrinsic motivation comes into play.
For instance, I’ve been playing the piano for almost thirty years. I don’t aim to be a professional, and when I play, it is purely for my enjoyment. I play because I like to play; there is no external reason. In fact, I prefer when no one is listening as I don’t become self-conscious about making mistakes and tense up. I am sure there are thousands of disciplines where this is applicable, even something as trivial as reading a book and learning something new. Perhaps we don’t want to show off our learning or use it to try and build some type of advantage in life, but we just enjoy the sensation of learning new things and that “aha!” moment.
Breaking Rule 2.
So, the second rule is overall quite annoying, but I think there are some relatively straight-forward ways to get around it, and even if the second rule is a hard rule that cannot be broken, this does not mean that we must necessarily limit ourselves to enjoying the benefits of the room within the confines of the building.
So, the first and most obvious way to break Rule #2 is just to go into the room and wish for the rule to not exist, or for everything that you wish to be able to be outside of the building without any problems. But, let’s assume this is something that the room is not able to grant you — the same way that traditional genies that come from bottles cannot grant you a wish that you have more than three wishes.
So, one way around this, if you don’t mind living in a mirror reality of the current reality, is to just ask the room to create another door inside the room, which when you exit, you are then in a complete clone of the entire universe as you know it, but this universe has one key difference — things that are created by the room would be able to leave the building in which the room belongs to. This would not be — strictly — breaking the rule and so should be allowed entirely under the rules.
So, if you don’t mind abandoning “reality”, then this would be the easiest solution around the second rule. And to be honest, if the new reality that you stepped into with the second was a perfect copy, then it wouldn’t be any less real than the reality you left.
This reminds me of a fascinating episode in the show Rick and Morty, where they completely destroy the planet when Rick creates a love potion for Morty that gets ultimately out of hand. They try to fix the issue, and there are lots of unintended consequences that turn every human on the planet into strange insect-like creatures.
When Rick realizes he cannot fix the problem, he transports them to a universe where they did manage to fix the problem but where both of them die right after fixing the problem. They then bury the versions of themselves in the backyard and then take over their lives as if nothing had ever happened.
Dark, but this is precisely what you could do if there are infinite universes that you could teleport between. Or, even if the one universe itself is infinite, which is pretty much the same thing anyway. This is because an infinitely large universe would have an infinite number of variations of our observable universe (which is about 14 billion light-years) within it. And so, with an infinite number of variations of the space that we are in, there would be statistically completely replicas as well as near-replicas of the universe as we know it, and also versions that are both ahead and behind time-wise. Pretty much anything that you can imagine not only has happened but is happening and will happen.
This is quite a strange realization, and if scientists somehow manage to prove that the universe itself is infinite, then this would be a clear conclusion to draw and a strangely dark one.
Back to us breaking Rule 2. The method that I have suggested is suitable, but it does contain an element of risk. What if someone in the “real” original reality discovers the room while we are living our best life in the copy of reality? What if they wish for the new door and reality that we created to end? What would happen to us? Clearly, this is a risk and something that we would have to plan for because if we just disappear from the original reality, people would end up looking for us.
Now, let’s consider what we could actually do with a room that granted us anything that we might want to wish for.
I believe that there are three ways to categorize the approach that one may take to such power:
- Humanitarian — This is where this infinite power is used to create heaven-on-earth. By leveraging the ability to create endless resources to end poverty, defeat disease, and help humanity to flourish. Again, a reminder that this would in the copy of the reality that you made, which is in some ways a bit strange, because we created all the suffering from the real world that we are then trying to fix again — perhaps we should not have created it in the first place? But, it is difficult to imagine creating a specific enough wish to create a world that would have no suffering without unintended consequences. Hence, it is probably best to create a precise copy of reality and then fix it.
- Hedonistic — This is where the room is used purely for personal gain and for pleasure-seeking. If you have limitless power and can have everything you want without repercussion, what does this do to the psyche of an individual? I assume this depends greatly on their history, genetic predisposition to addiction, and other potential vices. But, knowing humans, this is a path that can quickly get twisted, and we will explore this in detail with all the follow-through implications.
- Intellectual — A calm approach where someone uses the room purely for intellectual pursuits. Essentially, you consider the implications of using the room before genuinely using the power that it gives you, and then you use it sparingly. This may not even require us to break rule 2, to be honest, and we will review this in detail in that section.
So, this would entail trying to fix most of the severe issues in the world with the power of the room. Again, a reminder that this would only be within the copy of reality, not the original reality that we came from, but I am not sure that this matters that much in the end.
I am often quite preoccupied with the unintended consequences of policies and rules, and the incentives that they create, and I do wonder what this could create in our newly-created reality.
I say this because it would be very difficult to keep the room a secret. Even if nobody knew that the room was responsible for everything positive that was happening in the world, it would be difficult to hide the fact that something strange was going on.
So, what would be the first correct wishes to have? Here are a few that came to my mind:
- Malaria stops existing — it either completely vanishes, or if we want to be more subtle, we allow/help scientific researchers to find a fantastic vaccine that is cheap and easy to distribute. The whole thing goes away in a matter of a couple of years.
- Jam every weapon system in the world — For whatever reason, guns don’t fire, tanks don’t turn on, nuclear missiles are disarmed, and so on. The first-order consequences here are obviously positive. Nuclear Armageddon risk goes to zero, and nobody is shot anymore. All current wars pause with everyone in confusion. But what about the second-order consequences? Do we quickly go back to fighting with swords and clubs? Do police struggle to contain criminality?
- Large stockpiles of food and medical equipment suddenly appear in the most hunger-stricken areas of the world. This would undoubtedly raise some eyebrows, and I am sure that many would consider this an act of god.
And there are hundreds or even thousands of ideas that one could try, but I think it would be complicated to create a perfect world. In fact, I think it is difficult even to define what a perfect world would be! Is that a place where everyone is exactly equal, or where everyone is happy? Or, do we take a more measured approach and just look to end war and absolute poverty? Hedonistic adaptation, the effect where we humans quickly get used to what we have and want more, would still continue, and so would certain psychological biases that stop us from always being happy with what we have — such as comparing ourselves to others.
The reality is that this would still be a world filled with pain and sorrow. Some people would have to die in horrible ways — that is a statistical certainty.
The other concern I have is that if everything just starts to go right automatically, would this create a lack of life incentives for anyone to do anything? After all, if I don’t work and do not contribute to society, but everything is still handed to me, then why wake up in the morning? Why do anything?
Some amount of pressure and stress for human beings is good. Responsibility and meaning go hand in hand, and without any responsibility (i.e. without the possibility of anything going wrong if you don’t do your job!) then, people can quickly become apathetic.
One could imagine fixing all the world’s problems, only to create an entire world of degenerates lying on their sofas in their pyjamas watching Netflix shows. We can already see that large production surpluses in economically advanced countries are creating a large crisis of meaning in the younger generation.
So perhaps trying to fix all the world’s problems would be as futile as the attempts by the central government of the Soviet Union to track and control the prices of over 20M different goods and services in a planned economy. It was too much for any government department to handle, regardless of how well-intentioned they were.
There is a fantastic book from Nick Bostrom called “SuperIntelligence” that discusses the implications and dangers of the current race to create a general artificial intelligence, how badly this could end for humanity due to the intended consequences, and how the goals of the General AI may differ from humanity, even in subtle ways, and how this could spell catastrophe.
For instance, setting the goal to a powerful AI to make humanity happy make actually ends up with the entire human race chained to hospital beds and being unconscious and pumped full of dopamine and other hormones to induce a state of happiness. This is hard “our” definition of being happy, but may be a totally acceptable end result for an AI that strictly follows the rules.
I wrote about this at length on my essay on The Fermi paradox, and I suggest you take a detour and read the section there titled “Bracewell-Von Neumann Probes.”
I will drop a scary quote:
The A.I. does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.Eliezer Yudkowsky
But, there is one thing to note.
Because we are trying all of this with a copy of reality, nothing can stop us from trying again if we mess up. At any time we are able to destroy the copy of reality and create a new one. I just wonder if this would take the serious work of solving critical global problems and turn it into a game.
After all, I would say that the definition of a game is something that has no consequences. If you die while playing Call of Duty, nothing actually happens to your life. So if you mess up several times and restart, would you just give up in the end?
Would this not make you, essentially, God? Having the power to destroy and create reality would perhaps make you apathetic to the people’s suffering in the reality that you create, and make you question if these people are truly real or just a very advanced simulation.
So, my feeling is that trying to solve the world’s problems would likely end in failure and frustration — and perhaps a more subtle approach would work. We will cover this in the third approach I named the “Intellectual Approach”.
Let’s move on to what I think is by far the most realistic outcome for the vast majority of people that would encounter a room with the type of power that we are discussing.
The Hedonistic Approach.
I think that any individual, even if they are genuinely interested in helping others and solving global problems, would initially use the room for their own advantage.
This might something as simple as asking for a new desk for your apartment or some fresh vegetables so you can cook your dinner.
Probably the most obvious thing to ask for is money, the most fungible thing that exists because you can swap it with anyone for any goods and services that you require. But, if you have the room, do you have any need for money and other people as an intermediary? Any goods and services that you want, you can directly ask for.
And while we are talking about money, I want to discuss a misconception about many people’s prices. A lot of people think that prices are something that is holding back a deluge of goods and services from people. As if a price is a barrier for the ordinary person to get what they want. They fail to realise that the world has a huge amount of scarcity. The difference between what the world produces and what everyone wants is enormous.
We cannot create 8 billion yachts or private jets.
So, price is a way to ensure that people must choose between competing alternatives. Do you want to buy a meal out, or do you prefer to save for your holiday? Do you invest in your education, or do you go to the club every weekend?
There are no right or wrong answers; it just depends on what is valuable to each individual person.
Back to our hedonistic approach. So obviously, there would not really be any need for money because you can have anything you want without that medium of exchange.
I absolutely doubt that anyone taking a hedonistic approach, without a lot of deep thinking, will end up badly.
I don’t believe that the human brain is good at handling vast abundance of having no limits on what we can do, on how we can behave. This is because of the role of Dopamine and how it affects the reward centres of our brain. This is a complex discussion, and I will be lazy and just link to a great (but long) podcast on this precise topic.
The critical thing to note is that if we keep getting everything we want and we experience all the pleasure, we will essentially fry our dopamine receptors. We will not be able to experience the same level of joy and happiness with standard stimuli, and thus we will need every stronger and stranger stimuli to get the same hit of dopamine.
And let me stress this, dopamine is the currency of desire. Everything we do, in the end, is about dopamine stimulation. You do something, and you feel good because you get the dopamine hit.
Otherwise, you wouldn’t really do it.
As I have been studying more and more about how the human brain and nervous system work, I am concluding that free will is indeed an illusion, and this is quite a side from any philosophical arguments about whether reality is deterministic or random.
Someone could inject you with the right type of hormones, and they could make you happy, angry, hungry, energetic, horny, depressed, or downright suicidal.
And the reality is that while nobody (I hope!) is directly injecting you with hormones, the stimuli in the world around you are. Every second of every day, you are bombarded with images, sounds, and tactile feedback that creates a response in your body. The type of response dictates the quality of your life, and you can only partially control this.
And the sad thing is that most people are unaware of this fact.
I can provide a simple example. If you don’t eat, you’ll get hungry. This is because the hormone Ghrelin is released, which signals to your brain that your stomach is empty and it is probably a good time to eat. When you eat, Leptin then turns your hunger off.
But, you can train your body with intermittent fasting, where you only eat during a specific time each day. Once you adapt, your body will reduce the amount of Ghrelin in your system when you don’t eat, so you can easily go 24 hours without eating and not feel hungry.
I would highly recommend trying this because once it starts to work, it is a surprising and unique thing. Then you don’t have to use traditional willpower or fight your hunger urges. Your hormones are doing all the heavy lifting for you. You won’t need to eat because you are not hungry!
Ok, back to the room and the dopamine levels. Unless you make a very conscious level to abstain from using the power of the room, you will eventually spiral into the dopamine trap discussed earlier, where you need ever greater stimuli.
This could start with something as simple as replacing cooking with just ordering food from the room. You order a plate of paste. Next time, you ask for it to be even better. Then you ask for a starter, and then a main, and eventually you get used to that, and then what? The room will keep giving you something better and better, and you will keep getting used to it.
We can then easily see how this can spiral for any of the core needs that humans have, such as food, sex, the need for status and appreciation.
After all, why watch porn when you can command to see the real thing, in person, right then and there at any moment? No actual sexual partner would ever compare to the perfection that the room can create. A man or woman that can satisfy your every sexual and psychological need. You would probably fall horrifically in love with this made-up person, yet even then, over time, you would get bored and apathetic.
So what next? Two people? A whole group of them? Would you quickly find yourself doing strange things you never imagined yourself capable of?
I’ll stop here on this point — but we can imagine how depraved this could become, and there are also plenty of historical precedents for this.
For example, take the emperor Caligula. He was the most powerful man in the world at the time and did horrific things. He is in fact remembered as the “Mäd King of the Roman Empire”.
He turned the imperial palace into a brothel, slept with his three younger sisters and had people brutally killed just for fun.
Closer to our period, we can just look at the genocide during WW2 or in Cambodia and Rwanda in the second half of the twentieth century to see how power can corrupt.
But, perhaps there is nothing immoral with creating a fake human and then doing anything to them. If you can create a person out of thin air and then kill them – did you commit murder?
The common argument about morality and ethics is that we need to have an ethical approach to things that can suffer, and thus we should always ask the question:
Can it suffer?
That is why there are ethical frameworks with regard to human beings and animals, but we do not have an ethical framework for dealing with rocks or concrete.
A rock, as far as we are aware, cannot suffer. So, it is absolutely fine to crush a rock into dust.
Sam Harris, in one of his podcasts, discusses whether in the near future it will be acceptable to molest a child-like robot. Again, that robot will not be able to suffer. So, it passes the baseline test for morality, but it is a very difficult thing to accept and an activity that almost everyone would find repugnant regardless. There are arguments that this would reduce the risk of paedophilia in society by giving those with mental disorders a way to “blow off steam”. Others suggest that this would create more paedophilia by serving as a gateway towards actual child molestation. This is the same argument that is made against relatively harmless drugs such as marijuana and ecstasy, that they can be gateway drugs towards more potent drugs such as cocaine and heroin, which can quickly destroy an individual.
And this is pretty much how I think the Hedonistic Approach to the room would end: in death by a drug overdose.
In the end, limitless stimulation would require ever-increasing dopamine hits, and eventually, the most efficient and powerful method would be a direct injection of something into the bloodstream.
Okay, let’s leave the dark side and talk about a potential responsible and interesting approach to the room!
The Intellectual Approach.
So this is an approach to the room that recognizes the inherent dangers and limitations of the room’s power, and does not attempt to create heaven on earth.
It also recognized that global problems are not necessarily (only) caused by a lack of resources but by how the incentives of the world currently work on humanity.
That said, if you can help people and you don’t, are you responsible for their suffering? If a person is drowning and you can quickly help, but you don’t — did you murder them?
With this in mind, a correct approach to handling the room’s power must recognize that a lot of good could be done and that a particular urgency is required to help the world.
But, let’s turn our backs on the world for now and look at some positive personal uses of the room. In some ways, the room is very much like almost any technology in that it can be used both for good and for harm. The internet, for example, can be used to learn new things, share information with the world, and be a productive member of society. It can also be a massive waste of time — I am sure you have gone down the rabbit hole of social media before and wondered where the last couple of hours went by.
And so, what could be some interesting uses of the room? The first thing that comes to mind is that the room is like a giant and potent version of Google. You could, in theory, ask for the answer to almost any questions and get a reply.
For instance, I wish to have a book explaining the universe’s start. Or provide me with the detailed schematics for an anti-gravity machine or a fully working and completely safe nuclear fission reactor that can provide unlimited energy.
So the acquisition of knowledge would be a fantastic use of the room, and so would the ability to meet and speak with key historical figures and learn from them.
Imagine conjuring up Benjamin Franklin or Marcus Aurelius and having the ability to sit with them and discuss, in modern English, all their advice and experience.
Can we seed the right amount of technological advancement into society without too many adverse consequences?
Can we create historical worlds and understand precisely how society used to work? Can we take those lessons and then apply them to today?
Could we solve fundamental mathematical and physics problems? Sometimes, just the fact that something can be done or is solvable is enough to have multiple people solving it. The same case goes for breaking the 4-minute mile barrier in running. When Roger Bannister ran a mile in under 4 minutes, several others went on to do it the next year.
Would This Make Us Happier?
I think not. I think having the ability to get everything that we want would probably make us worse off. Just the same way that if one were to live forever, then nothing would be significant. There would always be a tomorrow to accomplish something, and tomorrow would never come because there is always the next day.
Having constraints, having to make tradeoffs, and having to risk something, is what creates a fabric of meaning in life. When something becomes plentiful and easily accessible, it becomes a commodity — and commodities are not valuable.
It is said that happiness in life is the difference between your expectations of life and what life gives to you. So, there are two potential strategies, and almost the entire world focuses on the first one:
How do we get more out of life?
But, most people overlook a potential second strategy here: to lower our expectations of what life will give to us. This is one of the core tenets of both Stoicism and Buddhism.
The world is suffering. Things will go wrong. Whatever your situation, there could be many ways that you could be worse off.
So, one does not need more to be happy; you just need to want less.