Come The Em Rev

China on Friday unveiled a shake-up of the way land is seized for redevelopment. … Land seizures over the past decade have been central to the rapid modernization of hundreds of Chinese cities, which in turn has been one of the main drivers of the nation’s economic growth. But they also have been the source of often-violent conflicts, especially in the past year, as huge volumes of stimulus funds have gone into building projects.  Post

Rich stable nations, comfortable and safe on top of the global game, feel little inclination to consider big disruptive changes.  The price they pay for internal peace is the steady accumulation of Olsonian veto groups, who can block big changes.  Stable inflexible institutions seem acceptable when change is slow and life seem good enough.

This frustrates rich-nation would-be-rebels like me who see our business, legal, political, etc. institutions as far from optimal.  Such rebels want to explore big changes, but must either: 1) accept only tinkering around the edges, 2) move to a place more willing to make changes, or 3) wait for crises where larger changes might fly.

So what crises loom?  In the US we can expect the long foreseen budget “train wreck” within a decade or two.  This must be addressed by huge tax increases, spending decreases, or both.  Foresighted politicians are positioning their blame and solutions for that crisis.  Since we spend so much on military and medical benefits, I’ve wondered if we’ll consider “Med is a waste, cut it way back” or “Let the world defend itself, cut our military.” Alas, neither seems likely.

In two to five decades, the US will probably start to take seriously global competition from big fast growing nations like China or India.  The US might then consider adopting policies credited with growing those nations fast, though national pride may block that.  Foresighted advocates will position their credit and solutions for that crisis.

But if you lust after huge institutional change in long-rich nations, if you long to say “come the revolution,” you might wait three to fifteen decades for the “em rev“, the whole brain emulation revolution.  The em rev is my best guess for the next “singularity” scale change, like the farming or industrial revolutions, each of which sped world growth rates by more than a factor of a hundred, within less than a previous doubling time.  We now double in fifteen years, so within a few years an em-econ could double monthly!

Achieving such rapid growth will require huge rapid changes in economic organization, and supporting changes to business, legal, and political institutions. The new em-econ will probably concentrate in a few dense locations with the most compatible capital and institutions.  Locations vying to be one of those centers may be open to big institutional change, and the actual first centers will likely have relatively supportive institutions. So if you have a favorite radical change you’d like the world to consider, you might give some thought to how your change could support a local em rev.

Now an ambitious dictator, especially an em dictator, may have the power and flexibility to quickly make whatever changes the em rev needs, even if that harms other existing local interests.  So the real question is what other institutions could also quickly discern and approve needed changes, while less harming those who happen to stand in the way.

While the em-econ should have be felt most everywhere, it would concentrate at first in a few most em-dominated places.  Those places would have a huge demand for computing hardware, for fast talk between that hardware, and for energy and cooling to support that computing and talk.  Imagine the computing hardware now concentrated near major financial markets, but on a much larger scale.

The em-econ would likely take over and dramatically reorganize some major city centers, replacing humans with increasingly human-hostile temperatures, vibrations, radiation, collision dangers, free chemical densities, etc.  Imagine a hot bustling dangerous factory.  Those centers would seek very rapid growth in local power and cooling, perhaps via fusion power and huge pipes pumping hot water far out to sea.  Nearby air and water may be severely “polluted” by current standards.

To support an em-econ, institutions must first and foremost enable very rapid change.  Waiting years for regulatory review or lawsuits, or even months for firm or city council negotiations, is completely unacceptable.  If humans are to have a say in key decisions, they must make fast decisions or delegate to fast agents.

To discourage grab-from-humans scenarios, human and em property, investments, etc. should ideally be protected via exactly the same institutions, so that a threat to one is plausibly a threat to the other.  And if ems are to be treated with near human respect, we’ll need huge changes in common rules like one person one vote, which em copies are responsible for which crimes, what are acceptable labor and marriage contracts, etc.

Three big institution changes seem to me promising em rev candidates:

  • Firm: Raiders – If we lower barriers to taking over firms, and let takeovers happen very quickly, public firms could quickly adapt to changing conditions.  Internal futarchy might also help.
  • Law: Private – With a basic legal structure that lets parties commit to their own legal rules and procedures, ems could adopt much faster legal procedures and explore the space of more em-suitable laws.
  • Politics: Futarchy – The vote on values part can be slow and accountable to a wider world of nervous slow marginals, while the bet on beliefs part could rapidly approve needed changes.
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  • Jess Riedel

    The em rev is my best guess for the next change on the “singularity” scale of the farming or industrial revolutions, each of which sped world growth rates by more than a factor of a hundred, within less than a previous doubling time. We now double in fifteen years, so within a few years an em-econ could double monthly!

    I don’t know how you can be so confident in these number. From what I recall, they are based off of only three historical jumps in growth rate (industrialization, farming, and, I think, language). You can fit just about any type of curve to three points, especially if everything is logarithmic. Are we to believe that the new doubling period will be a month without any analysis of what is causing the new growth rate? Why should we think that these jumps arrive at a regular pace (when measured in units of the current doubling time)? This pattern you’ve identified just seems too incredibly simplistic for it to describe the entire history of human economic growth.

  • Philo

    “Now an ambitious dictator, especially an em dictator, may have the power and flexibility to quickly make whatever changes the em rev needs, even if that harms other existing local interests.” Any dictator would have the *power*–that’s the nature of *dictatorship*. Having the *wisdom*–to make the good changes and also to avoid making bad ones–is another matter. As a political setting for your “em rev,” dictatorship does not seem especially promising.

    “The new em-econ will probably concentrate in a few dense locations with the most compatible capital and institutions.” This suggests that the “em-econ” will be more concentrated than the present economy. Why think so?

    The robots (“ems”) will be constructed by us to serve our purposes. Most of them will not be appropriate objects of *respect*.

  • Andrew

    Since you are an economist by vocation, I am wondering if you’ve studied some of the poli-sci literature on massive political upheavals and consequences unintended by their architects. I think you are insufficiently, even dangerously skeptical of the harm caused by such intended outcomes. Particularly in times of great conflict, people’s ability to reason is impaired.

    The historical tendency, it turns out, is for Robespierre to ignore prevailing notions of justice within his society in favor of the glorious new era, and thereby to meet the guillotine in the end.

    New computing tools are indeed needed in order to fix some seemingly intractable problems, but you seem to be suggesting that people won’t mind if major population centers become uninhabitable to natural humans; that people won’t mind if those who can afford to create lots of ems in their own image will enjoy an exponential increase in their influence relative to those who can only afford one brain (or only a few); and that people won’t mind if a customary period of negotiation, regulation, and public debate is swept aside in favor of simply allowing whatever outcome may result from the unhindered, ultra-rapid development of ems. Fact is, most people will mind; more terrifying for the revolutionaries, they’ll feel helpless, and will care enough to try and stop the revolution. Some very deeply held and widely shared notions of justice are being challenged here; the em-creators of the future must heed the lessons of history and be heavily accommodating of prevailing social norms, lest they face much crueler “justice”.

  • Jess, you seem to just be asking for generic disclaimers. Yes of course there is great uncertainty here, but we must go with the data we have.

    Philo, yes of course most dictators have bad judgment, but a few may not, and it only takes one to make it all happen. The previous transitions, to farming and industry, also started out concentrated in a few locations.

    Andrew, you also seem to be asking for generic disclaimers. Of course I expect harm from unintended consequences, and of course some folks will “mind” and block local change.

    • Andrew

      Robin, perhaps I did not accurately convey the level of “harm from unintended consequences” that may reasonably be expected here. Let me be clear, then: Your idea is an almost certain recipe for global warfare on an unprecedented scale.

      You are talking not merely about incorporating artificial intelligences into human decision-making over a period of time during which people can appraise the changes as they come gradually and determine what’s working and what’s not, but rather about bypassing all conventional processes of seeking mutual understanding and agreement and instead rapidly turning over power to new, barely-understood entities whose power exceeds those of individual humans, and to whom no historical lessons apply, and moreover deliberately doing so more quickly than humans can take action.

      Think of how people act when they feel their whole family is faced with an imminent existential threat whose nature is such that there is no opportunity for meaningful dialog with the source of the danger. Think of how people act when they feel their whole country faces such a threat. Now, think of how people would act when they feel all humanity faces such a threat. And further imagine every (or nearly-every) nation-state, organized religion, social-justice group, and for-profit company rallying around that last, most frightening notion; that the human race as we have ever known it is rapidly being overcome, with all opportunities for dialog being deliberately squashed by the architects of the revolution.

      Maybe you think that a rapidly implemented, unaccountable existential threat to humanity wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I won’t even say you’re wrong. But the consensus among the rest of human race will be convinced that totalitarian expansionism is being practiced on an unforeseen scale, and will react accordingly.

      • The central question in the post is:

        What [non-dictator] institutions could also quickly discern and approve needed changes, while less harming those who happen to stand in the way.

        That seems to be your concern as well, so I don’t see where you think we disagree.

    • Jess Riedel

      But there is a level of uncertainty at which we can’t make useful predictions with the data. It just gets swamped in the noise.

      Suppose it’s starting to rain, and I count how many raindrop hit my head each minute. In the first minute, 2 drops. The second, 4. The third, 7. How many drops hit my head in fourth minute? Well, maybe it follows the patter I’ve imagined and I get hit with 11 drops. But maybe it’s 200. Or maybe the cloud moves and it’s 0. I just plain don’t know with so little information and data. If I predict 11 drops, I think someone can criticize that prediction without being dismissed as simply “asking for generic disclaimers”.

      In the case of ems, it maybe that the outside view is can do almost nothing to predict the new growth rate, but the inside view has some power (from, say, physical laws restricting computing power).

  • You gave us an outline, now give us the model.

  • There are a couple of things I don’t understand

    1) Why does the EM-economy have to take place in a certain place? Wouldn’t the EM economy be everywhere there is a computing-telecommunications connection. I don’t understand why the concept of cities holds together for virtual entities.

    2) Is it assumed that EMs are going to be human+ in brain power or just human replicants. If its just human replicants then why does “social speed” get faster. I understand that the economy would speed up if we can create workers who require much fewer resources than they can produce. However, why wouldn’t they relate to each other at the same social rate.

    • The pulse-rate for neurons is much slower than what has already been achieved for silicon computer-chips. Emulations which have the brains of people will operate at a much faster speed. So an hour in our time is like a day in their time (I don’t know the exact numbers).

      • James Knowlton

        There are no exact numbers, as the performance of a particular neural network will vary widely based on the hardware substrate and architecture.

        However, we can speculate about one such architecture with one silicon “unit” per neuron (no timesharing), running a model that needs 1000 floating point operations per timestep (a very reasonable and conservative estimate for reproducing the known dynamics of neurons). In this instance our “unit” is equivalent to a very simple general processor (perhaps 100k transistors), and could produce on the order of 1 GFlop/s using current technology. We’ll also handwave a bit and assume each unit is provided with sufficient memory and communications. Given this architecture, we can see that our network could be operated at a speed of up to 1 million timesteps per second. Given the highly plausible 1ms timestep, we’d see a speedup of 1000x real-time.

        So 50 years of “em-time” would take 18 days of real-time. Imagine life as an em – the “outside” world would seem to move at a glacial pace, almost as if time was stopped. It is not inconceivable that these numbers could be improved by perhaps 2 or 3 orders of magnitude, leading to an entire em-lifetime in just minutes.

  • Vladimir

    Robin Hanson:

    The em rev is my best guess for the next “singularity” scale change, like the farming or industrial revolutions, each of which sped world growth rates by more than a factor of a hundred, within less than a previous doubling time. We now double in fifteen years, so within a few years an em-econ could double monthly!

    Would anyone be so kind to explain what exactly is mean by “growth rate” and “doubling” in this context? Which specific numbers are divided to produce these ratios, and how exactly would they be arrived at?

  • Karl, new practices are not usually evenly distributed. Cities remain viable for the same reason as always – they make it easier to interact with more folks faster and cheaper. Economic growth rates have little to do with the speed of individual people involved.

    Vladimir, if you followed the quoted link you’d get here and then here.

    • If interaction is virtual, however, isn’t the “distance” between New York and Hong Kong trivial. In the same way that transit expands the area that can effectively function as a city, can’t EMs use the whole world as their city, communicating with each other electronically?

      Also, my thinking was that growth rates would speed up because you basically have replicable labor. You go from (K^.3)(L^7) to something like (K^.3)(M^.65)(L^.05). Even in a basic Solow framework you would shift to a much higher growth path.

      However, if – as I would assume – EMs are involved in research and development and R&D drives technological progress, then suddenly you have much faster technological progress.

      This, I thought, was the source of much faster growth. And it makes sense even if EM thinking time is the same as human time. What isn’t immediately clear is why the EM social network would be faster, though TGGP seems to be saying that EMs would indeed think faster than humans.

      • With slow low-bandwidth long-delay expensive humans comm today can be cheap enough that it may not matter where humans are. Ems can be cheap, fast, and high bandwidth enough that comm costs and delays greatly matter.

      • Aron

        By the year 2150, the cost of digging falls below the value of more rapid connectivity to neighboring intelligences. A sub-field of economics is born and named termite colony optimization (tercoptics). In the year 2200, the most valuable real estate is the center of the planet and is owned by a colloidal intellect named ‘Mark Zuckerberg’. Ultimately the earth achieves a fractal dimension of 4.2.

  • Bill

    Ah, the buget train wreck. The always immenent crisis that propels us into bad decisions which can be used by the next administration to give itself a bath in more unfunded tax cuts.

    A little history please.

    Remember 1978. No, of course you don’t. There was a big push for a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. Carter’s deficit that year; it was so small I can’t remember.

    But, I do remember the Social Security crisis of 1981-2. Oh, if we could just fix Social Security. And, under a commission headed by Greenspan, we did–raised SS taxes and fixed social security for our lifetime and into the future.

    Next act–Reagan cuts taxes and uses the Social Security taxes to fund it! Got to love that guy.

    Clinton balances the budget, fixing up the Reagan/Bush budget deficits…and Bush gives a tax cut that was supposed to balance …HA HA HA

    Here is the history by president of deficits.

    • I don’t agree with Cheney that “deficits don’t matter” (just ask Greece now or plenty of other dysfunctional countries before it), but thought Casey Mulligan and Robert Barro gave interesting arguments on why concern with it is misplaced.

  • The US might then consider adopting policies credited with growing those nations fast, though national pride may block that.

    You think that the high growth rates of China and India compared to the US are due to their superior policies? I thought the standard reason that China and India are growing faster is that they’re starting from a lower base and can just copy western technology.

    • Surely “catchup” factors increase China’s growth rate, but they aren’t obviously the only relevant factors. If their growth doesn’t slow much as they catch up closer that will suggest other factors dominate.

      • Ok, but why do you think this is “probable”? Or did you not mean to imply that in the post? The outside view suggests that China and India won’t be any different from the other countries that temporarily had high growth rates in the past as they played catchup.

      • I have to agree with Wei Dai. Its seems reasonable that China and India could be fueled purely by catch-up.

        First, there have been a host of other countries which were accelerating towards US per capita GDP and suddenly slowed down as they approached, from the USSR to Western Europe to Japan. Clearly the USSR had much worse policies than the US but that did not stop a significant amount of catch-up.

        It might have seemed at one point that Germany and Japan had better policies and would finally be the ones to past the US. However, that didn’t happen either.

        Second, pure theory suggests something that looks a lot like what we are seeing – immense capital deepening and technology transfer.

        If China were at the technological frontier in many industries then it would seem more reasonable that they would surpass the US. However, right now they are not. The fast growth is due to high rates of capital investment and using an increasing number of mature technologies.

  • Question about brain emulation feasibility: are there any reputable back-of-the-envelope estimates for how much computing power (and how much of an increase over current computing power) would be needed to run a brain emulation in real time? Based on my knowledge of neuroscience and computer science, I’m skeptical that such emulations will be available in the foreseeable future: definitely not three decades, even fifteen sounds like a wild guess. As I understand it, with current technology, we have trouble doing decent simulations of large molecules, the best computer simulations of what happens when a nuclear bomb goes off take forever to run, and workable computer simulations of even simple nervous systems don’t exist, period. A human brain is more complex than any of these things, and should therefore be harder to emulate.

    At the deepest level, I think the problem is that when the human brain was evolving, there was no selective pressure to make the lives of neuroscientists easy. It might turn out that the only way to make a brain emulator is to simulate every little bit of jury-rigging evolution has come up with, and that the kinds of logic circuits allowed by the laws of physics aren’t up to the task of doing this in real time.

    • psychologist

      Brain organization is fractal, and stored in a tiny amount of genetic code. So it is likely we could emulate the relevant parts without modeling it at the molecular level.

      We already have petaflops computers, and even most pessimistic estimates assume exaflops will be achieved before 2040. That should be more than enough, assuming higher-level insights are made during that time period. It is that last part that is truly unpredictable.

      • Dan

        True but that tiny amount of genetic code “executes” on a very powerful and complex “computer” the molecules and forces etc. of reality. I personally don’t think we have to simulate quantum effects etc. but to discover the high-order effects that is necessary for intelligence we haven’t even scratched the surface yet. Still intelligences seems to be the result of enormous inter-connectivity and complexity so you cannot simplify only increase efficiency.

        So exa-flop computers will probably be needed to even begin the development and experiments, even mature efficient ems will be many peta-flops because of the fundamental complexity of intelligence.

        You answer your own question, the “program” may be fractal but intelligence is not a program, it is an evolving system that executes that program. And the most simple fractal algorithm can consume all conceivable computing power very fast.

        To be honest I don’t fear Robin’s emu-calypse in the short term (the coming decades he claim).
        1. He underestimates the complexity of intelligence, we will probaly need high exa-flop computers just to begin productive research and development.
        2. The most efficient em will need many petaflops if not exa-flops to function, because of the fundamental nature and complexity of intelligence.
        3. End of Moore’s law in silicon after 2020, there is going to be a stagnation in computing power through the 20’s as everybody flails about, and no nothing is ready to smoothly take over, investment has almost been exclusively in silicon to continue squeeze everything out of it. The incentive to seriously invest in the next stage will only appear when silicon hits its fundamental limits. So push back the computing power extrapolations by at least 10 years if not 20 or more.

        So after 2050 around 2070.

      • Thanks for pointing me towards that report. I haven’t yet found the time to read it in detail, but based on my initial skim, it sounds like the issue of raw computing power may not be as large as I thought. I’m bothered, though, by the current lack of progress on modeling even simple nervous systems. One of my undergraduate professors had spent a good portion of of his life trying to figure out the nervous system of the nematode worm, and the problem turned out to be far more difficult than his team initially expected. They’re still working on it. If three to fifteen decades is your estimate for time until human brain emulation, when do you think we can expect simple invertebrates to be worked out?

  • From the point of view of institutions, do you think that the em-econ would benefit from the insulation afforded by charter cities?

  • Anonymous

    > industrialization, farming, and, I think, language

    No, just the first two. The age of language is quite unknown, so it is unclear whether its advent caused population growth.

  • It is interesting to consider how the industrial-era political ideologies would deal with the em-econ. Liberalism would be concerned with ensuring the rights and freedom of persons, likely struggling to handle the political and economical quirks of copyable persons. Conservatism would want to preserve implicate social knowledge in the face of the change (it would of course have serious problems with the whole transition). Socialism would want to get the means of production under control by the “right” group, whether that is copy cooperatives, some avant garde etc. None of them seems to have speed and flexibility as a core ideological goal – liberalism would of course claim it would achieve it through harnessing individual initiative and institution-building, while socialism might think it could achieve greater coordination. But they all seem to be seriously hamstrung by their devotion to various pre-existing social institutions and assumptions about the nature of persons, societies and means of production.

    For decisionmaking, demarchy might become practical. Imagine randomly selecting ems and making a parliament copy of them, acting as a representative body (normal demarchy has problems with having to call citizens to a duty that interferes with their lives). This might be a group generating the values input into futarchy.

  • This is the first time I’m reading about this “em” emulated brain concept. I see a much more “near”, pertinent issue in the tendency of today’s corporate and financial systems to reward businesses and individuals who already treat the masses of living people as “biological androids”. Like Huxley’s Brave New World. You don’t have to hold your breath for three-to-fifteen decades to profit from the economics of this. It’s already here and booming.

    Oh yeah, and the budget train-wreck isn’t two decades out, either. It’s already happened and they have been keeping things on life support ever since 2008.

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