Ems Like Alters?

In ’08 I forecasted:

A [future] world of near-subsistence-income ems in a software-like labor market, where millions of cheap copies are made of a each expensively trained em, and then later evicted from their bodies when their training becomes obsolete.

This will be accepted, because human morality is flexible, especially given strong competitive pressures:

Hunters couldn’t see how exactly a farming life could work, nor could farmers see how exactly an industry life could work.  In both cases the new life initially seemed immoral and repugnant to those steeped in prior ways.  But even though prior culture/laws typically resisted and discouraged the new way, the few groups which adopted it won so big others were eventually converted or displaced. …

Taking the long view of human behavior we find that an ordinary range of human personalities have, in a supporting poor culture, accepted genocide, mass slavery, killing of unproductive slaves, killing of unproductive elderly, starvation of the poor, and vast inequalities of wealth and power not obviously justified by raw individual ability. … When life is cheap, death is cheap as well.  Of course that isn’t how our culture sees things, but being rich we can afford luxurious attitudes.

Our attitude toward “alters,” the different personalities in a body with multiple personalities, seems a nice illustration of human moral flexibility, and its “when life is cheap, death is cheap” sensitivity to incentives.

Alters seem fully human, sentient, intelligent, moral, experiencing, with their own distinct beliefs, values, and memories.  They seem to meet just about every criteria ever proposed for creatures deserving moral respect.  And yet the public has long known and accepted that a standard clinical practice is to kill off alters as quickly as possible.  Why?

Among humans, we mourn teen deaths the most, and baby and elderly deaths the least; we know that teen deaths represent the greatest loss of past investment and future gains.  We also know that alters are cheap to create, at least in the right sort of body, and that they little help, and usually hurt, a body’s productivity.

While unproductive humans can look like the sort of person we might have been, alters seem like the sort of demons sorcery says possess people.  So while we might plausibly have evolved (genetically or culturally) a tendency to show concern for unproductive humans, to signal our empathy, we plausibly also evolved a tendency to show revulsion of alters, to signal our hatred of sorcery.

Since alter lives are cheap to us, their deaths are also cheap to us.  So goes human morality.  In the future, I expect the many em copies in an em clan (of close copies) to be treated much like the many alters in a human body.  Ems will tend to adopt whatever attitudes most support clan productivity, and if that means a cavalier attitude toward ending em lives when convenient, such attitudes will come to dominate.

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  • Philo

    Trivially, there is only one human being per (human) body. Human beings with multiple personality disorder have poorly integrated personalities. Helping, or even forcing, them to achieve integration is not “killing” anything. In particular, it is not killing human beings. And it is (rightly) not regarded as the moral equivalent of killing human beings; it is closer to curing a human being of a disease.

  • http://t-a-w.blogspot.com/ Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    Existence of “alters” is highly dubious. How about some sort of an Intrade bet over that?

  • Evan

    It doesn’t matter whether or not alters really exist, what matters is whether the people “curing” them believe they exist. Robin is arguing that our attitude towards alters demonstrates that in some circumstances we will not value life as much. If a psychiatrist honestly believes the alter they are trying to destroy exists that proves they have a cavalier attitude towards its life, even if it turns out not to be real.

    To make an analogous example, if there was a hostage situation in a department store and a police officer burst into a room and shot everyone he/she saw you’d say that officer has no regard for the lives of hostages. If it turned out all the people the officer saw and shot were actually life-like department store mannequins you’d still believe the officer didn’t value the hostage’s life because at the time he was shooting he believed they were real people.

    • Josh

      That’s not a good analogy. You’ (and Robin) are conflating the alters (personalities) with life. “Killing” off alters for the sake of a living human being able to function and have their chance at happiness isn’t comparable to the hostage situation.

      Whether multiple personalities “exist” does change the moral implications of killing them off. If their was some way to prove that these alters had the defining traits of personhood then killing them off would be immoral and the example of a psychiatrist who knowingly does so would be somewhat analogous to the policeman.

      But moving out of speculative tranhumanist fantasy land and into reality, the individual personalities in some patient’s head don’t deserve the rights of personhood. Many sane people have very different personalities when they are 16 years old than when they are 35. Does that mean their “16 year old mind” has a right to existence?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Tomasz, Intrade doesn’t pay interest and so isn’t good for long term bets; I expect this issue will take decades to resolve.

    Evan, very good point.

  • Cyan

    The analogy between alters and ems suggests a merge operation on ems rather than outright deletion. This is common in singularity fic.

  • http://ahappinessexperiment.wordpress.com/ Bock

    Evan’s point is fair, except that those psychiatrists who “honestly believe” alters exist are lunatics — and it is hard to judge the morality of a lunatic.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Cyan, em merges would initially be infeasible; not clear how long would take to make feasible.

    Bock, the DID diagnosis is in DSM, and isn’t being proposed for elimination for DSM-V. The consensus of psychiatrists is therefore that it is real.

    • Steven Schreiber

      Though what’s still not clear is why we would believe that the DID diagnosis means that there are discrete persons. There’s an asymmetry in your assumption questioning here that presupposes a story about what it means to have a human brain.

      We can break DID both ways, bite either bullet: either a human brain can hold multiple discrete persons or it is made up of multiple discrete quasi-persons which together are a person. That I haven’t seen anything noting someone who was both DID and fully functional otherwise as both “people”, that would tend to indicate the latter narrative is closer. It would also tend to correspond to Ainslie’s thesis and be more attuned to our knowledge of neurological structure.

    • http://ahappinessexperiment.wordpress.com/ Bock

      Yes, it is in the DSM. What does that say about the DSM? A consensus of pseudo-scientists doesn’t mean much.

      Here is my post regarding the DSM:

    • http://ahappinessexperiment.wordpress.com/ Bock

    • Cyan

      Cyan, em merges would initially be infeasible; not clear how long would take to make feasible.

      Fortunately, we’d have a large number of highly motivated non-meat-bound minds to work on the problem.

  • http://modeledbehavior.com Karl Smith

    This is of course deeply disturbing, but I can’t see an obvious flaw in the reasoning.

  • http://modeledbehavior.com Karl Smith

    Ah – one thing I should say, however, is this:

    How can we be sure that the result will be collapsing wages?

    So, if nanotechnology is developed around the same time then capital will become an informational good as well. In a em-nanotech world is it immediately clear that labor growth will outstrip capital growth?

    • Tim Tyler

      Malthus is the classical resource on that issue.

      Populations that are not resource-limited typically increase exponentially – whereas resources typically increase polynomially.

      • http://modeledbehavior.com Karl Smith

        The Malthusian model holds because the limiting factor of production was land. Thus all rents accrue to land. Everything else is paid subsistence.

        Its not clear what the limiting factor of production here. I would think its the EM blueprint. If I my descendent EMs have property rights over that blueprint then they should the limiting factor of production and all rents should accrue to them.

        Of course in good brain designs will capture vastly more rents than bad brain designs. On the other hand they may come to dominate all EMs

        I actually think the solution is extremely sensitive to the allocation of property rights.

      • Tim Tyler

        Malthusian models hold for any material resource. The basic idea is that resources (at best) expand according to t cubed – as a population expands as fast as it can into a 3D space.

  • Sampo

    The future you predict seems in many ways analogous to a colony of ants or bees. Single individuals matter little in the grand scale of things. The fact that evolution has created these hive cultures seems to increase the likelihood of your predictions.

  • Jack (LW)

    Alters seem fully human, sentient, intelligent, moral, experiencing, with their own distinct beliefs, values, and memories. They seem to meet just about every criteria ever proposed for creatures deserving moral respect. And yet the public has long known and accepted that a standard clinical practice is to kill off alters as quickly as possible. Why?

    Because the public’s conception of personal identity involves bizarre metaphysical commitments which they think alters don’t qualify for?

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  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    “to signal our hatred of sorcery”
    Why do we do that?

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      When in doubt, follow the link (at “sorcery”).

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Why do we want to signal our willingness to make ridiculous excuses for behavior we’d otherwise consider immoral & self-serving?

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        If we show we believe in and hate sorcery, then have the option to later off a rival via the excuse that they have hurt someone via sorcery. If we admit we don’t believe in sorcery, we unilaterally give up this option.

  • Vladimir M.

    TGGP:

    Why do we want to signal our willingness to make ridiculous excuses for behavior we’d otherwise consider immoral & self-serving?

    Perhaps because our neighbors want to be able to count on us as loyal allies in case need (or profit opportunity) arises for a collective enterprise that involves such behavior?

  • Vladimir M.

    Robin Hanson:

    Bock, the DID diagnosis is in DSM, and isn’t being proposed for elimination for DSM-V. The consensus of psychiatrists is therefore that it is real.

    This statement is a bit careless by your usual standards. First, the inclusion of a disorder into DSM certainly doesn’t indicate consensus. It might be taken as evidence of majority opinion — or, more probably, the opinion of key high-status members of the profession — but by no means consensus. Second, if you look at the published literature on the subject, you’ll see that there is in fact a huge controversy about the issue. See for example the papers referenced at the Wikipedia page.

    In general, I’ve noticed that alleged extremely weird and creepy phenomena like this one, which make for great plot devices in film and literature, tend to turn out much less spectacular on closer scrutiny.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    The evidence here is awfully thin – and entirely non-existent in:

    we plausibly also evolved a tendency to show revulsion of alters, to signal our hatred of sorcery.

  • Proper Dave

    What about split brains, where the corpus callosum has been severed, I believe there are two distinct personalities in some persons. What if there is some way to cure severe epilepsy in the future and a way to reconnect the two hemispheres(and personalities)? Would that be murder?

    In this case we actually have very good evidence for two persons in one rather than the very flaky case of “Sybil”.

    • Proper Dave

      Oops this should be in the previous post although they are related…