Em Need For Speed

I recently found fault with Keith Henson’s assumption that sexual competition would induce ems to run as fast as physically possible. So how fast do I think ems would run? Here is my current analysis:

Em speeds should intersect supply and demand. Speed supply comes from how em hardware (e.g., device, energy, and cooling) costs vary with speed. Since human brains use a very parallel design with cells whose signals change far slower than electronic circuits, the cost of em hardware should be roughly linear in em speed across a wide range, to a very fast max, perhaps a million times faster than humans. In this range, thinking twice as fast costs about twice as much.

Above that linear regime, a 1% speedup will add more than 1% to costs, with this speed premium approaching infinity at a maximum feasible speedup, perhaps a factor of a billion. Very slow ems should also suffer a cost premium, as they’d still need to store a mental state.

With compatible hardware, brief speed increases might be cheap if em brains have substantial heat capacity. Longer but still temporary speed changes might be made by swapping into different brain hardware, though this could have substantial switching costs.

On the demand for em speed, I see seven relevant factors:

  1. When physical systems have natural resonance periods, managing those systems suggets em response times near the shortest of those periods. For example, since small moveable human body parts have resonance periods of a fraction of a second, human brains have reaction times on that time scale – reacting faster might help sometimes, but costs too much. Ems with smaller human-like bodies would want faster brains to match their shorter periods.
  2. Ems that talk often would benefit from having similar mind speeds. This would create a tendency for em speeds to clump at common standard speeds. Ems that talk often to humans would have near human speeds. Ems with highly mismatched speeds could talk naturally if the slow one temporarily moved to faster mental hardware.
  3. It is awkward for ems to talk when there are substantial communication delays. For any given distance to em conversation partners, there is some max speed above which delays are noticeable and hence costly.
  4. It is tempting to use faster ems to speed up any project whose duration might take a substantial fraction of the economy’s doubling time, or where there is a race with competing projects. Of course project durations may be limited by factors other than em thinking speeds.
  5. The more important is a negotiation or argument between ems, the more private gains can come from having a faster em mind, to out-think the other ems. So in hierarchical organizations, higher level leaders would have faster minds.
  6. When it is useful to coordinate two different tasks, one could either have two ems do the two tasks and talk periodically, or have a single faster em do both tasks. A single em doing both tasks probably has skills less well matched to those tasks, and would pay extra costs to switch between tasks. But when task coordination is important enough, these can be prices worth paying.
  7. When it is important to minimize the time a worker is away from their tasks at leisure and sleep, it will be tempting to run those non-work activities very fast. This could allow near continuous time coverage of a task.

Thus while some ems will have speeds to match the physical systems they manage, and ems would be faster at sleep, leisure, on thinking-dominated projects, and at high organization levels. The speed of other ems would be set more by how important is coordination for their tasks, and em speeds would tend to clump.

Coordination seems especially important in key design tasks, and in management. For example, it would be especially tempting to have all the parts of a large intricate software project written by the same very fast em. It would also be tempting to have the top thousand or more manager roles in a big organizations all be filled by a single very fast em.

Faster ems would naturally tend to be richer ems, if nothing else because they’d have some discretion in how they used their time, and that time is worth more. Thus a single very fast boss could afford to own more of a firm, reducing owner vs. manager conflicts.

If faster ems tend to be richer, win arguments, and fill key design and management roles, they would naturally be treated as higher status, at least by our status cues. Ems would also likely see them as higher status.

Social roles can often be usefully divided into roles that deal more with insiders, vs. roles that deal more with outsiders. For example, in a family, childcare is an inside role, while working for money is an outside role. In a hierarchical organization, managers have a more outside role – they deal more with outsiders. We care more about openness and helpfulness in inside roles, but more about opacity and toughness in outside roles.

When ems of different speeds meet, the slower em would naturally be more transparent and the faster one more opaque. It seems that faster ems would tend more to take on outside roles, which will be associated with higher status. In hierarchical organizations, subordinates might be expected to be open, such as via allowing direct hardware access to their emotional expressions, while bosses might typically hide their feelings from subordinates.

The overall picture here seems to be of even more inequality than I had imagined when I just considered wealth inequality among a larger future population whose lifespans vary more. Each em firm may have one very fast rich dominant boss who personally owns a lot of the firm. All front line managers might report to this one super boss, in meetings where they temporarily run at boss speeds, and are expected to be emotionally open to boss inspection. Sir, yes sir!

All else equal, an increase in the spatial extent of a firm or city would tend to reduce the speed of ems that might notice substantial communication delays. If em firms and cities tend to naturally grow larger over time, they’d also tend to naturally become slower, at least at their peak speeds. The gains that the would have otherwise achieved from faster speeds would be compensated by being able to interact naturally with a wider range of ems.

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  • RobS

    It sounds like a nightmare! Let’s make a maximum speed law right now.

    • Dremora

      No. You don’t want anyone to slow down; if you want to prevent social power concentration, you tax them and speed others up.

      • Poelmo

        Processing power (of the server) is the most important resource there is to EMs, and it will be limited (so one EM’s gain will be another EM’s loss). They will have to find a way to ration it in a fair way (keeping a level playing field). My guess is they’ll consider it a fundamental right, not up for sale. Just like your kidneys or your access to oxygen aren’t for sale in the real world.

      • Dremora

        Drinking water is for sale. Food is for sale. Oxygen is cheap, and a ban on consensual kidney trade is a reduction of our personal options and therefore a harm rather than a benefit.

  • Dave

    That does it. Robin is an EM. How else could he think do fast?

    • Dave

      Typos,crap. Robin must either be or be equivalent to an EM. I mean how else could he think so fast?

      • Poelmo

        He’s an alien EM who crash landed on Earth and is now forced to survive in humanity’s primitive internet servers where he can only achieve <10x times average human thinking speed. Through this blog and his media appearances (using fake video) is trying to manipulate humanity into building a better "home" for him so he can return to his original 1000x times average human thinking speed.

  • http://nebupookins.net Nebu

    Ems that talk often would benefit from having similar mind speeds.

    It seems more likely to me that once we regularly have Ems of different speed, asynchronous communication might be emphasized over synchronous communication: Think tweets with @ replies, Facebook updates and comments/likes, and text messages vs phone calls, face-to-face speech. IRC, group chatrooms, etc. are somewhere in between, as you can step away temporarily, then later return, read the last few lines of chat logs, and reintegrate into the conversation.

    subordinates might be expected to be open, such as via allowing direct hardware access to their emotional expressions

    Wouldn’t you expect something like an Em-privacy laws to be established, making it illegal for your boss to gain access to your e.g. your sexual orientation, your political views, and your direct emotional expressions? Perhaps in practice the boss em will be so much faster, they can infer all this information, but in principle such a law might still be in place, informing ems what information about others is socially acceptable to signal that you possess and are willing to share, etc.

    • John

      I imagine that, to the slower side of a conversation, keeping up with the nuances would be like playing tennis, while to the faster side it would be more like chess by mail with a reply every week or two.

  • mjgeddes

    If faster ems tend to be richer, win arguments, and fill key design and management roles, they would naturally be treated as higher status, at least by our status cues. Ems would also likely see them as higher status.

    Hackers Maxim #2

    ‘Knowledge is power, but he who controls time, controls the universe’

  • Evan

    Since human brains use a very parallel design with cells whose signals change far slower than electronic circuits, the cost of em hardware should be roughly linear in em speed across a wide range, to a very fast max, perhaps a million times faster than humans. In this range, thinking twice as fast costs about twice as much.

    Above that linear regime, a 1% speedup will add more than 1% to costs, with this speed premium approaching infinity at a maximum feasible speedup, perhaps a factor of a billion. Very slow ems should also suffer a cost premium, as they’d still need to store a mental state.

    Wait, I thought the reason ems would be so much more competitive economically than biological humans would be that they could do a lot more thinking faster and cheaper. If they can’t cheaply run much more than twice as fast as biological humans, where’s the advantage?

    Computers are made out of all sorts of rare and expensive metals. Humans are made out of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, with a faint dusting of some other trace substances. I assumed that ems’ ability to “think” and “live” so much faster would more than make up for the fact that their “bodies” are made of much more expensive raw materials than biological humans. But if ems aren’t able to run significantly faster without spending huge amounts of money, it seems like biologicals would still have a comparitive advantage in some circumstances.

    At the very least, it seems like there would still be plenty of room on the surface of the Earth for biologicals after the ems have mined up all the precious metals to make more computers to run on. I suppose they might try to kill biologicals for the iron in their blood, but it seems likely some other limiting metal would run out before iron did, and even if it didn’t, perhaps the ems could design some nanotech hemoglobin substitute that didn’t need iron for the biologicals. I suppose the ems could mine space and ship the metal back to Earth. But if you’re going into space already it seems cheaper just to build your computers there and upload into them. Maybe Robin is wrong about nature being doomed.

    Robin, do you still think ems will be able to outcompete biologicals on all fronts if only a few very rich and powerful ems will be able to run significantly faster than biologicals? Do you forsee them inventing computers that need much less metal than current ones do?

    • ShardPhoenix

      Presumably the base cost of an em (at 1x human capacity) is much lower than creating and maintaining a human.

      • Evan

        I find that unlikely, at least at first. Computers simply require rarer, heavier elements to construct than biologicals. There would have to be some heavy duty miniaturization and ephemeralization going on to fix that. Maybe Moore’s Law will triumph eventually, but there will probably be an important period of time where ems are technically feasible, but the cost of the computers they live in will significantly exceed the cost of a human body.

  • ShardPhoenix

    You seem to be assuming that “ems” will not have changed very much from their human origins – that being an em will be much like being a current human, but with the outside world seeming to move very slowly.

    For example, rather than having to sync their whole brain speed with another’s just to communicate with them, why not talk to them in another thread/process (that can run as slow as necessary)? Or think of Greg Egan’s depiction of ems creating clones that later join back together, except on a smaller scale.

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

      I assume that merging copies that have diverged will not be feasible for an important period just after ems are feasible.

  • arch1

    1) “With compatible hardware, brief speed increases might be cheap if em brains have substantial heat capacity.”

    If variable speed is much cheaper than constant high speed, I think its use would be widespread.

    We all do this to a certain extent now (perking up and thinking perhaps 2x as quickly during critical interactions, etc., with an associated cost in fatigue and presumably in calories). Em HW would I think enable speed variability over a much wider range, presumably enabling much greater utility to be generated (as compared with a fixed-speed model) for a given budget.

    2) I have serious (perhaps unfounded, but serious at this point) concerns about quality of life in the Em era. Perhaps one of the grand challenges of the Pre-Em and Early-Em eras will be to ensure that life remains worth living (hopefully increasingly so over time) for conscious beings.

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

      I agree that variable speed would be used often. You should be concerned about the quality of life of all creatures, including ems, but I don’t see that this post suggests a lower quality of em life than one might have otherwise thought.

      • arch1

        Yup I include ems in the class of conscious beings.

        Re: Quality of life, it seems to be shaping up as quite a rat race. E.g. when there is significant pressure to sleep fast and do leisure fast, I’m wondering whether something important has been lost.