Em Scale Economies

Angle, a relaunched journal from Imperial College London, “focuses on the intersection of science, policy and politics in an evolving and complex world.” The current issue focuses on economies of scale, and includes a short paper of mine on ems:

I focus on two key results related to economies of scale. … First, an em economy grows faster that ours by avoiding the diminishing returns to capital that we suffer because we can’t grow labour fast enough. Second, an economy has larger cities because it avoids the commuting congestion costs that limit our city sizes. (more)

Of course an em economy has many other important scale economies; those where just the two I could explain in the two thousand words given me.

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  • Jennifer Reston

    Yes, but…
    Two objections.
    The first is physical labour. Most jobs require a physical body to carry out the work [citation needed]. Sure, programming, writing and managing require no to little physical presence, but most other jobs (driving, scientific research (excluding writing papers), physical resource acquisition) requires a physical body. And if we’re giving these ems physical bodies to do these tasks, why must they be ems in the first place? Why not just dumb computer programs?

    The second is infrastructure. With thousands to millions of ems commuting through the wires, we’re going to require a large overhaul of infrastructure in order to make it work. And given how slowly infrastructure seems to advance (especially in North America), I don’t think “cities” will be able to fully form.

    Maybe the best would be giant server farms of philosopher-kings doing all the thinking for us, because they can do it a lot better than we can.

    • Yes ems are software, but they are better software than any we will be able to write for a long time. So that is why we’d hook them up to bodies compared to dumb programs.

      Yes, physical buildings can take time to make, and the time to do that may be a limiting factor. Even so, the em economy could still grow much faster than does ours.

      • Jennifer Reston

        Any comment on the ethics of using ems? The treatment of simulated minds carrying out tasks far below their potential?

      • How do you know their tasks are “far below their potential”?

      • Jennifer Reston

        I might be conflating emulated minds and uploaded ones together, but, for instance, in Greg Egan’s Diaspora (I believe, it’s been a while since I’ve read it, but it’s about a civilization of uploaded minds), a character who wishes to search through a large corpus of information copies itself, and gives the copies autism so they would better appreciate their job.

        It’s not so much potential as the fact that human minds were not designed for a single task, and are prone to boredom.

        In addition, if an em is no longer required, will the em be deleted? Do ems have rights?

      • Fiction stories written for drama aren’t a reliable indication of the average quality of life in a world.

      • Jennifer Reston

        They aren’t (I acknowledge the fallacy of generalization from fictional evidence), but you aren’t answering the question either.

        I raise a fictional example to kindle discussion, one point and two questions, and you reply with a fallacy fallacy.

        At least acknowledge that you’ve read the rest of the post.

        Is there anyone else who is willing to discuss the paper?

      • I have a whole book going into great detail, including on your two questions. Want to see a draft?

      • Jennifer Reston

        I would love to see a copy of the draft, actually. That would be much appreciated.

      • Send your email address to me at rhanson@gmu.edu

      • To my understanding, Robin usually acknowledges that the individual quality of life will be very low: it will decline to the Malthusian levels before the industrial revolution. Robin’s ethical justification is that trillions of folks with only a modicum of utility is a lot of utility.

      • Jennifer Reston

        Fair enough, given a) total utilitarianism over average utilitarianism, and b) utility will be kept positive for the ems, rather than negative.

      • No, I do NOT say “individual quality of life will be very low”

      • Because you think a near-subsistence level of existence isn’t “low quality”?

        In other words, you think the mass of humans living in the agricultural era had a good quality of life? (A frankly absurd proposition.) Or does subsistence in the case of emulations somehow NOT mean being pushed to the edge of endurance?

        Do you even care to be understood?


    EMs could enjoy high quality niche products think Kung Fury but with the crowdfunding yielding even more money.

    Some forms of engineering and scientific research could progress much faster, EMs could even choose to “slow down” for a while to devote their processing power to scientific/engineering computations.

  • Robert Koslover

    I would be motivated to let an em-of-me do much of my daily work instead, so that I would be free to do hobbies or something else. But then, wouldn’t an em-of-me (which is emulating me, specifically) necessarily prefer to spinoff yet another (copy) em, so it could instead be free to pursue its/my hobbies? And wouldn’t that next em in the line also feel that way? How would I motivate an em-of-me to actually want to do those tasks that I personally don’t want to do? Thus, it seems the em-of-me would actually need to feature some important differences from me, in terms of its motivations.

    • Anon

      I think you’re missing something. With ems on the market, anyone other than top experts and workaholics would no longer have any comparative advantage.

      In other words, there would be no more daily work for you on the market.

      • Well Robert might happen to be one of the best. But that would only be if he did that daily work eagerly and with full effort. In which case, there is no problem.

    • How would I motivate an em-of-me to actually want to do those tasks that I personally don’t want to do?

      I’d be interested in whether the replies to your comment got your point. I think the answer to what you’re getting at is straightforward (if unpleasant). The only thing that would motivate an emulation of you to do work you would prefer to avoid is the power differential between you.

  • Greg Perkins

    I’m curious how a non-physical system of interaction will obviate congestion? If there are still marginal advantages to minimizing latency for individual interactive sessions, there will still be contention for colocation hosting, and for transit between the co-located zones of interaction. What reason do we have to believe that effect will be any less than physical transit currently?

    • There’s not much point in reducing latency much below a reaction time.

  • TheBrett

    What do you think rent-seeking would look like in a World of Ems? Beyond the stuff we do right now.

    • Wages just can’t go BELOW subsistence levels, though they can go NEAR them. Coalitions of clans who favor each other could be a problem, analogous to coalitions of family clans in the farmer era.

      • IMASBA

        But average incomes could go below subsistence level (meaning EMs who find themselves out of a job would quickly “starve”, this could drastically reduce life expectancy because only those who are never unemployed would live long and short life expectancy is something that beings with human psychology would certainly get angry about), couldn’t they?

      • That is the same sense perhaps as saying that the average income of humans today as CEOs is below subsistence, since most people can’t be hired as CEOs and so get zero wages for that.

      • This analogy makes no sense.

      • IMASBA

        No, it’s not the same. I was talking about average income in time. Subsistence income while employed means starvation once unemployed, even it’s just for a short time. If the expected duration of holding a job is the equivalent of 20 years then lifespans would be shorter than they’ve ever been for humanity, all the while people would know lifespan used to be longer and could be much longer (they can see the rich EMs living for the equivalent of centuries).

        But the thing is (as Stephen Diamond points out), many times over in different blog posts you sort of acknowledged life would suck for the masses and that this dystopian EM-world you describe is just the unregulated scenario that you’ve chosen to describe because it’s simple, and more likely than any single regulated scenario, sometimes though you turn around and seem to defend it as a not-so-bad place to live that can even be justified as being better for the masses, on the basis of ethical arguments that you yourself find plausible.

  • Mark Bahner

    I still don’t see any good reason to make a complete copy of the human brain, with all it’s many failings: greed, envy, sloth, etc.
    Which is a better ship, Enterprise 1701-D with its existing crew (who need to REM sleep or they can’t function…not to mention containing the ever-annoying Wesley Crusher), or the Enterprise 1701-D+, staffed by umpteen thousand Commander Datas?

    And which is a better bus, one driven by em of Ralph Kramden, or one driven by a computer not constantly thinking of bowling, lunch, and get-rich-quick schemes?

    And of course there are loading docks with Archie Bunker ems, or nuclear power plants with Homer, Lenny, Carl, and Mr. Burns ems. It simply doesn’t make any sense to have a loading dock or a power plant run by humans.

    • Anon

      There are 2 advantages: Ems start with their own goals and values, while AGI must be carefully programmed with them, which is more dangerous. And ems might be easier to do than AGI. You are of course right that in some domains narrow AI is better.

      • Anon

        And by “to do”, I mean “to create/invent”. 🙂

      • Mark Bahner

        “You are of course right that in some domains narrow AI is better.”

        Look at IBM’s Watson. Is that “narrow AI”?

        It demolished two human Jeopardy champions. Now it assists oncologists. It’s learning finance.

        There’s no way there’s more than a decade or two between Watson today and a computer that can carry on a conversation that is virtually indistinguishable from a conversation with a human.

      • I’ll take that bet, depending on what you mean by ‘virtually’.

      • Mark Bahner

        There’s already a Long Bet on a computer passing the Turing Test by 2029:


        If Ray Kurzweil wins that bet, I would consider that to be “…a computer that can carry on a conversation that is virtually indistinguishable from a conversation with a human.”

        But I’ve never really liked the Turing Test as described in that bet. Specifically, I don’t like the aspect that the computer has to pretend to be a human. A computer has no human experience, but that has nothing to do with intelligence. Blind and deaf people are not any less intelligent simply because they don’t see or hear. And a computer isn’t less intelligent because it doesn’t feel fear, pain, envy, lust, etc. etc. That’s computers will be able to perform most human jobs before ems come to pass. (Again, I deny even the value of ems.) For example, as I wrote before, I’m very confident brick-and-mortar shopping (for household goods, groceries, home building supplies, etc. etc.) will be replaced by computers stocking and retrieving from warehouses, and delivering goods to doorsteps, long before ems populate brick-and-mortar stores.

        I haven’t thought extensively about how to design a suitable test, but a variation on the Turing Test would be that a computer could pretend to be human *or* honestly state it’s a computer, and the human could state he/she is human, *or* pretend to be a computer, and “blinded” judges would not be able to tell which situation was occurring. The conversations would be “virtually indistinguishable.”

      • What do you mean by “virtually.”

    • We are a long way away from being able to write software that substitutes well for humans. Likely this will still be true even when we have ems.

      • For how long, given accelerated technical progress based on ems?

        Will the age of ems be a mere blip?

      • Mark Bahner

        That depends what you mean by “a long way.”

        In 10-20 years, computers will drive cars and trucks better than 90+% of humans.

        Commercial pilots of 777s already spend just 7 minutes in a typical flight actually flying the plane. It’s not going to take more than a decade or two for computers to take over those 7 minutes.

        It’s already completely ridiculous and annoying that my neighborhood Walmart and Target have no self-checkout lanes. And computer-checkout systems at places like Lowes are pretty pathetic. But I expect half of all cashiers to be out of jobs in 20 years, and 90 percent out of jobs in 30.

        With no need to actually shop at brick-and-mortar stores (Walmart, Target, Lowes, Home Depot, Kroger, etc. etc. etc.) there will be no need for not only the cashiers, but all the humans to stock the shelves and clean the stores. Computers will put merchandise in, and take merchandise out, from darkened warehouses with narrowed aisles. Computers will take the merchandise to delivery vehicles. Computers will drive the merchandise to the customer. And computers will take the merchandise from the delivery vehicles and bring it to the customer’s door.

        In short, computers will obliterate brick-and-mortar retail in less than 30 years. Considering that Walmart is the largest employer in the U.S., McDonald’s is #3 (no need for cashiers, cooks, or cleaning personnel), UPS is #5 (no need for drivers), Target is #6, Kroger is #7, and Home Depot is #8, that’s a lot of human jobs.

      • “A long way” means human labor will still get most world income, and at prior trends it would take centuries to change that.

      • Mark Bahner

        “”A long way” means human labor will still get most world income,…”

        Yes, if computers are paid 40 cents an hour, they don’t have much income. All those people (the vast *majority* of workers) laid off from Walmart, McDonald’s, UPS, Target, Kroger, and Home Depot, etc. will still make substantially more income than the computers that replace them. After all, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That’s about 20 times 40 cents per hour. (And most people at those companies make more than minimum wage.) That does *not* mean it’s not a world-changing event when the majority of jobs at 6 of the top 10 private employers disappear. I defy you to find any time in the last 100 years when virtually all the jobs at 6 of the 10 largest private employers simply vanished inside 30 years.

        “…and at prior trends it would take centuries to change that.”

        As Ray Kurzweil has often pointed out, “at prior trends” doesn’t work if one is thinking linearly, and the growth is exponential.

        By my calculations, personal/laptop computers added only 1 human brain equivalent (HBE) to world population in 1995, and will add only 1 million HBEs this year. That’s not remarkable when human population is increasing by 70+ million per year. But in 2025 when computers are adding 1 billion HBEs, and in 2035, when computers are adding more than 1 TRILLION HBEs, it will certainly be another matter.

      • Wei Dai

        The Singularity Summit 2011 Workshop Report included this sentence: “Zvi Mowshowitz, who was appointed “keeper of the probabilities,” integrated participants’ opinions to estimate that the probability
        that neuromorphic AI would arrive before WBE was 0.85.” Robin, it sounds you think this probability is too high, in which case, do you have an explanation of why other people might tend to overestimate the arrival date of WBE relative to neuromorphic AI?

      • Hanson’s methodology than that of “other people” is superior because he takes an outside view:


      • Naively projecting past rates of progress in specific ordinary AI fields has been a far better way to forecast future rates than asking people to predict general AI progress. For WBE we have concrete trends to project forward. http://www.overcomingbias.com/2012/08/ai-progress-estimate.html

      • IMASBA

        Even if we knew exactly what it would take to have human-level AI (so we would know how it relates to achievements in specific ordinary AI fields), how would you objectively measure progress towards that state? Hardware progression rate? Resources necessary to improve software? Frequency of revolutionary algorithms being invented? Expected years/resources until completion of goal? How can you tell your measure or weighted combination of measures is more objective than someone else’s?

      • Wei Dai

        Assuming that your estimate of up to 4 centuries to AGI is based on not much increase in the number of AI researchers (currently less than 10,000), that gives at most 4 million person-years worth of AI research left. Once em wages fall to near subsistence, this should be easily affordable for any government or large corporation, so we should expect AGI soon after. At the same time or shortly after, AGIs will be more efficient than ems and displace virtually all ems in the labor market. Do you see anything wrong with this reasoning?

      • While I don’t agree AI researcher-years is the relevant measure, I still agree if “soon” means a year or two of objective clock time. But that can be thousands of subjective years to typical ems. So whole civilizations can come and go in that time – LOTS can happen with ems before AGI.

      • Wei Dai

        Can you explain why AI researcher-years isn’t the right measure? If it will take at most 4 centuries for a relatively small number of biological humans to create AGI, how could it take thousands of subjective years when it’s possible to make many copies of the best, most productive AI researchers? Plus, wouldn’t the availability of brain emulations to study help speed up AI progress?