Ems Give Longer Human Legacy

Imagine that you were an older software engineer at Microsoft in 1990. If your goal was to have the most influence on software used in 2016, you should have hoped that Microsoft would continue to dominate computer operating systems and related software frameworks. Or at least do so for longer and stronger. Your software contributions were more compatible with Microsoft frameworks than with frameworks introduced by first like Apple and Google. In scenarios where those other frameworks became more popular faster, more systems would be redesigned more from scratch, and your design choices would be more often replaced by others.

In contrast, if you were a young software engineer with the same goal, then you should instead have hoped that new frameworks would replace Microsoft frameworks faster. You could more easily jump to those new frameworks, and build new systems matched to them. Then it would be your design choices that would last longer into the future of software. If you were not a software engineer in 1990, but just cared about the overall quality of software in 2016, your preference is less clear. You’d just want efficient effective software, and so want frameworks to be replaced at the optimal rate, neither too fast nor too slow.

This seems a general pattern. When the goal is distant future influence, those more tied to old frameworks want them to continue, while those who can more influence new frameworks prefer old ones be replaced. Those who just want useful frameworks want something in between.

Consider now two overall frameworks for future intelligence: ordinary software versus humans minds. At the moment human minds, and other systems adapted to them, make up by far the more powerful overall framework. The human mind framework contains the most powerful known toolkit by far for dealing with a wide variety of important computing tasks, both technical and social. But for many decades the world has been slowly accumulating content in a rather different software framework, one that is run on computers that we make in factories. This new framework has been improving more rapidly; while sometimes software has replaced humans on job tasks, the reverse almost never happens.

One possible scenario for the future is that this new software framework continues to improve until it eventually replaces pretty much all humans on jobs. (Ordinary software of course contains many kinds of parts, and the relative emphasis of different kinds of parts could change.) Along the way software engineers will have tried to include as many as possible of the innovations they understand from human brains and attached systems. But that process will be limited by their limited understanding of the brain. And when better understanding finally arrives, perhaps so much will have been invested in very different approaches that it won’t be worth trying to transfer approaches from brains.

A second scenario for the future, as I outline in my book, is that brain emulations (ems) become feasible well before ordinary software displaces most humans on jobs. Humans are then immediately replaced by ems on almost all jobs. Because ems are more cost-effective than humans, for any given level of the quality of software, efficiency-oriented system designers will rely more on ems instead of ordinary software, compared to what they would have done in the first scenario. Because of this, the evolution of wider systems, such as for communication, work, trade, war, or politics, will be more matched to humans for longer than they would have under the first scenario.

In addition, ems would seek ways to usefully take apart and modify brain emulations, in addition to seeking ways to write better ordinary software. They would be more successful at this than humans would have been had ems not arrived. This would allow human-mind-like computational features, design elements, and standards to have more influence on ordinary software design, and on future software that combines elements of both approaches. Software in the long run would inherit more from human minds. And so would the larger social systems matched to future software.

If you are typical human today who wants things like you to persist, this second scenario seems better for you, as the future looks more like you for “longer”, i.e., through more doublings of the world economy, and more degrees of change of various technologies. However, I note that many young software engineers and their friends today seem quite enthusiastic about scenarios where artificial software quickly displaces all human workers very soon. They seem to presume that this will give them a larger percentage influence on the future, and prefer that outcome.

Of course I’ve only been talking about one channel by which we today might influence the distant future. You might also hope to influence the distant future by saving resources to be spent later by yourself or by an organization to which you bequeath instructions. Or you might hope to strengthen institutions of global governance, and somehow push them into an equilibrium where they are able to and want to continue to strongly regulate software and the world in order to preserve the things that you value.

However, historically related savings and governance processes have had rather small influences on distant futures. For billions of years, the main source of long distance influence has been attempts by biological creatures to ensure that the immediate future had more creatures very much like themselves. And for many thousands of years of human cultural evolution, there has also been a strong process whereby local cultural practices worked to ensure that the immediate future had more similar cultural practices. In contrast, individual creatures and organizations have been short-lived, and global governance has mostly been nonexistent.

Thus it seems to me that if you want the distant future to longer have more things like typical humans, you prefer a scenario where ems appear before ordinary software displaces most all humans on jobs.

Added 15Dec: In this book chapter I expand a bit on this post.

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  • http://gregrperkins.com Greg Perkins

    What about non-ordinary software? What about brain-rooted external cognitive extensions?

    Agree with this if those were the only two possibilities. But they’re not.

  • FuturePundit

    I do not see how you get emulation without upload. So emulation seems very hard to me. How else can you know enough detail to do the emulation?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      An em IS an upload.

  • Lord

    Should we be happy to let self driving cars relieve us of the burden or regret becoming passengers? Should we be happy no conscious being is consigned to that fate or regret the loss of potential friend or an enduring existence for ourself?

  • Joe

    Sorry for the moderate tangent but – Robin, I’m wondering how much you (and others) expect AI to rely on ‘normal’ software.

    The extent to which humans rely on formal systems seems noteworthy – suggests that, even in spite of our brains being enormously more powerful than these simple artificial systems, we apparently needed to build them anyway. It wasn’t possible to just look at each problem in isolation and human it away, through sheer ingenuity, relying on nothing but our big awesome brains.

    This seems to suggest to me that, even if our brains do just implement a couple of simple algorithms, and therefore a clump of simulated neurons in any configuration will in fact spontaneously go foom, it will in the process of taking over the world still need to build lots of cheap, context-specific, brittle systems to work though.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Yes, I expect ems to use lots of normal software, and more over time, just as we humans have.

  • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

    See my added to this post.

    • Joe

      Very interesting – it’s useful to have such a dense summary of your thoughts on this topic.

      One preliminary question that comes to mind: what lasting influence do you think horses have had on transportation, that wouldn’t have occurred if they hadn’t existed as an intermediate between walking and motorised cars? Maybe this would be a somewhat useful reference point for the potential ability of ems to promote a human legacy.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Horse needs were so close to human needs that we didn’t change that much to accommodate them.