The Uploaded

In this post I again contrast my analysis of future ems in Age of Em with a fictional depictions of ems, and find that science fiction isn’t very realistic, having other priorities. Today’s example: The Uploaded, by Ferrett Steinmetz:

The world is run from the afterlife, by the minds of those uploaded at the point of death. Living is just waiting to die… and maintaining the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life of servitude. Turns out he’s not the only one who wants to change the world.

The story is set 500 years and 14 human generations after a single genius invented ems. While others quickly found ways to copy this tech, his version was overwhelming preferred. (In part due to revelations of “draconian” competitor plans.) So much so that he basically was able to set the rules of this new world, and to set them globally. He became an immortal em, and so still rules the world. His rules, and the basic tech and econ arrangement, have remained stable for those 500 years, during which there seems to have been vastly less tech change and economic growth than we’ve seen in the last 500 years.

His rules are the these: typically when a biological humans dies, one emulation of them is created who is entitled to eternal leisure in luxurious virtual realities. That one em runs at ordinary human speed, no other copies of it are allowed, ems never inhabit android physical bodies, and ems are never created of still living biological humans. By now there are 15 times as many ems as humans, and major decisions are made by vote, which ems always win. Ems vote to divert most resources to their servers, and so biological humans are poor, their world is run down, and diseases are killing them off.

Virtual realities are so engaging that em parents can’t even be bothered to check in on their young children now in orphanages. But a few ems get bored and want to do useful jobs, and they take all the nice desk jobs. Old ems are stuck in their ways and uncreative, preventing change. Biological humans are only needed to do physical jobs, which are boring and soul-crushing. It is illegal for them to do programming. Some ems also spend lots of time watching via surveillance cameras, so biological humans are watched all the time.

Every day every biological human’s brain is scanned and evaluated by a team of ems, and put into one of five status levels. Higher levels are given nicer positions and privileges, while the lowest levels are not allowed to become ems. Biological humans are repeatedly told they need to focus on pleasing their em bosses so they can get into em heaven someday. To say more, I must give spoilers; you are warned.

This world ruler decides to study ways to manipulate em brains to make them more interested in helping with the physical world. So he experiments on live humans, killing many. (Even though studying ems would be far cheaper and less destructive.) Our hero discovered this, is morally outraged, starts a revolution, and wins. He is then apparently in a position to be a new world ruler, and so his new rules are that ems together only get 40% of all votes, and em property is taxed at a 90% level. Yay for the downtrodden. And the young, blue-collar, biological, raves, pranksters, promiscuity, programmers, and sharp moral lines allowing no exceptions. Boo consequentialist leaders, frequent intrusive global rankings, surveillance, bosses, age, and wealth.

Many of these author choices seem highly unrealistic. These include autonomous world rulers, no ems in android bodies, no em copies, all human speed ems, and all leisure-entitled ems. Rankings also seem unnecessarily frequent, intrusive, and global. In reality if one part of the world adopted this approach, and other parts sought more to realize the huge economic potential of ems, those other parts would quickly dominate.

One might explain all these errors as due to author ignorance or technical disagreements, but it seems much more plausible to say that he chose all this to support his morality play. The book seems much less about future ems than it is an allegory of rich vs. poor conflicts today. Science fiction morality tales are aided by having major world features arise from the preferences of key characters, rather than from impersonal social forces. And most world choices seem designed to make typical readers today identify with the rebels, and chafe at how ems treat biological humans.

Enjoy your morality tales; just don’t confuse them with accurate future estimates.

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  • You should probably view these as post em societies, for even if ems still exist they have no apparent use, thus no intensive growth, only extensive growth of more ems. Their life of leisure is all they have and the only work for them, make-work, or play, such as entertaining others. No em procreation so little population pressure though an increasing amount of resources devoted to ems since there are no more efficiency gains to be extracted having reached stasis beyond extensive growth.

    • In this world there is plenty of work left for em and human workers to do. This is not a world where all tasks are automated via software.

  • lump1

    One of the many good things that Age of Em accomplished: No worthwhile author can now write about emulated minds without taking your work into account. Sadly, not all writers are worthwhile.

    It would be great if this work were a part of a larger genre that applies academic insights to help fiction writers with worldbuilding. The upshot of the work would be some sort of guide that might have the title: “Things Your Story Can’t Have If You Want It to Make Sense, and Why Not.” Now that I think about it, I bet a rationalist wiki would be a good place to crowdsource and host a guide like this.

    It needs stuff like “If some magic or technology makes a person transparent to light, then his or her (transparent) eyes will see nothing.”

  • Absinthe

    “Higher levels are given nicer positions and privileges, while the lowest levels are not allowed to become ems.”

    Forgive me for being a neophyte to the idea of ems and uploaded consciousness, but isn’t this above passage a given? The elite, those who believe themselves elite, the sons and daughters of the wealthy, and those who are friends of the uploaders: are not their places already reserved? And, if true, is not the Em concept a form of post-corporeal eugenics? A perfect life, without mental illness, creative madness, manic ideas. Sounds… boring.

    • Richer people could more easily afford to create ems and give them a life of leisure. That’s different from a central review system deciding who may become an em. Also, in Age of Em most ems are there to work, and exist because they are the most productive.

  • Bobster

    Why do these works always assume Ems have consciousness?

    Or is that irrelevant?

    • The novels often assume that the characters believe this. But if there were wrong, not sure the story would happy any different.

      • Bobster

        Can non-conscious entities “believe” things?

        But nonetheless I agree the story can still end up the same.

  • Robert Koslover

    Science fiction novels often present future worlds in which certain technologies are more advanced than the present, yet they then remain stagnant for a very long time. That has always seemed unrealistic to me. Perhaps this is simply a sign of the limited imaginations of the authors. Another common but unrealistic story feature is implying there are no technological advances at all relative to the present day within major technical areas that are simply outside the story’s main idea(s).