Tag Archives: Ems

How Human Are Meditators?

Someday we may be able to create brain emulations (ems), and someday later we may understand them sufficiently to allow substantial modifications to them. Many have expressed concern that competition for efficient em workers might then turn ems into inhuman creatures of little moral worth. This might happen via reductions of brain systems, features, and activities that are distinctly human but that contribute less to work effectiveness. For example Scott Alexander fears loss of moral value due to “a very powerful ability to focus the brain on the task at hand” and ems “neurologically incapable of having their minds drift off while on the job”.

A plausible candidate for em brain reduction to reduce mind drift is the default mode network:

The default mode network is active during passive rest and mind-wandering. Mind-wandering usually involves thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future.… becomes activated within an order of a fraction of a second after participants finish a task. … deactivate during external goal-oriented tasks such as visual attention or cognitive working memory tasks. … The brain’s energy consumption is increased by less than 5% of its baseline energy consumption while performing a focused mental task. … The default mode network is known to be involved in many seemingly different functions:

It is the neurological basis for the self:

Autobiographical information: Memories of collection of events and facts about one’s self
Self-reference: Referring to traits and descriptions of one’s self
Emotion of one’s self: Reflecting about one’s own emotional state

Thinking about others:

Theory of Mind: Thinking about the thoughts of others and what they might or might not know
Emotions of other: Understanding the emotions of other people and empathizing with their feelings
Moral reasoning: Determining just and unjust result of an action
Social evaluations: Good-bad attitude judgments about social concepts
Social categories: Reflecting on important social characteristics and status of a group

Remembering the past and thinking about the future:

Remembering the past: Recalling events that happened in the past
Imagining the future: Envisioning events that might happen in the future
Episodic memory: Detailed memory related to specific events in time
Story comprehension: Understanding and remembering a narrative

In our book The Elephant in the Brain, we say that key tasks for our distant ancestors were tracking how others saw them, watching for ways others might accuse them of norm violations, and managing stories of their motives and plans to help them defend against such accusations. The difficulty of this task was a big reason humans had such big brains. So it made sense to design our brains to work on such tasks in spare moments. However, if ems could be productive workers even with a reduced capacity for managing their social image, it might make sense to design ems to spend a lot less time and energy ruminating on their image.

Interestingly, many who seek personal insight and spiritual enlightenment try hard to reduce the influence of this key default mode network. Here is Sam Harris from his recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion:

Psychologists and neuroscientist now acknowledge that the human mind tends to wander. .. Subjects reported being lost in thought 46.9 percent of the time. .. People are consistently less happy when their minds wander, even when the contents of their thoughts are pleasant. … The wandering mind has been correlated with activity in the … “default mode” or “resting state” network (DMN). .. Activity in the DMN decreases when subjects concentrate on tasks of the sort employed in most neuroimaging experiments.

The DMN has also been linked with our capacity for “self-representation.” … [it] is more engaged when we make such judgements of relevance about ourselves, as opposed to making them about other people. It also tends to be more active when we evaluate a scene from a first person point of view. … Generally speaking, to pay attention outwardly reduces activity in the [DMN], while thinking about oneself increases it. …

Mindfulness and loving-kindness mediation also decrease activity in the DMN – and the effect is most pronounced among experienced meditators. … Expert meditators … judge the intensity of an unpleasant stimulus the same but find it to be less unpleasant. They also show reduced activity in regions associated with anxiety while anticipanting the onsite of pain. … Mindfulness reduces both the unpleasantness and intensity of noxious stimuli. …

There is an enormous difference between being hostage to one’s thoughts and being freely and nonjudgmentally aware of life in the present. To make this shift is to interrupt the process of rumination and reactivity that often keep us so desperately at odds with ourselves and with other people. … Meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. … The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self. (pp.119-123)

I see a big conflict here. On the one hand, many are concerned that competition could destroy moral value by cutting away distinctively human features of em brains, and the default net seems a prime candidate for cutting. On the other hand, many see meditation as a key to spiritual insight, one of the highest human callings, and a key task in meditation is cutting the influence of the default net. Ems with a reduced default net could more easily focus, be mindful, see the illusion of the self, and feel more at peace and less anxious about their social image. So which is it, do such ems achieve our highest spiritual ideals, or are they empty shells mostly devoid of human value? Can’t be both, right?

By the way, I was reading Harris because he and I will record a podcast Feb 21 in Denver.

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The Ems of Altered Carbon

People keep suggesting that I can’t possibly present myself as an expert on the future if I’m not familiar with their favorite science fiction (sf). I say that sf mostly pursues other purposes and rarely tries much to present realistic futures. But I figure should illustrate my claim with concrete examples from time to time. Which brings us to Altered Carbon, a ten episode sf series just out on Netflix, based on a 2002 novel. I’ve watched the series, and read the novel and its two sequels.

Altered Carbon’s key tech premise is a small “stack” which can sit next to a human brain collecting and continually updating a digital representation of that brain’s full mental state. This state can also be transferred into the rest of that brain, copied to other stacks, or placed and run in an android body or a virtual reality. Thus stacks allow something much like ems who can move between bodies.

But the universe of Altered Carbon looks very different from my description of the Age of Em. Set many centuries in future, our descendants have colonized many star systems. Technological change then is very slow; someone revived after sleeping for centuries is familiar with almost all the tech they see, and they remain state-of-the-art at their job. While everyone is given a stack as a baby, almost all jobs are done by ordinary humans, most of whom are rather poor and still in their original body, the only body they’ll ever have. Few have any interest in living in virtual reality, which is shown as cheap, comfortable, and realistic; they’d rather die. There’s also little interest in noticeably-non-human android bodies, which could plausibly be pretty cheap.

Regarding getting new very-human-like physical bodies, some have religious objections, many are disinterested, but most are just too poor. So most stacks are actually never used. Stacks can insure against accidents that kill a body but don’t hurt the stack. Yet while it should be cheap and easy to backup stack data periodically, inexplicibly only rich folks do that.

It is very illegal for one person to have more than one stack running at a time. Crime is often punished by taking away the criminal’s body, which creates a limited supply of bodies for others to rent. Very human-like clone and android bodies are also available, but are very expensive. Over the centuries some have become very rich and long-lived “meths”, paying for new bodies as needed. Meths run everything, and are shown as inhumanly immoral, often entertaining themselves by killing poor people, often via sex acts. Our hero was once part of a failed revolution to stop meths via a virus that kills anyone with a century of subjective experience.

Oh, and there have long been fully human level AIs who are mainly side characters that hardly matter to this world. I’ll ignore them, as criticizing the scenario on these grounds is way too easy.

Now my analysis says that there’d be an enormous economic demand for copies of ems, who can do most all jobs via virtual reality or android bodies. If very human-like physical bodies are too expensive, the economy would just skip them. If allowed, ems would quickly take over all work, most activity would be crammed in a few dense cities, and the economy could double monthly. Yet while war is common in the universe of Altered Carbon, and spread across many star systems, no place ever adopts the huge winning strategy of unleashing such an em economy and its associated military power. While we see characters who seek minor local advantages get away for long times with violating the rule against copying, no one ever tries to do this to get vastly rich, or to win a war. No one even seems aware of the possibility.

Even ignoring the AI bit, I see no minor modification to make this into a realistic future scenario. It is made more to be a morality play, to help you feel righteous indignation at those damn rich folks who think they can just live forever by working hard and saving their money over centuries. If there are ever poor humans who can’t afford to live forever in very human-like bodies, even if they could easily afford android or virtual immortality, well then both the rich and the long-lived should all burn! So you can feel morally virtuous watching hour after hour of graphic sex and violence toward that end. As it so happens that hand-to-hand combat, typically producing big spurts of blood, and often among nudes, is how most conflicts get handled in this universe. Enjoy!

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Meaning is Easy to Find, Hard to Justify

One of the strangest questions I get when giving talks on Age of Em is a variation on this:

How can ems find enough meaning in their lives to get up and go to work everyday, instead of committing suicide?

As the vast majority of people in most every society do not commit suicide, and manage to get up for work on most workdays, why would anyone expect this to be a huge problem in a random new society?

Even stranger is that I mostly get this question from smart sincere college students who are doing well at school. And I also hear that such students often complain that they do not know how to motivate themselves to do many things that they “want” to do. I interpret this all as resulting from overly far thinking on meaning. Let me explain.

If we compare happiness to meaning, then happiness tends to be an evaluation of a more local situation, while meaning tends to be an evaluation of a more global situation. You are happy about this moment, but you have meaning regarding your life.

Now you can do either of these evaluations in a near or a far mode. That is, you can just ask yourself for your intuitions on how you feel about your life, within over-thinking it, or you can reason abstractly and idealistically about what sort of meaning you should have or can justify having. In that later more abstract mode, smart sincere people can be stumped. How can they justify having meaning in a world where there is so much randomness and suffering, and that is so far from being a heaven?

Of course in a sense, heaven is an incoherent concept. We have so many random idealistic constraints on what heaven should be like that it isn’t clear that anything can satisfy them all. For example, we may want to be the hero of a dramatic story, even if we know that characters in such stories wish that they could live in more peaceful worlds.

Idealistic young people have such problems in spades, because they haven’t lived long enough to see how unreasonable are their many idealistic demands. And smarter people can think up even more such demands.

But the basic fact is that most everyone in most every society does in fact find meaning in their lives, even if they don’t know how to justify it. Thus I can be pretty confident that ems also find meaning in their lives.

Here are some more random facts about meaning, drawn from my revised Age of Em, out next April.

Today, individuals who earn higher wages tend to have both more happiness and a stronger sense of purpose, and this sense of purpose seems to cause higher wages. People with a stronger sense of purpose also tend to live longer. Nations that are richer tend to have more happiness but less meaning in life, in part because they have less religion. .. Types of meaning that people get from work today include authenticity, agency, self-worth, purpose, belonging, and transcendence.

Happiness and meaning have different implications for behavior, and are sometimes at odds. That is, activities that raise happiness often lower meaning, and vice versa. For example, people with meaning think more about the future, while happy people focus on the here and now. People with meaning tend to be givers who help others, while happy people tend to be takers who are helped by others. Being a parent and spending time with loved ones gives meaning, but spending time with friends makes one happy.

Affirming one’s identity and expressing oneself increase meaning but not happiness. People with more struggles, problems, and stresses have more meaning, but are less happy. Happiness but not meaning predicts a satisfaction of desires, such as for health and money, and more frequent good relative to bad feelings. Older people gain meaning by giving advice to younger people. We gain more meaning when we follow our gut feelings rather than thinking abstractly about our situations.

My weak guess is that productivity tends to predict meaning more strongly than happiness. If this is correct, it suggests that, all else equal, ems will tend to think more about the future, more be givers who help others, spend more time with loved ones and less with friends, more affirm their identity and express themselves, give more advice, and follow gut feelings more. But they will also have more struggles and less often have their desires satisfied.

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Can Human-Like Software Win?

Many, perhaps most, think it obvious that computer-like systems will eventually be more productive than human-like systems in most all jobs. So they focus on how humans might maintain control, even after this transition. But this eventuality is less obvious than it seems, depending on what exactly one means by “human-like” or “computer-like” systems. Let me explain.

Today the software that sits in human brains is stuck in human brain hardware, while the other kinds of software that we write (or train) sit in the artificial hardware that we make. And this artificial hardware has been improving rapidly far more rapidly than has human brain hardware. Partly as a result of this, systems of artificial software and hardware have been improving rapidly compared to human brain systems.

But eventually we will find a way to transfer the software from human brains into artificial hardware. Ems are one way to do this, as a relatively direct port. But other transfer mechanics may be developed.

Once human brain software is in the same sort of artificial computing hardware as all the other software, then the relative productivity of different software categories comes down to a question of quality: which categories of software tend to be more productive on which tasks?

Of course there will many different variations available within each category, to match to different problems. And the overall productivity of each category will depend both on previous efforts to develop and improve software in that category, and also on previous investments in other systems to match and complement that software. For example, familiar artificial software will gain because we have spent longer working to match it to familiar artificial hardware, while human software will gain from being well matched to complex existing social systems, such as language, firms, law, and government.

People give many arguments for why they expect human-like software to mostly lose this future competition, even when it has access to the same hardware. For example, they say that other software could lack human biases and also scale better, have more reliable memory, communicate better over wider scopes, be easier to understand, have easier meta-control and self-modification, and be based more directly on formal abstract theories of learning, decision, computation, and organization.

Now consider two informal polls I recently gave my twitter followers:

Surprisingly, at least to me, the main reason that people expect human-like software to lose is that they mostly expect whole new categories of software to appear, categories quite different from both the software in the human brain and also all the many kinds of software with which we are now familiar. If it comes down to a contest between human-like and familiar software categories, only a quarter of them expect human-like to lose big.

The reason I find this surprising is that all of the reasons that I’ve seen given for why human-like software could be at a disadvantage seem to apply just as well to familiar categories of software. In addition, a new category must start with the disadvantages of having less previous investment in that category and in matching other systems to it. That is, none of these are reasons to expect imagined new categories of software to beat familiar artificial software, and yet people offer them as reasons to think whole new much more powerful categories will appear and win.

I conclude that people don’t mostly use specific reasons to conclude that human-like software will lose, once it can be moved to artificial hardware. Instead they just have a general belief that the space of possible software is huge and contains many new categories to discover. This just seems to be the generic belief that competition and innovation will eventually produce a lot of change. Its not that human-like software has any overall competitive disadvantage compared to concrete known competitors; it is at least as likely to have winning descendants as any such competitors. Its just that our descendants are likely to change a lot as they evolve over time. Which seems to me a very different story than the humans-are-sure-to-lose story we usually hear.

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Ems in Walkaway

Some science fiction (sf) fans have taken offense at my claim that non-fiction analysis of future tech scenarios can be more accurate than sf scenarios, whose authors have other priorities. So I may periodically critique recent sf stories with ems for accuracy. Note that I’m not implying that such stories should have been more accurate; sf writing is damn hard work and its authors juggle a many difficult tradeoffs. But many seem unaware of just how often accuracy is sacrificed.

The most recent sf I’ve read that includes ems is Walkaway, by “New York Times bestselling author” Cory Doctorow, published back in April:

Now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—from a computer, there seems to be little reason to toil within the system. It’s still a dangerous world out there, the empty lands wrecked by climate change, dead cities hollowed out by industrial flight, shadows hiding predators animal and human alike. Still, when the initial pioneer walkaways flourish, more people join them.

The emotional center of Walkaway is elaborating this vision of a decentralized post-scarcity society trying to do without property or hierarchy. Though I’m skeptical, I greatly respect attempts to describe such visions in more detail. Doctorow, however, apparently thinks we economists make up bogus math for the sole purpose of justifying billionaire wealth inequality. Continue reading "Ems in Walkaway" »

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Philosophy Vs. Duck Tests

Philosophers, and intellectuals more broadly, love to point out how things might be more complex than they seem. They identify more and subtler distinctions, suggest more complex dependencies, and warn against relying on “shallow” advisors less “deep” than they. Subtly and complexity is basically what they have to sell.

I’ve often heard people resist such sales pressure by saying things like “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Instead of using complex analysis and concepts to infer and apply deep structures, they prefer to such use a “duck test” and judge by adding up many weak surface clues. When a deep analysis disagrees with a shallow appearance, they usually prefer to go shallow.

Interestingly, this whole duck example came from philosophers trying to warn against judging from surface appearances: Continue reading "Philosophy Vs. Duck Tests" »

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“Human” Seems Low Dimensional

Imagine that there is a certain class of “core” mental tasks, where a single “IQ” factor explains most variance in such task ability, and no other factors explained much variance. If one main factor explains most variation, and no other factors do, then variation in this area is basically one dimensional plus local noise. So to estimate performance on any one focus task, usually you’d want to average over abilities on many core tasks to estimate that one dimension of IQ, and then use IQ to estimate ability on that focus task.

Now imagine that you are trying to evaluate someone on a core task A, and you are told that ability on core task B is very diagnostic. That is, even if a person is bad on many other random tasks, if they are good at B you can be pretty sure that they will be good at A. And even if they are good at many other tasks, if they are bad at B, they will be bad at A. In this case, you would know that this claim about B being very diagnostic on A makes the pair A and B unusual among core task pairs. If there were a big clump of tasks strongly diagnostic about each other, that would show up as another factor explaining a noticeable fraction of the total variance. Making this world higher dimensional. So this claim about A and B might be true, but your prior is against it.

Now consider the question of how “human-like” something is. Many indicators may be relevant to judging this, and one may draw many implications from such a judgment. In principle this concept of “human-like” could be high dimensional, so that there are many separate packages of indicators relevant for judging matching packages of implications. But anecdotally, humans seem to have a tendency to “anthropomorphize,” that is, to treat non-humans as if they were somewhat human in a simple low-dimensional way that doesn’t recognize many dimensions of difference. That is, things just seem more or less human. So the more ways in which something is human-like, the more you can reasonably guess that it will be human like in other ways. This tendency appears in a wide range of ordinary environments, and its targets include plants, animals, weather, planets, luck, sculptures, machines, and software. Continue reading "“Human” Seems Low Dimensional" »

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Boost For Being Best

The fraction of a normal distribution that is six or more standard deviations above the mean is one in ten billion. But the world has almost eight billion people in it. So in principle we should be able to get six standard deviations in performance gain by selecting the world’s best person at something, compared to using an average person.

I’m revising Age of Em for a paperback edition, expected in April. The rest of this post is from a draft of new text elaborating that point, and its implication for em leisure:

Em workers also earn wage premiums when they are the very best in the world at what they do. Even under the most severe wage competition, a best em can earn an extra wage equal to the difference between their productivity and the productivity of the second best em. When clans coordinate internally on wage negotiations, this is the difference in productivity between clans. (Clans who can’t coordinate internally are selected out of the em world, as they don’t cover their fixed costs, such as for training and marketing.)

Out of 10 billion independently and normally distributed (IID) samples, the maximum is on average about 6.4 standard deviations above the mean. Average spacings between the second, third, fourth highest samples are roughly 0.147, 0.075, and 0.05 standard deviations respectively (Branwen 2017). So when ems are selected out of 10 billion humans, the best em clan may be this much better than other em clans on normally distributed parameters. Using the log-normal wage distribution observed in our world (Provenzano 2015), this predicts that the best human in the world at any particular task is four to five times more productive than the median person, is over three percent more productive than the second most productive person, and is five percent more productive than the third most productive person.

If em clan relative productivity is drawn from this same distribution, if maximum em productivity comes at a 70 hour workweek, and if the best and second best em clans do not coordinate on wages they accept, then even under the strongest wage competition between clans, the best clan could take an extra 20 minutes a day more leisure, or two minutes per work hour, in addition to the six minutes per hour and other work breaks they take to be maximally productive.

This 20 minute figure is an underestimate for four reasons. First, the effective sample size of ems is smaller due to age limits on desirable ems. Second, most parameters are distributed so that the tails are thicker than in the normal distribution (Reed and Jorgensen 2004).

Third, differing wealth effects may add to differing productivity effects. On average over the last 11 years, the five richest people on Earth have each been about 10 percent richer than the next richest person. If future em income ratios were like this current wealth ratio, then the best em worker could afford roughly an extra hour per day of leisure, or an additional six minutes per hour.

Fourth, competition probably does not take the strongest possible form, and the best few ems can probably coordinate to some extent. For example, if the best two em clans coordinate completely on wages, but compete strongly with the third best clan, then instead of the best and second best taking 20 and zero minutes of extra leisure per day, they could take 30 and 10 extra minutes, respectively.

Plausibly then, the best em workers can afford to take an additional two to six minutes of leisure per hour of work in a ten hour work day, in addition to the over six minutes per hour of break needed for maximum productivity.

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A Post-Em-Era Hint

A few months ago I noticed a pattern across the past eras of forager, farmer industry: each era has a major cycle (ice ages, empires rise & fall, business cycle) with a period of about one third of that era’s doubling time. So I tentatively suggested that a em future might also have a major cycle of roughly one third of its doubling time. If that economic doubling time is about a month, the em major cycle period might be about a week.

Now I report another pattern, to be treated similarly. In roughly the middle of each past era, a pair of major innovations in calculating and communicating appeared, and gradually went from barely existing to having big social impacts.

  • Forager: At unknown periods during the roughly two million year forager era, humanoids evolved reasoning and language. That is, we became able to think about and say many complex things to each other, including our reasons for and against claims.
  • Farmer: While the farming era lasted roughly 7 to 10 millennia, the first known writing was 5 millennia ago, and the first known math textbooks 4 millennia ago. About 2.5 millennia ago writing became widespread enough to induce major religious changes worldwide.
  • Industry: While the industry era has lasted roughly 16 to 24 decades, depending on how you count, the telegraph was developed 18 decades ago, and the wholesale switch from mechanical to digital electronic communication happened 4 to 6 decades ago. The idea of the computer was described 20 decades ago, the first digital computer was made 7 decades ago, and computers became widespread roughly 3 decades ago.

Note that innovations in calculation and communication were not independent, but instead intertwined with and enabled each other. Note also that these innovations did not change the growth rate of the world economy at the time; each era continued doubling at the same rate as before. But these innovations still seem essential to enabling the following era. It is hard to imagine farming before language and reasoning, nor industry before math and writing, nor ems before digital computers and communication.

This pattern weakly suggests that another pair of key innovations in calculation and communication may appear and then grow in importance across a wide middle of the em era. This era may only last a year or two in objective time, though typical ems may experience millennia during this time.

This innovation pair would be interdependent, not change the growth rate, and perhaps enable a new era to follow. I can think of two plausible candidates:

  1. Ems might discover a better language for expressing and manipulating something like brain states. This could help ems to share their thoughts and use auxiliary hardware to help calculate useful thoughts.
  2. Ems might develop analogues to combinatorial prediction markets, and thus better share beliefs and aggregate information on a wide range of topics.

(Or maybe the innovation produces some combination of these.) Again, these are crude speculations based on a weak inference from a rough pattern in only three data points. But even so, they give us a vague hint about what an age after ems might look like. And such hints are actually pretty hard to find.

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Fuller on Age of Em

I’d heard that an academic review of Age of Em was forthcoming from the new Journal of Posthuman Studies. And after hearing about Baum’s review, the author Steve Fuller of this second academic review (which won’t be published for a few months) gave me permission to quote from it here. First some praise: Continue reading "Fuller on Age of Em" »

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