Tag Archives: Ems

Unauthorized Topics

Tyler posted:

Do I think Robin Hanson’s “Age of Em” actually will happen? A reader has been asking me this question, and my answer is…no! Don’t get me wrong, I still think it is a stimulating and wonderful book. .. But it is best not read as a predictive text, much as Robin might disagree with that assessment. Why not? I have three main reasons, all of which are a sort of punting, nonetheless on topics outside one’s areas of expertise deference is very often the correct response. Here goes: 1. I know a few people who have expertise in neuroscience, and they have never mentioned to me that things might turn out this way.

I titled my response Tyler Says Never Ems, but on twitter he objected:

“no reason to think it will happen” is best summary of my view, not “never will happen.”
…that was one polite way of saying I do not think the scientific consensus is with you on this issue…

I responded:

How does that translate into a probability?
You have to clarify the exact claim you have in mind before we can discuss what the scientific consensus says about it.

But all he would answer is:


Now at GMU econ we often have academics who visit for lunch and take the common academic stance of reluctance to state opinions which they can’t back up with academic evidence. Tyler is usually impatient with that, and pushes such visitors to make best estimates. Yet here it is Tyler who shows reluctance. I hypothesize that he is following this common principle:

One does not express serious opinions on topics not yet authorized by the proper prestigious people.

Once a topic has been authorized, then unless a topic has a moral coloring it is usually okay to express a wide range of opinions on it; it is even often expected that clever people will often take contrarian or complex positions, sometimes outside their areas of expertise. But unless the right serious people have authorized a topic, that topic remains “silly”, and can only be discussed in a silly mode.

Now sometimes a topic remains unauthorized because serious people think everything about it has a low probability. But there are many other causes for topics to be seen as silly. For example, sex was long seen as a topic serious people didn’t discuss, even though we were quite sure sex exists. And even though most everyone is pretty sure aliens must exist out there somewhere, aliens remain a relatively silly subject.

In the case of ems, I interpret Tyler above as noting that the people who seem to him the proper authorities have not yet authorized serious discussion of ems. That is what he means by pointing to experts, saying “no reason” and “scientific consensus,” and yet being unwilling to state a probability, or even clarify which claim he rejects, even though I argued a 1% chance is enough. It explains his initial emphasis on treating my book metaphorically. This is less about probabilities, and more about topic authorization.

Compare the topic of ems to the topic of super-intelligence, wherein a single hand-coded AI quickly improves itself so fast that it can take over the world. As this topic seems recently endorsed by Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Steven Hawking, it is now seen more as an authorized topic. Even though, if you are inclined to be skeptical, we have far more reasons to doubt we will eventually know how to hand-code software as broadly smart as humans, or vastly better than the entire rest of the world put together at improving itself. Our reason for thinking ems eventually feasible is far more solid.

Yet I predict Tyler would more easily accept an invitation to write or speak on super-intelligence, compared to ems. And I conclude many readers see my book primarily as a bid to put ems on the list of serious topics, and they doubt enough proper prestigious people will endorse that bid. And yes, while if we could talk probabilities I think I have a pretty good case, even my list of prestigious book blurters probably aren’t enough. Until someone of the rank of Musk, Gates, or Hawking endorses it, my topic remains silly.

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Tyler Says Never Ems

There are smart intellectuals out there think economics is all hogwash, and who resent economists continuing on while their concerns have not been adequately addressed. Similarly, people in philosophy of religion and philosophy of mind resent cosmologists and brain scientists continuing on as if one could just model cosmology without a god, or reduce the mind to physical interactions of brain cells. But in my mind such debates have become so stuck that there is little point in waiting until they are resolved; some of us should just get on with assuming particular positions, especially positions that seem so very reasonable, even obvious, and seeing where they lead.

Similarly, I have heard people debate the feasibility of ems for many decades, and such debates have similarly become stuck, making little progress. Instead of getting mired in that debate, I thought it better to explore the consequences of what seems to me the very reasonable positions that ems will eventually be possible. Alas, that mud pit has strong suction. For example, Tyler Cowen:

Do I think Robin Hanson’s “Age of Em” actually will happen? … my answer is…no! .. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it is a stimulating and wonderful book.  And if you don’t believe me, here is The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Hanson’s book is comprehensive and not put-downable.

But it is best not read as a predictive text, much as Robin might disagree with that assessment.  Why not?  I have three main reasons, all of which are a sort of punting, nonetheless on topics outside one’s areas of expertise deference is very often the correct response.  Here goes:

1. I know a few people who have expertise in neuroscience, and they have never mentioned to me that things might turn out this way (brain scans uploaded into computers to create actual beings and furthermore as the dominant form of civilization).  Maybe they’re just holding back, but I don’t think so.  The neuroscience profession as a whole seems to be unconvinced and for the most part not even pondering this scenario. ..

3. Robin seems to think the age of Em could come about reasonably soon. …  Yet I don’t see any sign of such a radical transformation in market prices. .. There are for instance a variety of 100-year bonds, but Em scenarios do not seem to be a factor in their pricing.

But the author of that Wall Street Journal review, Daniel J. Levitin, is a neuroscientist! You’d think that if his colleagues thought the very idea of ems iffy, he might have mentioned caveats in his review. But no, he worries only about timing:

The only weak point I find in the argument is that it seems to me that if we were as close to emulating human brains as we would need to be for Mr. Hanson’s predictions to come true, you’d think that by now we’d already have emulated ant brains, or Venus fly traps or even tree bark.

Because readers kept asking, in the book I give a concrete estimate of “within roughly a century or so.” But the book really doesn’t depend much on that estimate. What it mainly depends on is ems initiating the next huge disruption on the scale of the farming or industrial revolutions. Also, if the future is important enough to have a hundred books exploring scenarios, it can be worth having books on scenarios with only a 1% chance of happening, and taking those books seriously as real possibilities.

Tyler has spent too much time around media pundits if he thinks he should be hearing a buzz about anything big that might happen in the next few centuries! Should he have expected to hear about cell phones in 1960, or smart phones in 1980, from a typical phone expert then, even without asking directly about such things? Both of these were reasonable foreseen many decades in advance, yet you’d find it hard to see signs of them several decades before they took off in casual conversations with phone experts, or in phone firm stock prices. (Betting markets directly on these topics would have seen them. Alas we still don’t have such things.)

I’m happy to accept neuroscientist expertise, but mainly on in how hard it is to scan brain cells and model them on computers. This isn’t going to come up in casual conversation, but if asked neuroscientists will pretty much all agree that it should eventually be be possible to create computer models of brain cells that capture their key signal processing behavior, i.e., the part that matters for signals received by the rest of the body. They will say it is a matter of when, not if. (Remember, we’ve already done this for the key signal processing behaviors of eyes and ears.)

Many neuroscientists won’t be familiar with computer modeling of brain cell activity, so they won’t have much of an idea of how much computing power is needed. But for those familiar with computer modeling, the key question is: once we understand brain cells well, what are plausible ranges for 1) the number of bits required store the current state of each inactive brain cell, and 2) how many computer processing steps (or gate operations) per second are needed to mimic an active cell’s signal processing.

Once you have those numbers, you’ll need to talk to people familiar with computing cost projections to translate these computing requirements into dates when they can be met cheaply. And then you’d need to talk to economists (like me) to understand how that might influence the economy. You shouldn’t remotely expect typical neuroscientists to have good estimates there. And finally, you’ll have to talk to people who think about other potential big future disruptions to see how plausible it is that ems will be the first big upcoming disruption on the scale of the farming or industrial revolutions.

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Guardian on Age of Em

Age of Em is the “book of the day” today at the Guardian newspaper, the 5th most widely read one in the world. Reviewer Steven Poole hates the em world:

The Age of Em is a fanatically serious attempt .. to use economic and social science to forecast in fine detail how this world (if it is even possible) will actually work. The future it portrays is very strange and, in the end, quite horrific for everyone involved. .. This hellish cyberworld is quite cool to think about in a dystopian Matrixy way, although the book is much drier than fiction.

I’m fine with people not liking the em world, if they understand it. But disliking the world also seems to translate into disliking my analysis. My point by point responses:

Hanson says it reads more like an encyclopedia. But if it’s an encyclopedia, what are its sources?

References take 31 pages, others have complained of too many cites, and you complain of dry text. Yet you really wanted more cites & references?

“Today,” he complains, “we take far more effort to study the past than the future, even though we can’t change the past.” Yes, you might respond: that is because we literally cannot “study” the future – because either it doesn’t exist or (in the block-universe model of time) it does exist but is completely inaccessible to us.

We infer theories from data on the present and past. The whole reason for theory is to help us infer things where we don’t have data. Like the future. That is what theorists do. So we can study the future by applying our best theories, as I tried to do in the book.

Given that, the book’s confidence in its own brilliantly weird extrapolations is both impressive and quite peculiar. Hanson describes his approach as that of “using basic social theory, in addition to common sense and trend projection, to forecast future societies”. The casual use of “common sense” there should, as always, ring alarm bells. And a lot of the book’s sense is arguably quite uncommon.

Here you insinuate that much is wrong, but you don’t actually point out anything specific as wrong.

The governing tone is strikingly misanthropic, despairing of current humans’ “maladaptation” to the environment.

How is it remotely “hating” of people to see recent behavior as more evolutionarily maladaptive?

And there is an unargued assumption throughout that social patterns and institutions are more likely to revert to pre-industrial norms in the future.

I argue explicitly in some detail for some attitudes reverting to those more typical of poor farmers, when ems get poor. But the only institutions that might revert would be those driven mainly by attitudes, such as perhaps democracy.

Hanson .. erects a large edifice of sociological speculation on how the liberal use of em copies and backups will change attitudes to sex, law, death and pretty much everything else. But .. if someone announces they will upload my consciousness into a robot and then destroy my existing body, I will take this as a threat of murder. .. So ems – the first of whom are, by definition, going to have minds identical to those of humans – may very well exhibit the same kind of reaction, in which case a lot of Hanson’s more thrillingly bizarre social developments will not happen.

Yes, you feel strongly, but everyone need not share your feelings. Yes, the first brain scans will be destructive, but out of a world population of billions it only takes a few biological humans willing to be scanned this way to fill the em world. And if there were only a few of them, they’d each earn trillions.

But then, the rather underwhelming upshot of this project is that fast-living and super-clever ems will probably crack the problem of proper AI – actual intelligent machines – within a year or so of ordinary human time.

I didn’t say “probably” here; I gave that as one identifiable possibility.

Given that this future is so gloomy for just about everyone, one does end up wondering why Hanson wants to wake up in it – he reveals in the book that he has arranged to be cryogenically frozen on his death. I suppose it is at least possible that, one day, he could open his eyes and have the last laugh, as he surveys the appalling future he foresaw so long ago.

Because I describe a world you don’t like I must be a people hater pleased to see everyone suffer? Really?! For the record, I don’t now see the em world as appalling, and if I changed my mind on that upon seeing it up close, I’d be quite disappointed.

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Wall Street Journal on Age of Em

In the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Levitin likes it a lot!

A very different—indeed startling—vision of the future .. What is remarkable about Mr. Hanson’s book is not just the detail with which he imagines this future but the way he situates it within a perceptive analysis of our human past and present. .. His is a dyspeptic-topia. It looks grim. ..

Mr. Hanson’s book is comprehensive and not put-downable. The author has thought of everything. He’s anticipated every one of my objections, including the manifestly unscientific one of how creepy this all sounds. He admirably explains the assumptions he’s making and the limitations. ..

The only weak point I find in the argument is that it seems to me that if we were as close to emulating human brains as we would need to be for Mr. Hanson’s predictions to come true, you’d think that by now we’d already have emulated ant brains, or Venus fly traps or even tree bark. ..

For my own part, I hope that the ems come soon. .. Even if you aren’t interested in the future, “The Age of Em” provides a wonderful overview of the current social psychology of productivity. .. For readers of this newspaper, a particularly interesting section discusses how free-market forces will change economic behaviors, negotiations, price-setting and fee structures. Mr. Hanson is an amiable narrator and guide to all these topics and more. We could use a few more of him.

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New Yorker on Age of Em

Joshua Rothman, in The New Yorker, on Age of Em:

It may be, too, that we should look with some trepidation toward the transitional period—that strange era in which our real-world ways will be disrupted by the introduction of new and bizarre simulated life forms. In “The Age of Em,” a nonfiction work of social-science speculation published earlier this year, the economist and futurist Robin Hanson describes a time in which researchers haven’t yet cracked artificial intelligence but have learned to copy themselves into their computers, creating “ems,” or emulated people, who quickly come to outnumber the real ones. Unlike Bostrom, who supposes that our descendants will create simulated worlds for curiosity’s sake, Hanson sees the business case for simulating people: instead of struggling to find a team of programmers, a company will be able to hire a single, brilliant em and then replicate her a million times. An enterprising em might gladly replicate herself to work many jobs at once; after she completes a job, a copied em might choose to delete herself, or “end.” (An em contemplating ending won’t ask “Do I want to die?,” Hanson writes, since other copies will live on; instead, she’ll ask, “Do I want to remember this?”) An em might be copied right after a vacation, so that whenever she is pasted into the simulated workplace, she is cheerful, rested, and ready to work. She might also be run on computer hardware that is more powerful than a human brain, and so think (and live) at a speed millions or even trillions of times faster than an ordinary human being.

Hanson doesn’t think that ems must necessarily live unhappy lives. On the contrary, they may thrive, fall in love, and find fulfillment in their competitive, flexible, high-speed world. Non-simulated people, meanwhile, may retire on the proceeds from their investments in the accelerated and increasingly autonomous em economy—a pleasant vantage point from which to observe the twilight of non-emulated civilization. Many people have imagined that technology will free us from the burden of work; if Hanson is right, that freedom could come through the virtualization of the human race.

This was in an article about the simulation argument. Two years ago I compared em and sim conversations, noting that in both cases many discuss using them as fiction settings, the chances that they are true, clues for inferring if they are true, and what they imply for identity, consciousness, physics, etc. But few discuss social consequences, such as how to live in a simulation or what a em world is like socially.

Oddly to me, Rothman didn’t go that direction; he didn’t even mention my (or anyone’s) analysis of how to live in a simulation.

Oh, and running trillions of times faster than humans is quite a bit faster than I’ve guessed; I’ve said maybe millions of times faster.

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Reply to Jones on Ems

In response to Richard Jones’ book review, I said:

So according to Jones, we can’t trust anthropologists to describe foragers they’ve met, we can’t trust economics when tech changes society, and familiar design principles fail for understanding brains and tiny chemical systems. Apparently only his field, physics, can be trusted well outside current experience. In reply, I say I’d rather rely on experts in each field, relative to his generic skepticism. Brain scientists see familiar design principles as applying to brains, even when designed by evolution, economists see economics as applying to past and distant societies with different tech, and anthropologists think they can understand cultures they visit.

Jones complained on twitter that I “prefer to argue from authority rather than engage with their substance.” I replied “There can’t be much specific response to generic skepticism,” to which he replied, “Well, there’s more than 4000 words of quite technical argument on the mind uploading question in the post I reference.” He’s right that he wrote 4400 words. But let me explain why I see them more as generic skepticism than technical argument.

For context, note that there are whole fields of biological engineering, wherein standard engineering principles are used to understand the engineering of biological systems. These include the design of many specific systems with organisms, such as lungs, blood, muscles, bone, and skin, and also specific subsystems within cells, and also standard behaviors, such as gait rhythms and foraging patterns. Standard design principles are also used to understand why cells are split into different modules that perform distinct functions, instead of having each cell try to contribute to all functions, and why only a few degrees of freedom for each cell matters for that cell’s contribution to its system. Such design principles can also be used to understand why systems are abstract, in the sense of as having only one main type of muscle, for creating forces used for many purposes, one main type of blood system, to move most everything around, or only one main fast signal system, for sending signals of many types.

Our models of the function of many key organs have in fact often enabled us to create functional replacements for them. In addition, we already have good models of, and successful physical emulations of, key parts of the brain’s input and out, such, as input from eyes and ears, and output to arms and legs.

Okay, now here are Jones’ key words:

This separation between the physical and the digital in an integrated circuit isn’t an accident or something pre-ordained – it happens because we’ve designed it to be that way. For those of us who don’t accept the idea of intelligent design in biology, that’s not true for brains. There is no clean “digital abstraction layer” in a brain – why should there be, unless someone designed it that way?

But evolution does design, and its designs do respect standard design principles. Evolution has gained by using both abstraction and modularity. Organs exist. Humans may be better in some ways than evolution at searching large design spaces, but biology definitely designs.

In a brain, for example, the digital is continually remodelling the physical – we see changes in connectivity and changes in synaptic strength as a consequence of the information being processed, changes, that as we see, are the manifestation of substantial physical changes, at the molecular level, in the neurons and synapses.

We have programmable logic devices, such as FPGAs, which can do exactly this.

Underlying all these phenomena are processes of macromolecular shape change in response to a changing local environment. .. This emphasizes that the fundamental unit of biological information processing is not the neuron or the synapse, it’s the molecule.

But you could make that same sort of argument about all organs, such as bones, muscles, lungs, blood, etc., and say we also can’t understand or emulate them without measuring and modeling them them in molecular detail. Similarly for the brain input/output systems that we have already emulated.

Determining the location and connectivity of individual neurons .. is necessary, but far from sufficient condition for specifying the informational state of the brain. .. The molecular basis of biological computation means that it isn’t deterministic, it’s stochastic, it’s random.

Randomness is quite easy to emulate, and most who see ems as possible expect to need brain scans with substantial chemical, in addition to spatial, resolution.

And that’s it, that is Jones’ “technical” critique. Since biological systems are made by evolution human design principles don’t apply, and since they are made of molecules one can’t emulate them without measuring and modeling at the molecular level. Never mind that we have actually seen design principles apply, and emulated while ignoring molecules. That’s what I call “generic skepticism”.

In contrast, I say brains are signal processing systems, and applying standard design principles to such systems tells us:

To manage its intended input-output relation, a signal processor simply must be designed to minimize the coupling between its designed input, output, and internal channels, and all of its other “extra” physical degrees of freedom. ..  To emulate a biological signal processor, one need only identify its key internal signal dimensions and their internal mappings – how input signals are mapped to output signals for each part of the system. These key dimensions are typically a tiny fraction of its physical degrees of freedom. Reproducing such dimensions and mappings with sufficient accuracy will reproduce the function of the system. This is proven daily by the 200,000 people with artificial ears, and will be proven soon when artificial eyes are fielded.

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Caplan on Age of Em

As many have noted, ours in an era of ideological polarization. On topics where there are strong emotions, we tend to gravitate to extremes, and are less interest in intermediate positions. Which is a problem for my book; while most see it as too weird, others mostly see it as not weird enough. A  tech futurism minority expects to soon see very rapid progress in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and so see brain emulations as too slow and inefficient compared to the super-intelligence they foresee. And the majority to whom that seems pretty crazy also seem brain emulations as similarly crazy; they don’t care much if ems seem a bit less crazy.

At least future tech enthusiasts who think my book not weird enough are willing to write reviews to say so. But those who think my book too weird mostly stay silent; I’ve heard privately of many who were going to cover the book before they fully realized what it is about. So I thank my college Bryan Caplan for being willing to say what others won’t, in his critical review. His review is long, with ten criticisms. This response will also be long, going point by point.

Six of his ten objections seem to be mainly about my language. (His review is indented, and often contains book quotes; my replies are not.) Continue reading "Caplan on Age of Em" »

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Age of Em Criticism

My book’s topic seems to me so obviously important that I figure a reader’s main question must be whether he can trust me to actually know something on it. As a result, potential readers should be especially interested to hear criticisms; where do reviewers think my book gets it wrong? And as the book draws on many disciplines, readers should be especially interested in expert criticism, i.e., reviewers who find fault in an area they know well. Let us consider the reviews so far.

Three reviews so far can be seen as “main stream media.” At the Financial Times, journalist Sarah O’Connor calls the book “alluring” and “fascinating”, but notes that not everyone will accept the premise that ems are possible or “that current economic and social theories will hold in this strange new world.” However, the closest she gets to direct criticism is:

Some of the forecasts seem old-fashioned, like the notion that male ems will prefer females with “signs of nurturing inclinations and fertility, such as youthful good looks” while females will prefer males with “signs of wealth and status”.

At the Guardian, journalist Zoe Williams uses the book to direct readers to her critical question: “In a world without work, how do we distribute resources?” At Reason, journalist Ronald Bailey calls the book “fascinating”, and summarizes it in detail, but doesn’t otherwise evaluate it, other than to note that “other futurists have projected other pathways” that the future might take.

There are 2.5 reviews at widely read blogs. Economist Tyler Cowen likes the book, but cares less about its official topic than its indirect uses, such as a “Straussian commentary on the world we actually live in” and “A reminder of how strange everything is.” Economist Bryan Caplan has posted half of a review, on “What’s Right in Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em”; his other shoe has yet to drop.

Psychiatrist Scott Alexander really likes and highly recommends the book, though he worries that it is not weird enough, and he thinks I overstate my case on prior futurist accuracy. Alexander assigns low moral value to the scenario I describe, even though he sees it as full of happy complex creatures. He fears it will get even worse, leading to ems who are only ever focused on their particular work task, with no mind-wandering, breaks from work, or socializing.

There are also five reviews at other blogs. (There are also three reviews at Goodreads, and one more at Amazon, which don’t mention author expertise or offer field-specific criticisms.)

Futurist and computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg calls the book a “very rich synthesis of many ideas with a high density of fascinating arguments,” but warns “most readers will disagree with large parts of it” and “many elements presented as uncontroversial will be highly controversial.” He himself only complains that I put in “too little effort bolstering the plausibility” of the basic idea of an emulation, a topic to which he has devoted in much effort.

Education reformer Neerav Kingsland calls the book “worth reading” though he would have rather I had written more fiction. He questions our ability to foresee the results of changes this big, and he questions my prediction of low wages: “Perhaps it would become taboo to replicate yourself, akin to teenage pregnancy?”

Private investor Peter McCluskey calls the book “quite valuable” though he notes my key assumptions could end up being wrong. He wishes I would have estimated wages relative to suspense more precisely, though he felt I was borderline overconfident overall, and thought I devoted too much attention to topics like swearing, relative to topics like democracy.

Economist Peter St Onge says “The pacing is fast, chock-full of interesting ideas to play with .. Hanson has done a fantastic job.” But he sees me as “too pessimistic” because the cost to run an em is very low compared to the cost to maintain a human today, and he just can’t see marginal product of human-like labor falling that low, no matter how many workers there are.

Physicist Richard Jones, in contrast, to the above nine reviewers, criticizes just about everything but my physics. He has long criticized Eric Drexler’s efforts to apply principles of mechanical engineering to tiny chemical systems. On Age of Em, he says:

Mind uploading .. will not be possible any time soon .. The brain .. is not the product of design, it is the product of evolution, and for this reason we can’t expect there to be such a digital abstraction layer. .. It would need to incorporate a molecularly accurate model of brain development and plasticity. .. His argument is that our understanding of human nature and the operations of human societies .. is now sufficiently robust that .. meaningful predictions can be made about the character of the resulting post-human societies. I don’t find this enormously convincing. .. Hanson often is simply unable to make firm predictions; this is commendably even-handed, but somewhat undermines his broader argument. .. How do we know what forager values actually were? Very few forager societies survived in any form into historical times, .. and what we know about their values is mediated by the biases of the anthropologists and ethnographers that recorded them.

So according to Jones, we can’t trust anthropologists to describe foragers they’ve met, we can’t trust economics when tech changes society, and familiar design principles fail for understanding brains and tiny chemical systems. Apparently only his field, physics, can be trusted well outside current experience. In reply, I say I’d rather rely on experts in each field, relative to his generic skepticism. Brain scientists see familiar design principles as applying to brains, even when designed by evolution, economists see economics as applying to past and distant societies with different tech, and anthropologists think they can understand cultures they visit.

Regarding O’Connor concerns on old-fashioned mate preferences I cited a literature on that, and regarding Alexander’s zero-leisure fears the book cites a literature on max productivity breaks and vacations. Regarding Kingsland and St Onge hopes for high wages, I’ll note that though most of history before the industrial era, taboos against having kids didn’t prevent marginal productivity from typically being very low.

So far I’d say that reviews give readers reasons to suspect my emphasis is at times off, but not strong reasons to fear that Age of Em is so wrong as to be not worth reading. But more reviews are yet to come.

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Alexander on Age of Em

If I ever have an executioner, I want him to be Scott Alexander. Alexander has such a winning way with words that I and his many fans enjoy him even when we disagree. I’d hardly notice my destination as his pleasing patter entranced me while we took the long way around to the gallows.

So I am honored that Alexander wrote a long review of Age of Em (9K words, 6% as long as the book), wherein he not only likes and recommends it, he also accepts pretty much all its claims within its main focus. That is, I present my book as being expert on the topic of what would actually happen if cheap ems were our next huge social change. Where Alexander disagrees is on two auxiliary topics, which I mention but on which I claim less expertise, namely how likely is this key scenario assumption, and how valuable is the resulting civilization I describe.

On the subject of value, Alexander leans forager (i.e., liberal) on the forager vs. farmer scale. He dislikes civilization evolving away from the behaviors and values of our forager ancestors, and today he partly blames this on capitalism. He doesn’t see our increase in numbers, comfort, and lifespan as sufficient compensation. (I think he’d like the book Against Civilization.) He says:

[Nick Land’s Ascended Economy] seems to me the natural end of the economic system. Right now it needs humans only as laborers, investors, and consumers. But robot laborers are potentially more efficient, companies based around algorithmic trading are already pushing out human investors, and most consumers already aren’t individuals – they’re companies and governments and organizations. At each step you can gain efficiency by eliminating humans, until finally humans aren’t involved anywhere. .. The Age of Em is an economy in the early stages of such a transformation. Instead of being able to replace everything with literal robots, it replaces them with humans who have had some aspects of their humanity stripped away. Biological bodies. The desire and ability to have children normally. ..

I envision a spectrum between the current world of humans and Nick Land’s Ascended Economy. Somewhere on the spectrum we have ems who get leisure time. A little further on the spectrum we have ems who don’t get leisure time. But we can go further. .. I expect [greatly reduced sex desire] would happen about ten minutes after the advent of the Age of Em .. Combine that with the stimulant use mentioned above, and you can have people who will never have nor want to have any thought about anything other than working on the precise task at which they are supposed to be working at any given time. ..

I see almost no interesting difference between an em world with full use of these tweaks and an Ascended Economy world. Yes, there are things that look vaguely human in outline laboring in the one and not the other, but it’s not like there will be different thought processes or different results. I’m not even sure what it would mean for the ems to be conscious in a world like this – they’re not doing anything interesting with the consciousness. .. If we get ems after all, I expect them to be lobotomized and drugged until they become effectively inhuman, cogs in the Ascended Economy that would no more fall in love than an automobile would eat hay and whinny.

Alexander seems to strongly endorse the usual forager value of leisure over work, so much so that he can’t see people focused on their work as human, conscious, or of any moral value. Creatures only seem valuable to him to the extent that they have sex, leisure time, minds wandering away from work, and desires to do things other than work.

This seems ironic because Scott Alexander is one of the most human and productive workers I know. He has a full time job as a psychiatrist, an especially demanding job, and in addition finds time to write frequent long careful analyses of many topics. I find it hard to see where he has that much time for leisure, and doubt he would in fact be substantially more productive overall if he took drugs to make him forget sex, mentally wander less, and focus more on his immediate tasks. He is exactly the sort of person an em economy would want many copies of, pretty much just as he is. Yet if we are to believe him, he only sees value in his brief leisure hours.

I see Alexander as having too little respect for the functionality of human behaviors and mind design. Yes, maximally competitive em-era behaviors and minds won’t be exactly like current ones. But that doesn’t necessarily mean one wants to throw out most existing behaviors and brain modules wholesale and start over from scratch. As these behaviors and modules all arose because they helped our ancestors be more competitive in some prior context, it makes more sense to try to repair, reform, and repurpose them.

For example, the robust productivity gains observed from workers who take breaks don’t seem to depend much on worker motivation. Breaks aren’t just about motivation; they are a deeply entrenched part of being productive. Similarly, wandering minds may take away from the current immediate task, but they help one to search for hidden problems and opportunities. Also, workers today who focus on just doing immediate tasks often lose out to others who attend more to building and managing social relations, as well as office politics. Love and sex can be very helpful in forming and maintaining relations.

Of course I’m not trying to offer any long term assurances, and it is quite reasonable to worry about what we will lose along with what we will gain. But since today most of the people we most respect and celebrate tend to be workaholics, I just can’t buy the claim that most of us today can’t find value in similarly productive and work-focused ems. And I just can’t see thoughtless workers being the most productive in the early em era of my book.

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Rating Ems vs AIs

Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best (Herodotus 440BC).

I’ve given about sixty talks so far on the subject of my book The Age of Em. A common response is to compare my scenario to one where instead of ems, it is non-emulation-based software that can first replace humans on most all jobs. While some want to argue about which tech may come first, most prefer to evaluate which tech they want to come first.

Most who compare to ems to non-em-AI seem to prefer the latter. Some say they are concerned because they see ems as having a lower quality of life than we do today (more on that below). But honestly I mostly hear about humans losing status. Even though both meat humans and ems can both be seen as our descendants, people identify more with meat as “us” and see ems as “them.” So they lament meat no longer being the top dog in-charge center-of-attention.

The two scenarios have many similarities. In both scenarios, meat humans must all retire, and robots take over managing the complex details of this new world, which humans are too slow, distant, and stupid to manage. The world economy can grow very fast, letting meat get collectively very rich, and which meat soon starves depends mostly on how well meat insures and shares among themselves. But it is hard to offer much assurance of long run stability, as the world can plausibly change so fast.

Ems, however, seem more threatening to status than other kinds of sophisticated capable machinery. You can more vividly imagine ems more clearly winning the traditional contests whereby humans compete for status, and then afterward acting superior, such as by laughing at meat humans. In contrast, other machines can be so alien that we may not be tempted to make status comparisons with them.

If, in contrast, your complaint about the em world is that ems have a lower quality of life, then you have to either care about something more like an average quality of life, or you have to argue that the em quality of life is below some sort of “zero”, i.e., the minimum required for a life to be worth living (or having existed). And this seems to me a hard case to make.

Oh I can see you thinking that em lives aren’t as good as yours; pretty much all cultures find ways to see their culture as superior. But unless you argue that em lives are much worse than the typical human life in history, then either you must say the typical human life was not worth living, or you must accept em lives as worth living. And if you claim that the main human lives that have been worth living are those in your culture, I’ll shake my head at your incredible cultural arrogance.

(Yes, some like Nick Bostrom in Superintelligence, focus on which scenario reduces existential risk. But even he at one point says “On balance, it looks like the risk of an AI transition would be reduced if whole brain emulation comes before AI,” and in the end he can’t seem to rank these choices.)

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