Tag Archives: Ems

Factory+Files Future

The difficulty of practical interstellar travel is horrendously underestimated. … Known physics will never deposit living people on Earth-like planets around other stars. (more)

That was Donald Brownlee, who said something similar in our film. It occurs to me that skepticism about cryonics and interstellar travel have similar roots, and that understanding this is useful. So let me explain.

Imagine that one tried to take a rock, say this fossil:


and put it somewhere on Earth so that it could be found in a million years. Or that one tried to throw this fossil rock so that it would pass close to a particular distant star in a million years. Few would claim that doing so is impossible. Most would accept that these are possible, even if we require that the rock (plus casing) remain largely unchanged, i.e., retain its shape and maybe even most of its embedded DNA snips.

So skepticism about making people last a long time via cryonics, or about getting people to distant stars, is mainly about how people differ from rocks. People are fragile biological systems than slowly degrade with time, and that can be easily disrupted by environmental disturbances. Which justifies some doubt on if the human body can survive long difficult paths in space-time.

So why am I more hopeful? Because there are (at least) two ways to ensure that a certain kind of object exists at certain destination in space-time. One way is to have an object of that kind exist at a prior point in space-time, and then move it from that prior point to the destination. The other way is to build the desired object at the destination. That is, have a spec file that describes the object, and have a factory at the destination follow that spec file to create the object. One factory can make many objects, factories and files can be lighter and hardier than other objects, and you might even be able to make all the particular factories you need from one smaller hardier general factory. Thus it can be much easier to get one factory+files to a distant destination than to get many desired objects there.

Yes, today we don’t have factories that can make humans from a spec file. But if our society continues to grow in size and abilities, it should be able to do the next best thing: make an android emulation of a human from a spec file. And we should be able to make a spec file from a frozen brain plus a generic spec file.

If so, a frozen brain will serve as a temporary spec file, and we will be able to send many people to distant stars by sending just one hardy factory there, and then transmitting lots of spec files. The ability to encode a person in a spec file will make it far easier to send a person to a wide range of places and times in the universe.

See David Brin’s novel Existence for an elaboration on the throwing rocks with files theme.

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Help Me Imagine

For my book on em econ, I want to figure out something unusual about human psychology. It has to do with how creatures with a human psychology would react to a situation that humans have not yet encountered. So I ask for your help, dear readers. I’m going to describe a hypothetical situation, and I want you to imagine that you are in this situation, and then tell me how you’d feel about it. OK, here goes.

Imagine that you live and work in a tight-knit community. Imagine a commune, or a charity or firm where most everyone who works there also mostly socializes with others there. That is, your lovers, spouses, friends, co-workers, tennis partners, etc. are mostly all from the same group of fifty to a few hundred people. For concreteness you might imagine that this community provides maid and janitorial services. Or maybe instead it services and repairs a certain kind of equipment (like cars, computers, or washing machines).

Imagine that this community was very successful about five years ago. So successful in fact that one hundred exact copies of this community were made then and spread around the world. They copied all the same people, work and play roles and relationships, even all the workspaces and homes. Never mind how this was done, it was done. And with everyone’s permission. Each of these hundred copies of the community has a slightly different context in terms of its customer needs or geographic constraints on activities. But assume that these differences are small and minor.

OK, now the key question I want you to consider is your attitude toward the other copies of your group. On one hand, you might want distance. That is, you might want to have nothing to do with those other copies. You don’t want to see or hear about them, and you want everyone else in your group to do likewise. “Na na na, I can’t hear you,” to anyone who mentions them.

On the other hand, you might be eager to maximize your chances to share insights and learn from the other groups. Not only might you want to hear about workplace innovations, you might want to see stats on what happens between the other copies of you and your spouse. For example, you may want to know how many of them are still together, and what their fights have been about.

In fact, when it was cheap you might even go out of your way to synchronize with other groups. By making the groups more similar, you may increase the relevance of their actions for you. So you might try to coordinate changes to work organization, or to who lives with whom. You might even coordinate what movies you see when, or what you eat for dinner each day.

Of course it is possible to be too similar. You might not learn anything additional from an exact copy doing exactly the same things, except maybe that your actions aren’t random. But it also seems possible to be too different, at least for the purpose of learning useful things from other groups.

Notice that in tightly synchronized groups, personal relations would tend to become more like group relations. For example, if just a few copies of you did something crazy like run away, all the copies of your spouse might worry that their partners may soon also do that crazy thing. Or imagine that you stayed at a party late, and your spouse didn’t mind initially. But if your spouse then learned that most other copies of him or her were mad at copies of you for doing this, he or she might be tempted to get mad too. The group of all the copies of you would thus move in the direction of having a group relation with all of the copies of him or her.

Now clearly the scenario where all the other groups ignore each other is more like the world you live in now, a world you are comfortable with. So I ask you to imagine not so much what you now feel comfortable with, but how comfortable people would feel with if they grew up with this as normal. Imagine that people grew up in a culture where it was common to make copies of groups, and for each group to somewhat learn from and synchronize with the other groups.

In this case, just how much learning and synchronizing could people typically be comfortable with? What levels of synchronization would make for the most productive workers? The happiest people? How would this change with the number copies of the group? Or with years since the group copies were made? After all, right after the initial copying the groups would all be very synchronized. Would they immediately try hard to differentiate their group from others, or would they instead try to maintain synchronization for as long as possible?

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Computing Cost Floor Soon?

Anders Sandberg has posted a nice paper, Monte Carlo model of brain emulation development, wherein he develops a simple statistical model of when brain emulations [= “WBE”] would be feasible, if they will ever be feasible:

The cumulative probability gives 50% chance for WBE (if it ever arrives) before 2059, with
the 25% percentile in 2047 and the 75% percentile in 2074. WBE before 2030 looks very unlikely and only 10% likely before 2040.

My main complaint is that Sandberg assumes a functional form for the cost of computing vs. time that requires this cost to soon fall to an absolute floor, below which it will never fall, relative to the funding ever available for a brain emulation project. His resulting distribution has costs approaching this floor by about 2040:


As a result, Sandberg finds a big chance (how big he doesn’t say) that brain emulations will never be possible – for eons to follow it will always be cheaper to compute new mind states via floppy proteins in huge messy bio systems born in wombs, than to compute them via artificial devices made in factories.

That seems crazy implausible to me. I can see physical limits to physical parameters, and I can see the rate at which computing costs fall slowing down. But having the costs of artificial computing soon stop falling forever is much harder to see, especially with such costs remaining far higher than the costs of natural bio devices that seem pretty far from optimized. And having the amount of money available to fund a project never grow seems to say that economic growth will halt as well.

Even so, I applaud Sandberg for his efforts so far, and hope that his or others’ successor models will be more economically plausible. It is an important question, worthy of this and more attention.

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Why Neglect Social Results?

For many decades I’ve heard people argue about the possibility of ems, i.e., brain emulations (also called “uploads”). Many like to talk about whether ems are possible, when they might happen, and if ems would be conscious, or whether they would “be me.”  People also love to read fiction set in worlds where there are ems. Almost twenty years ago I wrote a short article on the social implications of a world of emulations — what that would actually be like. But that didn’t kick-start much interest in the subject – most discussion is still on possibility, timing, consciousness, identity, and story settings.

Over the years I’ve also heard many people argue about the possibility that we live in a computer simulation. Twelve years ago I wrote a short article “How to live in a simulation,” on how you should live your life differently to take this possibility into account. That article also didn’t kick-start much interest in social implications. Today, most discussion of the simulation possibility continues to focus on using it as a setting for fiction, on the chances that it is true, on clues for inferring if it is true, and on what it implies for identity, consciousness, physics, etc. There remains almost no discussion of life strategies conditional on a simulation.

I just now noticed how similar are these situations, a similarity that cries out for explanation. I see three somewhat related candidate explanations:

  1. The sorts of people who most like these topics are techies, who mostly don’t believe that social and human sciences exist, and thus aren’t interested in hearing about  applications of such sciences.
  2. People are mainly interested in these sorts of topics as ways to stretch and stress-test their basic concepts. So only people with a library of grand social concepts are interested in using these topics to stretch and stress-test such concepts. There aren’t many such people.
  3. I personally did a poor job of introducing these topics. Had someone more prestigious or articulate done the job, there might well be much larger conversations now about these topics.

Whatever the explanation, this bodes poorly for interest in my more elaborated book-length discussion of the social implications of ems. However, I will soldier on nonetheless.

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Dvorsky Em Interview

The always thoughtful George Dvorsky just posted an interview with me on ems at io9. Dvorsky calls my scenario “Dystopian”:

These days, people worry about robots stealing our jobs. But maybe we should be more concerned about massive populations of computerized human brains. … Disturbingly, Hanson predicts that human servants could become status symbols among the rich.

“But to survive, most humans would need assets other than their ability to work,” Hanson told io9. “Like stocks, bonds, real estate, or patents. Humans without such assets may or may not get charity from other humans. Em charity to humans may focus on offering humans a chance to become ems.”

Disturbing, no? Hanson made it clear to me that his analysis is designed to forecast likely outcomes, and not those outcomes we currently desire. …

“In virtual reality, ems need never experience physical pain, hunger, disease, or grit,” says Hanson. …

Given these near-Dystopian scenarios, I asked Hanson what would motivate ems and why they would choose to cooperate with traditional power structures. …

As if a lot of this isn’t already grim enough, ems will have to deal with a host of other concerns. For example, a stolen copy of an em mind could be tortured to extract secrets, or enslaved to compete with the original. … Regardless, the future that Hanson describes is a far cry from what many of us are hoping for. Living as a stream of 1’s and 0’s may have its benefits — but a digital utopia has never seemed more elusive.

I wish Dvorsky would made it clearer what parts of this scenario he most dislikes. Then we could talk more productively about how to make it better. Perhaps I should have emphasized that with investments doubling monthly, humans might quickly turn even a small initial investment into a king’s ransom.

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Me Talking Thrice

  1. This Thursday March 6 at 4pm I speak at Duke University in the Philosophy, Politics, & Economics (PPE) Seminar, in room 330 Gross (room TBD), on Shall We Vote On Values But Bet On Beliefs? (slides)
  2. This last Sunday I talked to the DC Philosophy Cafe on Em Econ (audio).
  3. Last week I did another interview with Adam Ford, on Futurism (video).
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Engineering v. Design

Silicon Valley has always been obsessed with efficiency. But lately, it is also obsessed with beauty. In a place where engineers have reigned supreme, the new tech talent war is for designers. (more)

In those parts of the economy that are well modeled by the introductory economics textbook treatment of widgets – firms producing a thing with workers with increasing marginal costs in a somewhat competitive industry, such as durables, clothes, and cars – we’ve seen continuing, very substantial growth in real wages as measured by the purchasing power of things that our economy produces. The reason that real wages in aggregate have stagnated is that much of what people buy are things where there are issues of fundamental scarcity: energy, the land under the houses we buy, and goods and services that are produced in complicated, heavily public-sector-inflected ways. Medical care and educational services are examples of the latter category. (more; HT Tyler)

Many long-term trends over the last few centuries can be plausibly attributed to people getting richer, and thus wanting different things than poor people want. One interesting example: the decline of engineering relative to design.

All products and services have to negotiate between the two extremes of the raw physical world and complex human preferences. That is, products must deal with the physical world in order to give humans what they want. Engineers tend to focus on the physical world, trying to minimize the effects of key resource constraints, while designers tend to focus on how a product looks and feels to customers.

Because we have simple powerful general theories of how the world works, engineering can make use of a lot of math and computer modeling, and can often transfer inventions to very different products. In contrast, since humans are very complex and poorly understood, designers must instead develop intuitions by seeing many specific examples of good and bad design.

As we have become richer, we have become less concerned about raw physical constraints. When we have enough calories in our food, enough insulation in our clothes and walls, and enough mass moved fast enough in our transportation, we focus more on how exactly our food, clothes, etc. make us feel. This includes how we feel about how the product is abstractly described to us – marketing also gets more important as design gets more important.

Rich people also care more about product variety. When we can barely make any affordable car that functions, car design focuses on making one working car at sufficient scale to be cheap enough. Such as the Model T. But when we get better at cars, customers are willing to pay extra to get cars in more variety, to better match the self-image they want to project. So design and marketing come to matter more than simple engineering.

These trends have many implications. Since innovations that accumulate and transfer well are more easily found in engineering, our focus on design slows our rate of economic growth. Also, since local tastes vary, our focus on product variety that better adapts to local tastes gives us fewer gains from globalization. Finally, a focus on design weakens the connection between economic and military power. An economy that is better at making more varied products to make more customers feel good about themselves is less obviously better able to make weapons that kill. After all, engineering matters much more than design and marketing when it comes to weapons of war.

In the em future scenario that I’ve been exploring, income per em falls to subsistence levels. This should increase economic growth rates, the importance of engineering relative to design and marketing, and emphasize scale economies relative to product variety. Our descendants would return to focus more on conquering nature, and on acquiring economic power that translates better into military power.

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Who Care About Econ Errors?

An economist would rightly lambasted for writing a popular article where perpetual motion machines, or anti-gravity, were central elements. Especially if that economist didn’t even notice that these violate well-established scientific consensus.

But famed Princeton neuroscientist, novelist, and composer Michael Graziano has a popular article that errs nearly as badly in its economics. And, alas, I doubt many will consider that worthy of lambasting, or that Graziano will feel embarrassed by it. Or even consider the issue worthy of comment.

Graziano’s economics error is to focus entirely on demand-side effects, and completely ignore supply-side effects, when summarizing the social implications of brain emulations. That is, he apparently can only see using brain emulations as a way to make a “virtual afterlife” vacation-land. So he talks only about who gets in and what they do there. He can’t even seem to imagine that emulated brains might be useful workers, and so drastically change the world outside of virtual heavens. (A subject I’ve analyzed in depth.) Read for yourself:

Endless fun  The question is not whether we can upload our brains onto a computer, but what will become of us when we do. …

For nearly 30 years, I’ve studied how sensory information gets taken in and processed, how movements are controlled and, lately, how networks of neurons might compute the spooky property of awareness. I find myself asking, given what we know about the brain, whether we really could upload someone’s mind to a computer. And my best guess is: yes, almost certainly. That raises a host of further questions, not least: what will this technology do to us psychologically and culturally? Here, the answer seems just as emphatic, if necessarily murky in the details. …

People … don’t like to die. … Some of them already pay enormous sums to freeze themselves. … These kinds of people will certainly pay for a spot in a virtual afterlife. … Think of the fun to be had as a simulated you in a simulated environment. You could go on a safari through Middle Earth. You could live in Hogwarts. … You could keep in touch with your living friends through all the usual social media. …

We will tend to treat human life and death much more casually. People will be more willing to put themselves and others in danger. … Will simulated people, living in an artificial world, have the same human rights as the rest of us? … Who decides who gets in? … issues … will arise if people deliberately run multiple copies of themselves at the same time. … Do [married couples] stay together? …

Two people will be able to join thoughts directly with each other. … Pretty soon everyone is linked mind-to-mind. The concept of separate identity is lost. The need for simulated bodies walking in a simulated world is lost. The need for simulated food and simulated landscapes and simulated voices disappears. Instead, a single platform of thought, knowledge, and constant realisation emerges. … Real life, our life, will shrink in importance until it becomes a kind of larval phase … I am not talking about utopia. To me, this prospect is three parts intriguing and seven parts horrifying. I am genuinely glad I won’t be around. (more)

So why won’t Graziano won’t be embarrassed by this? Because his colleagues won’t see it as valid criticism, because most don’t think economics really exists as a source of reliable insight.

Btw, I doubt that even in a virtual heaven most people would want to spend much time hooked up directly to share each other’s thoughts in depth. Our minds aren’t designed for that, and i doubt simple modifications can make that work well. And I’m even more skeptical that productive working ems would typically be hooked up this way.

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Me in The Futurist

The Jan/Feb ’14 issue of The Futurist has an article by me on “When the Economy Transcends Humanity”:

What will our economy, workplaces, and society look like when we can copy our brains and build virtual workers to do our jobs? An economist looks at the next great era, a world dominated by robots. (more; ungated)

It doesn’t break new ground, but may be more accessible. You’ll notice the editor liked to sprinkle popular movie references movies; does that really help accessibility?

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Dec 4,5 Abu Dhabi Talks

I’ll speak twice soon at New York University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Here are locations & abstract:

  1. Dec. 4, 12:30-2pm in CSE 1802 to the Engineering Seminar Series (slides),
  2. Dec. 5, 6-7:30pm in S-037 (downtown) to the Economics Seminar Series (slides).

The Age Of Em: Imagining A Future Of Emulated Minds

The three most disruptive transitions in history were the introduction of humans, farming, and industry. If another transition lies ahead, a good guess for its source is artificial intelligence in the form of whole brain emulations, or “ems,” sometime in the next century. I attempt a broad synthesis of standard academic science, including in business and social science, in order to outline a baseline scenario set modestly far into a post-em-transition world. I consider computer architecture, energy conservation, cooling infrastructure, mind speeds, body sizes, security strategies, virtual reality conventions, labor market organization, management focus, job training, career paths, wage competition, identity, retirement, life cycles, reproduction, mating, conversation habits, wealth inequality, city sizes, growth rates, coalition politics, governance, law, and war.

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