Tag Archives: Ems

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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Wanted: Know-It-Some Critics

Last November I said I wanted to write a book on a complex subject, but found it hard to simultaneously work out what I think on the subject, and to also write so as to engage a wide audience well. I wondered why book authors don’t do this in two steps:

First I’d write a pre-book, which states my main claims and arguments directly and clearly, using expert language, for an expert audience. I’d then circulate that pre-book privately among experts and useful thinkers of various sorts, seeking criticism of my arguments. Then using their feedback, I’d revise my claims and arguments, and write an engaging accessible book that can be circulated widely. (more)

Well even though few ever do this, I decided to try it anyway. And I now have a 62,000 word book draft, on the subject of em econ (see posts,Tedx video), i.e., on the social implications of a world dominated by brain-emulation-based AI. This draft isn’t especially fun or readable, or engaging to a wide audience. But it isn’t terrible, and seems a sufficient basis for eliciting thoughtful criticism.

I’ve asked around within my private social network, gotten some good feedback, and changed my draft lots in response. But I’d feel irresponsible if didn’t seek more critics. So let me put it out there: who wants to read and comment on my book draft?

Now I don’t want to post the draft publicly; I might want to sell it as a separate book later. So I don’t want to just give it to anyone who asks; I need to set a non-trivial standard. And the standard I’ve picked is: you should know something about something.

My book is on how the world changes if a certain tech gets cheap: computer-based emulations of human brains. And my analysis suggests that this changes many aspects of society. To give you some idea of relevant topics, I’ve included a current book outline below the fold.

So to be a useful critic, you should know something about brains, computers, business, or some other important part of our social world. You don’t need a Ph.D. of course; most knowledge in our world isn’t held by Ph.D.s. Years of experience can work wonders. But on the subjects you understand, you should know lots more than does a typical high school graduate on a typical subject, i.e., almost nothing. (And of course you also need a minimal ability to generalize what you know to new situations, and to express what you know somehow to me.)

If you are interested and think you qualify, email me at: rhanson@gmu.edu. Here is that current outline:

Continue reading "Wanted: Know-It-Some Critics" »

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Em- vs Non-Em- AGI Bet

Joshua Fox and I have agreed to a bet:

We, Robin Hanson and Joshua Fox, agree to bet on which kind of artificial general intelligence (AGI) will dominate first, once some kind of AGI dominates humans. If the AGI are closely based on or derived from emulations of human brains, Robin wins, otherwise Joshua wins. To be precise, we focus on the first point in time when more computing power (gate-operations-per-second) is (routinely, typically) controlled relatively-directly by non-biological human-level-or-higher general intelligence than by ordinary biological humans. (Human brains have gate-operation equivalents.)

If at that time more of that computing power is controlled by emulation-based AGI, Joshua owes Robin whatever $3000 invested today in S&P500-like funds is worth then. If more is controlled by AGI not closely based on emulations, Robin owes Joshua that amount. The bet is void if the terms of this bet make little sense then, such as if it becomes too hard to say if capable non-biological intelligence is general or human-level, if AGI is emulation-based, what devices contain computing power, or what devices control what other devices. But we intend to tolerate modest levels of ambiguity in such things.

[Added 16Aug:] To judge if “AGI are closely based on or derived from emulations of human brains,” judge which end of the following spectrum is closer to the actual outcome. The two ends are 1) an emulation of the specific cell connections in a particular human brain, and 2) general algorithms of the sort that typically appear in AI journals today.

We bet at even odds, but of course the main benefit of having more folks bet on such things is to discover market odds to match the willingness to bet on the two sides. Toward that end, who else will declare a willingness to take a side of this bet? At what odds and amount?

My reasoning is based mainly on the huge costs to create new complex adapted systems from scratch when existing systems embody great intricately-coordinated and adapted detail. In such cases there are huge gains to instead adapting existing systems, or to creating new frameworks to allow the transfer of most detail from old systems.

Consider, for example, complex adapted systems like bacteria, cities, languages, and legal codes. The more that such systems have accumulated detailed adaptations to the detail of other complex systems and environments, the less it makes sense to redesign them from scratch. The human mind is one of the most complex and intricately adapted systems we know, and our rich and powerful world economy is adapted in great detail to many details of those human minds. I thus expect a strong competitive advantage from new mind systems which can inherit most of that detail wholesale, instead of forcing the wholesale reinvention of substitutes.

Added 16Aug: Note that Joshua and I have agreed on a clarifying paragraph.

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Me On Big Picture Science

I’m the first of four folks interviewed for the “Meet Your Replacements” episode of the SETI Institute’s Big Picture Science radio show. The topic:

There’s no one like you. At least, not yet. But in some visions of the future, androids can do just about everything, computers will hook directly into your brain, and genetic human-hybrids with exotic traits will be walking the streets. So could humans become an endangered species?

Be prepared to meet the new-and-improved you. But how much human would actually remain in the humanoids of the future?

Plus, tips for preventing our own extinction in the face of inevitable natural catastrophes.

My part is with Seth Shostak, and 9 minutes long. I talk about ems, naturally. The other three guests are Luke Muehlhauser, Stuart Newman, & Annalee Newitz.

It is a pretty good show; I think I was told it has 150,000 listeners. They say they are “supported in part by Sami David, Rena Shulsky David, and the NASA Astrobiology Institute.” My thanks to them as well.

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Imagine Farmer Rights

Yesterday I criticized proposals by George Dvorsky and Anders Sandberg to give rights to ems by saying that random rights are bad. That is, rights limit options, which is usually bad, so those who argue for specific rights should offer specific reasons why the rights they propose are exceptional cases where limiting options helps strategically. I illustrated this principle with the example of a diner’s bill of rights.

One possible counter argument is that these proposed em rights are not random; they tend to ensure ems can keep having stuff most of us now have and like. I agree that their proposals do fit this pattern. But the issue is whether rights are random with respect to the set of cases where strategic gains come by limiting options. Do we have reasons to think that strategic benefits tend to come from giving ems the right to preserve industry era lifestyle features?

To help us think about this, I suggest we consider whether we industry era folks would benefit had farmer era folks imposed farmer rights, i.e., rights to ensure that industry era folks could keep things most farmers had and liked. For example, imagine we today had “farmer rights” to:

  1. Work in the open with fresh air and sun.
  2. See how all  food is grown and prepared.
  3. Nights outside are usually quiet and dark.
  4. Quickly get to a mile-long all-nature walk.
  5. All one meets are folks one knows, or known by them.
  6. Easily take apart devices, to see materials, mechanisms.
  7. Authorities with clear answers on cosmology, morality.
  8. Severe punishment of heretics who contradict authorities.
  9. Prior generations quickly make room for new generations.
  10. Rule by a king of our ethnicity, with clear inheritance.
  11. Visible deference from nearby authority-declared inferiors.
  12. More?

Would our lives today be better or worse because of such rights?

Added: I expect to hear this response:

Farmer era folks were wrong about what lifestyles help humans flourish, while we industry era folks are right. This is why their rights would have been bad for us, but our rights would be good for ems.

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Random Rights Are Bad

Food truck and fast food meals can be pretty skimpy. So wouldn’t it be great if we passed a diner’s bill of rights law, requiring all prepared food to come with free unlimited drinks, a fast human waiter, cloth napkins and tablecloths, and a seat by a window? Well no, that wouldn’t be great. All those food trucks and fast food places would go out of business, leaving diners only with the option to eat at expensive fancy restaurants.

It might feel good to play Santa for free, handing out stuff that costs you little yet appears to benefit others lots. But something-for-nothings are usually illusions. Rights limit options, and that is generally bad.

Yes, sometimes we can benefit strategically from having our options limited, but such situations are rare. Random limits on options are usually bad. So if you propose limiting options, you should be prepared to offer particular arguments for why your particular cases are in fact strategic exceptions.

George Dvorsky says we should give lots of rights to ems:

If we’re going to be making minds, we sure as hell need to do it responsibly. … This was the topic of Anders Sandberg’s talk … about the harm that could be inflicted on software capable of experiencing thoughts, emotions, and sensations. … Sandberg proposed that virtual [lab] mice be given virtual painkillers. Another issue is time-rate rights. Does a human emulation have the right to live in real-time, so that it can interact properly with non-digital society? …

Back in 2010, … I proposed that the following rights be afforded to fully conscious human and human-like emulations:

  • The right to not be shut down against one’s will
  • The right to not be experimented upon
  • The right to have full and unhindered access to one’s own source code
  • The right to not have one’s source code manipulated against their will
  • The right to copy (or not copy) oneself
  • The right to privacy (namely the right to conceal one’s own internal mental states)
  • The right of self-determination

… I’d like to include Sandberg’s idea of time-rate rights.

In the comments Dvorsky also likes a “right to have a body and senses.”

But just as with a diner’s bill of rights, limiting options is in general bad. Ems would usually choose each new life, by negotiating with employers, landlords, etc. for a job, place, etc. for a new copy to live. So just as requiring free drinks with a meal can take away that meal as an option, requiring an em life to come with “a right to live in real time” may take away that life as an option. Since the cost to run an em is roughly linear in speed, prohibiting ems that can’t run faster than a thousand times slower than human speeds can in effect raise the cost of such ems by a factor of a thousand. That might greatly reduce the demand for such ems, and hence their number.

Yes, there may be particular situations where limiting options helps ems, but we should expect to hear arguments for why particular cases are exceptions to the usual rule. Dvorsky offers no such arguments, and given how little we know about the em world it is hard to believe he’s worked out detailed arguments that he forgot to mention. Maybe Dvorsky just likes to play Santa for free?

Btw, here’s a post where I criticize a similar effort by Greg Egan to give ems rights. See also Alex on harmful rights.

Added: Just as we have good reasons to stop people from being forced to eat meals that they didn’t choose, we also have good reasons to stop ems from being forced to live lives they didn’t choose. We know lots about why property rights are often useful. More examples of bad random rights:

  • The right to a bookstore that has certain random books.
  • The right to a kitchen holding certain random spices and utensils.
  • The right to a home with certain random furniture items.
  • The right to a movie with certain random plot elements.
  • The right to a laptop with certain random features and accessories.

Added 10a: Anders’ talk is based on this paper; key quote: Continue reading "Random Rights Are Bad" »

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Bits Of Secrets

“It’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Top Gun, 1986

Today, secrets are lumpy. You might know some info that would help you persuade someone of something, but reasonably fear that if you told them, they’d tell others, change their opinion on something else, or perhaps just get discouraged. Today, you can’t just tell them one implication of your secret. In the future, however, the ability to copy and erase minds (as in am em scenario) might make secrets much less lumpy – you could tell someone just one implication of a secret.

For example, what if you wanted to convince an associate that they should not go to a certain party. Your reason is that one of their exes will attend the party. But if you told them that directly, they would then know that this ex is in town, is friendly with the party host, etc. You might just tell them to trust you, but what if they don’t?

Imagine you could just say to your associate “I could tell you why you shouldn’t go to the party, but then I’d have to kill you,” and they could reply “Prove it.” Both of your minds would then be copied and placed together into an isolated “box,” perhaps with access to some public or other info sources. Inside the box the copy of you would explain your reasons to the copy of them. When the conversation was done, the entire box would be erased, and the original two of you would just hear a single bit answer, “yes” or “no,” chosen by the copy of your associate.

Now, as usual, there are some complications. For example, the fact that you suggested using the box, as opposed to just revealing your secrets, could be a useful clue to them, as could the fact that you were willing to spend resources to use the box. If you requested access to unusual sources while in the box, that might give further clues.

If you let the box return more detail about their degree of confidence in their conclusion, or about how long the conversation took, your associate might use some of those extra bits to encode more of your secrets. And if the info sources accessed by those in the box used simple cacheing, outsiders might see which sources were easier to access afterward, and use that to infer which sources had been accessed from in the box, which might encode more relevant info. So you’d probably want to be careful to run the box for a standard time period, with unobservable access to standard wide sources, and to return only a one bit conclusion.

Inside the box, you might just reveal that you had committed in some way to hurt your associate if they didn’t return the answer you wanted. To avoid this problem, it might be usual practice to have an independent (and hard to hurt) judge also join you in the box, with the power to make the box return “void” if they suspected such threats were being made. To reduce the cost of using these boxes, you might have prediction markets on what such boxes would return if made, but only actually make them a small percentage of the time.

There may be further complications I haven’t thought of, but at the moment I’m more interested in how this ability might be used. In the world around you, who would be tempted to prove what this way?

For example, would you prove to work associates that your proposed compromise is politically sound, without revealing your private political info about who would support or oppose it? Prove to investigators that you do not hold stolen items by letting them look through your private stores? Prove to a date you’ve been thinking lots about them, by letting them watch a video of your recent activities? Prove to a jury of voters that you really just want to help them, by letting them watch all of your activities for the last few months? What else?

In general, this would seem to better enable self-deception. You could actually not know things anywhere in your head, but still act on them when they mattered a lot.

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