True Em Grit

The new movie True Grit is a well-done celebration of the central farmer value of self-control. Not that foragers didn’t use self-control, but farmers took it to a whole new level, to get folks to act in quite un-forager-like ways. George Will’s latest column echos that gritty farmer theme, with a standard conservative warning that wealth and modernity tempts us to excess:

Daniel Akst[‘s] … book “We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess” notes that the problems of freedom and affluence – of “managing desire in a landscape rich with temptation” – are desirable problems. But they are problems. …

American life resembles “a giant all-you-can-eat buffet” offering “calories, credit, sex, intoxicants” and other invitations to excess. … Life in general has become what alcohol is – disinhibiting. … Today capitalism has a bipolar disorder, demanding self-controlled workers yet uninhibited shoppers. … The inhibiting intimacy of the village has been supplanted by the city’s “disinhibiting anonymity.” … As traditional social structures have withered under disapproval, and personal choice and self-invention have been celebrated, “second careers, second homes, second spouses, and even second childhoods are commonplace.” …

Pondering America’s “aristocracy of self-control,” Akst notes that affluent people, for whom food is a relatively minor expense, are less likely than poor people to be obese. Surely this has something to do with habits of self-control that are conducive to social success generally.

Before you dismiss Will’s concerns as the no-longer-relevant paranoid fears of a sad stick-in-the-mud, consider that when I recently discussed future Malthusian ems, several commentors responded that em poverty wouldn’t be so bad because very vivid and luxurious video games and virtual reality would cost only a tiny fraction of their subsistence cost. Also, since ems wouldn’t eat food, get sick, or have biological bodies, they needn’t feel hunger or pain. But I think this image misses the revival of farmer-style grit in an em world:

Ems, or whole brain emulations, are my best guess for the next big transition on the order of the farming and industry transitions. Farmer-style stoicism, self-sacrifice, and self-control, detached as needed from farmer specifics like love of land or sexual monogamy, might well be more effective [than a forager-style] at creating acceptance of em-efficient lifestyles. Religious ems might, for example, better accept being deleted when new more efficient versions of themselves are introduced. “Onward Christian robots” might be the new sensibility. And em’s low incomes might help farmer-style fear-based norm-enforcement to gain traction.

Ems would need some resources, and their bodies and minds would collect defects and errors, even if none of these resources or defects are biological. So it would be functional for ems to redirect their hunger systems to track the collection of needed resources, and redirect their pain systems to monitor possible defects and errors. They might of course sometimes enjoy pleasant vivid daydreams when their minds need non-shut-down rest, but it would be more functional for ems to daydream about variations on their own lives, rather than about completely alien lifestyles. They might also, if possible, redirect their needs for sex and kids toward em style reproduction activities.  If so, ems should feel hunger, pain, desire, and deep frustration, because such things are useful to feel.

As with our ancestors, it might be functional for much of em leisure to be devoted to relatively functional social bonding and mutual signaling of abilities, shared loyalty, and values. Farmer leisure differs from rich forager leisure, for good functional reasons. Compared to us, ems might prefer leisure that more celebrates self-control, religion, honor, loyalty, submission, grit, and determination. They might on average be happy, but with a grittier farmer style happiness. Whether such lives seem worth living to you probably depends on how fiercely you side with foragers in the forager-farmer divide.

Added 11a: Many commenters think direct modification of em brains would quickly lead to “happy slave” ems. Seems likely we’d try such modification, and they’d probably add some degree of cooperativeness, but my guess this will be a minor contribution.  The ability to select just a few of the billions of humans to make em copies will allow big changes between ems and humans, but I expect most of that to be used to select very high ability em minds, and that relatively little will need be spent on a willingness to submit to low incomes and high work regimentation. The farming revolution has already selected humans for plasticity in that direction, and it wouldn’t have been possible if humans didn’t already have a lot of such plasticity.

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  • Josh Burroughs

    In my previous comment, I was mainly imagining ems of mostly-unmodified humans. I am aware that there are many other possibilities, but disturbing thoughts about the living conditions of these future people are really based on imagining they will be us, or nearly so. My point was that, if a copy of you winds up being one of these future subsistence-thinkers, it wouldn’t be that bad. If a future em would willingly reject a high-pleasure, low-pain existence for what you’re envisioning*, they won’t be us anymore, and I can just trust that they know what makes them happy.

    *I tend to think the specifics of the true-em-grit lifestyle would seem deeply weird to us. I mean, they’re not going to live in simulations of hardscrabble farms or whatever. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what life would subjectively be like for them.

    • I don’t know if Prof. Hanson wrote with ironic humor, but it’s hard to escape that the Em existence as he describes won’t be much different in kind than current human existence.

      -There are 6 billion of us. At least 3 billion of us functionally live an em life. A life not of leisure, a life not of unproductive dysfunction, but a worker’s life as part of horde.

      -We are observed by the institutions we work for through the lense of aggregrate statistics.

  • Building on Josh’s point, these men aren’t farmers but farmer/office worker/robot/alien hybrids. They will be free of those human idiosyncrasies that help on farms but not computers, as well as those that farmers weren’t able to suppress but computerized brain surgeons will be.

  • David

    I would assume that the psychological traits of future ems will be highly controllable, in a way that human traits are not. After all, ems are software. Why not just design them to deeply enjoy working efficiently at whatever “farmer” task is to be their lot? If they are to churn out poems or lines of code, why not couple their satisfaction with the degree of effort they devote to the task, and their longing with the creation of an exemplar of their art which is extraordinary in its quality?

    It’s downright immoral to design them so that they suffer. If they have discomfort pathways at all, this should be only to identify malfunctions or damage, and this discomfort should never be chronic and should cease once repairs are made.

    Regarding their attitudes about reproduction: Perhaps their success at their task would earn them this as an ultimate reward, in which case it would be a good thing for them to desire, but not really distinct from just wanting to be good “farmers”. About death, they should be existentialist or Socratic. Any kind of “death is bad” thoughts should be impossible for them to entertain, and death should be impossible to fear.

    Even some humans can live happily without friends, family, a broad variety of experiences, etc. They get all the fulfillment they need from their projects. Why not use these humans as the rough template for the toiling ems, and refine the software to remove any remaining neuroses, lapses of loneliness and self-doubt?

  • Talks of ems turns David Beckworth’s thoughts to monetary systems.

    David, the emulations are suppose to be whole-brain uploads “ported” to software without understanding how they work. They are not (at least initially) “designed” or “programmed”, though we may expect them to evolve as time goes on.

  • Liron

    Great post.

  • candy

    I think it’s still difficult to say what life will be like for ems. How easy will it be to alter their systems of motivation, for example? If it’s not that hard, a majority of them might be quite satisfied with constantly doing work that humans wouldn’t like.

  • candy

    They are not (at least initially) “designed” or “programmed”, though we may expect them to evolve as time goes on.

    I would expect the “designer ems” to show up fairly quickly after we had the unaltered kind. Will these first generation, human-like ems remain competitive for long enough to be the real inheritors in the em revolution?

  • Prakash

    Prof Hanson,
    A happy new year to you.

    You are primarily looking at the economic aspects of ems and hence are able to extrapolate all the way to malthusian subsistence. But human beings have almost never taken getting poor or lower status peacefully.

    I’m not sure how you think that property rights like those in land and patents will continue to be respected in a world where people are approaching subsistence?

    What are the incentives for governments or secure systems to respect property rights? Governments can, with ems, dissolve the physical people.

    From the perspective of ems, what is your prescription against a new french revolution occuring ?
    Atleast the initial version will be very smilar to present day humans. They will need their leisure to work properly and in this leisure time, they will think thoughts of fairness and unfairness, of meatbags using huge multiples of their resources and living in luxury.
    Do you believe that in the long run, there is no difference to the scenario?

    I can imagine that a desperate war of all against all might very well occur and result in the winner establishing a singleton.

  • David

    It’s just a no-brainer (ha!) that even if ems begin as “brain scans rendered in software” we will almost immediately tweak the em capacities and motivational systems. We already have much experience with these tweaks in wet brains, but our tools – chemicals – are incredibly blunt. Once a brain is software, very precise tweaks will be trivial to make, instantly reversible, and immediate feedback will be available.

    Don’t think about ems as necessarily coming in generations. Even if our first ems are perfectly “natural”, they can (and will) have their motivational system upgraded with trivial ease. To them it would feel like they swallowed a Prozac pill and suddenly find great joy in designing weapons or whatever. The disanalogy is that “software Prozac” will be easy to tune for very specific effects.

    Actually, this might be a better analogy: Imagine neurosurgeons could perform quick lobotomies of atom-scale precision, get immediate feedback from their patients, instantly undo their changes, and have a control brain which is atom-for-atom identical to the brain they started with. How long would it take them to design a person with an optimized or a specifically targeted motivational set? Weeks, if not less. Now consider that whoever runs the em will have even more control over their cognition systems, because unlike lobotomies, the software engineers can add parts as well as remove them. This is why I think it’s folly to speculate about multitudes of “people like us” rendered in software. There is no incentive for their creation and maintenance. We will from the start make improved people.

    I’d go so far as to say that if I were to retire into em-hood after my biological systems started to fail, I would want to then rewire my pleasure and reward systems in substantial ways. I would, for example, wire triggers to simulate the effects of hitherto unimaginable recreational drugs. But when the recreation was over and it was time to toil, I would definitely want to make myself love and find deep meaning in the toil I do – like Sisyphus. Accomplishing this as an em would be easy. There is no reason to even make a toiling em who doesn’t love it. Arguably, it would even be immoral.

    • Hedonic Treader

      Full agreement here. If ems are controlled by societies of “meatbags”, they could even be programmed to find deep satisfaction in serving them (us).

      “If so, ems should feel hunger, pain, desire, and deep frustration, because such things are useful to feel.” (OP of Robin Hanson)

      I still hope that most of the sticks can be replaced by specifically designed carrots. The same logic could be applied to organic sentients as well:

      If the best we can hope for is the continuation and scaling-up of average darwinian misery, there is no reason to build such a future in the first place; we might just as well nuke the planet now. We’ve already had hundreds of millions of years of that net-negative paradigm, I fail to see why we should want more of it.

  • Dave

    The future is now. In what way are such working animal as border collies,drug sniffing dogs and race horses fundamentally different ,other than their mechanics,from ems?

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    If so, ems should feel hunger, pain, desire, and deep frustration, because such things are useful to feel.

    More generally, if ems are subjected to sharp enough selection pressure then we should expect that their motivations will become optimized for replication fitness. Over the long term, the population of ems must saturate at some level that physical resources can sustain. Therefore, a stable population of ems with evolutionarily optimized motivations will mostly have their motivations frustrated. Whatever it is that they wind up wanting (effectively for replication, though it might not feel that way internally), bits, atoms, sunlight, whatever, will largely be what they don’t get.

    I concur with Hedonic Treader’s point of view: If this is the future,
    there is no point in building it.

    • David

      It’s an interesting argument, but I don’t think the conclusion follows. Assume that the world’s population of pigs is at an economic saturation point (cost of raising another pig = value of pig). Pigs are creatures with goals, but from these two facts, does it follow that these goals are frustrated? Can’t there be, despite the saturation, only happy pigs? I think yes. In fact, if someone engineered a happier pig, I would hope that for ethical reasons, all slaughtered pigs are replaced with these happier models. So it goes for ems.

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        Thanks for the reply! The difference is that pigs aren’t being bred for making choices that give maximum long-term fecundity. I’d guess that breeders select for traits that give the most economical meat. The pigs make no choices, so there is no pressure to select for any particular mental state of the pig. Yes, a happy pig should be compatible with pig breeders’ goals.

        By contrast, for ems, I’m assuming Prof. Hanson’s The crack of a future dawn scenario:

        Darwinian evolution of values should once again become a powerful force in human history. Most uploads should quickly come to value life even when life is hard or short, and wages should fall dramatically.

        Because the ems make choices, and these choices affect their differential fecundity, evolution should be expected to tune their motivations and psychological structure to value outcomes that maximize their fecundity – and in a stable population, these outcomes must mostly fail. (I am assuming that the unit of selection is the em – Shulman’s paper is an interesting alternative, but I haven’t thought through its consequences)

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        To put it another way: Human have the luck that they are currently in a Darwinian disequilibrium. Contraception doesn’t kill lust. The industrial revolution gave us a demographic transition which reduced fecundity. We can enjoy the evolutionarily sub-optimal superstimuli that our technology makes possible. Fortunately, we have not been

        truly enslaved by evolution, gradually turning into true fitness maximizers obsessed with outreproducing each other. But thankfully that’s not what happened. Not here on Earth. At least not yet.

        The hard part is keeping this. How do we extend and stabilize the demographic transition so that neither fast-breeding human subgroups nor copyable ems force us back into the malthusian trap?

  • Robin, have you read and/or commented on Carl Shulman’s recent paper Whole Brain Emulation and the Evolution of

  • Carl Shulman

    Wei, we have talked about it.

  • “Today capitalism has a bipolar disorder, demanding self-controlled workers yet uninhibited shoppers. …”

    What you are referring to is the Keynesian-style form of society – a style of central economically controlled pseudo-capitalism operating under key tenants of consumerism. This is not capitalism. The key economic view of the John Maynard Keynes School of thought is that spending, cheap credit (spread around by the banking sector through a low-interest discount window from the Fed) – and not capital structure and savings as promoted by those within the classical-liberal Friedrich von Hayek Austrian School, creates real market growth.

    True Capitalism is the free market. The free market – that is, a condition of society in which all economic transactions are a result of voluntary choice without coercion by the state, awards those who are both self-controlled workers and savers. The “paradox of thrift” is a great fallacy.

    Keynesian style pseudo-capitalism has the bi-polar disorder.

    – Nathan Wosnack

  • So far, economic development of machines suggests that the most efficient forms for doing various tasks are NOT human forms. Why do you think that trend will stop, and even reverse, and that ems will be the most productive machines, as opposed to machines designed to do the various production jobs? I foresee the richness of robots we see in factories today, but smaller, and larger, and more autonomous. But why make them conscious or capable of sadness or anger?

    • Robin thinks that human emulations will be practical before a designed general artificial intelligence will be, and an emulated human will naturally be conscious and have (to some, currently unknown, extent) human emotions. Later they may be able to edit out particular capacities that are not desired for particular jobs. It may not be possible, on the other hand, to have an effective general intelligence that is not conscious and emotional – that is one thing that is not yet known either way.

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