Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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  • Doug


    You’ve written a lot about artificial intelligence through simulation of the human mind and its implications. However I’d like to see you devote some discussion to non human-based artificial intelligence, either in the unlikely event that it proves the more viable technology or in the distant future when it overtakes sims as the dominant technology.

    Specifically do you think such a future could still be a glorious one. A quadrillion human sims is a fantastic thing, because a quadrillion people get to experience life. Does the same hold true for a quadrillion non-human alien AGIs? How much more or less is an alien AGI worth than a human sim of equivalent but very different intelligence?

    I guess an analogous question would be do you believe Watson or the Google search engine system have a “soul” and deserved dignified treatment, similar to what you’ve said about higher animals like cows and primates?

  • Evan


    I’m still wondering about how two lines of thought you’ve been working on interact with each other. You say in your em-related posts that a massive em revolution would be glorious because it would create so many new creatures to enjoy life, but you also have a series of posts on identity and personhood theory that imply that a whole bunch of ems derived from person may all actually count as the same person. Does that mean that if ten or twenty em clans outcompete everyone else on Earth for resources that there are only ten or twenty creatures left alive on Earth to enjoy life, and therefore the future isn’t glorious? Do ems have to have large amounts of significant individual various for the future to truly be glorious?

    • Konkvistador


  • Anonymous

    Are there any models on how superlongevity and/or technological quasi-immortality (e.g. person backups) would affect reproductive behavior, esp. when it is combined with virtualized superstimuli of the desire aspects that normaly drive reproductive behavior?

    Is it realistic – or overly optimistic – that people in a world where these techs are globally and cheaply available would agree to mandatory restrictions on reproduction (including person copying) as well as non-aggresive lifestyles, combined with surveillance for enforcement? The motivational drive could be tech-driven need satisfaction and a personal (egoistic) stake in the long-term stability of the system. Realistic or utopian?

    • billswift


      • AnonymousX

        Why? Because of the surveillance? The advantages are clear: it would be sustainable, people wouldn’t torture and kill each other, and there would be enough resources per capita to make life worth experiencing (remember that creating children in a state of poverty is non-consensual and causes severe suffering).

      • AnonymousX

        On a second thought, forget the value judgment question. I wasn’t proposing this as a suggestion. My original question should have been: Realistic or unrealistic scenario, given that the respective technologies will exist?

  • Simon

    Why don’t we have affirmative action for religion? For example, Hindus are much richer than Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we prohibit discrimination based upon religion, but we don’t try to rectify the imbalances.

    • Riley J.

      You can hide your religion but you can’t hide your race/sex.

      • Simon

        It’s easy enough to determine if someone is NOT a member of a particular religion by asking questions or making references that only adherents would understand.

      • You can hide your sexual orientation too.

  • Is Robin going to release a book?
    Garett Jones
    RT @ModeledBehavior: When is Robin Hanson going to write a book?”

    Would anyone here buy it in advance on
    or some such?

    While on the subject what do you think of these prepayement sites for creative content?

    • Haven’t even clicked your links yet, but I think they’re conceptually awesome? What other good faith reaction could someone give you?

      • Stickk makes people agree to do something like lose weight an lose money if they dont. Could something like the street performer protocol work for weightloss and such? When you lose 10 kilos ill pay you 100 dollars?

        If stickk and these sort of protocols do work why dont we use them to prevent sickness rather then treat it when it occurs?

  • Mitchell Porter

    I’m interested in the views of American OB readers regarding the ideological future of their country. Two American sites I read are and They’re both more journalistic than overtly ideological, and they are both of the view that, “Americans, you are being screwed over by your oligarchical overlords”, but… Exiled runs stories on how Hayek and Rand used Medicare, while ZeroHedge’s favorite hate figure is Ben Bernanke. So something resembling the left-right polarization is there. Nonetheless, they would both, I think, endorse the idea of “occupying Wall Street”.

    Whether your society is peaceful and harmonious, chronically divided, at war with an external foe, or in the middle of a revolution, there is a mundane level of organization which must exist and function; the level of organization which ensures that people can eat, that basic goods get produced, distributed, and repaired, and so on. When *that* level breaks down, you hardly have a society, you just have starvation and disaster. And it seems to me that this level is largely untouched by changes in economic ideology. There was apparently a saying about modern Islamic ideology, that there’s no Islamic way to fix a car, and you could also say there’s no monetarist way to fix a car, no socialist way to fix a car, no neoliberal way to fix a car – etc. But for the same reason, you can still get your car serviced, whether your society is Islamist, monetarist, socialist, etc. The governing ideology (and I mean ideology in a very broad sense, which you might prefer to call culture) will be *felt* at the everyday level, it does affect how things get done organizationally, but the process of fixing the car is an invariant, or at least an independent variable.

    It seems to me that Americans are increasingly fed up with the way their country is governed economically. The latest left and right (as exemplified by EO and ZH) do not agree on how things should be, but they do agree that there is an unhealthy symbiosis between the political class, the financial class, and the American ideology of free enterprise. Perhaps the difference can be distilled thus: The right believes that the financial class have used the ideology of free enterprise to justify a political order which corruptly caters to them, and this perversion of capitalism needs to be set right; whereas the left believe that the right-wing solution will just be a way for the oligarchical class to preserve its position unmolested, and what’s needed is social democracy.

    One of the very minor aspects of this scene which intrigues me is the slippage between economics as analytic tool, and economics as normative discourse. Maybe I can put it like this: If your descriptive tool lacks a political dimension, then it can’t tell you about political solutions to problems. This is something a bit deeper than just people who study markets preferring market solutions to problems. I think that the analysis of as much as possible in terms of economic relationships is descriptively deficient. It misses the political dimension of life (the cultural dimension too). I don’t know what the axial concepts for an analysis of the political should be, but I think there is such a gap in the universe of discourse loosely shared by the readers of this blog.

    • The only thing worth a damn on Exiled is the War Nerd. Don’t read Zero Hedge but seems to be similarly worthless and I don’t think representative of much in the broader society (political scientists will tell you that the increase in polarization occurred in Congress, not the general public). In the absence of technological change, America will keep bumbling forward.

  • Drewfus

    Nice TED talk on dodgy science data, especially med.

  • Robin, I recall you enjoyed The Wire. Here is an interesting talk by the creator I just came across.

  • Evan

    Ever since I’ve read Robin’s em series I’ve periodically had funks where anytime I’ve done anything remotely fun, be it spending time with my family, reading, or sitting quietly in contemplative thought, my mood is spoiled by the thought “After the em revolution I will be to busy to enjoy this, if I’m not dead.” It causes me to be depressed for days at a time. I’d like to ask people how they stop this from happening to them.

    To make it clear, my problem isn’t that emEvan will be poor, in the future, it’s that he’ll be ludicrously busy. So saying “poor folks do smile” won’t work. My problem with the em scenarios isn’t that people will too poor to smile, it’s that they’ll be too busy working to pay for subsistence to smile. As Robin himself has shown, people need free time in order to be happy. I’m worried that people will be to busy to be happy, or evolve into non-eudaemonic life-forms, a fate arguably worse than extinction.

    So again, to repeat the original question, how do people avoid getting depressed for days on end by reading the em posts? I’m not writing this as some sort of sideways criticism of Robin’s views, I am genuinely suffering from a bad depression and want help out of it.

    • Workaholics smile too. Perhaps you aren’t well suited to being one, but many other people are. So someone will be happy.

      • Evan

        So does this mean I shouldn’t spend money on cryonics? I was pretty convinced by your arguments that I should sign up, until this subsistence em stuff started to come up.

        Or should I do it on the off chance that a different future will arise?

        Also, I think that Nick Bostrom’s arguments about the possible development of non-eudaemonic agents pose a great challenge to your idea that at least someone will be happy. Maybe no one will be happy, because in the long run, happiness isn’t adaptive.

        Lastly, my primary question wasn’t “will I be happy in the future,” it was, “how do I stop worrying about being unhappy in the future in the present?”

    • Mitchell Porter

      ‘my mood is spoiled by the thought “After the em revolution I will be too busy to enjoy this, if I’m not dead.” It causes me to be depressed for days at a time. I’d like to ask people how they stop this from happening to them.’

      By not believing the scenario. Look, as things stand, you are scheduled to die due to natural decrepitude, like every human being before you. And before that happens you are supposed to spend your time earning your way in life by dedicating yourself to a specialized economic function. The fact that you would be depressed, not about the present facts of life, but about Robin’s futurological scenario, suggests that depression about Robin’s scenario is really functioning as a proxy for depression about present-day reality. Perhaps you have been using dreams of a better future as a shield against present realities.

      Robin’s em posts take a few aspects of the present – division of labor, competition, decentralized economy – and use them to organize the concepts of radical cyberfuturism – mind uploading, copies of individuals, whole galaxies turned into computers – in order to produce a vivid definite image of the future. It’s always an achievement when someone produces a new image of the deep future, but it has to be put back in context, as one of a number of scenarios. Back in reality, there are way too many uncertainties to regard this as a foregone conclusion. Just to mention one microscopic adjustment to the vision that’s possible; see my earlier comment on how politics and culture can trump economics. You don’t have to believe in a monolithic singleton to suppose that we can end up in a post-singularity attractor defined by something other than overpopulation and malthusian competition. If the image of human nature prevailing in economic thought was that we are slackaholics rather than workaholics, and if this was considered a virtue, then normative economic thought would be all about ensuring that economic agents have enough slack in their lives, and bizarro-world Robin would be writing essays about a slackonomic singularity.

      But the real core issue has to be that you aren’t relating to your actual existential situation as a biologically doomed wage-slave human-being. Those are the raw facts of your life, and scenarios of a singularity of slack or a singularity of desperate specialization are both futurological whimsies, with some internal logic and some empirical justification, but not enough to take either for granted. Even cryonics should not be considered a safety-net; it’s more of a last resort.

  • rapscallion

    What’s the most boring explanation for existence?

  • Anonymous

    So does this mean I shouldn’t spend money on cryonics?

    Of course you shouldn’t. It’s a complete waste of money and energy. Not only is the success probability incredibly low, but even if it succeeds, there’s no reason to believe the reconstructed ‘you’ will be enjoying life rather than hating it. You’ll be giving all control over your consciousness and suffering into the hands of future entities with who knows what kinds of motivations.

    As for ‘workaholics do smile’, so do kidnapped torture victims when their captors tell them to. They write love letters to them on command. Also see stockholm syndrome.

    Will existence at least be voluntary in the future? You bet it won’t be, because if they let you exist at all, that means someone has invested something in you and they’re obviously going to want something in return. That’s why we don’t allow minors or even adults to die painlessly when they say they want to. And ems are going to be completely under control of their owners. In the best case scenario, they are manipulated by mind control and well-shaped reward functions. In the worst case, they’re threatened into obedience by threats of torture, and self-termination is never an option.

    I’m not going to risk existence in such a context, but I guess it depends on how optimistic or pessimistic you look at it.

  • Robert Trivers has written a book called “Deceit and Self-Deception”.

    For a review see here.