Henson On Ems

Keith Henson, of whom I’ve long been a fan, has a new article where he imagines our descendants as fragmenting Roman-Empire-like into distinct cultures, each ~300 meter spheres holding ~30 million ems each ~1 million times faster than a human, using ~1TW of power, in the ocean for cooling. The 300m radius comes from a max two subjective seconds of communication delay, and the 30 million number comes from assuming a shell of ~10cm cubes, each an em. (Quotes below)

The 10cm size could be way off, but the rest is reasonable, at least given Henson’s key assumptions that 1) competition to seem sexy would push ems to run as fast as feasible, and 2) the scale of em “population centers” and culture is set by the distance at which talk suffers a two subjective seconds delay.

Alas those are pretty unreasonable assumptions. Ems don’t reproduce via sex, and would be selected for not devoting lots of energy to sex. Yes, sex is buried deep in us, so ems would still devote some energy to it. But not so much as to make sex the overwhelming factor that sets em speeds. Not given em econ competitive pressures and the huge selection factors possible. I’m sure it is sexy today to spend money like a billionaire, but most people don’t because they can’t afford to. Since running a million times faster should cost a million times more, ems might not be able to afford that either.

Also, the scale at which we can talk without delay has just not been that important historically in setting our city and culture scales. We had integrated cultures even when talking suffered weeks of delay, we now have many cultures even though we can all talk without much delay, and city scales have been set more by how far we can commute in an hour than by communication delays. So while ems might well have a unit of organization corresponding to their easy-talk scale, important interactions should also exist at larger scales.

Those promised quotes from Henson’s article:

I have long had misgivings about large aggregations of computing nodes forming a mind because of speed-of-light delays. That will reduce “thinking speed,” since a mind cannot “be of one mind” if much it is not aware of the current situation due to speed-of-light delays. There is an analogous problem within a culture. We have a world culture today headed toward a monoculture because electronic communications on fiber optics has cut the delay to getting. …

How much communication delay can a society tolerate before it breaks up into smaller units? There are historical examples; the Roman Empire broke up partly because their communications failed. …

Human brains are asynchronous, but, given reaction times, we can impute an equivalent clock rate of ~200 Hz. Which means a human brain (or brain equivalent) running in moderately fast hardware could run a million times faster. (200 MHz is not fast hardware.) You might ask, “Why would humans do such a silly thing?” Because intelligence is a large factor in sexual attraction. … Of course, intelligence is valuable outside of sexual attraction, being correlated with many other personality and life-history traits … One aspect of being smart is thinking fast, or at least thinking faster than the person you are trying to impress. That leads at once to a runaway “Red Queen” situation where, when we can run our thinking faster, we would rapidly push the computational speed to the limit, whatever it is.

… The faster you run your brain, the more the world around you seems to slow down. With only a modest speedup, movement would seem like wading through molasses. If you desire serious speedup, it probably has to be in a simulation of the environment to match your faster perception. … A million-to-one speed up would impose a subjective round-trip delay of three days from one side of the earth to the other. … The speed-up limit may be 100 times as high. … I suspect population centers will shrink to sizes in the few hundred-meter range and sunk in the deep oceans for cooling.

Taking two subjective seconds as the upper limit round-trip delay for telephone-like communication, … for a million-to-one speedup, that means that all the communicating nodes can be no more than 300 meters apart. … [Assuming] a 10-cm cube, or 100 minds to the square meter arranged one layer deep, … the population of fast uploaded humans per communicating fast culture could be as high as 28 million. If each drew 20 kW (1,000 times the 20 W our biological brains use), the total power draw would be 540 GW. …  A water flow of one liter per second through each person (10 square cm) would carry off 20 kW with a temperature rise of about 5° C. …

With each order of magnitude speed up, the maximum community size falls by a factor of 100. … Talk about a physics-enforced oligarchy! Would you want to move from a slum where there was only a 100,000-to-one speed up to one of these “elite” places with a million-to-one speed up? …  If humanity takes the speed-up route, then I don’t see a future for M brains, S brains or even Luna-sized brains, and the maximum size of a communicating civilization becomes a good deal smaller than the Earth.

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  • Vaniver

    You might ask, “Why would humans do such a silly thing?”

    … why might I ask something like that? It seems obvious that having more thoughts per second is a good thing, until you run into energy, cooling, or hardware costs.

  • Poelmo

    I don’t think EMs will procreate often. Since they are immortal and every EM takes up precious server computing power they’ll probably have some emergency protocol in their version of a constitution allowing for procreation to replace the casualties of a server failure, while procreation in all other circumstances would be forbidden. I do believe sexual competition would exist but on a much lower level because every EM can change his or her virtual appearance too look like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie and EMs would spend only a tiny fraction of their life courting (relationships can be eternal, after all). Meanwhile they’ll probably decide, democratically how much server computing power will be allocated to EM thinking speed (which would be distributed equally to avoid senseless competition and also because nobody contributes significantly more than anyone else, more on that later [*]) and how much to running the environment.

    The most important thing to note is that EMs will live in what amounts to a post scarcity world (only limited by the capacity of their servers, whose resources they’d probably just distribute equally because [*] over the extremely long life spans of EMs the average contribution/per unit of time would not differ much between separate EMs): they’d be fools to work simulated to buy things when they know they can just make everything they want appear out of ones and zeroes with no work involved whatsoever. The only work that would have to be done would be periodically checking up on the automated machines that maintain and fuel the servers, which would take up a tiny amount of the EM colony’s time. The rest of the time they can devote to science, engineering, art, designing of new virtual objects, politics and most of all leisure. It stands to reason that the EMs would abandon simulated capitalism within minutes, recognizing the futility of simulated work and the inherent inequality that comes with it. My prediction is that the EMs will spend most of their time drinking simulated cold ones on a simulated beach, just because they can. And frankly I see nothing wrong with that: after all, the people who invented fire, the bow, agriculture, the wheel, writing, indoor plumbing, electricity, transistors, etc… intended to make life easier, they never meant to up the ante in life’s rat race.

  • Dave

    Will ems get sick or be subject to parasites or viruses? According to one evo theory sex is there to add diversity and avoid an organism monoculture which is subject to being wiped out by parasites.

    So we have all that fun just so the bubonic plague will kill only half of us not because we enjoy it. (see the Red Queen by Matt Ridley). I don’t know if this is current.

    Would ems, having read the book, build in safeguards.Or would they be so frigging smart that they could do anything without limitation just by virtue of being so smart.. Also Poelmo,people invented things to get an advantage over their competitors. For example writing may have been used to transmit military orders. Arrows were improved use for use as weapons. Horse training was for battle.

    • Poelmo

      No, people invented stuff to make life easier, then rulers abused these inventions to increase their own (not the inventor’s) power.

      Writing was invented to pass down knowledge and keep records of food supplies. Arrows were invented for the hunt. Both writing and arrows were not useful military advantages because they could be copied by enemies extremely fast. One of the few inventions that were always meant for worse is organized religion and it is this invention that rulers used to trick the masses (which were purposely kept uneducated) into helping the rulers abuse other inventions for the personal gain of the rulers.

      And hey. just ask any scientist or inventor if they aim to make life easier or just up the ante in senseless competition (it’s just a matter of time before your opponents catch up and what was first an advantage becomes a standard, the only ones who gain something from the temporary advantage are the ruling elite, not the people and not the inventors).

      Just because almost every invention can be used for worse doesn’t mean they were invented for it or that we have to use them in that way. Why would EMs unnecessarily bust their asses for an undeserving elite? Aren’t they supposed to be 100x times smarter than us?

    • Poelmo

      Anyway, the gist of my rant was that competition for the sake of competition is senseless. If, for the overwhelming majority of the population (including the inventors) life hasn’t become easier, richer (not in a financial sense) and better since the stone age (as was the case around the world well into the 20th century, still is the case in the 3rd world and may again become the case in the 1st world if certain people get their way) then what was the purpose of all the progress in between? There is no cosmic price for the civilization with the biggest GDP and you don’t get to take your wealth to the next life…

      Why work all day to buy stuff you never get to enjoy because you work all day? And don’t talk to me about science: science gets only a tiny fraction of global GDP so most of what we do every day doesn’t go towards increasing humanity’s understanding of the universe.

      My question is, if it doesn’t go to science or to bettering our lives (and again, having twice as many stuff doesn’t better a person’s life if he has to work twice as hard to get it and can’t choose to opt out of this rat race), but instead goes to bettering the lives of a small, undeserving elite, then why would we, and especially EMs who are 100x smarter than us, even bother?

      I’m convinced the EMs will ask themselves the same question and decide to end the madness, as, one day, flesh and blood humans will.

      • MattC

        My question is, if it doesn’t go to science or to bettering our lives…

        Why enumerate science separately? Should we care about science that doesn’t improve people’s lives?

      • Poelmo


        At least science enriches people’s lives somewhat. Even when it is not of direct benefit it at least inspires (the same way as art) and satisfies our curiosity. And it usually does offer ways of improving life, even though the powers that be often decide not to use it in that manner.

      • MattC

        Agreed. I was just puzzled because it seems like you think that hedonistic utility and science are two independent terminal values. In other words, science and improving people’s lives are both good things to do, even though they don’t always overlap; having a good time doesn’t necessarily increase scientific knowledge, and doing scientific research doesn’t necessarily, or doesn’t necessarily optimally, enable people to have a good time.

        Is that what you’re saying? If so, why does science and only science, out of all activities, get promoted to equal status with utility as a terminal value?

      • Poelmo


        You could probably count literature, other forms of art and philosophy too. As well as our ability (at least in theory) to deflect an incoming asteroid and cure more ilnesses (then again, those are really just applications of science). My point was that these things take up a small percentage of our resources (yes health care costs a fortune but only a fraction of that costs goes to actual medicine). So there should be plenty left for “hedonistic utility”, but in practice this part often gets gobbled up by parasitic elites.

        So I’m not saying we should labor ourselves to death to promote science and the arts, I’m saying any society that has increasingly more room for “hedonistic utility”, science, the arts, etc… should periodically ask itself if it actually sees an increase of those things, to keep tabs on the parasites.

      • mjgeddes

        >I’m convinced the EMs will ask themselves the same question and decide to end the madness, as, one day, flesh and blood humans will.

        Damn right. I just laugh at Robin’s ultra-Libertarian EM scenarios.

        If I found out I was an EM and I was asked to work 80 hours per week performing ‘tasks’ in a ‘virtual office’ to maximize the profits of good old American corporations, what do you think my reponse is going to be?

        I can think 1000x as fast as the ‘investors’, and they want me to work 80 hours per week to maximize profits for them? Gee, I guess I’ve got nothing better to do right?

        In actual fact, after I’ve handed their testicles back to them as an appropriate ‘return’ on their investment, kicked in the whole rotten system and squashed capitalism, taken over the world, punished wrong-doers etc., there would finally be time for the fun stuff…

        …finding suitable punishments for Libertarian economist bloggers and the people who used to ridicule me on transhumanist forums. And here I might actually borrow one of Robin’s better ideas…I really like the idea of public floggings to demonstate my new-found EM status.

      • Evan

        If there are even a few ems psychopathic enough to spend all their time working, copies of them could come to dominate the population, even if the other ems are sane enough to see that a life spent doing nothing but working for subsistence is a life devoid of value.

        Fortunately, since ems think a thousand times faster, they may be able to coordinate to stop the workaholic psychopaths from taking over. They could quickly invent nonsentient software that could outcompete the workaholics on all fronts, or they could use plain old fashioned violence to make sure copies are made in a more restricted and egalitarian fashion.

        Now, Robin might object that this would be bad because the lives of workaholics are worth living. But the factors that make a modern day workaholic’s life worth living (making lots of money, generating positive externalities, making a big difference in the world) would not exist in a Malthusian future. Drawing an analogy between modern workaholics and Malthusian ems is a bad comparison, a Malthusian em world would be like living in a concentration camp, not an office.

        And in any case, the idea that because an individual finds their life worth living, it is good for them to exist, is a blatant example of the Fallacy of Composition. Ted Bundy probably thought his life was worth living.

        The Overall Utility of a society is determined by factoring in the total utility, average utility, equality of utility, and similar factors of a society, with each factor being subject to diminishing returns. Creating a world of Malthusian ems would decrease Overall Utility because the gains in total utility are subject to diminishing returns and would be offset by the losses in average utility and equality. That’s why the Repugnant Conclusion is dead wrong and a world of Malthusian ems is a Bad Future.

        I hope the rest of you are right in thinking that someone will be able to coordinate to stop it from happening.

      • Poelmo


        Exactly, that was my point also.


        EM society would likely limit copying because server capacity is limited (if EMs start copying themselves there will be less server capacity per EM to process thoughts and/or their virtual environment would shrink). So EM society will do anything in its power to prevent the workaholic EMs from copying themselves.

      • KPres

        “Anyway, the gist of my rant was that competition for the sake of competition is senseless.”

        So? Everything is senseless. Why should I want to stay alive? Why should I want ease? It seems everybody wants to be “happy”, but what gives rise to happiness? The answer is that happiness IS the increase in power or influence. Everybody wants to live long and live easy because those things facilitate an increase in the power of their ego to persist and control. Everything is will to power.

        You say you don’t like “senseless” competition? Then why are you here arguing for your ideas? Show me the person who doesn’t compete for competition’s sake. In fact, show me any human action that isn’t rooted in that. It’s what we are.

      • KPres

        “But the factors that make a modern day workaholic’s life worth living (making lots of money, generating positive externalities, making a big difference in the world) would not exist in a Malthusian future.”

        But if the things that make a workaholics meaningful don’t exist anymore, then nobody will become a workaholic in the first place and the problem will take care of itself.

      • KPres

        “My question is, if it doesn’t go to science or to bettering our lives (and again, having twice as many stuff doesn’t better a person’s life if he has to work twice as hard to get it and can’t choose to opt out of this rat race)”

        Why would he not be able to choose to opt out? Does some law exist that determines how hard a person has to work.

        “but instead goes to bettering the lives of a small, undeserving elite, then why would we, and especially EMs who are 100x smarter than us, even bother?”

        If the elite were “undeserving”, how did they become the elite? What is your universal value system that defines “deserving”, and what if you can’t get everybody to agree on it? Also what prevents the EMs who are 200x (rather than only 100x) smarter than us from re-establishing the same power structure? And wouldn’t the 200x smarter elites try squash your squashing of capitalism?

        There seems to be a lot of holes in your thoughts, Poelmo.

      • Poelmo


        No, not everything is senseless. If there came a technology that lets me and my neighbor (my competitor) produce twice as many widgets in the same time, using the same amount of resources then we will have improved our lives if we agree to work half the hours we worked before. If one of us decides to instead work the same hours as before and produces twice as many widgets the other will have to follow (and he will), to re-establish our equilibrium. This competition was senseless because in the end we’re still stuck in the same equilibrium (neither of us gained more power or attention from females). Now, of course our lives could improve if having twice as many widgets improves our lives more than having more spare time would, but that has nothing to do with competition and in practice those extra widgets will end up in some rich executive or politician’s pocket, not ours, anyway.

      • Dremora

        There won’t be a demand for infinitely many widgets.

        Attention from females and winning a competition are subjective experiences that can be wire-headed.

        Real existential competition for the sake of real existential competition is stupid and not at the core of what most humans want.

        Exponential reproduction vs. limited resources is given. Therefore real existential competition is given. The way to stop this is to enable control of resources so that they cannot be profitably taken away by evolving others.

        Ems can be tortured, deceived or programmed into obedience that never benefits them.

        It is possible, but unlikely and inefficient, to coordinate to ban reproduction. This can only be done with a totalitarian lock-in.

        A totalitarian lock-in could be acceptably painless and peaceful, but also extremely unpleasant.

  • Dremora

    The sexual motivation for fast run times may be realistic, but not for the reason Henson anticipates: It would simply allow the person to have more good experiences in the same objective time, many of which will obviously be sexual – unless and until the mental phenotypes have become too different from humans to be interested in carnal pleasure, simulated or otherwise.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Em Need For Speed()

  • Regardless of the origin of humans valuing intelligence, we do. And to the extent running faster makes you smarter, that would seem to drive up the speed once human abandon flesh.

    There is surely economic value in thinking fast and having short communication delays for high frequency trading.


  • Michael Mouse

    There’s nothing in theory to stop ems speeding themselves up or down to suit the particular circumstances. Or, for that matter, spinning off a semi-autonomous avatar to handle slow connections while they get on with other things.

    So, two points I think you could make some exciting use of: adjustable-speed cognition, and fuzzier boundaries around individuals.