Em Redistribution

I’m in the last few weeks of finishing my book The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule The Earth, about social outcomes in a world dominated by brain emulations. As a teaser, let me share some hopefully non-obvious results about redistribution in the em world.

There are many kinds of inequality. Inequality exists between different species, between generations born at different times, and between nations of the world at a time. Within a nation at a time, there is inequality both between families and within families. There is also inequality across the moments of the life of each person. In all of these cases, there is not only financial inequality, but also inequality in status, prestige, pleasure, lifespan, happiness, and more. There is also inequality between the size of families, firms, cities, or nations, even when individuals within those groupings are equal.

Today, we have relatively little intentional redistribution between generations or between nations. Redistribution within the moments of a person’s life happens, but that is mostly left to that person to choose and to fund. Similarly, redistribution between siblings is mostly achieved via differential treatment by parents. Instead, most concern today about inequality, and most debate about redistribution to address inequality, focuses on one very particular “standard” kind of inequality.

This standard inequality looks at differences in average individual financial incomes between the families of a nation, all at a given time. This type of inequality is actually one of the smallest. For example, in the U.S. today financial inequality between families is only one third the size of that inequality between siblings within families, and even that is much less than the inequality between individuals from different nations. We may focus our redistribution feelings on this standard inequality because it seems to us the most analogous to the inequality that forager sharing norms addressed. Alternatively, perhaps it is the most profitable type of redistribution for opportunistic rent-seekers.

This history suggests that the em world will have little redistribution between em generations or city states, and also that each clan is mostly in charge of deciding how to address inequality within that clan. After all, em clan members are more similar and closer to each other than are human siblings, even if they may sometimes be more distant from each other than are typical human life moments. Also, clan members have rather complex relations with each other, making it hard pick a natural sub-clan unit to be the standard basis for counting inequality. So that leaves ems with comparing inequality between clans.

A set of em clans can be unequal in two different ways. One way focuses on individual incomes, or perhaps individual happiness or respect, and says that a clan is better off if its individuals are on average better off. The other way focuses on the overall size and success of a clan. Here a clan is better off if it has more members, resources, or respect. Historically, most redistribution efforts have focused on average individual outcomes. For example, we have seen very little efforts to redistribute between human family clans based on family size. That is, we almost never take from families with many descendants in order to give to families that have few descendants. Nor do we take much from big nations, cities, or firms to give to smaller ones.

Because most em wages are near subsistence levels, unregulated wages have less inequality than do wages today. So em clans naturally have less inequality of the standard sort that is the focus of today’s redistribution. In contrast, em clans have enormous inequality in clan size, resources, and respect. However, history gives little reason to expect much redistribution to address this inequality. It is not very analogous to forager sharing, nor does it lend itself to profitable rent-seeking.

Thus the main kind of redistribution that we have reason to expect in the em era is between the clans of a city, based on differences of average within-clan individual income. But we expect less inequality of this sort in the em world, and so expect less redistribution on this basis.

Income taxes are today one of our main mechanisms for reducing the standard inequality that compares individual incomes between families within a nation. Over the last two centuries, big increases in the top marginal tax rates have mostly followed wars where over two percent of the population served in the military. For example, in the U.S. the top marginal tax rate jumped from 15% to 67% in 1917, during World War I. Controlling for this effect, top tax increases have not been correlated with wealth, democracy, or the political ideology of the party running the government. This weakly suggests that the local degree of individual income redistribution between the clans of an em city may depend on the local frequency of large expensive em wars.

If ordinary humans are included straightforwardly in the redistribution systems of the em world, then the simple result to expect is transfers, not only away from richer humans, but also from humans to ems overall. After all, in purely financial terms typical ems are poorer than the poorest humans. Redistribution systems may perhaps correct for the fact that em subsistence levels are much lower than are human subsistence levels. But if so such systems may also encourage or even require recipients of aid to switch from being a human to being an em, in order to lower costs.

During the em era, humans typically have industrial era incomes, which are much higher than subsistence level incomes. While many and perhaps most humans may pay to create a few ems, they tend to endow them with much higher than subsistence incomes. In contrast, a small number of successful humans manage to give rise to large em clans, and within these clans most members have near subsistence incomes. Thus transfers based on individual income inequality take from the descendants of less successful humans and give to descendants of more successful humans.

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  • (First sentence, wold — > world.)

  • Testing 1 2 3

  • Vadim Kosoy

    Why do you think ems will have subsistence level wages? How long into the future do you expect this to hold?

    Eventually I expect there to be technology sufficient to create a self-sustaining and self-expanding infrastructure which provides commodities such as server time without requiring human / em labor. It is then sufficient to own a share in this infrastructure in order to have a wage without working. There is no reason this wage cannot be much higher than subsistence (in fact, since the infrastructure is self-expanding, the wage will increase over time). The only remaining problem is restricting reproduction in order to avoid a Malthusian scenario, but you can solve this by legally forbidding to create ems without endowing them with a sufficiently large share (regulating reproduction for ems should be much easier than for biohumans). Even without this regulation, some ems will live comfortably by restricting reproduction voluntarily.

    All this assuming no singleton (which is an assumption that I know you like for some reason).

    • How do you legally regulate the production of ems without a singleton? [Any jurisdiction that didn’t have the restriction would gain an insurmountable competitive advantage.]

      (But I’d think that if humanity manages to survive another century, it will be by virtue of having evolved a singulatonian solution.)

      • Vadim Kosoy

        In the era of full automation you don’t need to be competitive in order to survive, unless you are taking about actual war. It also depends on what you call “singleton”. We can imagine a world government whose authority and election mechanism are both guaranteed by the protocols controlling em interactions.

      • IMASBA

        I agree that if the world survives it will be more politically unified than it is now. Even without a complete world government the major powers could bully others into regulating EM-creation rates, or prevent the EM-economy from affecting their own economies, through economic sanctions. Pretty much like the majors of today bully tax havens, which they should, and probably will, be doing more in the future.

      • It would take a FAR stronger world government to prevent ems dominating the economy.

      • IMASBA

        Really? I’d think that the threat of military action and/or a complete embargo of vital materials would be very persuasive.

    • I’m talking about a period when human minds are still competitive with software on many tasks, and em brains can be made as fast as factories can crank them out.

      • Vadim Kosoy

        So you still need to work in order to survive but the supply of labor is as large as it can be therefore the price of labor is as low as it can be. I see, thank you.

        That can be solved by regulating em production. As Stephen Diamond noted, nations that don’t have this regulation will have competitive advantage. This can be countered either by extreme protectionism or (even better) by a world government.

      • IMASBA

        Would that period where organic humans can still compete with EMs last long enough to be worth mentioning?

      • Yes, at least to the creatures who dominate that era. Would the industrial era have been worth mentioning to farmers? It will only last a tiny fraction of the cosmos, after all.

      • IMASBA

        If it’s about redistribution from organicsc to EMs then the subjective time of the organics should matter. It will take the organic world several (organic) years to design and deliver meaningful distribution to the EMs. If competition is over by then no redistribution will have taken place and it won’t matter how many centuries have passed for the EMs.

      • The main human wealth would be investments in the em economy. Taxes on those could change very quickly.

        Also, there is no need to capitalize “em”, which is short for “emulation.”

      • IMASBA

        “The main human wealth would be investments in the em economy. Taxes on those could change very quickly.”

        They could*, doesn’t mean they would. I’d wager it would take time for the general population to acknowledge ems as a needy part of the population (while somehow still not pushing for legislation that could ease the plight of ems permanently, ie regulation of em creation rates), then some time before the legislation gets through (the investors would be a rich and therefore powerful group) and finally some time before resources are actually delivered (designing of a practical redistribution algorithm, constructing and connecting servers that dish out “free” CPU cycles or something like that). Meanwhile the humans without significant investments in the em economy are quickly impoverished while every time a typical rich human loses em stock he can’t buy it back (because he’ll be mercilessly outcompeted by em tycoons).

        I’m not sure what the significance of organics-to-em redistribution would be when the em economy is much larger than the organic economy, but I accept it is interesting to think about in theory as that form of redistribution would indeed be very different of what we consider redistribution today.

        *this does bring up the question of why a government that can enforce taxation would not enforce regulation on em creation rates.

      • kio

        If some of that design and delivery could be prefigured in regulatory and economic structures set in place before the start of the competitive EM/human phase then that prefiguration could have positive effects during that phase, especially if that phase will involve several EM centuries since that quantity of subjective time would mean that different policies or lack thereof may result in very different sum total wellbeing outcomes during that phase. Thinking and writing about that issue know may be worth doing in order to find out if such prefiguration is worth attempting.

      • Please, they are just “ems”, not “EMs”.

  • Guest

    One of these patterns of redistribution that would be particularly counter intuitive and probably immoral would be to “take from the descendants of less successful humans and give to descendants of more successful humans.” Indeed, this is the opposite of what reallocation generally does. And beyond the moral implications, the practical effect would be the creation of a positive feedback loop leading toward an eventual singleton where one highly fecund super clan gains control of all the resources. The strength of the feedback and the probability of such an endpoint actually being reached, would of course depend partially on the level of reallocation.

    But at any rate, this reallocation scheme doesn’t look likely. Your argument for the prediction seems to be that up to present day, society has reallocated
    resources primarily to mitigate inequality in individual incomes among
    citizens within a nation, and extrapolating this pattern into an
    em society, leads to the conclusion that we
    would give to large, powerful clans (that nonetheless have low average individual incomes on account of their size), and take from small, weak clans, and biological humans, that still had sufficiently high average incomes on account of their fewer numbers.

    But I question whether this
    extrapolation makes sense in an em world, because em reproduction is not
    like (biological) human reproduction, and the difference fundamentally
    alters the moral psychology of the situation. Unlike a child, an em can choose whether to copy or not with full knowledge of
    the financial circumstances they will be born into. If the prospective parent em sees that copying will put either clone into
    a financial situation that they themselves are not willing to accept, then they
    will not copy (since from an anthropic standpoint they have no way of determining which set of circumstances they will end up in.) By extension, the individual income of an em is (lower)
    bounded by the choices of the em itself. Why then, would society feel obliged to lend support to those who
    willingly made themselves poor by making too many copies?

    If society does continue to focus on individual income inequality, which seems likely given humanity’s moral psychology, this apparently pathological reallocation scheme from less to more successful copiers might still not come to pass if society redefines what constitutes an “individual.” It is highly questionable whether society will (or should) consider all copies in a clan to each represent fully distinct individuals, since doing so can lead to many problems such as this. It seems that for certain purposes, such as quantifying aggregate suffering or happiness, each copy should be considered separately, but for others, such as in the problems involving em decisions or preferences, like the decision to copy or the counting of votes, the entire clan should only be considered as one entity (or perhaps slightly greater than one entity, but much fewer than the total number of copies), since the total diversity of opinion within clan may only be fractionally higher than within any particular copy. But this general issue is very nontrivial, and the way it is resolved will likely play a large roll in the ultimate social, economic, and legal dynamics of the em world.

    • The average income per subjective minute number that I’m guessing will be the major metric isn’t very sensitive to how you aggregate ems into “individuals.” I agree that em copies more own their life having chosen it ahead of time, and this reduced sympathy for any plight they could have expected. But even so the instinct to take from those with more to give to those with less is pretty deeply embedded in human psychology.

      • Guest

        I agree that the average income per subjective minute number would not be much affected, but that would not be the only consideration.

        Hypothetically, say society viewed an entire copy clan as, at least in some legal sense, an “individual” (which it may do, both for philosophical reasons, since all the copies are functionally identical, and practical reasons, such as to solve problems like voting and criminal accountability). Now say that an incredibly wealthy clan of Bob owns over 3% of all global assets, on account of Bob having so many copies. From the perspective of the clan as an individual, it seems absurd to give Bob welfare, when he already owns such a large fraction of everything. So there are conflicting moral intuitions here depending on whether you take the perspective that each em constitutes an individual or the perspective that a particular informational pattern constitutes an individual, whether it happens to be multiply instantiated or not.

        Also, a policy of continuing to give to Bob after each new copy, despite Bob’s already immense aggregate wealth, creates constant incentive for Bob to copy to the point of poverty, collect his welfare, copy more, get more welfare, and so on. This would strongly encourage a winner-take-all scenario for the quickest copier, especially if compounded with an increase in voting power as each new copy is created. Society may not want to create that kind of an incentive structure.

      • But these same issue have applied to families for centuries. Families that have more descendants are still given charity if their current members are individually impoverished.

      • Guest

        True. So is a clan more like a person or more like a family?

        It just occurred to me after reading your comment that I have been working from a slightly different set of assumptions than may be. I had in mind a situation where em copies could directly share memories amongst themselves, but I think your working assumption is that that will not be possible. So I was thinking a clan would be quite a bit like an individual person, that could just happen to do many things at once. Assuming that no memory integration is possible, a clan is really more like a family and none of these objections quite apply (except the one that people would have reduced sympathy for ems since they can choose their own existence, but as you say, that doesn’t necessarily negate the broader point.)

      • Yes I assume ems cannot share memories, other than sharing memories from before being copied and then diverging.

      • kio

        Is a scenario with ems that can’t/don’t share memories more likely than a scenario with ems that can/do and if so why?

      • IMASBA

        The idea behind ems is that they are copies of human brain structure and brain activity patterns that can be copied without complete knowledge of the inner workings, while sharing of memories may (or may not, if I’m being perfectly honest, but Robin seems to think it will) require such knowledge.

      • kio

        Interesting. *If* we had tech to clone structures/activity patters (including the bulk of up to that point genereated memories) without complete knowledge of the inner workings *and* if “em brains can be made as fast as factories can crank them out” (Robin comment below) then it seems likely that we would also be able to quickly figure out the inner workings of memory at least. Because we could crank out massive numbers of clones with very small variations in memory associated structures and then comparatively those variations to differences in memory recall tests, etcetera.

      • kio

        apologies for the typos/autocorrectos.

  • We may focus our redistribution feelings on this standard inequality because it seems to us the most analogous to the inequality that forager sharing norms addressed. Alternatively, perhaps it is the most profitable type of redistribution for opportunistic rent-seekers.

    Conley’s own explanation is (more) compelling:

    There’s this enormous issue of sibling inequality that we sweep under the rug because we want to see the family as a haven in a harsh world, operating outside the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism…


    Something that has to be explained to me: why would a society that dehumanizes EMs enough to allow merciless exploitation, copying and deletion of them suddenly care enough to redistribute wealth to them in the form of social programs?

  • Instead, most concern today about inequality, and most debate about redistribution to address inequality, focuses on one very particular “standard” kind of inequality. This standard inequality looks at differences in average individual financial incomes between the families of a nation, all at a given time.

    I question whether most of the debate about redistribution concerns inequality between families. First, it would seem particularly difficult to collect familial data on inequality. What records would you look at to establish kinship associations? Second, our most touted redistributive mechanism, the income tax, is targeted at inequalities between individuals. Absolutely no account is taken of family averages; almost everybody would reject that practice. (So, how are we predisposed to it by our forager mores?)

    • IMASBA

      I think there is a misunderstanding going on here. Standard measures of inequality look at income differences between individuals or between households. In American parlance the nuclear family is often simply called “family”. Nuclear families are a common form of household but form less than half of the total and siblings within these households are usually children without a significant income of their own. The research Robin points to compared income inequality between adult siblings with income inequality between groups of adult siblings (all the siblings in a family), here the former was found to be three times as high as the latter. It did not show that income inequality between siblings is three times higher than income inequality between households, let alone individuals (whose inequality can’t be less than inequality between siblings unless only-children somehow have less inequality between them than individuals overall).

      I’m not sure whether Robin mistakenly thought the income inequality between families part was about income inequality between households (because of the confusing use of the word “family” in American parlance), or that he just wanted to point out some non-standard form of income inequality (but which isn’t much worse than standard measurements of income inequality).

  • Samaira Khan
  • stevesailer

    I can barely keep my own websites running, even though I am alive. Why would I expect anybody in the future to care much about performing maintenance on my disembodied memories?

    Similarly, have you noticed that, say, the Ford Foundation isn’t using Henry Ford’s money to promote Henry Ford’s values? Professor Hanson’s em will likely be arguing for Luddite socialism 100 years from now.

    • It will be very profitable to make copies of the most productive people willing to work hard. All the less productive people, not so much. I’m probably not one of the best, so I’d have to pay for my own future caring.

  • Patrick Pekola

    When exactly will the book be published?

    • Spring 2016. I’ll say when I get more info.