My Circus Sideshow

If a fossil of an an alien, or any alien artifact, were put it on display, it would attract millions. Sure some would see it because of its objective importance. But most would come just because it is weird.

People used to see a traditional circus sideshow for similar reasons. But consider: once you know that there exist dwarves, sword swallowers, and women with beards, what do you learn more by seeing them person? Yes, in part you just want to brag about how much you’ve seen, but you are also actually curious about what such things look like up close.

Circus side shows are weird, but they are also far from maximally strange. Many ocean creatures are far stranger. The attraction is in part a mixture of the strange and familiar. Once a familiar thing has changed in one very big way, one naturally wonders what other aspects of it are changed and how. One doesn’t wonder that about something where all its features are strange.

Tyler Cowen suggests this as the appeal of my upcoming book The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule the Earth:

The ostensible premise of the book is that people have become computer uploads, and we have an entirely new society to think about: how it works, what problems it has, and how it evolves. .. But this is more than just a nerdy tech book, it is also:

  • Straussian commentary on the world we actually live in. ..
  • A reminder of how strange everything is .. It’s a mock of all those who believe in individual free will.
  • An attempt to construct a fully rational theology ..
  • An extended essay on the impossibility of avoiding theology ..
  • A satire on the rest of social science, and how we try to explain and predict the future.
  • A meta-level growth model in which energy alone matters and the “fixed factor” assumptions of other models are relativized. ..
  • A challenge to our notions of wherein the true value of a life resides. (more)

I describe an entire world in great detail, a world that is a mix between a strange alien civilization and our familiar world. Any world described in enough detail must raise issues that look like theology, including free will and where true value resides. And any detailed strange yet familiar world can be seen as satire on social science and Straussian commentary on our world.

So the key is that, like a circus side show, my book lets readers see something strange yet familiar in great detail, so they can gawk at what else changes and how when familiar things change. My book is a dwarf, sword swallower, and bearded lady, writ large.

Okay, yeah, I can accept that as the main appeal of my book. Just as the main appeal of seeing an alien fossil to most would be its strangeness. Even if understanding aliens were actually vitally important.

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  • Why the weird title? What’s an “Em”?

    • “Em” is short for “Emulation”. As in whole brain emulation.

      • Thanks … I went to the book’s home page (via MR) and found the definition of “ems” in the very first sentence, so shame on me! The idea of copying or emulating a brain sounds like science fiction, but regardless of its feasibility, this idea poses a fascinating thought experiment. I will pre-order my copy (of the book, that is–not your brain!) today …

  • I’ve been thinking of things in terms of a pyramid of accessibility, lately. The part of the story that’s the top of the pyramid is like the tip of the spear, it’s what’s most accessible to the most people, but it’s the least broad in terms of meaning and importance. But it opens the door for the middle of the pyramid, which might be an exploration of the “how” of the story that’s of broader importance. Below that is the broadly important “why” – the discussion of fundamental importance in our reflections on life and the world. It’s the heaviest, but if you lead with the fat end of the pyramid, you won’t be able to squeeze through the tiny opening that remains available in most peoples’ busy cognitive capacity. So the circus side show opens the doors to a large number of people, some of whom will stick around the read all the way to the end – the broad, deep exploration of what something means for the human experience. Loved your talk at the Brooklyn Futurist Meetup, btw – just happened across it on YouTube the other day. The shift toward cultural conservatism driven by the scarcity experienced by individual Ems sounds awful though and was what concerned me most. Looking forward to the book, good luck with its ongoing promotion and surrounding discussion!

  • Ely Spears

    Many Americans are raised to avoid having a high dynamic range in terms of what values, beliefs, or cultural norms they will find acceptable. I know many people who think the documentary Jiro Dream of Sushi is “weird” because it’s (a) not about American culture, (b) not presented in English with American idioms, (c) about a type of food that itself is still viewed as “weird”, and so on.

    If something like a popularized biography about a sushi chef is hard to fit into the dynamic range of average folks, then surely it’s no surprise at all to you that your book would be even harder for most to absorb. I speculate that many would be almost incapable of approaching your book unless they fundamentally viewed it as entertaining science fiction, in the same vain as Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition.

    That’s not a knock! I am anxious to read your book and I think there will be a non-trivial subset of readers who value exploring the topics and trying hard to follow the inference chains that leads from where we are now to where we might go. But I would hardly expect a wide audience to be capable of that. Their weirdness tolerance would saturate too quickly and they’d be forced to internalize your book in some other way (like sci-fi / infotainment).

  • What a great sport you are, Robin! Can’t wait for the book.

  • dat_bro06

    “Robin Hanson is one of our most original and important thinkers.”

    I have been reading this blog for a…decade…can that be right? And I could not agree more. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book. Note that I extend my compliments in exchange for only the grim satisfaction that one can get by promoting non-signaling related thoughts or actions for their own sake.

    I have a question that will make me seem like a nauseating MBA student in lecture but here goes:

    Your predictions about the future depend on a number of assumptions which I presume you will admit you may not forecast exactly right. In your opinion, could those margins of error combine or add up to an outcome meaningfully different from the one you will describe in AoE? Or maybe more simply, what’s your overall confidence level here? I can appreciate that is a difficult question to respond to in the abstract (and probably paints me as someone too stupid to study the details), but I’m asking holistically. Also, I don’t mean like, sure, the future could be very different if we are wiped out by a meteor, or aliens.

    If the answer is, “read the book”, OK, no spoilers.

    • To quote directly from the book: “The chance that the exact particular scenario I describe in this book will actually happen just as I describe it is much less than one in a thousand. But scenarios that are similar to true scenarios, even if not exactly the same as those true scenarios, can still be a relevant guide to action and inference. I expect my analysis to be relevant for a large cloud of different but similar scenarios. In particular, conditional on my key assumptions, I expect at least 30% of future situations to be usefully informed by my analysis. Unconditionally, I expect at least 10%.”

      • Can these probabilities be supported or are they mere betting odds?

      • dat_bro06

        Thanks, Robin.

      • mgoodfel

        Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

  • Okay, yeah, I can accept that will be the main appeal of my book.

    But the main appeal to Tyler Cowen? He praises the book and you to the sky, but dismisses your main point as “nerdy tech” matter. (Confirming the academic ritual I recently noted.)

    I’m not sure “A satire on the rest of social science, and how we try to explain and predict the future” is really a favorable comment – if satire is here understood as parody.

    [I suppose this all goes to the “great sport” theme.]

  • 251

    It sounds like you’re talking about “The Uncanny”:

  • Curt Gardner

    I don’t read your blog regularly – just wondering how much of your thinking about ’ems’ was triggered/inspired by science fiction? And if so, which works in particular?

    • I’ve read a lot of sf since I was a kid, so of course sf has influenced me. I’ve tried to read as much sf on uploads/ems as I could, but most of it was pretty disappointing and didn’t have much to add to my book. In a sense a heuristic I’ve used is to try to look for un-sf forecasts

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    I am looking forward to the book but …. no kindle edition?!


  • Matthew Light

    I’m curious Robin.

    What’s your P value for the possibility that human beings cannot be emulated in a computer?

  • efalken

    I don’t want to be a skunk at a garden party, but help me get over this hurdle. Why should I believes ems are remotely possible? It’s hard for me to take interest in the hypothetical if I think the probability of it happening is practically zero.

    • Ems have been a staple of futurism and science fiction for many decades. The simple argument is that if experts find it plausible, so should you.

      • efalken

        My confidence in experts is not great. Are sci-fi and futurism experts rewarded mainly for being right, or just being good at telling stories, which involves flattering people’s prejudices with the latest scientific buzzwords (Malcom Gladwell)?

        In 1950, experts thought Freud and Marx were the most profound thinkers of recent times. Now we think they were mainly just wrong (though, they all have many witty quotes within their ouvre).

        How about some experiments, results from consciousness research? I once bought this machine that would read all my receipts and organize them electronically. It took so much time to organize the organization, it was worthless.

      • The most succinct discussion of this I’ve seen by Robin is “Signal Mappers Decouple” ( )

        I’d be interested in what you think of the argument.

      • efalken

        It seems Robin is hoping we can emulate humans by reducing the brain to an input-output economy, with neurons instead of industrial sectors. There was much optimism about that approach in the 1960s, but it petered out. I think the problem is interactions are highly nonlinear, so empirical correlation analysis will never get far.

        Thus, we need to complete understand human nature, our hierarchy of emotions, desires, affects, and reason. If we figure that out, ems will basically be irrelevant, because we would then know the meaning of life, and all have a clear guide to optimal human flourishing. I’m all for it, but not very optimistic.

  • Enrique Graziano

    Robin, I think I read somewhere in this site, or heard in a podcast, that you expect the numbers of ems running at “steady state” in that future society as extremely high…. Doesn’t that situation support a “simulation argument” regarding our own current condition? ie, we should probably be in one of the following disjunct scenarios:

    A) we are ems almost for sure, and of a common type

    B) we are not ems, and the number of ems to be run in the future will not be astronomically higher than the numbers of “flesh humans”

    C) ems may be generated in high numbers, but they are so different to us that we cannot “find us” within that set… Therefore, it is difficult to regard them as human in any sense

    I’d like to know your opinion on this… In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have already covered this matter somewhere. If so, I will be grateful to have a pointer.

    All the best

  • Straussian commentary on the world we actually live in. ..

    This is what I thought long ago, but I was dissuaded by Robin’s futurological earnestness. Can a book to be a serious futurological treatise and esotoric commentary on contemporary society?

  • Weapons engineer

    You need to do more reading on the human brain.

    Reducing it to a neural network of inputs and outputs is not possible due to nonlinearity, in addition neural networks are not a magic bullet technology where you can train a neural network to do anything, it is difficult enough just to get a neural network to identify cat pictures.

    For direct simulations
    The computing power needed to simulate a billion neurons covering every degree of freedom in order to accurately emulate the human brain would be impossible.