4 Age of Em Web Reviews

In addition to the Financial Times review I posted on, there are now four web reviews of Age of Em. (Kindle version now $14.39, delivers tomorrow.) In reverse chronological order:

Peter McCluskey, The Age of Em, Bayesian Investor, May 24.

This book analyzes a possible future era when software emulations of humans (ems) dominate the world economy. It is too conservative to tackle longer-term prospects for eras when more unusual intelligent beings may dominate the world. Hanson repeatedly tackles questions that scare away mainstream academics, and gives relatively ordinary answers. .. Even if we should expect a much less than 50% chance of Hanson’s scenario becoming real, it seems quite valuable to think about how comfortable we should be with it and how we could improve on it.

Neerav Kingsland, Book Review: The Age of Em, relinquishment, May 24.

It is worth reading for (at least) the following reasons: It is a survey of  us: To extrapolate what the em world might be like, Robin summarize the key findings of numerous academic fields. This vehicle makes the book a fascinating survey of what we know about humans – think David Brook’s The Social Animal, but through a more removed lens, and with a deeper blend of hard and soft sciences. It might not be too far away: .It is a thoughtful framework: ..

Peter St Onge, Review: Robin Hanson’s Age of Em, Profits of Chaos, May 22.

If you know Hanson you won’t be surprised that he packs a lot of ideas into one book. The pacing is fast, chock-full of interesting ideas to play with. .. Hanson has done a fantastic job sketching technologically and economically plausible outcomes to the future of humans and near-humans. He’s achieved what he set out to do, to stimulate these discussions, bring more minds into the game. I’d thoroughly recommend a read if you’re even remotely interested in the future of technology and humanity.

Gaspar, review, Goodreads, April 13.

It seems he is just another victim of the conjunction fallacy. I still find hard to conceive how “today’s standard academic consensus science” (as the author writes) could analyze in an accurate and realistic way His very specific vision of future. .. I believe that some of the author’s statements (or maybe his way of expressing them) are very arrogant. .. All in all, it is a very interesting intellectual exercise to use today consensus theories from many fields to try to understand or imagine some possible future among many other possible futures.

This last review doesn’t offer any specific rebuttals, and was so early it must have been based on a draft. But it expresses a reaction I’ve seen often at my talks: incredulity that anyone could think such an analysis possible. Kingsland asks similarly:

While it seems clear that humans can make decent forecasts within their singularity (Robin gives some examples), it’s another to think that humans can make decent forecasts across singularities. Could a hunter and gatherer really have predicted the  industrial world? A farmer?

But we can use today’s social, human, and physical sciences to understand past farming and foraging eras in some detail, suggesting that such sciences do apply beyond our era. However, as David Lewis famously quipped, “I cannot refute an incredulous stare.”

St Onge disagrees with my estimate of near subsistence em wages; he estimates them to be a ten billion times larger than subsistence “because costs per life of building and maintaining their world will be so low.” I guess he just can’t imagine very low marginal productivity. Kingsland suggests culture might raise wages:

Perhaps it would become taboo to replicate yourself, akin to teenage pregnancy?

But if the fraction of ems willing to copy freely was anything like current, or even ancient, teen pregnancy rates, em wages must fall low.

McCluskey wants me to make one estimate more precise:

Wages in this scenario are somewhat close to subsistence levels. Ems have some ability to restrain wage competition, but less than they want. Does that mean wages are 50% above subsistence levels, or 1%? Hanson hints at the former. The difference feels important to me. I’m concerned that sound-bite versions of book will obscure the difference.

I’ll admit that I didn’t estimate this because I didn’t feel like I had a strong enough basis. But on reflection I’d guess that the ratio of productivity between the 90th and 10th percentile moves from today’s factor of 2 in US, and factor of 5 in the developing world, to more like a factor of 1.1 or 1.2. That might give the typical em roughly two extra hours of time per day to spend as they like, most of which ems plausibly spend on vying for status, perhaps at work.

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  • lump1

    I’m pretty convinced by the modeling of the em scenario. The thing that remains hardest for me to picture is what all of these brilliant workers who toil endlessly would be working *on*. These days, the stuff we produce gets consumed, but where are the consumers in em world? It’s not the laboring trillions, because competitive pressures have selected for workers of maximum productivity who have funneled basically 100% of their income into paying rent. They surely make due with entertainment that’s free-to-consume, so there is no extra blood to squeeze from that turnip.

    Is everybody busy just designing and making new computers and new power sources for the landlords, so as to make more room for rent-paying em laborers? Or are the capital-owning Malthusian escapees the only real consumers?

    • In a subsistence economy, most work goes to provide and maintain the basics required to exist. In the em era, this is supplying and maintaining computers, energy, cooling, structural support, real estate, communication, etc. Pretty much all animals and humans lived near subsistence level until a few hundred years ago. It is by far the usual condition.

      • All-Out Sprint

        I find it hard to imagine that supplying and maintaining these physical computing inputs takes that much work. I’d expect most work to go into zero-sum games between agents about who controls them. Animals don’t make their own food, they eat other organisms. A lot of energy goes into zero-sum games between predator and prey, with the caveat that sexually reproducing animals need to compete for mates as well.

        With sexual reproduction out of the way, shouldn’t the prediction be that most work goes into zero-sum games about who controls the computing power? After all, the physical inputs don’t scale arbitrarily. After a couple of doublings, they would need interstellar travel to get more resources.

      • The world today employs billions of people, most in productive activities. It really is a lot of work to maintain and grow a world civilization.

      • All-Out Sprint

        Yes, but reproduction today is slow. In the em scenario, it is almost instantaneous. And while our economy grows, we *are* displacing other animals. And people *are* spending huge amounts of effort on zero-sum distribution games. With so many more agents relative to the resource base, their efforts aren’t just going to go into physical production and maintainance. The physical inputs are the limiting factor then, so most of the work will be invested in control over them.

      • Industries today that focus on physical inputs, such as mining and farming, are not dominated by zero sum fights over “control”.

      • All-Out Sprint

        A lot of them are indirectly. The entire military industry is about who controls territory. Even when there is no war, there needs to be military upkeep to deter invaders. Same goes for a police force or other guard labor within a country. On top of that, there are highly paid professions like lawyers whose job is to navigate the legal framework to exert control over resources. And the ratio between professional labor supply and physical input supply is very different today than it would be in the em era.

      • lump1

        I was thinking something similar – that such a huge and brilliant labor force would really have to be engaged in some sort of an arms race. But like you said, that might involve patent wars and not explosives. I think it’s hard to picture an em future without picturing some great race which future factions are trying to win, badly enough to pay for the upkeep of a trillion ems, all toiling to give them an edge. If we think hard, we can imagine many other competitive situations where outcomes matter enough that it’s worth it to add extra staff to improve your odds. They range from activities like getting ahead in basic science, in cultural influence, in a political horserace, hacking, or devising a first strike which knocks out any possibility of retaliation. Not all of these are zero-sum, but the ones that are easy to picture basically are.

      • All-Out Sprint


      • If you analyze the Iraq War and the rest of the M.E. slaughter as part of a zero-sum fight over control of oil – what then?

        I wonder where you disagree with All-Out Sprint’s logic. The fact that it isn’t so clearly revealed empirically in today’s world doesn’t refute the claim that it would dominate where labor is almost free.

      • You can fight wars over lots of things: patents, labor, real estate, honor. Even if raw materials matters more in the future, that doesn’t by itself imply we’ll have more war.

      • Even if raw materials matters more in the future, that doesn’t by itself imply we’ll have more war.

        However, it seems like a “weak clue” in that direction.

  • Joseph Miller

    I haven’t read the book yet (out June 1?) so I hope this is addressed somewhere, but based on your talks and the blog, the strangest argument seems to be where you use the times and growth rate changes between the previous growth modes to extrapolate a new step change a few hundred years in the future.

    Why is this a stronger line of reasoning than I think it is? What is the theory that the length of growth modes should decrease by roughly the same factor every time?

    Not that your argument in total depends on this, but it seems more worthy of nitpicking than your guess that female Ems will like high-status males and males will prefer pretty females.

    • I treat it as a weak line of evidence, whose predictions happen to be confirmed by other lines of evidence.

  • Ben Albert Pace

    “It seems he is just another victim of the conjunction fallacy. I still find hard to conceive how “today’s standard academic consensus science” (as the author writes) could analyze in an accurate and realistic way His very specific vision of future.”

    Sticking to academic consensus seems the opposite of the conjunction fallacy. Sure, academic consensus is a large number of core ideas, but if you’re de facto ruling that out then you’d rule out all true academic toolkits merely because they were big.

    In this situation, a conjunction fallacy would be if Robin was sticking in a load of pet economic / technological theories that weren’t consensus, which he explicitly avoids doing.

  • stephdemeudon

    Great book ! The ems hypothesis is somehow the epitome of realist materialism: large scale production of minds (+/- bodies) and yet it evokes the strangest aspects of theologies (“how many angels can you pack on a pinhead” !). More intriguing : for me the book, together with the increased probability of trillions of potentially life supporting planets poses with more acuity the question of how small and how close could alien civ “outposts” be, and whether it’s worth trying to design a sort of “nano-SETI” !!