FT Reviews Age of Em

The first MSM review is in for Age of Em. It is by Sarah O’Connor (really!), in the Financial Times. She “gets” me:

Plenty of futurists and science fiction writers have toyed with the idea that the brains of particular humans could one day be scanned and “uploaded” into artificial hardware but Prof Hanson’s take is different. His aim is to use standard theories from the physical, human and social sciences to make forecasts about how this technological breakthrough would really change our world. ..

Some of the most profound questions .. are the questions on which Prof Hanson is most tentative and brief because he has set out deliberately to focus on the predictable and to avoid being “creative or contrarian”. This is reasonable enough and the book succeeds on its own terms. Still, it does leave a hole. Perhaps it will fall to the science fiction writers to fill it.

Yes, mine are first steps, and I hope others will further develop this scenario. O’Connor does have a few words of mild criticism:

The book is crammed full of such fascinating visions of an imagined future. Still, some readers will share criticisms the author says he has encountered. For any of this to seem plausible, one has to believe that we will invent the ability and be willing to scan and copy human brains. Not everyone will accept this.

One also has to believe that current economic and social theories will hold in this strange new world; that the “unknown unknowns” are not so great as to make any predictions impossible. Certainly, some of the forecasts seem old-fashioned, like the notion that male ems will prefer females with “signs of nurturing inclinations and fertility, such as youthful good looks” while females will prefer males with “signs of wealth and status”.

Yes, we can’t be at all certain of this scenario. But if it is worth having a hundred books on future scenarios, it is worth having books that analyze scenarios with only a 1% chance of happening.

Yes, you have to think that social scientists, like physicists, engineers, and computer scientists, actually know some generalities not hopelessly tied to the details of our particular time and culture. Such as our standard results on robust “old-fashioned” sex differences in long-term mate preferences:

Several standard sex differences replicated across cultures, including womens greater valuation of social status and mens greater valuation of physical attractiveness. (more; see also, also, also)

Even if such differences were weaker in nations with greater gender parity, they’d still remain. (But in fact such differences actually seem stronger there.) Yes, such differences may be in part caused by culture. But whatever their cause, they seem pervasive and robust enough to make them likely to continue on in an em world.

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  • Cambias

    Given her name, you would expect her to be more worried about superintelligent AIs in the future.

  • Olio

    A bit weird criticism. If brains are emulated as a whole, then the mate preferences will also be. If there is enough technology to change that aspect, same can be done with a whole lot of other things, which would likely change the whole setting. Seems like she was tribalising your position into the hbd camp, perhaps unknowingly.

  • Garrett Lisi

    Although it’s paywalled, you can read the article by the usual trick of googling the title, “A down-to-earth journey to the robots’ world,” and following the first link.

    • Mencius3

      Shhhhhh… We’re not supposed to talk about that.

  • From O’Connor:

    For any of this to seem plausible, one has to believe that we will invent the ability and be willing to scan and copy human brains.

    It this really something “one has to believe,” or does the book argues for it?

    • The book cites other arguments, but doesn’t so much argue that itself. So many others have done that; this book is on the neglected topic of the consequences IF ems are feasible & cheap.

  • Rob Hafernik

    I think the premise, that we will invent the ability to scan and copy brains, is much farther off than Dr Hanson thinks. First, the scanning would have to come at a level of detail unprecedented in science: down almost to the atom, but without destroying the original. Second, we don’t really know yet what OTHER bodily factors may effect thinking. For example, what part do our hormones or the chemicals from the things we eat play in thinking? Are there quantum aspects to thought, such that we would have to scan down LOWER than the atom to resolve them? What about parts of our internal biome that don’t share our DNA; do they play a part in thought? Third, can a brain think normally, if not connected to a body? For example, what would a brain do if the sense of balance that comes from the inner ear isn’t present? What about the innate sense of what is part and what is not part of our bodies. Would Ems experience a “phantom body” the way an amputee experiences a phantom limb?

    There is just SO much we don’t know yet and, in many cases, aren’t even close to knowing. I don’t doubt that some day, in the more distant future, we could develop this ability; it’s certainly possible. On the other hand, there may be some reason, related perhaps to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that makes it impossible.

    I think most of this speculation is premature, since the society that develops the ability to create emulations will be very different from the one we have today. On the other hand, there’s certainly no harm in speculating and I DID buy a copy of the book (only read a couple of chapters, so far), so Dr Hanson should be happy!

    • Alfred Differ

      Wouldn’t the distance be farther off if there are things we have to copy that are unknown to us now, but closer if we are willing to devote more resources to it? One doesn’t have to believe in exponential growth forever to notice our children WILL have more money to spend on this than we do.

      I recall some of the early predictions for how long the Human Genome Project was supposed to take. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why they were wrong. The same may apply here.

  • jackquack

    Am I dreaming if I’m hoping for an audiobook?

    • Audio version is supposed to be out in a few months.

      • jackquack

        Great! ? Person Bowing Deeply emoji

  • KieranMac

    Congrats! Book arrived at my house in Denver yesterday. Look forward to reading this weekend.

  • It is by Sarah O’Connor (really!)

    For anyone, like me, who didn’t immediately get the joke: https://www.rt.com/news/271213-sarah-connor-robot-incident/

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