Guardian on Age of Em

Age of Em is the “book of the day” today at the Guardian newspaper, the 5th most widely read one in the world. Reviewer Steven Poole hates the em world:

The Age of Em is a fanatically serious attempt .. to use economic and social science to forecast in fine detail how this world (if it is even possible) will actually work. The future it portrays is very strange and, in the end, quite horrific for everyone involved. .. This hellish cyberworld is quite cool to think about in a dystopian Matrixy way, although the book is much drier than fiction.

I’m fine with people not liking the em world, if they understand it. But disliking the world also seems to translate into disliking my analysis. My point by point responses:

Hanson says it reads more like an encyclopedia. But if it’s an encyclopedia, what are its sources?

References take 31 pages, others have complained of too many cites, and you complain of dry text. Yet you really wanted more cites & references?

“Today,” he complains, “we take far more effort to study the past than the future, even though we can’t change the past.” Yes, you might respond: that is because we literally cannot “study” the future – because either it doesn’t exist or (in the block-universe model of time) it does exist but is completely inaccessible to us.

We infer theories from data on the present and past. The whole reason for theory is to help us infer things where we don’t have data. Like the future. That is what theorists do. So we can study the future by applying our best theories, as I tried to do in the book.

Given that, the book’s confidence in its own brilliantly weird extrapolations is both impressive and quite peculiar. Hanson describes his approach as that of “using basic social theory, in addition to common sense and trend projection, to forecast future societies”. The casual use of “common sense” there should, as always, ring alarm bells. And a lot of the book’s sense is arguably quite uncommon.

Here you insinuate that much is wrong, but you don’t actually point out anything specific as wrong.

The governing tone is strikingly misanthropic, despairing of current humans’ “maladaptation” to the environment.

How is it remotely “hating” of people to see recent behavior as more evolutionarily maladaptive?

And there is an unargued assumption throughout that social patterns and institutions are more likely to revert to pre-industrial norms in the future.

I argue explicitly in some detail for some attitudes reverting to those more typical of poor farmers, when ems get poor. But the only institutions that might revert would be those driven mainly by attitudes, such as perhaps democracy.

Hanson .. erects a large edifice of sociological speculation on how the liberal use of em copies and backups will change attitudes to sex, law, death and pretty much everything else. But .. if someone announces they will upload my consciousness into a robot and then destroy my existing body, I will take this as a threat of murder. .. So ems – the first of whom are, by definition, going to have minds identical to those of humans – may very well exhibit the same kind of reaction, in which case a lot of Hanson’s more thrillingly bizarre social developments will not happen.

Yes, you feel strongly, but everyone need not share your feelings. Yes, the first brain scans will be destructive, but out of a world population of billions it only takes a few biological humans willing to be scanned this way to fill the em world. And if there were only a few of them, they’d each earn trillions.

But then, the rather underwhelming upshot of this project is that fast-living and super-clever ems will probably crack the problem of proper AI – actual intelligent machines – within a year or so of ordinary human time.

I didn’t say “probably” here; I gave that as one identifiable possibility.

Given that this future is so gloomy for just about everyone, one does end up wondering why Hanson wants to wake up in it – he reveals in the book that he has arranged to be cryogenically frozen on his death. I suppose it is at least possible that, one day, he could open his eyes and have the last laugh, as he surveys the appalling future he foresaw so long ago.

Because I describe a world you don’t like I must be a people hater pleased to see everyone suffer? Really?! For the record, I don’t now see the em world as appalling, and if I changed my mind on that upon seeing it up close, I’d be quite disappointed.

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  • marshall bolton

    I don’t see the em world as appealing either. Nor do I find the book very appealing. I don’t know how people have read it so quickly – I am still slogging through it – and as always I learn many things from Robin. But but but…. It is a rather dismal portrait of a very dismal world – and because I am human I do miss some “drama”, “conflict” and “uproar” (which Robin argues should be set aside in a “simple and likely” analysis). But these very things seem to me to be endemic to humans, and thus negate the probability of blind economic forces just running their course. Excelsior, You Fathead!

  • Peter David Jones

    > How is it remotely “hating” of people to see recent behavior as more evolutionarily maladaptive

    Maladaptive to what? 7 billion and counting ain’t bad.

    • I read it as more maladaptive than it was in the past. Most of the 7 billion years are past,

      • Low-energy candidate

        He probably meant 7 billion people.

        Anyway, when people talk about “maladaptive” behaviors, they overlook two things:

        1) A behavior can be “maladaptive” in the sense that it leaves fewer genetic offspring, but still be completely rational and fulfill the preferences of the individual person. It can also make the world a better place, according to plausible value systems.

        2) The cultural memes leading to such behavior are often very adaptive, when you look at them as replicators of their own right. Low-fertility cultural ideals and practices have spread very successfully, which is not surprising since human minds are adaptation-executers, not fitness-maximizers, so memes that appeal to us will find their niches even if they lead to better offspring (the invention of the condom and porn were both very adaptive memes). Of course, there is no guarantee that it stays that way.

      • Low-energy candidate

        *fewer offspring, not better

      • Peter David Jones

        Thanks for the steel man! One of my bugbears is people using the standard Darwinian (mal)adaptive as something that automatically equates to (un)desireable in the socio political sense… I for one don’t want to live in a society that’s always banging up against Malthusian limits.

  • GibsonGirl99

    I’ve only read the free sample available from the publisher–as I work in a library, I think I’ll feel free to NOT buy this, but wait until it shows up in our catalog. That said, my problem with the book isn’t the subject it addresses, but the fact that it appears to NOT address any sort of real-world problem! Indeed, I find that is my problem with economists generally, insofar as I can understand what they write. You, sir, seem to have no interest in HUMANITY, the species of which you are a member.
    The novelist Richard K. Morgan opines that “Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political
    force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses.” [2002]
    THAT is the problem–the only problem–and your ‘future’ speculation fails to address that problem. Unless by ‘volunteering’ to be one of the brains chosen for destructive scanning, thus opting decisively out of the question entirely, counts as an address. If, as a profession, economics or history or mathematics or whatever are not addressing how to change the situation depicted in the quotation, what good are you?
    One of the exploited and oppressed, and yes, more ignorant and stupid than you, quite probably.