Imagine A Mars Boom

Most who think they like the future really just like where their favorite stories took place. As a result, much future talk focuses on space, even though prospects for much activity beyond Earth anytime foreseeable seem dim. Even so, consider the following hypothetical, with three key assumptions:

Mars boom: An extremely valuable material (anti-matter? glueballs? negative mass?) is found on Mars, justifying huge economic efforts to extract it, process it, and return it to Earth. Many orgs compete strongly against one another in all of these stages to profit from the Martian boom.

A few top workers: As robots just aren’t yet up to the task, a thousand humans must be sent to and housed on Mars. The cost of this is so great that all trips are one-way, at least for a while, and it is worth paying extra to get the very highest quality workers possible. So Martians are very impressive workers, and Mars is “where the action is” in terms of influencing the future. As slavery is rare on Earth, most all Mars workers must volunteer for the move.

Martians as aliens: Many, perhaps even most, people on Earth see those who live on Mars as aliens, for whom the usual moral rules do not apply – morality is to protect Earthlings only. Such Earth folks are less reluctant to enslave Martians. Martians undergo some changes to their body, and perhaps also to their brain, but when seen in films or tv, or when talked to via (20+min delayed) Skype, Martians act very human.

Okay, now my question for you is: Are most Martians slaves? Are they selected for and trained into being extremely docile and servile?

Slavery might let Martian orgs make Martians work harder, and thereby extract more profit from each worker. But an expectation of being enslaved should make it much harder to attract the very best human workers to volunteer. Many Earth governments may even not allow free Earthlings to volunteer to become enslaved Martians. So my best guess is that in this hypothetical, Martians are free workers, rich and high status celebrities followed and admired by most Earthlings.

I’ve created this Mars scenario as an allegory of my em scenario, because someone I respect recently told me they were persuaded by Bryan Caplan’s claim that ems would be very docile slaves. As with these hypothesized Martians, the em economy would produce enormous wealth and be where the action is, and it would result from competing orgs enticing a thousand or fewer of the most productive humans to volunteer for an expensive one-way trip to become ems. When viewed in virtual reality, or in android bodies, these ems would act very human. While some like Bryan see ems as worth little moral consideration, others disagree.

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  • Joe

    The part of this disagreement I find most baffling is Bryan’s claim that in fact firms today would prefer to hire the most docile workers given the opportunity, because these workers wouldn’t demand salaries and breaks and other costly things; and therefore you can’t determine who is the most productive just by looking at who earns the most. This seems to suggest a model where the most valuable workers are actually quietly sitting in firms on very low wages, producing huge value for those firms while never seeking a raise. Meanwhile, those workers with enormous salaries only have them because they’re so demanding and refuse to work for anything less, so their employers just sigh and grudgingly pay them what they demand.

    I can’t really imagine that Bryan Caplan, outspoken libertarian economist, sees this as a remotely accurate picture of the economy. Yet it seems to follow from his claims on docility and productivity… Doesn’t it? What am I missing?

    • Stephen Diamond

      Bryan’s claim that in fact firms today would prefer to hire the most docile workers given the opportunity, because these workers wouldn’t demand salaries and breaks and other costly things … What am I missing?

      I think you’re missing that “the opportunity” includes something firms today don’t possess, the ability to keep workers from quitting. Bryan claims that firms would then hire workers effectively motivated by punishment. They can’t do that today because workers well-motivated by punishment will flee it if they can.

      Robin doesn’t do justice to Bryan’s argument about Soviet and Nazi scientists. This is precisely the sort of intellectual work that Robin claims can’t be elicited by duress. However, I would question the accuracy of Bryan’s information about these scientists – no citations supplied. If scientists could be motivated primarily by the threat of death, this would go far to establish Bryan’s point, but my priors on this are very low. Just imagine yourself trying to do intellectual under death threat. I don’t know much about the Nazi scientists, but I don’t think Soviet scientists were slaves (but I’m biased by pro-Soviet sympathies).

      I don’t think Bryan’s mistake is one of economics; rather one of psychology. That punishment is not an efficent way to motivate complex behavior is established even for infra-human animals. You use punishment effectively to prevent the organism from doing something.

      • gathaung

        Regarding Soviet slave-scientists. Let me recount Solschenitzin’s viewpoint, which is obviously well-informed but possibly biased.

        Solschenitzin suggests that the actual slave-scientists (the ones sitting in Gulag-equivalents, cf “In the first circle”) were in fact pretty unproductive.

        On the other hand, the general science outside of slave labour in the soviet union was not terribly unproductive. These guys, however, were as free and status-rich as it was possible in their time and country, excepting ruling party officials.

        Similar claims have been made regarding science in Nazi Germany , but unfortunately I don’t remember sources here.

        Btw, Soleschenitzin’s work is really recommendable, as grand literature, as a well-sourced description of a modern slave economy, and as an effective cure for soviet sympathies (at least it worked for me and a couple of friends).

      • Joe

        Bryan claims that firms would then hire workers effectively motivated by punishment.

        Not exactly. I just rewatched the relevant part of their recent debate, and Bryan does actually claim as I said – that firms prefer to hire workers who are docile, don’t ask for money, don’t cause trouble. And that they would prefer to hire workers like this even today, but can’t because they can’t easily select from everyone in the entire world.

        My issue is with the “don’t ask for money” point. If this means firms can get valuable workers for cheap when they’re docile, this has all sorts of strange implications. Why aren’t those workers headhunted by other firms willing to pay them closer to their market rate? Are they so docile that they latch onto their first employer and refuse to ever work for anyone else? On the other hand, if these workers’ wages are bid up to market rate, then wages will indeed reflect productivity – and so if the highest paid workers don’t seem especially docile, then we shouldn’t expect ems to be either.

        (On a side note: it seems like Bryan and Robin have different models of worker characteristics. To Bryan, features like docility and creativity and so on are totally independent and are straight-up advantages; therefore somewhere in the world there is a worker with 10/10 creativity, 10/10 docility, and so on – and this is the world’s best worker. On the other hand, on Robin’s model, each characteristic has advantages and disadvantages – so you actually don’t want the most docile worker, because beyond a certain point additional docility is a disadvantage. But this is irrelevant to my main point here, which concerns whether you can or can’t determine productivity from wages. Bryan’s arguments here seem to claim you can’t – but that seems very atypical of his usual views.)

      • Stephen Diamond

        Do you dispute that, all else being equal, docile workers will get paid less for the same work? (By definition, they fail to assert their interests. Since wages are the result of a conflict in interest, this is bound to be significant. – See “The Dismal Employment Picture: A Social-Status Theory Explanation – ; concerning docility as a cause of the low wages in the service sector ]

        Then, if you increase the availability of docile workers, you will find it easier to find enough docility to compensate for more of its adverse correlates. This will lower your wage bill.

      • Joe

        I don’t dispute that, but I can’t see this effect being especially large. The greater the difference between what a meek docile person is getting paid and their market rate, the greater the incentive for competing employers to seek them out and make them a better offer. For this docility factor to be one of the main determiners of which are the most productive workers would require huge deviations from market rates that just don’t seem plausible to me.

        Perhaps the people who would produce the most successful ems would tend to be drawn from those top earners who are slightly more docile than the rest, all else equal. But perhaps not – as Robin argued there are disadvantages to docility too, in that a docile person is less likely to provide useful criticisms or make decisions they know are correct but that their boss might disagree with.

  • Lord

    Only in the wage slave sense, well paid though less free due to the constraints of the situation as long as it lasts. Long term contracts would be involved, and the companies would want to be sure pay was not so great they could easily quit, set up shop for themselves, and compete with them.

  • Ilverin Curunethir

    I don’t think this is a correct argument.

    1) ems can be run in accelerated time
    2) ems can be run in parallel
    3) ems can be restored from backup

    Ems can be tortured until one is found that will be a docile productive slave.

    At the very least, the 3 above points mean that the neurological diversity of ems would be greater than humans if only due to length of life (due to accelerated time) and some kind of experimentation (restore from backup for experiments that don’t work well).

    • Ilverin Curunethir

      (clarification: ems could be tortured and/or given drugs as a form of experimentation)

    • RobinHanson

      Torture and experimentation might make someone docile, but it can’t make someone who is unproductive productive, and it can’t make them volunteer in the first place.

      • Ilverin Curunethir

        Doesn’t mind theft mean that volunteering is not required to get an em on whom to experiment with torture/drugs?

      • RobinHanson

        If most ems were the result of theft, then volunteers would be mostly surprised by their outcome. The would not have volunteered had they expected this outcome.

      • Joe

        Regarding mind theft: I think Robin’s claim is that it would be (obviously) enormously harmful for the victim, and while profitable for the perpetrator, would be harmful for society as a whole. Stolen ems are probably less productive than ems who consented to their creation, and much effort will be spent trying to prevent mind theft, which could be spent doing something more useful if that threat wasn’t there. So overall quite similar to regular theft or other crimes today.

  • Brian Slesinsky

    An argument with a similar structure: since the best human translators do a better job if we treat them well, Google Translate also needs good working conditions to do the best possible job.

    The argument depends on how human-like you believe ems are in how they respond to good working conditions. If we say that ems are *by definition* just like humans then maybe this argument works.

    But this isn’t how automation usually happens. It seems difficult to imagine what sort of constraint would keep people from making less em-like workers that are more like machines, resulting in better performance and fewer moral qualms about mistreating them.

    This would be particularly true for a mining operation on another planet, where humans are poorly adapted and no human interaction is needed. I’d expect there to be more of a need for human-like capabilities when directly interacting with humans.

    • RobinHanson

      A basic working assumption of my em scenario is a limited ability to change em minds.

  • Vamair

    A large part of the value of human life is that no one can create a human specialist ready for work in five minutes cheaply. That’s not the case with ems.

  • Robert Koslover

    Uh oh. The mere fact that your em scenario makes sense to me, while your martian scenario seems weird, is evidence that I have been reading this blog much too long! 🙂

  • Stephen Diamond

    it would result from competing orgs enticing a thousand or fewer of the most productive humans to volunteer for an expensive one-way trip to become ems.

    But this doesn’t hold when brain imaging becomes nondestructive. You once said that if you were emmed, there would be “more of you.” Not everyone would think of a copy of himself as part of himself. Not me. If I had any objections to an em of me being enslaved, they would likely be moral and related to participating in slavery, and would have nothing to do with thinking of my em as an extension of my self.

    Nondestructive imaging breaks the Mars analogy.

    • RobinHanson

      The first scanning tech will be destructive, and those who wait for non-destructive tech may find that prior ems have entrenched themselves deeply into many professions.

  • Pepper

    The example of factory farming seems to indicate that people are willing to ignore large amounts of suffering when it’s kept out of sight and ignoring it is convenient.