Future Gender Is Far

What’s the worst systematic bias in thinking on the future? My guess: too much abstraction. The far vs. near mode distinction was first noticed in future thinking, because the effect is so big there.

I posted a few weeks ago that the problem with the word “posthuman” is that it assumes our descendants will differ somehow in a way to make them “other,” without specifying any a particular change to do that. It abstracts from particular changes to just embody the abstract idea of othering-change. And I’ve previously noted there are taboos against assuming that something we see as a problem won’t be solved, and even against presenting such a problem without proposing a solution.

In this post let me point out that a related problem plagues future gender relation thoughts. While many hope that future gender relations will be “better”, most aren’t at all clear on what specifically that entails. For some, all differing behaviors and expectations about genders should disappear, while for others only “legitimate” differences remain, with little agreement on which are legitimate. This makes it hard to describe any concrete future of gender relations without violating our taboo against failing to solve problems.

For example, at The Good Men Project, Joseph Gelfer discusses the Age of Em. He seems to like or respect the book overall:

Fascinating exploration of what the world may look like once large numbers of computer-based brain emulations are a reality.

But he less likes what he reads on gender:

Hanson sees a future where an em workforce mirrors the most useful and productive forms of workforce that we experience today. .. likely choose [to scan] workaholic competitive types. Because such types tend to be male, Hanson imagines an em workforce that is disproportionately male (these workers also tend to rise early, work alone and use stimulants).

This disproportionately male workforce has implications for how sexuality manifests in em society. First, because the reproductive impetus of sex is erased in the world of ems, sexual desire will be seen as less compelling. In turn, this could lead to “mind tweaks” that have the effect of castration, .. [or] greater cultural acceptance of non-hetero forms of sexual orientation, or software that make ems of the same sex appear as the opposite sex. .. [or] paying professional em sex workers.

It is important to note that Hanson does not argue that this is the way em society should look, rather how he imagines it will look by extrapolating what he identifies in society both today and through the arc of human history. So, if we can identify certain male traits that stretch back to the beginning of the agricultural era, we should also be able to locate those same traits in the em era. What might be missing in this methodology is a full application of exponential change. In other words, Hanson rightly notes how population, technology and so forth have evolved with increasing speed throughout history, yet does not apply that same speed of evolution to attitudes towards gender. Given how much perceptions around gender have changed in the past 50 years, if we accept a pattern of exponential development in such perceptions, the minds that are scanned for first generation ems will likely have a very different attitude toward gender than today, let alone thousands of years past. (more)

Obviously Gelfer doesn’t like something about the scenario I describe, but he doesn’t identify anything particular he disagrees with, nor offer any particular arguments. His only contrary argument is a maximally abstract “exponential” trend, whereby everything gets better. Therefore gender relations must get better, therefore any future gender relations feature that he or anyone doesn’t like is doubtful.

For the record, I didn’t say the em world selects for “competitive types”, that people would work alone, or that there’d be more men. Instead I have a whole section on a likely “Gender Imbalance”:

Although it is hard to predict which gender will be more in demand in the em world, one gender might end up supplying proportionally more workers than the other.

Though I doubt Gelfer is any happier with a future with may more women than men; any big imbalance probably sounds worse to most people, and thus can’t happen according to the better future gender relations principle.

I suspect Gelfer’s errors about my book are consistently in the direction of incorrectly attributing features to the scenario that he likes less. People usually paint the future as a heaven or a hell, and so if my scenario isn’t Gelfer’s heaven, it must be his hell.

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  • Don Reba

    I don’t see why there would still be genders or sex at all without physical reproduction.

    • http://don.geddis.org/ Don Geddis

      Because ems are direct copies of existing humans, and existing humans already come with gender (and sexual desire). So of course the identical copies would maintain those same features.

      • Don Reba

        But only brains, not bodies, presumably. So, there’s no reason to maintain the same hormonal makeup that would produce sexual desire.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        In em virtual reality, their bodies are as real to them as your body is real to you.

  • marshall bolton

    I always become sad when I read your thoughts on Ems…. Can gender exist without bodies? Can sexual desire exist without gender/bodies? What type of new identities/genders will the disembodied brain and the social stratifications of The Clans invent? What types of new (sexual) desire will the hard working, quick running, multiple units imagine they have? And from the standpoint of our meaty lives: This all must be seen as perverse. And yet you persist, Robin, in this dismal rapture.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      In em virtual reality, their bodies are as real to them as your body is real to you.

      • marshall bolton

        I think you are having your cake and eating it here, Robin. You are saying, “In em virtual reality, their bodies are real”. I would have thought they were virtual because well everything is virtual in virtual reality and our brains can distinguish these differences (think of the difference between porno and sex with a real girl/boy). This is the great Divide: the ontological reality of virtual reality. As I have said before, i would expect these “creatures” to be quite mad exactly because they are not in reality but are equipped with reality-machines (their emulations) evolutionarily developed in reality. I think this is a very “near” point, which you just dismiss.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        You don’t know that you aren’t in virtual reality this very minute.

      • marshall bolton

        Maybe you don’t, but I do (know that I am not in virtual reality this very moment). The burden of evidence would also rest with you as it is such a nonsensical notion, you are promoting.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        It seems to me marshall bolton’s point is (or should be) that ems would know the virtuality of their experience. That’s the difference from us, even if you think the “we are in virtual reality” hypothesis is plausible.

      • Joe

        This seems obviously true to me, if only because it surely wouldn’t be worth making em environments as detailed and seamless as the real world.

        If we’re in a simulation, it’s an inordinately expensive one compared to what’s necessary to make someone feel sufficiently comfortable to forget about their environment and be able to get on and do things in it. Whoever built this simulation apparently saw tricking us into thinking it’s real as so important that they were willing to spend endless sums in order to fully achieve this goal.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        The cost to create a virtual reality that our minds can’t ordinarily distinguish from reality is quite low (< 1% of) compared to just the cost of running our minds.

      • Joe

        Can you expand on that? Seems to me that if our world is a simulation, the abstractions it uses to model the laws of physics are far more watertight than we would expect without a LOT of work having been put into making them so. Even in the most technologically advanced video games today it’s trivially easy to produce visual bugs, making objects clip through each other for example. And that’s with an extremely restricted set of possible actions. In reality we can perform precise experiments on arbitrary pieces of matter, and every single time we do so we get the answer that physics tells us to expect. Even if it’s possible to create a simulation as perfect as that, why would it be cheaper than a brain emulation, let alone 100x cheaper?

        Also, didn’t you argue in The Age Of Em that em virtual realities would be more cartoony than our reality, due to it being much easier to stimulate a cartoony world than a detailed realistic world?

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Cartoony worlds mainly just seem more pleasant, rather than cheaper. Only tiny fraction of people would ever notice if a sim violated its claimed laws of physics, and for those people you can just wait until they notice something, then back up, fix the problem, and rerun them again without the problem.

      • Joe

        Hmm. I’d been envisioning a virtual world with many layers of abstraction for different purposes, like we see in video games today. Having re-read your ‘How To Live In A Simulation’ it seems you expect a more unified virtual physics, with the main simplification being a sharp cutoff in time and space at the boundary of what’s relevant.

        Having done a little investigation it seems like the technology for more general low-level physics simulation is more advanced than I had realised: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1o0Nuq71gI4
        (And of course there’s another century or so for this tech to improve, according to your Age of Em timing prediction.)

        I’m still not sure this simulation technique will be so outright superior, and therefore ubiquitous, that that the em world will always be indistinguishable from our world, or that future civilisations would be able to create simulations that totally fool their inhabitants without putting much effort towards achieving this goal in particular. But these do seem more plausible than I had previously realised.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        I’m not claiming that ems won’t know they are in a simulation. I’m claiming that if they want to they can be in sims where they can’t in practice tell it is a sim.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        But the question Marshall Bolton raised is how knowing that they are in a simulation alters the experience (even if the simulation is locally flawless).

  • Jacob Egner

    > His only contrary argument is a maximally abstract “exponential” trend,
    whereby everything gets better. Therefore gender relations must get

    I looked over his article, and I don’t see where he argues this. I only seeing him saying that gender relations could be different, not that they would tend to be better or worse.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      “could be different” is the weakest possible claim to make about a parameter estimate. I assumed he intended more content that that.

      • Jacob Egner

        Thanks for your response. Sidenote: and thanks for your writings, especially on signalling, which has changed how I understand many of the workings of the world.

        > I assumed he intended more content that that.

        Hopefully we see a response from Joseph Gelfer that clarifies the matter.

        >”could be different” is the weakest possible claim to make about a parameter estimate.

        In this post, you quote your book: “one gender might end up supplying proportionally more workers than the other”, which could be characterized as “the weakest possible claim to make about a parameter estimate” by the same process. Unfortunately I do not have access to you book, so I can not see what elaborations you make upon that issue.

        With what I can see, it seems like you made some weak claims in your book (which is totally fine) and criticized for Gelfer reading beyond what you explicitly said (which is totally fine), but then you switch to reading beyond what Gelfer explicitly said on the basis that he made a weak claim.

        I feel it is likely that I’m missing something about your thought process.

  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed heedless

    Why do we assume Ems would even be treated as people? In the real world, a person is time consuming to make, difficult to reprogram, and impossible to duplicate. Plus people with valuable skills tend to have family, friends and co-workers who will notice if they go missing and stand up for their rights.

    EMS, by contrast, can be made instantaneously, reprogrammed easily (although a given attempt may not be successful), and duplicated without effort. More to the point, anyone with an isolated computer and low morals can create a customizable slave that can never escape and that no one has any reason to suspect is there.

    Different, easily exploited, and valuable is a a very dangerous set of circumstances. A world where slavery is economically viable again is not likely to be a pleasant place to live.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Ems aren’t much more easily reprogrammed that are humans. And your imagined slave still costs resources to create, and has to compete with free workers. How sure are you that slaves are more productive?

      • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed heedless

        EMS are software. The brain processes information in a reasonably modular fashion, so someone unscrupulous could insert a little script that triggers religious awe or sexual desire in a captive EM anytime they interact with their “master” or perform more subtle memory deletion or rewiring of reward systems so that the Em will have no choice but to want to perform whatever task is set to them.

        Morality aside, we are prevented from creating this sort of New Soviet Man in the flesh by our inability to make sufficiently precise changes to the brain’s structure and chemistry, and by the certain knowledge that even a small mistake risks lobotomizing the subject. Software edits, however, can be perfectly precise, and if we don’t like the result, we can simply reload the subject from before the procedure. You don’t need a very high success rate of you can try each step however many times it takes to get it right. The advantage to slaves isn’t that they can be forced to perform a task, it is that they can be edited in ways no free Em would accept, until they want to perform it.

  • Bad Horse

    “population, technology and so forth have evolved with increasing speed throughout history” — Population is a number. It is nonsensical to say that population evolves. Technology is a product of reason; it therefore does not evolve. Gelfer thinks “evolve” means “grow”.

    “Given how much perceptions around gender have changed in the past 50 years, if we accept a pattern of exponential development in such perceptions…” — Now we see Gelfer thinks “evolve”, “grow”, “develop”, and “improve” are all synonyms. He has no understanding of evolution, and a serious misunderstanding of culture and ethics. Basically your typical circa-1910 view that “everything always gets better” describes and explains all social change.