Fuller on Age of Em

I’d heard that an academic review of Age of Em was forthcoming from the new Journal of Posthuman Studies. And after hearing about Baum’s review, the author Steve Fuller of this second academic review (which won’t be published for a few months) gave me permission to quote from it here. First some praise:

I now credit him with having awakened in me the role that markets play in revealing a form of intelligence that humans tend to suppress as a result of norms of social cohesion that discourage accurate self-representation. The same Robin Hanson is the economist who has so far made the most substantive contributions to the contemporary definition of transhumanism, which he began (unbeknownst to me) at that time. The book under review is the culmination of a quarter-century journey that took flight with the publication of ‘If uploads come first’ .. Hanson went on to explore the political-economic consequences of this development through a lens informed mainly by Darwinian evolution and the economics of efficiency. The book expands these consequences into a full-blown anthropology of the future.

I’m not sure I deserve the “most substantive contributions” label, but I appreciate the thought. Commenting on a 2007 discussion between James Hughes and I, Fuller says:

Hughes sees the thought experiment as simply an exaggerated extension of current capitalist conditions, whereas Hanson treats it as a trigger for a fundamental rethinking of the ontological conditions of capitalism. Thus, Hughes worries that Hanson fails to provide a wealth redistribution scheme to prevent the further immiseration of poor people, while Hanson is open on how any such redistribution scheme might work, possibly including ‘ems’ among the entities in his welfare function. ..

Hanson confounds this entire line of thought by effectively erasing the distinction between ‘labour’ and ‘technology’ as factors of production. .. The central normative issue surrounding ‘The Age of Em’ is one of accommodating the differing environmental requirements of humans and uploads so that they can cohabit not only peacefully but also equitably.

The above seem fair descriptions to me.

My basic fear is that we are heading into a world in which most of society’s wealth is generated by computer-based providers like Google and Amazon who exploit our freely given data for their own purposes without adequate return to us ‘donors’ (Fuller 2016). In contrast, Hanson’s thought experiment presumes that the arrival of brain upload technology will force a deep recalibration of values, including the value of Homo sapiens as such.

I expect these to continue: a high capital share of total income, and high inequality in capital ownership. I consider possible value changes, but don’t assume them. Most of the value changes I consider are due to changing per-capita income within the em and human groups.

It is then reasonable to ask about the attitude that these digitally uploaded and enhanced versions of human minds are likely to have towards their intellectually and economically inferior progenitors. Hanson’s own vision is relatively benign, based on the common evolutionary ancestry, so to speak, between ems and humans. Thus, ems do not seem to lose their original humanity, notwithstanding the practical difficulties in accommodating to the different material needs and spatiotemporal horizons of humans vis-à-vis ems. However, if we consider humanity’s treatment of animals — including its nearest primate cousins – as a precedent, the prospects do not look quite so straightforward. In particular, the development of language – be it through divine creation or evolutionary history – has allowed Homo sapiens to self-alienate from the rest of nature. .. Once ems have become sufficiently different from humans by virtue of their own internal developments, they may become quite negligent in their treatment of humans, partly because they find it difficult to relate to human needs .. Em life-world may render us just as opaque to them as other primate species are to us.

I’m struck by how only half of those who imagine entering a Star Trek style transporter see the person exiting as themselves, but basically all of those who imagine exiting see the person entering as themselves. When we see ourselves on a (perhaps branching) timeline, we identify less with points further away from us, but for the same distance we identify much more with our ancestors than our descendants. So at any one time the larger chance is that biohumans won’t see ems as basically the same. Which may be an issue during the early transition, when biohuman opinions matter more. The main thing that biohumans should worry about is that the age of em may only last a year or two, and we don’t know what even faster changing regime may happen next. With enough change, yes, ems could eventually see biohumans more like how we animals, even if both can speak the same language.

Hanson .. imagines that the benevolent nature of ems would lead them to dispose with humans in a manner akin to the sanctuaries currently provided to protected species. .. The ems do not seem likely to empower people beyond the point of allowing them to pursue a relatively pain-free existence in something resembling their natural habitats. In particular, it is not at all clear whether the cybercene would allow humans to engage in the feats of self-transcendence that in the modern period had enabled them to evacuate their habitats and even bodies, the very basis on which ems would have emerged in the first place. Here Hanson might consider .. a ‘zoopolis’ .. whereby other species are formally incorporated into the legal regimes governing the political and economic conditions of the human life-world.

I imagined a basically peaceful relation such as retirees now have with non-retirees, where both do in fact share the same financial, legal, and political institutions. Biohumans aren’t forbidden to do anything, but limited economic resources encourages them to move away from em concentrations.

Two features of zoopolitanism .. potentially undermine the intuitive plausibility of Hanson’s thought experiment. First, the introduction of uplift as a significant political technology amounts to creating a spectrum of cyborg creatures, which takes the sting out of the neatly disturbing ‘us vs. them’ premise that frames The Age of Ems.

I’ve explained why I don’t hold much hope for “third way” bio-electronic combinations to be competitive with ems. Bio-based hardware just has too many disadvantages.

Second .. the energy requirements for computers to perform the multiple intelligent functions currently serviced by the human brain have continued to be prohibitive as a practical long-term prospect, even if achievable as a scientific goal. In short, Hanson’s cybercene threatens to consume more of the Earth’s energy than the Anthropocene that would have preceded it.

I discuss energy requirements in the book, and estimate ems using much less energy than does a human brain, for the same mind speed. While energy limits might eventually limit an em economy, I doubt that happens during the one to two year age of em.

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