Ems in Walkaway

Some science fiction (sf) fans have taken offense at my claim that non-fiction analysis of future tech scenarios can be more accurate than sf scenarios, whose authors have other priorities. So I may periodically critique recent sf stories with ems for accuracy. Note that I’m not implying that such stories should have been more accurate; sf writing is damn hard work and its authors juggle a many difficult tradeoffs. But many seem unaware of just how often accuracy is sacrificed.

The most recent sf I’ve read that includes ems is Walkaway, by “New York Times bestselling author” Cory Doctorow, published back in April:

Now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—from a computer, there seems to be little reason to toil within the system. It’s still a dangerous world out there, the empty lands wrecked by climate change, dead cities hollowed out by industrial flight, shadows hiding predators animal and human alike. Still, when the initial pioneer walkaways flourish, more people join them.

The emotional center of Walkaway is elaborating this vision of a decentralized post-scarcity society trying to do without property or hierarchy. Though I’m skeptical, I greatly respect attempts to describe such visions in more detail. Doctorow, however, apparently thinks we economists make up bogus math for the sole purpose of justifying billionaire wealth inequality.

Your dad is like a bloated duke who’s hired court astrologers to sacrifice chickens and reassure him that he’s the cat’s ass. .. Of course I’m talking about economists! I think you have to be a mathematician to appreciate how full of shit economists are, how astrological their equations are. .. Your dad hires economists for intellectual cover, to prove his dynastic fortunes and political influence are the outcome of a complex, self-correcting mechanism with the mystical power to pluck the deserving out of the teeming mass of humanity and elevate them so they can wisely guide us. They have a science-y vocabulary conceived of solely to praise people like your father. Like job creator. As though we need jobs! I mean, if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that I never want to have a job again.

Doctorow also presents the rather silly theory that World War I was caused by elites turning on each other because they ran out of “new worlds to plunder.” The world economy, and investment returns, were as strong just before that war as they’d been a few decades before. Also silly is the claim that the press only tells the story of one side of a war because

The only press with money to cover anything was underwritten by the same conglomerates that owned the contractors on the invaders’ vanguard.

The hip super-sexed bohemian walkaways are presented as being much better at innovation than the ordinary world, because theirs is “the most creative, wildest work”, a fact proved by their first developing ems (called “sims” in the book), even though their researchers have worse material supports and are under frequent physical assault. Walkaways research ems to achieve immortality, and billionaires attack them because they want to be the only immortals, as a “deathless emperor of time.” Billionaires and walkaways are the only active agents in the story; other social groups seems completely passive.

The first em is presented as quickly breaking due to “existential fits” from becoming aware that it is an em. It takes a while to find mental tweaks to create “a version that’s okay with being whittled down to a robotically cool version of itself.” It makes sense that it would take some time to find ways to make ems work, but far less plausible that the main issue is existential angst, or that ems can’t express a full range of human emotion.

This description of em work focus also makes sense:

Being liberated from the vagaries of the flesh and being able to adjust her mind’s parameters so she stayed in an optimal working state turned [em] Dis into a powerhouse researcher.

As do these em concerns:

Do you wonder if you’re in a default lab, being tricked about the world around you?

Anyone who can get your backup can find out everything there is to know about you, trick you into the worst betrayals, torture you for all eternity, and you can never walk away from it.

Note, however, that later on one em claims:

They couldn’t run a sim of me that changed sides or gave up its secrets.

But the following modifications seem far harder to arrange than Walkaway suggests, especially in the early years:

My dad could easily afford a version of you that was constrained so it believed it had infiltrated his network to work against him, while spying on me and everything I did.

Fine-tuning your parameters so you’re the version of yourself that does the right thing, that knows and honors itself.

Everything we know we should do but can’t bring ourselves to do because the part of us that sees the whole map and knows it’s the way to go can’t convince the part that’s in the driver’s seat. It’s about being able to choose, make the choice stick.

In the early years ems are likely to be opaque, without easy ways to edit desired high level features.

Most of Walkaway takes place in the earliest days of ems, but even then the relatively poor walkaways can afford to scan each other often, and can run ems in modest sized computing facilities. Hundreds of labs around the world are said to be experimenting with working versions. They might not yet quite be cost effective compared to people, but they cost much less than billions. Overall technology is shown as progressing rapidly, even if there’s a lot of social disruption.

However, a part of the book takes place roughly 15 years afterward. And there, ems are hardly used at work; their value is mainly seen as a route to immortality. Most work tasks are described as being done by humans, even during crucial battles with many lives at stake. Ems who help then are shown as running at human speed. Much like in the (also inaccurate) movie Her, incredibly powerful machine intelligences are mainly used as chatty operating system interfaces:

I’m the house spirit. Comes with the job. Setting reminders, triggering them when any subject comes up, adding context around the corner. Everyone’s house does it.

The house spirits were descended from wares that powered the B&B, a mix of quartermaster, scorekeeper, and confessor, designed to help everyone know everything as needed.

Ems are small enough to fit in an device that hangs around someone’s neck, but we never see them with their own bodies to control. Even artificial body “mecha-walkers” are only shown being piloted by humans, never ems.

This limited use of ems seems completely crazy to me. For a tech whose costs fall by two every two years, costs should have fallen by a factor of 200 in fifteen years, making ems much cheaper than humans in most jobs. They could be given physical bodies to do many physical jobs, and could be sped up to deal better with crisis situations. And the world economy might have sped up so much as to make the world unrecognizable after 15 years.

A final scene in the book takes another 15 years later, when they finally have a way to reimplant em minds back into ordinary human bodies. A characters who had been an em for 30 objective years is happy to be human again, and doesn’t seem to miss much of anything from the em world or lifestyle. After all, ems are just a route to immortality, and don’t otherwise change much about a world. Which I say (at great length) is very wrong.

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  • Marius Catalin

    I haven’t read the book but I think Doctorow has a good intuition of our present times when in many people’s perception neoliberal consensus has reached its saturation point and is heading towords the bottom of the slope, so he gives a hegelian twist to his story. Why put ems to work, like would have been the default imperative until very recently, when you can search for immortality in, what it seams, a post scarcity anarcho communist society

  • Gordon Mohr

    At least two episodes of ‘Black Mirror’ touch on ems-related concepts – s02e04 ‘White Christmas’ and s03e04 ‘San Junipero’. (A third, s02e01 ‘Be Right Back’, also has a pinch of relevance.) It’s available on Netflix – your critiques would be interesting!

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I may get around to that sometime.

  • http://artir.wordpress.com José L. Ricón

    The WWI thesis may be silly, but some economists do take it seriously. It is ultimately wrong, though
    https://pseudoerasmus.com/2016/05/08/bm/

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      That is indeed a very good post.

  • diminishing MU

    ” Your dad hires economists for intellectual cover, to prove his dynastic
    fortunes and political influence are the outcome of a complex,
    self-correcting mechanism with the mystical power to pluck the deserving
    out of the teeming mass of humanity and elevate them so they can wisely
    guide us. They have a science-y vocabulary conceived of solely to
    praise people like your father. Like job creator.”

    Not false.

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

    Doctorow also presents the rather silly theory that World War I was caused by elites turning on each other because they ran out of “new worlds to plunder.” The world economy, and investment returns, were as strong just before that war as they’d been a few decades before.

    What seems “silly” is the assumption that military policy depends on the immediate economic climate. That capital doesn’t look ahead. When Britain fell below Germany in steel production, why wouldn’t this have an effect on British militarism like (but much greater than) the effect the rise of China has on engendering U.S. militarism?