Age of Em

This is Robin Hanson’s first book. Hanson gradually introduces his topic:

You, dear reader, are special. Most humans were born before 1700. And of those born after, you are probably richer and better educated than most. Thus you and most everyone you know are special, elite members of the industrial era.

Like most of your kind, you probably feel superior to your ancestors. Oh, you don’t blame them for learning what they were taught. But you’d shudder to hear of many of your distant farmer ancestors’ habits and attitudes on sanitation, sex, marriage, gender, religion, slavery, war, bosses, inequality, nature, conformity, and family obligations. And you’d also shudder to hear of many habits and attitudes of your even more ancient forager ancestors. Yes, you admit that lacking your wealth your ancestors couldn’t copy some of your habits. Even so, you tend to think that humanity has learned that your ways are better. That is, you believe in social and moral progress.

The problem is, the future will probably hold new kinds of people. Your descendants’ habits and attitudes are likely to differ from yours by as much as yours differ from your ancestors. If you understood just how different your ancestors were, you’d realize that you should expect your descendants to seem quite strange. Historical fiction misleads you, showing your ancestors as more modern than they were. Science fiction similarly misleads you about your descendants.

As an example of the kind of past difference that Robin is discussing, even in the fairly recent past, consider this account by William Ewald of a trial from the sixteenth century:

In 1522 some rats were placed on trial before the ecclesiastical court in Autun. They were charged with a felony: specifically, the crime of having eaten and wantonly destroyed some barley crops in the jurisdiction. A formal complaint against “some rats of the diocese” was presented to the bishop’s vicar, who thereupon cited the culprits to appear on a day certain, and who appointed a local jurist, Barthelemy Chassenée (whose name is sometimes spelled Chassanée, or Chasseneux, or Chasseneuz), to defend them. Chassenée, then forty-two, was known for his learning, but not yet famous; the trial of the rats of Autun was to establish his reputation, and launch a distinguished career in the law.

When his clients failed to appear in court, Chassenée resorted to procedural arguments. His first tactic was to invoke the notion of fair process, and specifically to challenge the original writ for having failed to give the rats due notice. The defendants, he pointed out, were dispersed over a large tract of countryside, and lived in many villages; a single summons was inadequate to notify them all. Moreover, the summons was addressed only to some of the rats of the diocese; but technically it should have been addressed to them all.

Chassenée was successful in his argument, and the court ordered a second summons to be read from the pulpit of every local parish church; this second summons now correctly addressed all the local rats, without exception.

But on the appointed day the rats again failed to appear. Chassenée now made a second argument. His clients, he reminded the court, were widely dispersed; they needed to make preparations for a great migration, and those preparations would take time. The court once again conceded the reasonableness of the argument, and granted a further delay in the proceedings. When the rats a third time failed to appear, Chassenée was ready with a third argument. The first two arguments had relied on the idea of procedural fairness; the third treated the rats as a class of persons who were entitled to equal treatment under the law. He addressed the court at length, and successfully demonstrated that, if a person is cited to appear at a place to which he cannot come in safety, he may lawfully refuse to obey the writ. And a journey to court would entail serious perils for his clients. They were notoriously unpopular in the region; and furthermore they were rightly afraid of their natural enemies, the cats. Moreover (he pointed out to the court) the cats could hardly be regarded as neutral in this dispute; for they belonged to the plaintiffs. He accordingly demanded that the plaintiffs be enjoined by the court, under the threat of severe penalties, to restrain their cats, and prevent them from frightening his clients. The court again found this argument compelling; but now the plaintiffs seem to have come to the end of their patience. They demurred to the motion; the court, unable to settle on the correct period within which the rats must appear, adjourned on the question sine die, and judgment for the rats was granted by default.

Most of us would assume at once that this is all nothing but an elaborate joke; but Ewald strongly argues that it was all quite serious. This would actually be worthy of its own post, but I will leave it aside for now. In any case it illustrates the existence of extremely different attitudes even a few centuries ago.

In any event, Robin continues:

New habits and attitudes result less than you think from moral progress, and more from people adapting to new situations. So many of your descendants’ strange habits and attitudes are likely to violate your concepts of moral progress; what they do may often seem wrong. Also, you likely won’t be able to easily categorize many future ways as either good or evil; they will instead just seem weird. After all, your world hardly fits the morality tales your distant ancestors told; to them you’d just seem weird. Complex realities frustrate simple summaries, and don’t fit simple morality tales.

Many people of a more conservative temperament, such as myself, might wish to swap out “moral progress” here with “moral regress,” but the point stands in any case. This is related to our discussions of the effects of technology and truth on culture, and of the idea of irreversible changes.

Robin finally gets to the point of his book:

This book presents a concrete and plausible yet troubling view of a future full of strange behaviors and attitudes. You may have seen concrete troubling future scenarios before in science fiction. But few of those scenarios are in fact plausible; their details usually make little sense to those with expert understanding. They were designed for entertainment, not realism.

Perhaps you were told that fictional scenarios are the best we can do. If so, I aim to show that you were told wrong. My method is simple. I will start with a particular very disruptive technology often foreseen in futurism and science fiction: brain emulations, in which brains are recorded, copied, and used to make artificial “robot” minds. I will then use standard theories from many physical, human, and social sciences to describe in detail what a world with that future technology would look like.

I may be wrong about some consequences of brain emulations, and I may misapply some science. Even so, the view I offer will still show just how troublingly strange the future can be.

I greatly enjoyed Robin’s book, but unfortunately I have to admit that relatively few people will in general. It is easy enough to see the reason for this from Robin’s introduction. Who would expect to be interested? Possibly those who enjoy the “futurism and science fiction” concerning brain emulations; but if Robin does what he set out to do, those persons will find themselves strangely uninterested. As he says, science fiction is “designed for entertainment, not realism,” while he is attempting to answer the question, “What would this actually be like?” This intention is very remote from the intention of the science fiction, and consequently it will likely appeal to different people.

Whether or not Robin gets the answer to this question right, he definitely succeeds in making his approach and appeal differ from those of science fiction.

One might illustrate this with almost any random passage from the book. Here are portions of his discussion of the climate of em cities:

As we will discuss in Chapter 18, Cities section, em cities are likely to be big, dense, highly cost-effective concentrations of computer and communication hardware. How might such cities interact with their surroundings?

Today, computer and communication hardware is known for being especially temperamental about its environment. Rooms and buildings designed to house such hardware tend to be climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibration, dust, and electromagnetic field intensity. Such equipment housing protects it especially well from fire, flood, and security breaches.

The simple assumption is that, compared with our cities today, em cities will also be more climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibrations, dust, and electromagnetic signals. These controls may in fact become city level utilities. Large sections of cities, and perhaps entire cities, may be covered, perhaps even domed, to control humidity, dust, and vibration, with city utilities working to absorb remaining pollutants. Emissions within cities may also be strictly controlled.

However, an em city may contain temperatures, pressures, vibrations, and chemical concentrations that are toxic to ordinary humans. If so, ordinary humans are excluded from most places in em cities for safety reasons. In addition, we will see in Chapter 18, Transport section, that many em city transport facilities are unlikely to be well matched to the needs of ordinary humans.

Cities today are the roughest known kind of terrain, in the sense that cities slow down the wind the most compared with other terrain types. Cities also tend to be hotter than neighboring areas. For example, Las Vegas is 7 ° Fahrenheit hotter in the summer than are surrounding areas. This hotter city effect makes ozone pollution worse and this effect is stronger for bigger cities, in the summer, at night, with fewer clouds, and with slower wind (Arnfield 2003).

This is a mild reason to expect em cities to be hotter than other areas, especially at night and in the summer. However, as em cities are packed full of computing hardware, we shall now see that em cities will  actually be much hotter.

While the book considers a wide variety of topics, e.g. the social relationships among ems, which look quite different from the above passage, the general mode of treatment is the same. As Robin put it, he uses “standard theories” to describe the em world, much as he employs standard theories about cities, about temperature and climate, and about computing hardware in the above passage.

One might object that basically Robin is positing a particular technological change (brain emulations), but then assuming that everything else is the same, and working from there. And there is some validity to this objection. But in the end there is actually no better way to try to predict the future; despite David Hume’s opinion, generally the best way to estimate the future is to say, “Things will be pretty much the same.”

At the end of the book, Robin describes various criticisms. First are those who simply said they weren’t interested: “If we include those who declined to read my draft, the most common complaint is probably ‘who cares?'” And indeed, that is what I would expect, since as Robin remarked himself, people are interested in an entertaining account of the future, not an attempt at a detailed description of what is likely.

Others, he says, “doubt that one can ever estimate the social consequences of technologies decades in advance.” This is basically the objection I mentioned above.

He lists one objection that I am partly in agreement with:

Many doubt that brain emulations will be our next huge technology change, and aren’t interested in analyses of the consequences of any big change except the one they personally consider most likely or interesting. Many of these people expect traditional artificial intelligence, that is, hand-coded software, to achieve broad human level abilities before brain emulations appear. I think that past rates of progress in coding smart software suggest that at previous rates it will take two to four centuries to achieve broad human level abilities via this route. These critics often point to exciting recent developments, such as advances in “deep learning,” that they think make prior trends irrelevant.

I don’t think Robin is necessarily mistaken in regard to his expectations about “traditional artificial intelligence,” although he may be, and I don’t find myself uninterested by default in things that I don’t think the most likely. But I do think that traditional artificial intelligence is more likely than his scenario of brain emulations; more on this below.

There are two other likely objections that Robin does not include in this list, although he does touch on them elsewhere. First, people are likely to say that the creation of ems would be immoral, even if it is possible, and similarly that the kinds of habits and lives that he describes would themselves be immoral. On the one hand, this should not be a criticism at all, since Robin can respond that he is simply describing what he thinks is likely, not saying whether it should happen or not; on the other hand, it is in fact obvious that Robin does not have much disapproval, if any, of his scenario. The book ends in fact by calling attention to this objection:

The analysis in this book suggests that lives in the next great era may be as different from our lives as our lives are from farmers’ lives, or farmers’ lives are from foragers’ lives. Many readers of this book, living industrial era lives and sharing industrial era values, may be disturbed to see a forecast of em era descendants with choices and life styles that appear to reject many of the values that they hold dear. Such readers may be tempted to fight to prevent the em future, perhaps preferring a continuation of the industrial era. Such readers may be correct that rejecting the em future holds them true to their core values.

But I advise such readers to first try hard to see this new era in some detail from the point of view of its typical residents. See what they enjoy and what fills them with pride, and listen to their criticisms of your era and values. This book has been designed in part to assist you in such a soul-searching examination. If after reading this book, you still feel compelled to disown your em descendants, I cannot say you are wrong. My job, first and foremost, has been to help you see your descendants clearly, warts and all.

Our own discussions of the flexibility of human morality are relevant. The creatures Robin is describing are in many ways quite different from humans, and it is in fact very appropriate for their morality to differ from human morality.

A second likely objection is that Robin’s ems are simply impossible, on account of the nature of the human mind. I think that this objection is mistaken, but I will leave the details of this explanation for another time. Robin appears to agree with Sean Carroll about the nature of the mind, as can be seen for example in this post. Robin is mistaken about this, for the reasons suggested in my discussion of Carroll’s position. Part of the problem is that Robin does not seem to understand the alternative. Here is a passage from the linked post on Overcoming Bias:

Now what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

“I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.”

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

There is a false dichotomy here, and it is the same one that C.S. Lewis falls into when he says, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” And in general it is like the error of the pre-Socratics, that if a thing has some principles which seem sufficient, it can have no other principles, failing to see that there are several kinds of cause, and each can be complete in its own way. And perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here, since I said this discussion would be for later, but the objection that Robin’s scenario is impossible is mistaken in exactly the same way, and for the same reason: people believe that if a “materialistic” explanation could be given of human behavior in the way that Robin describes, then people do not truly reason, make choices, and so on. But this is simply to adopt the other side of the false dichotomy, much like C.S. Lewis rejects the possibility of causes for our beliefs.

One final point. I mentioned above that I see Robin’s scenario as less plausible than traditional artificial intelligence. I agree with Tyler Cowen in this post. This present post is already long enough, so again I will leave a detailed explanation for another time, but I will remark that Robin and I have a bet on the question.


One thought on “Age of Em

  1. Fun. I am reading Asimov’s robot series, and so far it looks like his robots are kind of like the em robots. I can’t tell to what extent he thought of various factors as real possibilities, but it is interesting especially when he talks about the moral code of the robots and how it plays out or causes difficulties, as well as the human reaction to the robots.


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