Thursday, August 11, 2016

Robin Hanson's Ems

Robin Hanson an economist at George Mason and author of the Overcoming Bias blog, has a new book The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth. Em stands for brain emulation, a computerized version of a human brain processes including consciousness, all the wants, desires and faults of a human brain. An em can be created by copying from a human brain or another em, it can be stored and restored, slightly tweaked and can run faster or slower depending on the power consumption. Reminds me a bit of the cookies in the White Christmas episode of Black Mirror. Hanson also talks about clans, the collection of all the ems that descend from a particular human.

The book has two distinct parts. The first gives a plausible physical and social explanation as to how and why the em world will come to be. Hanson gives the odds of such a world developing at one in a thousand. I put the odds much lower, especially since we have no true understanding of consciousness. For example if consciousness requires quantum entanglement, we would have no hope of copying into an em without destroying the old em (or human) it came from. More likely I expect we would have em-like machines that can perform a number of human-like tasks but won't have any true consciousness. Nevertheless I'd acknowledge that Hanson's world is at least possible given our current knowledge of the brain.

I enjoyed more Hanson's discussion about the world of the ems given that they exist. Hanson takes a science, as opposed to a science fiction, approach to the topic, carefully thinking about how ems would work as a clan, how they interact politically, socially and economically. You can see the variety of topics in the table of contents on the book's website. For example, Hanson argues that it makes economic sense to have ems split off as "spurs" to do more menial tasks in parallel in exchange for a short working life, as short as a few minutes, and a long retirement, with the retirement in a slower low-powered mode. Hanson has done some strong research and advocating for prediction markets (we even have a joint paper on the topic) that there is no surprise that markets show up as a decision making systems for ems.

I don't agree with all of Hanson's conclusions, in particular he expects a certain rationality from ems that we don't often see in humans, and if ems are just human emulations, they may not want a short life and long retirement. Perhaps this book isn't about ems and robots at all, but about Hanson's vision of human-like creatures as true economic beings as he espouses in his blog. Not sure it is a world I'd like to be a part of, but it's a fascinating world nevertheless.


  1. Thanks for the review.

    I'm not sure I'm assuming rationality re spurs so much as cultural adaptation. A culture can pressure people into finding ways to be okay with doing what that culture needs.

    Unless there is new physics associated with consciousness, we will NEVER learn anything more about what physical systems are or are not "really" conscious than we know now. All we will ever learn is about what systems are capable of acting like they think they are conscious.

  2. (thx for sharing. wanted to but was thinking of skipping commenting presuming LF wouldnt reply as usual. but then saw RH comment above.)

    maybe need to read it but why write a complicated book about a highly improbable world (0.1% chance)? what world does Hanson think has a 99.9% chance of occurring? anyway its refreshing compared to Kurzweil et al who are near religious on the topic and think it will be as likely as some christians regard the 2nd coming. and btw there is a lot of techno-religious interconnection with the singularity that was explored in one ref (gotta dig it up sometime). just finished reading nick bostrom & markoff writing on the same topics, recommend those books too... there sure are a lot on the topic now it would be fun to try to make a comprehensive list on AI...

  3. Rational thinking is perhaps easier to define, and is certainly easier to emulate in many contexts than is consciousness.

    I do not know how one would go about characterizing and measuring consciousness. I am in agreement with Lance that we have no idea how to create a conscientious entity and would bet that the odds of us (and our derived species) producing one in the far far future look tiny. Certainly all animals possess consciousness. Animals seem to possess intelligence, to the extent that they need, to be able to survive in the wild. Is there, however, a difference in the levels of consciousness among different mammalian species, among different primates? Are consciousness and intelligence two facets of the same coin that are tightly intertwined? What about frustration and emotions? Lance has alluded to all this and more in earlier posts as reasons for his trepidation about AI. There is definitely a need for lot more thinking and writing addressing these issues, to complement the continued onslaught of AI-this and AI-that articles.