Review: Robin Hanson’s Age of Em

51bAGj8QDgL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Robin Hanson, the closest we have today to an economist of science fiction — he might prefer “economist of the singularity” — has a new book out this week.

Called “Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth,” it teases out implications of a coming post-human age — economic, political, social, techological. Hanson was a physicist before economist, so he brings a refreshingly scientifically grounded analysis — hard and soft.

If you know Hanson you won’t be surprised that he packs a lot of ideas into one book. The pacing is fast, chock-full of interesting ideas to play with over its 368 pages. He brings in economics, evolutionary biology, business, sociology, political science, psychology, using empirical evidence from comparable episodes in history, to analyze many facets of a this post-human society. What are their personalities — are they outgoing? smart? what time do they go to sleep? what’s their version of sex? What’s a post-human economy look like — wealth levels, inequality, the composition of goods and production, what they do for fun. Legal-political systems — who rules and how? how do they handle legal disputes? Are they peaceful?

Crunchy subjects, and tons to play with in there. So, with that, let’s play a little here.

First, the world. Like in a science fiction novel, the first choice is what time is it. Are we talking 15 years in the future or 500? Hanson chooses a point “sometime in the next 100 years” to place a world made up almost entirely of “Ems” — simulated humans based on brain-scans. He allows for remnant old-fashioned humans living separately from the massive servers that house, Matrix-style, the dominant world of the Ems. To the Ems this world feels like it lasts for millennia, although this may only be a few years in the outside world.

So, in Hanson’s world of Ems, most action is happening “in-game” — inside the Ems-world. The Ems population quickly numbers in the trillions, growing rapidly as the costs of a new “life” — a new simulated human brain — are low.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Always in sci-fi readers will disagree on details. You may not believe the future will belong to scanned AI’s, but whether or not you accept Hanson’s world in every detail, his insights are generalizaeable across any post-human society made up of some combination of meat and silicon.

Hanson believes these Ems will exist at substintence-level, and will work long hours, as near-perfect competition pushes prices very close to costs. Because Ems fundamentally derive from human brains, Hanson believes they will exhibit roughly human-ranges of personalities, with some drift, and will have interests and proclivities mirroring the elite or high-status humans from which they will typically be generated.

Since Hanson’s Ems are based on humans, he traces out a number of trends that have been ocurring in humans: social and cultural changes going from hunter-gatherer to farmers to industrial and now, Hanson plausibly argues, Ems reverting closer to our “natural” culture of hunter-gatherers.

From this, he posits that Ems, like their source-code humans, value community, independence, excellence and compassion — in short, the main moving parts of modern humans, in proportions mostly mirroring a return to our roots. In other words, Ems will be closer to how humans would behave unconstrained by modern institutions. This leads to interesting questions: what are family values to Ems, their attitudes towards domination or altruism and how they intergrate these values into their institutions, what sorts of leisure and pleasures Ems may inherit from us, their ancestors.

This sort of deconstruction allows him to dig into a number of social though experiements. He draws examples from human history — anthropology, psychology — to trace out how removal of various human constraints would affect society: what if we were ageless, if reproduction were free, if communication were costless. Again, these discussions will be interesting whether or not you’re on-board with simulated AI’s, since I’d argue these topics will undeniably be coming down the pike within our kids’ lifetimes.

On Hanson’s economics, again, he cites widely and makes a number of very cogent arguments. My personal view is that his analysis is too pessimistic, for two reasons. First, because costs per life of building and maintaining their world will be so low — making executive decisions for (“driving”) the machines that build and maintain the servers, power, protection that sustain their world.

In today’s terms, I’d take a wild guess of 1/8-second of work to pay for 75 years of survival — push a button once per century. That 1/8-second buys, effectively, food-and-shelter (i.e. electricity, server maintenance), but Ems, like humans, will undoubtedly work beyond survival level.

But, again like humans, they’ll be working for nice-to-haves, not need-to-haves. Implying a life of plenty, not of robotic drudgery. They might work so they can hear new jokes in real-time, or so they can watch the new Game of Thrones season a minute earlier than others, or work so others will attentively listen to them ask pointless questions in TED forums. So Ems may well “work hard,” just as a violinist or disco dancer practices hard for Saturday night, or a writer practices hard for the perfect phrase, but it’s hardly what we’d consider poverty.

Second, equality. If fundamental wealth comes from pushing a button to drive an excavator once every couple decades, this ability will probably be quite widespread. After all, Ems are augmented copies of the most elite human minds. So, taken together, I’m far more optimistic, seeing a far wealthier and more egalitarian society than Hanson.

Ah, but that’s the entire point: Hanson’s book is the only reason I’m even thinking these things through. Whether or not you agree with his particular predictions or assumptions, Hanson has done a fantastic job sketching technologically and economically plausible outcomes to the future of humans and near-humans. He’s achieved what he set out to do, to stimulate these discussions, bring more minds into the game. I’d thoroughly recommend a read if you’re even remotely interested in the future of technology and humanity.

For more on Robin and the book, visit: