Sunday, July 17, 2016

Will the Ems flourish?

You should be interested in this question because some of your descendants might become Ems during the next century or so. 

Ems are the human-like robots that will be created by emulation of human brains. The emulation process will involve scanning an individual’s brain to record its particular cell features and connections and then building a computer model that processes signals according to those same features and connections. Ems will think, feel and behave like the humans from whom they are created. They will assume they have consciousness and free will, just as humans do.

That view of Ems is presented by Robin Hanson in his recently published book, The Age of Em.

The Age of Em is not the most difficult book I have ever tried to read, but of all the books I can claim to have actually finished reading, I have possibly had greatest difficulty finishing this one. It wasn’t the technical material in the book that put me off. Robin has explained enough of it well enough for non-technical readers like me to get the gist of the scenario being portrayed. I just became bored reading about the Ems. I persisted only because I feel that more of us (humans) should be taking an interest in the future of human-like entities.

Others also seem to have become bored reading about the Ems. In the Finale of his book Robin indicates that a “who cares” attitude was common among people who read early drafts of the book, and among those who declined to read. It would certainly have been easier for me to adopt that attitude than to finish reading the book.

In writing about the Ems, Robin Hanson has attempted to predict what is likely to happen, rather than to present a vision of what he would like to happen. He suggests that the Ems will mostly live in a few tall, hot, densely packed cities, which will seem harshly functional when viewed in physical reality, but will look spectacular and stunningly beautiful in virtual reality. Humans will live far from the Em cities, mostly enjoying a comfortable life on their Em-economy investments.

A distinguishing characteristic of the Em economy will be the ability of Ems to replicate themselves at relatively low cost. Robin suggests that there will be enough Ems willing to make copies of themselves to greatly lower wages to a level near the full cost of computer hardware needed to run Em brains. Under that Malthusian scenario, wages of most Ems will be so low that they will barely be able to afford to exist, even though they will be working hard half or more of their waking hours.

Most Ems will have office jobs, and work and play in spectacular virtual realities. Many of them will enjoy high status during their working lives because they will have mental capacities many times those of human brains. They will be slowed down after retirement, but will have the opportunity to live for as long as Em civilization persists.

Robin suggests that the Em future, as he portrays it, might look pretty good in terms of utilitarian evaluation criteria. Even with wages close to subsistence levels, Ems would have great opportunities for entertainment via virtual reality, and they would live long lives. If there are many billions or perhaps even trillions of them, as Robin suggests, utilitarian calculus would conclude that the Age of the Ems would see a big increase in total happiness relative to our world today.

That view seems to me to highlight the deficiencies of crude utilitarianism. The quality of life of the typical Em, as portrayed by Robin, strikes me as being lamentable. I predict that most humans faced with the choice of whether to live such a life, or the life of an average human, would choose to live the life of a human. Since Ems would inherit our values, I predict that most of them would also reject the life offered by their hot houses of virtual reality in favour of a more authentic life closer to nature. The choices involved are similar to those posed by Robert Nozick in his famous experience machine thought experiment (discussed previously on this blog in a post that has recently been re-published on Common Sense Ethics).

That brings me to what seems to me to be a major flaw in the scenario that Robin Hanson posits. I think he misjudges human values and preferences when he suggests that large numbers of humans and Ems would be willing to make copies of themselves under circumstances where Em wages were low and falling. As advances in technology have made it easier for humans to exert greater control over their own reproduction they have used that power to ensure their offspring have good prospects to have lives they will value. Ems might view their replication decisions differently, but I don’t see why they would choose to bring into the world large numbers of twins earning subsistence wages.

The other problem I have with Robin’s scenario is that I think he may be too pessimistic about the potential for Ems to increase their productivity by expanding their use of non-Em robots, as an alternative to replicating themselves. As Ems obtain more advanced capital to work with (including non-Em robots) their marginal productivity could be expected to rise, thus tending to raise wage rates.

This book is based on the assumption that brain emulation is likely to happen before artificial machine intelligence develops to the point where machines will achieve broad human level abilities. I don’t have the technical competence to comment on whether that is likely. Some issues relating to the latter possibility were discussed in my review of Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence. The idea that human-like robots may be created through brain emulation at some time during the next century does not fill me with joy, but life might be better for humans (and Ems) if the Ems are created before the intelligent machines, so they can prevent them from running amok.

Despite my reservations about this book, I recommend that readers should buy it in order to give Robin Hanson appropriate encouragement for his efforts in attempting to foresee the future of human-like creatures. An even better reason to buy the book is to try assess for yourself whether Robin’s base-line scenario is plausible.

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