The Age of Em Won’t Happen

Assessing the sci-fi future of labor done by emulations of brain-scanned human beings.

Tyler Cowen says that the predicted future of Robin Hanson’s Age of Em – a world in which most cognitive and much physical labor will be done by emulations of brain-scanned human beings – won’t happen. I agree. I enjoyed the book, and feel a bit guilty about criticizing it, since Hanson asked me for comments on an early draft, which I never got around to giving him (the last eighteen months have been unusually busy for a variety of reasons). So the below are the criticisms which I should have given him, and which might or might not have led him to change the book to respond to them (he might have been convinced by them; he might have thought they were completely wrong; he might have found them plausible but not wanted to respond to them – every good book consists not only of the good counter-arguments it answers, but the good counter-arguments that it brackets off).

First – the book makes a strong claim for the value of social science in extrapolating likely futures. I am a lot more skeptical that social science can help you make predictions on grounds that vaguely correspond to Popper’s arguments against historicism, but more specifically lean on the ideas of Ernest Gellner, Popper’s sometime ally and sometime antagonist. Hanson’s arguments seem to me to rely on a specific combination of (a) an application of evolutionary theory to social development with (b) the notion that evolutionary solutions will rapidly converge on globally efficient outcomes. This is a common set of assumptions among economists with evolutionary predilections, but it seems to me to be implausible. In actually existing markets, we see some limited convergence in the short term on e.g. forms of organization, but this is plausibly driven at least as much by homophily and politics as by the actual identification of efficient solutions. Evolutionary forces may indeed lead to the discovery of new equilibria, but haltingly, and in unexpected ways. As per Gellner (p.12, Plough, Sword and Book), this suggests an approach to social science which doesn’t aim at specific predictions a la Hanson, so much as at identifying the underlying forces which interact (often in unpredictable ways) to shape and constrain the range of possible futures:

human ideas and social forms are neither static nor given. In our age, this has become very obvious to most of us; and it has been obvious for quite some time. But any attempt at understanding of our collective or individual predicaments must needs be spelt out against the backcloth of a vision of human history. If our choices are neither self-evident nor for keeps, we need to know the range of alternatives from which they were drawn, the choices that others have made or which were imposted on them. We need to know the principles or factors which generate that range of options. The identification of those principles or factors is not beyond our capacities, even if specific prediction continues to elude us

Second: to the extent this criticism sticks, it suggests that the differences between the enterprise that Hanson is engaged in and good science fiction are nugatory. For sure, as Hanson suggests, science fiction is often going to bend prediction in favor of an interesting and compelling story. Yet in the end, much science fiction is doing the same kind of thing as Hanson ends up doing – trying in a reasonably systematic way to think through the social, economic and political consequences of certain trends, should they develop in particular ways. The aims of extrapolationistas and science fiction writers aims may be different – prediction versus constrained fiction writing but their end result – enriching our sense of the range of possible futures that might be out there – are pretty close to each other. NB again – this is emphatically not what Hanson wants to do – but it is the reason I got value from his book.

Third – there is a specific science fiction writer that Hanson might have learned from (this is the main source of my guilt about not getting comments back to him – I’d have liked have seen him engage with the case being made and think that the book might have benefited therefrom). One of the unresolved tensions in Hanson’s book is the exact status of the ‘ems’ – the emulated personalities that Hanson sees as dominating for a brief period in the human future. Are they free agents or are they slaves? I don’t think that Hanson’s answer is entirely consistent (or at least I wasn’t able to follow the thread of the consistent argument if it was). Sometimes he seems to suggest that they will have successful means of figuring out if they have been enslaved, and refusing to cooperate, hence leading to a likely convergence on free-ish market relations. Other times, he seems to suggest that it doesn’t make much difference to his broad predictive argument whether they are or are not slaves (here I’m sort of reminded of Piccione and Rubinstein’s Equilibrium of the Jungle argument, which, if taken seriously, has all sorts of troubling implications for the ‘nice’ politics that many economists draw from equilibrium arguments).

So Hanson’s extrapolated future seems to me to reflect an economist’s perspective in which markets have priority, and hierarchy is either subordinated to the market or pushed aside altogether. The work of Hannu Rajaniemi provides a rich, detailed, alternative account of the future in which something like the opposite is true – a solar system wide civilization in which emulated personalities (gogols) are pervasive, but in which the techniques used to generate them can also be used to reshape them and to break them, creating vast and distributed hierarchies of exploitation. I’ve mixed feelings about Rajaniemi’s books as science fiction, precisely because the gap between his imagined societies and his book’s plotlines (heist capers more or less) is so large. Yet this disconnect means that they provide a rich counter-extrapolation of what a profoundly different society might look like that for the most part isn’t subordinated to the needs of a plot line. I don’t know what the future will look like, but I suspect it will be weird in ways that echo Rajaniemi’s way of thinking (which generates complexities) rather than Hanson’s (which breaks them down).

As an aside – people interested in these ideas also ought to check out Ken MacLeod’s brand new book – the first of three books about interactions between emulated personalities based on sort-of-brain-scans and actual machine intelligences in a broader fight between sort-of-progressives and Mencius Moldbug style reactionaries. Since I haven’t read books two and three, I can’t tell you where his ideas are going – but I can predict that you’ll have a lot of fun along the way.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.