The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule the Earth, By Robin Hanson

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Written by Joshua Huminski

Last year, PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk surprised audiences at the Reccode’s Code Conference by arguing that humanity could well be a simulation. “There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality,” he said. “If a civilization stops advancing then that may be due to some calamitous event that erases civilization…Either we’re going to create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality, or civilization will cease to exist,” according to Musk.

Musk’s argument quickly sent the social media sphere a twitter (pun fully intended). Pundits and experts took to Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and other social media platforms to discuss the possibility that humanity is indeed in a simulation. Quickly joined by the average person, dialogues and discussions broke out questioning reality, our perception of it, and the philosophical arguments of our ability to know what is real and what is a simulation.

At the same time as Musk made his comments and the ensuing global dialogue, hundreds of millions of people worldwide plugged into virtual networks – games, simulations, and virtual working environments. All this took place without anyone batting an eye or questioning the very nature of what they were doing at the time. Indeed, many simply swapped one electronic environment for another.

For many, Musk’s idea of our living in a simulation was too outlandish, too far-fetched, too “out there” to be real. How could we be living in a simulation? How could we tell if we were or were not? Would it really matter if we were?

Simulation and its implications are well trodden grounds. So too is the nature of what is real and how we can or cannot tell what is real or fake. From classic philosophy such as Descartes to popular culture such as the Matrix, such explorations of the real are, well, very much real.

But what does the future hold for humanity if these trends continue? Where will we be in 100, 200, or 400 years? Will humanity exist only in simulations? Will we conduct all of our daily activities virtually, our corporeal selves locked safely behind doors and high walls? For that matter, what will humanity look like? Will humanity be at all recognizable to us today?

It is into this uncharted space that Robin Hanson’s book, The Age of Em, enters. Hanson disposes with near future speculation–what the world looks like in 10 or 15 years–and instead pushes the limit to well into the future, to a time when humanity has achieved the ability to upload human minds into the electronic realm. Through advances in scanning, computational power, storage, and modeling, brain emulations or “ems” become the dominant entity of the future. Humans, the squishy bits of human-in-the-loop technologies are cast into the remote plains and not considered in Hanson’s work.

Hanson, a scholar at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and professor at George Mason University applies social science, economics, behavioral theory, and other disciplines to this very far future scenario. Hanson is critical of other futurists (in general) believing that contemporary futurism is blinded by the familiar–it extrapolates current trends just enough to become unfamiliar, but close enough to today to be believable (or perhaps not too discomforting).

In this detailed, thought provoking, and deeply explored work he discusses the implications of ems, how they live (clustered super cooled skyscrapers), love (either “open source” lovers or having sex drive simply removed by editing), work (ems live to work), play (choosing to forget work and only remember the fun activities, or creating copies to do work), and organize (clans and sub-clans, with the original copy at the head). Em society is stratified along the fast and the slow, with significant implications for each. Some abandon the “real” world entirely, opting for only a virtual existence, while others occupy robot bodies for specialized tasks.

Ems create and delete copies of themselves at will, splitting off from the original for one-time tasks, tasks that the original would otherwise choose not to do or remember, or to continue the line of ems.

Here it would be interesting to see Hanson explore the nature of consciousness and existence in this context. Would an individual be so willing to destroy a copy of him or herself? What about the possibility that, as Hanson acknowledges, in creating the original em the brain is destroyed? Would the em really be the person it is copied from? Granted there are those that would willingly allow themselves to be uploaded–either by choice (early adopters) or circumstance (handicapped or terminally ill individuals)–but the destruction of the self to create a virtual self seems to be a notable, if unaddressed hurdle.

The depth and breadth of his analysis is undeniable. In reading the work one is simply stunned at the sheer volume of thought into em existence Hanson provides–short of perhaps interior decorating (and even then he notes the possibilities are limitless), one is hard pressed to find an area Hanson left uncovered.

Readers of Age of Em will find it weighty and be left wishing that Hanson crafted an overarching narrative that puts his richly envisioned world into context. A story of the ems, if you will. They will see the elements of em society and life, but want to feel it, touch it, and visualize what the em world looks like.

Humanity (read internet-connected humanity) by and large uploads their consciousness to a virtual environment for a good portion of every day. Upon waking we consume information–news, weather, and other data–from social media and online sources. Our schedules are maintained via our personal assistants—Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), Alexa (Amazon)—and our phones or other devices map our journey to and from work via GPS and advanced algorithms, routing us around traffic and along the best route (so we hope).

At work (including the home office) logging into Skype or virtual meetings is as common as making the morning coffee. International colleagues may as well be in your living room or office as you discuss the latest financial forecasts.

Ending the day, you return home, turn on your device or system of choice and enter a virtual world where you can work as a team, be a vigilante, experience things both possible and impossible, and craft fantasy worlds without limitation. Online, in virtual worlds, people meet and fall in love; form bonds of friendship and cooperation; take collective action both distributed and focused, all without leaving the comfort of their home.

How different is this from the em world then?

Bandwidth access leads to a stratification of the internet (to say nothing of net neutrality). Many jobs now use telepresence and virtual environments for the operation of advanced machinery and tools, including surgical robots. Individual hobbyists can craft models on 3D printers from plans downloaded from the Internet. Clans and teams form both within and outside virtual games and environments to organize action (for good, such as World of Warcraft, or for bad—arguably according to some, such as Anonymous).

The em world forecast and thought out by Hanson may be a lot closer to reality than he or we may realize.