The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth
Hanson (Robin)
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Amazon Book Description

  1. Robots may one day rule the world, but what is a robot-ruled Earth like?
  2. Many think the first truly smart robots will be brain emulations or ems. Scan a human brain, then run a model with the same connections on a fast computer, and you have a robot brain, but recognizably human.
  3. Train an em to do some job and copy it a million times: an army of workers is at your disposal. When they can be made cheaply, within perhaps a century, ems will displace humans in most jobs. In this new economic era, the world economy may double in size every few weeks.
  4. Some say we can't know the future, especially following such a disruptive new technology, but Professor Robin Hanson sets out to prove them wrong. Applying decades of expertise in physics, computer science, and economics, he uses standard theories to paint a detailed picture of a world dominated by ems.
  5. While human lives don't change greatly in the em era, em lives are as different from ours as our lives are from those of our farmer and forager ancestors. Ems make us question common assumptions of moral progress, because they reject many of the values we hold dear.
  6. Read about em mind speeds, body sizes, job training and career paths, energy use and cooling infrastructure, virtual reality, aging and retirement, death and immortality, security, wealth inequality, religion, teleportation1, identity2, cities, politics, law, war, status, friendship and love.
  7. This book shows you just how strange your descendants may be, though ems are no stranger than we would appear to our ancestors. To most ems, it seems good to be an em.
  8. Robin Hanson: is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. Professor Hanson has master's degrees in physics and philosophy from the University of Chicago, nine years’ experience in artificial intelligence research at Lockheed and N.A.S.A., a doctorate in social science from California Institute of Technology, 2800 citations, and sixty academic publications, in economics, physics, computer science, philosophy, and more. He blogs at OvercomingBias, and has pioneered the field of prediction markets since 1988.

Amazon Customer Review 13
  1. Ems or robot/computer brain emulations of people, are the subject of this book, with sociological implications and a note that this may be a short section of the future, replaced by something even stranger. I'm puzzled that the author speculates that ems will 'live' in a few major cities which don't have humans and the humans will all go and retire. Where to? There's already not enough land to house and feed the seven billion of us plus the few billion who'll be coming along in the next few years. The ems Hanson says will be like robot people in that they will want to work and play - play being on line environment games.
  2. We know that we are lucky and advanced, living in this age of rapid change and improving medicine. We have not adapted quickly enough and are still adapting, the downside being that we are adapting away from being able to survive without machines and computers. Our ancestors had some peculiar and unpleasant habits, just as they would find some of our habits perplexing. So we can imagine this pattern continuing and our descendants, human or robot, being different again.
  3. What will the em city look like? Some robot bodies and a lot of computer banks. The space will be split equally between hardware and cooling or communications equipment. (I'm wondering about pests but with no people I suppose they will just gas them.) Most ems work in teams; they are made for a purpose and enjoy fulfilling it, then retire when no longer needed. Wages will be very low. (I'm not sure what the currency would be; maybe time on games.) There will still be laws, legal agreements, secrets and privacy. Mental processes can run at different speeds - but faster than humans - while bodies can be industrial robots or microbots. But Hanson argues that sex will still be sought, for recreation, in virtual worlds where they will all look as attractive as they wish. (I don't see why the machines would want sex unless people tell them to.) One em can have an experience and share it with the whole clan so learning is fast. Ems won't fear death because their memories can be stored and accessed.
  4. First we get a look at human past and culture transitions, and we are told that while all humans should gain from the em era, only a few will dominate. I don't see why machines should care if people have better healthcare or nice living space. Hanson adds that today's poor nations place more value on conformity, religion and authority, while rich nations value individualism, tolerance, pleasure, nature and trust. Sounds about right but I would add that this has applied to poor and wealthy individuals as well, broadly speaking. Today's rich nations are those with limited reproduction, seeming to go against the survival of the fittest demand, while poor nations have larger reproduction. Hanson says it would be hard and tricky to control global population growth - but Japan and China managed it at a stroke, not mentioned. Compliance with a modern law instead of a primitive religion seems to be the key.
  5. Hanson asks why we want to look at our future, who would do this other than SF readers, and what they expect to see. Also what taboos this book breaks, such as humans not having any way to earn. And then we're off, with a look at scanned and rebuilt artificial brains, biological networks not built for humans to understand. Hanson was working in AI in Silicon Valley since 1984 but has gone on to other fields like economics, and says that advances have been slower than expected at the time, but some areas have been recently advancing very fast. There's a discussion on the speed of advances in hardware, algorithms and AI progress. But the author reckons that ems can exist without broad AI.
  6. Items such as cosmic ray particles interacting with and corrupting computer performance are introduced. Moore's Law has been operating well but will be slowing. Stolen, enslaved and open source ems may be in use. This implies that one em team will steal ems from another. Parallel signal processing will be ideal for teams of ems, not linear which will leave some ems waiting for a task until others have completed theirs. Speed and the price of memory storage are considered. Cities slow down wind, channel wind, heat up and create microclimates. Em cities will be running much hotter. Cooling might be more of a limiting factor than space or power. Hanson says a slurry of salt water with ice pellets has five times the cooling capacity of water, better than cold air. A combination of cold climate and seawater may be needed, the Arctic and Antarctic would seem likely. The author doesn't mention that many big global databanks are located in Iceland, using cold air and geothermal power. The construction of cities and factories is discussed, as well as resources that would be needed.
  7. After this it gets weird I have to say, with ems being interchangeable with Sims to the reader, having copies or spurs and retired portions, needing authentication and using black markets; and metaphysical elements like souls of ems as opposed to where their mind happens to be working coming into play. I've read a lot of speculative fiction, from thrillers to SF, dealing with advanced computing so knowing that this book is not intended to be read as SF feels rather strange. The language is scientific but reasonably accessible, with references there in the text. There are also a couple of dozen pages of close-written references at the end. As a final note the author says that major changes such as robots taking most jobs, to pick one example, will be considered when there is enough evidence of it happening; actually, this is happening even in China now.
  8. If you know a good bit about computing and sociology this book will be very interesting. Certainly there is plenty of food for thought, and as the author says, the best guesses have been right about 50% of the time and moderately right more often. We may not have much more time to speculate before the sentient servers arrive. Who knows if the ems will want us?

Amazon Customer Review 2
  1. If there were ever a book to fully reflect Shakespeare's complete original line in The Tempest, 'O brave new world that has such people in't', it is surely Robin Hanson's The Age of Em.
  2. I don't know if it was done so the book title would echo 'age of empire' , but I find the author's term for uploaded personalities 'ems' a little contrived, like many made-up names - it's just a bit too short for what he covers. (And sounds far too like a shortening of Emma.) However there is no doubt that what Hanson is doing here is truly fascinating. It is far more than the lame subtitle 'work, love and life when robots rule the Earth' suggests, as is it's not about robots. It is attempting to forecast the nature of a world dominated by electronic 'people', initially created by uploading the mental patterns of humans.
  3. What Hanson does brilliantly is to take the reader through all the different implications of such a world. Implications that simply won't have occurred even to many science fiction writers. What, for example, would happen if a single person is copied many times to make a slave army? How would the ems interact socially? What would their civilisation be like? I've never seen a book that took this idea to such a detailed logical extreme.
  4. Unfortunately, despite the brilliance of the concept, the execution is not at the same level. It's like a non-fiction equivalent of Tolkien's The Silmarillion. If you are interested in the subject, it feels like something that ought to be a delight, but in fact the plodding academic writing, based on making repeated statements with no narrative flow, make it a pain of a book to read. We get exactly the same here as in The Silmarillion, with the added joy of inline Harvard-style references, which make it even harder to get any pleasure from reading it.
  5. I think the best way to describe The Age of Em as is as a theory of science fiction book. Although Hanson is of the opinion that his vision of a world dominated by uploaded personalities will be possible within 100 years, I suspect that the complexity of scanning a brain to the level of individual neurons, their connections, their chemical makeups and electrical balances will take rather longer to achieve. What's more, the author proudly tells us that he intends to have his brain frozen when he dies with the hope of one day becoming an em. If making this happen with living people is difficult, the chances of a personality remaining in a frozen brain that could even approximate to the original are negligible - think more of the episode in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when her dead mother is brought back. Not advisable.
  6. The other reason I'd label this theory of science fiction is that the whole business of futurology has always been terribly inaccurate. Niels Bohr was spot on when he said 'predictions can be very difficult - especially about the future.' Hanson attempts to defend the accuracy of futurology by pointing out specific examples that have come up with a surprisingly accurate prediction. But when you look at those examples, the accuracy is mostly retrofitted with hindsight. More to the point, this is a classic example of the scientific no-no of cherry picking. You don't show that something is effective by picking out the handful of cases where it has worked and ignoring the many thousands where it hasn't worked. Statistically, some guesses about the future are bound to be correct - but that doesn't make them accurate forecasts, it makes them lucky.
  7. So don't expect a great work of popular science (to be fair, given those inline references, I don't think the author intended it to be popular science). But if you can put the effort in and grind through it, there are some genuinely fascinating considerations about what a society of uploaded individuals might be like. In fact, I'd say any science fiction author worth his or her salt should be rushing out and buying a copy of this book. There are enough ideas here to spark off a thousand stories.

In-Page Footnotes ("Hanson (Robin) - The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth")

Footnote 3:

OUP Oxford; 5 April 2018; Paperback

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