Slavery in the Age of Em
By Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan made strong, and to me incredible, claims that econ consensus predicts all ems would be fully slaves with no human personality. As he won’t explain
his reasoning, but just says to read the slavery literature, I’ve done a
quick lit review, which I now summarize, and then apply quickly to the
future in general, and to ems in particular.
I think I explained my reasoning repeatedly, but I’m happy to clarify.
For starters, Robin overstates my position. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a sentence like “All ems would be fully slaves with no human personality.” But I would say, “A large majority of ems are likely to be effectively slaves with little human personality.”
Now why do I think this?
1. Most human beings wouldn’t see ems as “human,” so neither would their legal systems. Robin wants to soften people’s attitudes, but he’s unlikely to succeed. One of the main reasons his project seem so “weird” outside the sci-fi and futurist communities is that normal humans feel little sympathy for non-humans. There’s an obvious evolutionary explanation: Our empathy primarily exists to encourage cooperation between humans. We feel mild empathy for other animals – especially larger mammals – but not much.
2. At the dawn of the Age of Em, humans will initially control (a) which brains they copy, and (b) the circumstances into which these copies emerge. In the absence of moral or legal barriers, pure self-interest will guide creators’ choices – and slavery will be an available option.
3. Moral and legal barriers aside, imperfect information about workers’ ability is the only self-interested reason not to treat them as slaves, especially when you can pre-select workers for docile personalities.
4. Since brain scans allow for cheap copying, employers would have excellent information about ems’ true abilities. Create a few dozen copies, give them life-or-death incentives to excel, and see what they accomplish. Then use that information against all the copies: Perform at your potential or we’ll inflict horrible pain on you.
5. There’s little reason to think initial human control will devolve into anything else as the Age of Em proceeds. As the em economy expands, the cost of treating ems more nicely gets higher and higher. And since, like farm animals, ems are bred for docility, there’s little reason to fear organized rebellion.
I understand how Robin can disagree with this argument. But I don’t understand how he could be unable to understand it. I can also understand why Robin would like more details. But I’m not confident enough about the details to want to describe them.
To repeat: If, like me, you think ems wouldn’t really be conscious anyway, my scenario is a great outcome. Humans would be fabulously rich and safe. And ems would genuinely experience no more pain than paper in a paper-shredder.