Robin Hanson's The Age of Em: A Succinct Assessment
By Bryan Caplan
1. Robin Hanson is a brilliant, delightful thinker, and I’m glad he wrote the book.
2. Futurism – especially futurism informed by social science – deserves much higher status and vastly more intellectual attention.
3. Artificial intelligence will be important in the future.
4. While it’s possible to bypass philosophy of mind and simply describe the future role of AI, Robin’s whole analysis tacitly assumes an extreme version of “ems are just as human as you or me.” If he were really agnostic, roughly 50% of the book would have focused on the lives of biological humans during The Age of Em. The true share is more like 2%.
5. In practice, the difference between ems and generalized AIs will be
modest, because we’ll pre-select robot-like humans to emulate. Talking
about ems’ love lives and religiosity is silly.
6. Robin describes the Age of Em in lurid language, then wonders why readers are afraid. How does he expect readers to react when he tells them that “ordinary humans” will be “sidelined” and “earn zero wages,” while the “vast majority of people will live at the subsistence level”?
7. In plain English, however, Robin’s description of his scenario is very bright. Biological humans will enjoy immense prosperity. If simulated humans are conscious, their lives will be hard, if not hellish. But why would mere simulations be conscious, anyway?
8. As long as AIs are psychologically robot-like, biological humans will remain in charge of politics and business. Biological humans won’t be dominated, expropriated, or exterminated by their own creations.
9. However, if AIs are psychologically human-like, ems will probably do terrible things to the first generation of biological humans to meet them. Since the ems subjectively experience years in a single objective day, a small risk of em-human conflict per em generation yields a very high risk of em-human conflict per human generation. Over time, moreover, this risk is likely to rise, because the ems would, within a few of their own generations, develop a radically separate identity and social network, creating preconditions for ugly – and plausibly genocidal – group conflict. Remember: In Robin’s scenario, the ems vastly outnumber the humans, even though the humans have the lions’ share of the wealth. And the humans no longer contribute anything to the global economy; they’re true rentiers.
10. No matter what happens with AI, the global economy will never double in size annually, much less monthly. There are too many political, economic, technological, and social bottlenecks. In any case, the extraordinary claim that the economy will double on a monthly basis requires extraordinary evidence that Robin definitely does not possess.