Saturday Night Science: The Age of Em

 

“The Age of Em” by Robin HansonMany books, both fiction and nonfiction, have been devoted to the prospects for and consequences of the advent of artificial intelligence: machines with a general cognitive capacity which equals or exceeds that of humans. While machines have already surpassed the abilities of the best humans in certain narrow domains (for example, playing games such as chess or go), you can’t take a chess playing machine and expect it to be even marginally competent at a task as different as driving a car or writing a short summary of a newspaper story, things most humans can do with a little experience. A machine with “artificial general intelligence” (AGI) would be as adaptable as humans, and able with practice to master a wide variety of skills.

The usual scenario is that continued exponential progress in computing power and storage capacity, combined with better understanding of how the brain solves problems, will eventually reach a cross-over point where artificial intelligence matches human capability. But since electronic circuitry runs so much faster than the chemical signalling of the brain, even the first artificial intelligences will be able to work much faster than people, and, applying their talents to improving their own design at a rate much faster than human engineers can work, will result in an “intelligence explosion,” where the capability of machine intelligence runs away and rapidly approaches the physical limits of computation, far surpassing human cognition. Whether the thinking of these super-minds will be any more comprehensible to humans than quantum field theory is to a goldfish and whether humans will continue to have a place in this new world and, if so, what it may be, has been the point of departure for much speculation.

In the present book, Robin Hanson, a professor of economics at George Mason University, explores a very different scenario. What if the problem of artificial intelligence (figuring out how to design software with capabilities comparable to the human brain) proves to be much more difficult than many researchers assume, but that we continue to experience exponential growth in computing and our ability to map and understand the fine-scale structure of the brain, both in animals and eventually humans? Then some time in the next hundred years (and perhaps as soon as 2050), we may have the ability to emulate the low-level operation of the brain with an electronic computing substrate. Note that we need not have any idea how the brain actually does what it does in order to do this: All we need to do is understand the components (neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, etc.) and how they’re connected together, then build a faithful emulation of them on another substrate. This emulation, presented with the same inputs (for example, the pulse trains which encode visual information from the eyes and sound from the ears), should produce the same outputs (pulse trains which activate muscles, or internal changes within the brain which encode memories).

Building an emulation of a brain is much like reverse-engineering an electronic device. It’s often unnecessary to know how the device actually works as long as you can identify all of the components, their values, and how they’re interconnected. If you re-create that structure, even though it may not look anything like the original or use identical parts, it will still work the same as the prototype. In the case of brain emulation, we’re still not certain at what level the emulation must operate nor how faithful it must be to the original. This is something we can expect to learn as more and more detailed emulations of parts of the brain are built. The Blue Brain Project set out in 2005 to emulate one neocortical column of the rat brain. This goal has now been achieved, and work is progressing both toward more faithful simulation and expanding the emulation to larger portions of the brain. For a sense of scale, the human neocortex consists of about one million cortical columns.

In this work, the author assumes that emulation of the human brain will eventually be achieved, then uses standard theories from the physical sciences, economics, and social sciences to explore the consequences and characteristics of the era in which emulations will become common. He calls an emulation an “em”, and the age in which they are the dominant form of sentient life on Earth the “age of em.” He describes this future as “troublingly strange.” Let’s explore it.

As a starting point, assume that when emulation becomes possible, we will not be able to change or enhance the operation of the emulated brains in any way. This means that ems will have the same memory capacity, propensity to forget things, emotions, enthusiasms, psychological quirks and pathologies, and all of the idiosyncrasies of the individual human brains upon which they are based. They will not be the cold, purely logical, and all-knowing minds which science fiction often portrays artificial intelligences to be. Instead, if you know Bob well, and an emulation is made of his brain, immediately after the emulation is started, you won’t be able to distinguish Bob from Em-Bob in a conversation. As the em continues to run and has its own unique experiences, it will diverge from Bob based upon them, but, we can expect much of its Bob-ness to remain.

But simply by being emulations, ems will inhabit a very different world than humans, and can be expected to develop their own unique society which differs from that of humans at least as much as the behaviour of humans who inhabit an industrial society differs from hunter-gatherer bands of the Paleolithic. One key aspect of emulations is that they can be checkpointed, backed up, and copied without errors. This is something which does not exist in biology, but with which computer users are familiar. Suppose an em is about to undertake something risky, which might destroy the hardware running the emulation. It can simply make a backup, store it in a safe place, and if disaster ensues, arrange to have to the backup restored onto new hardware, picking up right where it left off at the time of the backup (but, of course, knowing from others what happened to its earlier instantiation and acting accordingly). Philosophers will fret over whether the restored em has the same identity as the one which was destroyed and whether it has continuity of consciousness. To this, I say, let them fret; they’re always fretting about something. As an engineer, I don’t spend time worrying about things I can’t define, no less observe, such as “consciousness,” “identity,” or “the soul.” If I did, I’d worry about whether those things were lost when undergoing general anaesthesia. Have the wisdom teeth out, wake up, and get on with your life.

If you have a backup, there’s no need to wait until the em from which it was made is destroyed to launch it. It can be instantiated on different hardware at any time, and now you have two ems, whose life experiences were identical up to the time the backup was made, running simultaneously. This process can be repeated as many times as you wish, at a cost of only the processing and storage charges to run the new ems. It will thus be common to capture backups of exceptionally talented ems at the height of their intellectual and creative powers so that as many can be created as the market demands their services. These new instances will require no training, but be able to undertake new projects within their area of knowledge at the moment they’re launched. Since ems which start out as copies of a common prototype will be similar, they are likely to understand one another to an extent even human identical twins do not, and form clans of those sharing an ancestor. These clans will be composed of subclans sharing an ancestor which was a member of the clan, but which diverged from the original prototype before the subclan parent backup was created.

Because electronic circuits run so much faster than the chemistry of the brain, ems will have the capability to run over a wide range of speeds and probably will be able to vary their speed at will. The faster an em runs, the more it will have to pay for the processing hardware, electrical power, and cooling resources it requires. The author introduces a terminology for speed where an em is assumed to run around the same speed as a human, a kilo-em a thousand times faster, and a mega-em a million times faster. Ems can also run slower: a milli-em runs 1000 times slower than a human and a micro-em at one millionth the speed. This will produce a variation in subjective time which is entirely novel to the human experience. A kilo-em will experience a century of subjective time in about a month of objective time. A mega-em experiences a century of life about every hour. If the age of em is largely driven by a population which is kilo-em or faster, it will evolve with a speed so breathtaking as to be incomprehensible to those who operate on a human time scale. In objective time, the age of em may only last a couple of years, but to the ems within it, its history will be as long as the Roman Empire. What comes next? That’s up to the ems; we cannot imagine what they will accomplish or choose to do in those subjective millennia or millions of years.

What about humans? The economics of the emergence of an em society will be interesting. Initially, humans will own everything, but as the em society takes off and begins to run at least a thousand times faster than humans, with a population in the trillions, it can be expected to create wealth at a rate never before experienced. The economic doubling time of industrial civilisation is about 15 years. In an em society, the doubling time will be just 18 months and potentially much faster. In such a situation, the vast majority of wealth will be within the em world, and humans will be unable to compete. Humans will essentially be retirees, with their needs and wants easily funded from the proceeds of their investments in initially creating the world the ems inhabit. One might worry about the ems turning upon the humans and choosing to dispense with them but, as the author notes, industrial societies have not done this with their own retirees, despite the financial burden of supporting them, which is far greater than will be the case for ems supporting human retirees.

The economics of the age of em will be unusual. The fact that an em, in the prime of life, can be copied at almost no cost will mean that the supply of labour, even the most skilled and specialised, will be essentially unlimited. This will drive the compensation for labour down to near the subsistence level, where subsistence is defined as the resources needed to run the em. Since it costs no more to create a copy of a CEO or computer technology research scientist than a janitor, there will be a great flattening of pay scales, all settling near subsistence. But since most ems will live mostly in virtual reality, subsistence need not mean penury: most of their needs and wants will not be physical, and will cost little or nothing to provide. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the much-feared “robot revolution” ended up solving the problem of “income inequality”? Ems may have a limited useful lifetime to the extent they inherit the human characteristic of the brain having greatest plasticity in youth and becoming increasingly fixed in its ways with age, and consequently less able to innovate and be creative. The author explores how ems may view death (which for an em means being archived and never re-instantiated) when there are myriad other copies in existence and new ones being spawned all the time, and how ems may choose to retire at very low speed and resource requirements and watch the future play out a thousand times or faster than a human can.

This is a challenging and often disturbing look at a possible future which, strange as it may seem, violates no known law of science and toward which several areas of research are converging today. The book is simultaneously breathtaking and tedious. The author tries to work out every aspect of em society: the structure of cities, economics, law, social structure, love, trust, governance, religion, customs, and more. Much of this strikes me as highly speculative, especially since we don’t know anything about the actual experience of living as an em or how we will make the transition from our present society to one dominated by ems. The author is inordinately fond of enumerations. Consider this one from chapter 27.

These include beliefs, memories, plans, names, property, cooperation, coalitions, reciprocity, revenge, gifts, socialization, roles, relations, self-control, dominance, submission, norms, morals, status, shame, division of labor, trade, law, governance, war, language, lies, gossip, showing off, signaling loyalty, self-deception, in-group bias, and meta-reasoning.

But for all its strangeness, the book amply rewards the effort you’ll invest in reading it. It limns a world as different from our own as any portrayed in science fiction, yet one which is a plausible future that may come to pass in the next century, and is entirely consistent with what we know of science. It raises deep questions of philosophy, what it means to be human, and what kind of future we wish for our species and its successors. No technical knowledge of computer science, neurobiology, nor the origins of intelligence and consciousness is assumed; just a willingness to accept the premise that whatever these things may be, they are independent of the physical substrate upon which they are implemented.

Hanson, Robin. The Age of Em. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-19-875462-6.

Here is a talk by the author at Google about the issues discussed in the book.

Members have made 29 comments.

  1. Profile photo of John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    If you’d like to further explore artificial intelligence, here are some books, nonfiction and fiction, which you may enjoy.

    Nonfiction

    Fiction

    • #1
    • September 10, 2016 at 11:32 am
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  2. Profile photo of Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    John Walker: One key aspect of emulations is that they can be checkpointed, backed up, and copied without errors. This is something which does not exist in biology, but with which computer users are familiar. Suppose an em is about to undertake something risky, which might destroy the hardware running the emulation. It can simply make a backup, store it in a safe place, and if disaster ensues, arrange to have to the backup restored onto new hardware, picking up right where it left off at the time of the backup (but, of course, knowing from others what happened to its earlier instantiation and acting accordingly).

    So it turns out that playing video games is actually preparing me for our future!

    Now, so long as the em software isn’t too aggressive about autosaving…

    • #2
    • September 10, 2016 at 12:08 pm
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  3. Profile photo of Quake Voter Thatcher

    Perhaps our best hope is that the primal substrate emulated results in some fond fellow feeling amongst the Ems for us.

    We are cute, frolicsome, silly creatures.

    What entertaining pets we’d make.

    The material splendor and freedom from responsibility (beyond the occasional “bad girl”) is simply the Julia dream of the Obama administration taken to logical conclusion.

    And we guys could spend our time exploring the Lamarckian possibilities of emulating the favorite pastime of our canine pets.

    So there’s that.

    • #3
    • September 10, 2016 at 2:04 pm
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  4. Profile photo of Percival Thatcher

    John Walker: As an engineer, I don’t spend time worrying about things I can’t define, no less observe, such as “consciousness,” “identity,” or “the soul.” If I did, I’d worry about whether those things were lost when undergoing general anaesthesia. Have the wisdom teeth out, wake up, and get on with your life.

    For all you know, the you that woke up this morning isn’t the you that went to bed last night. If any of your memories can be false, then they all can be false …

    Pleasant dreams tonight.

    • #4
    • September 10, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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  5. Profile photo of Nymeria Inactive

    @John Walker, fascinating and very disturbing! The entire AI topic is complex yet the core implications seem to fall within the realm of unintended consequences. What those will be sound mind boggling. The end game seems to be the removal of individuality, randomness, and ultimately the exercise of free will. I would greatly appreciate your perspective as someone who values free will and is knowledgeable in the technical subjects. I have spoken about this peripherally with a software engineer friend and the dystopian end game is so depressing. Think the thought and survaillance police (1984) combined with Huxley’s vision of uninterested and ill educated masses. Will we as a society rebel and end up with a Butleran Jihad? I claim no knowledge of engineering and programming but I find this subject fascinating.

    • #5
    • September 10, 2016 at 2:41 pm
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  6. Profile photo of John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Percival:If any of your memories can be false, then they all can be false …

    Pleasant dreams tonight.

    And may none of those dreams involve Boltzmann brains! I’ll talk about these critters in a forthcoming Saturday Night Science. Maybe for Halloween….

    • #6
    • September 10, 2016 at 3:06 pm
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  7. Profile photo of civil westman Member

    I’ve read a number of the books John listed. This all leaves me unsettled. I wish I were as immune to philosophy as engineers. Unfortunately, I take it all personally.

    You see, it wasn’t long ago in my lifetime that God was in His heaven. I was a citizen of the USA, an admirable, honest nation where individual rights reigned, men were men, women were women, there were only two genders, each with their own plumbing (attached and porcelain). Since none of that is any longer the case I feel a bit unmoored. I find I cannot even take refuge in former beliefs as to human ontology. I can’t even say I can tell if it is progress or a mad rush toward extinction.

    Important choices loom and I fear we will not even pause to pose any questions, driven, as we are, by the imperative to do every thing which is within our power. It is all fascinating and terrible. It brings to mind the ancient admonition of the First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Though I am not religious, I wonder if with AGI and genetic manipulation we cross some threshold, even if not a spiritual, but a merely material, causal one. That is, we are used to being able to make reasonable predictions as to the effects of acts we undertake. These acts seem to me to be qualitatively different.

    • #7
    • September 10, 2016 at 3:50 pm
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  8. Profile photo of Dad of Four Thatcher

    John Walker:Fiction

    The “Culture” novels by Iain M Banks (his non-culture appear under Iain Banks) are some of the best works in Sci-Fi incorporating this scenario.

    • #8
    • September 10, 2016 at 3:55 pm
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  9. Profile photo of John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    civil westman: Though I am not religious, I wonder if with AGI and genetic manipulation we cross some threshold, even if not a spiritual, but a merely material, causal one. That is, we are used to being able to make reasonable predictions as to the effects of acts we undertake. These acts seem to me to be qualitatively different.

    That’s why they call it “the singularity”. In mathematics, a singularity is a point at which a function is not well-defined or, less precisely speaking, you cannot predict the result beyond the singularity from conditions which obtained before. The emergence of greater than human intelligence, whether artificial intelligence as usually imagined or emulations of human brains which run thousands to millions of times faster, will represent a phase transition in the human experience, beyond which it is difficult to predict.

    In The Age of Em, the author attempts this difficult task by assuming our mind children will share the same motivations and preferences of their human ancestors. We won’t know if this is correct until we get there. Hanson observes that human behaviour changed substantially in each of the earlier phase transitions between hunter-gatherer, farmer, and industrial civilisation. He suggests that the incentives in an em society may be more those of a farmer society (conservative, religious, family/clan oriented) than those of our ephemeral industrial era.

    • #9
    • September 10, 2016 at 4:42 pm
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  10. Profile photo of The Reluctant Californian Member

    I haven’t read this book but the subject as a whole is interesting and important and will be more so as time goes on.

    You touched on a point I feel need clarification. I hope it will make @civilwestman and others like him feel better.

    There is a huge difference between cognition/self awareness and problem solving ability. Computers bypassed us in the latter almost as soon as they were invented. We’ve been living in that world for a long time and we are all still here. The difference between now and then is that programmers (humans) have recently begun formalizing several statistical tricks necessary for a program to alter some of its own parameters based on inputs. This sounds scary, but isn’t fundamentally new. It’s just a smarter way of writing certain types of programs.We make a huge mistake in believing that a computer, just because it can emulate an organic system, can become self aware. Take if from somebody that has designed, built, reverse engineered (sort of), and taught others how to build microprocessors: It’s just a box of rocks. Really fast rocks.

    That joke has been around for a while, but it is 100% true. Maybe rocks can become sentient, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Of course, the dystopian view is that we don’t need to be worried about the computer that passes the Turing test. We need to worry about the one that intentionally fails it.

    • #10
    • September 10, 2016 at 4:47 pm
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  11. Profile photo of John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    The Reluctant Californian: Of course, the dystopian view is that we don’t need to be worried about the computer that passes the Turing test. We need to worry about the one that intentionally fails it.

    Indeed. Any computer intelligent enough to pass the Turing test is smart enough to deliberately fail it.

    • #11
    • September 10, 2016 at 5:10 pm
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  12. Profile photo of The Reluctant Californian Member

    John Walker:

    Indeed. Any computer intelligent enough to pass the Turing test is smart enough to deliberately fail it.

    I don’t know… I was just joking there. The Turing test is much easier to pass than most people realize. It is only related to how the machine acts, not whether or not it is actually cognitive. In Turing’s paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, the test is only that an observer, who can only read text replies from a human source and a machine source, would be unable to distinguish which was the machine. That leaves a lot of leeway for variable intelligence in the observer and variable intelligence in the human that is competing against the machine.

    I’ve met plenty of people in Southern California that wouldn’t tax the “intelligence” of a machine. Like perhaps a toaster oven.

    • #12
    • September 10, 2016 at 5:35 pm
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  13. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor

    This should be prefixed with Marx’s famous statement, the machine is the true agent of revolution. So what’s implied in the elimination of scarcity? Endless, nearly infinite labor divorced from the human powers, which come with the limits of human being. Well, if you’ve got a world where CEOs are no more expensive or rare than engineers, you will assume a solution to the problems human beings have with making decisions.

    I’ve a question about the book: Does the guy who wrote it find it conceivable that in that future there would be war, still & again? Human beings disagree radically about what’s good for them & it leads to war.

    The other question is to do with the way emulations must diverge from human beings–emulations do not need food or sleep, they cannot give birth or fear death. Would they fall in love & vow to be true to a beloved for eternity?

    • #13
    • September 11, 2016 at 5:21 am
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  14. Profile photo of John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Titus Techera:I’ve a question about the book: Does the guy who wrote it find it conceivable that in that future there would be war, still & again? Human beings disagree radically about what’s good for them & it leads to war.

    The other question is to do with the way emulations must diverge from human beings–emulations do not need food or sleep, they cannot give birth or fear death. Would they fall in love & vow to be true to a beloved for eternity?

    Here is the table of contents (scroll down). Items prefixed with a right-facing triangle expand when clicked.

    War is discussed in chapter 20, “Conflict”. Summary:

    Compared with our world, em cities, families, firms, and labor market suppliers are more unequal. Individual wages are more equal, but speeds and lifespans are much less so, and indefinite lifespans can induce more wealth inequality. The sort of inequality that has most motivated historical redistribution, between the families of a nation, is low for ems, and redistributing on that basis transfers from poor to rich individuals. Poorer ems suggest more war but older ems suggest less. Big cities suggest fewer small wars, but more big wars. Although ems need not fear death, they’d fear war’s destruction. Clan nepotism is more problematic than is family nepotism to us, so ems need strong policies to suppress it. In particular, nepotism can undermine the reliability of abstract professional experts, pushing ems to rely less on such experts.

    Love is discussed in chapter 23, “Mating”. Summary:

    As ems don’t need sex to reproduce, sex is left more to individual choice, and may be suppressed as in eunuchs. But demand for sex and romantic pair-bonding likely persists, as do many familiar gendered behavioral patterns. A modestly unequal demand for male versus female workers can be accommodated via pairs whose partners run at different speeds, or who use different ratios of spurs to other workers. Ems have spectacularly good looks in virtual reality, and are very accomplished. Open-source em lovers give all ems an attractive lower bound on relation quality. Clan experience helps ems guess who are good receptive matches. Having only one em from each clan in each social setting avoids complicating relations.

    These summaries use terms defined earlier in the book. A “clan” is a group of ems all of whom are derived from a single human prototype. As the age of em progresses, clans may be expected to differentiate into subclans based on an original em prototype, and over time these will differentiate. A “spur” is an em created by an em to accomplish a short-term task. For example, a scholar writing a work of history might create ten copies, each assigned to research one aspect of the work. Once the job was accomplished, these spurs would end (die/be archived) or retire at slow speed. Thoughts about the em view of death and retirement are in chapter 11, “Farewells”:

    Brains, like other complex adaptive systems, become inflexible with experience adapting to particular environments. So within a subjective few centuries, ems become no longer competitive with younger ems and so must retire. Slow retirement is very cheap, but as with the naturally-slow humans, a slow retiree’s expected lifespan is limited by em civilization instabilities. Em retirees are like ghosts in many ways. Ems see making a copy who ends after doing a short task not as “death,” but as a part of them they choose not to remember. Ems usually have a right to suicide.

    • #14
    • September 11, 2016 at 6:27 am
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  15. Profile photo of civil westman Member

    A few additional things occur to me.

    If we are to emulate humans, John Walker would be a good first subject (this is because of my high regard for his knowledge and values).

    I wonder what would become of a human population freed from work. Righty or wrongly, I believe much of human meaning – since the beginning – is derived from meaningful creative work. I am not at all sure that this can be replaced if subsistence is a given, and all creative efforts (if, indeed, any are made) represent onanism, frivolity, or distraction (eternal bread and circuses).

    • #15
    • September 11, 2016 at 6:48 am
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  16. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor

    A lot of this stuff is not obvious to me.

    Why would the virtual look of emulations matter to them in terms of astounding beauty? How would it make sense anymore if everyone were astoundingly beautiful all the time? Look & attraction would not have much in common; of course, both would be purposeless distractions.

    On the other hand, in a world where human beings no longer have principles that are understood in relation to the ground of being, self-love would seem to be the last reality. I’m not sure ‘clan’ describes quite what it would mean. It seems to me that that would be the only alternative or threat to what you could call techno-market forces, which are supposed to account for all the conventions the guy supposes would obtain. Science, too, would become far more conventional than it is now…

    • #16
    • September 11, 2016 at 7:22 am
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  17. Profile photo of civil westman Member

    Titus Techera:A lot of this stuff is not obvious to me.

    Why would the virtual look of emulations matter to them in terms of astounding beauty? How would it make sense anymore if everyone were astoundingly beautiful all the time? Look & attraction would not have much in common; of course, both would be purposeless distractions.

    On the other hand, in a world where human beings no longer have principles that are understood in relation to the ground of being, self-love would seem to be the last reality. I’m not sure ‘clan’ describes quite what it would mean. It seems to me that that would be the only alternative or threat to what you could call techno-market forces, which are supposed to account for all the conventions the guy supposes would obtain. Science, too, would become far more conventional than it is now…

    In comment #9, John says that after “the singularity,” predictions become impossible. I think we cannot help but be solipsistic, and project ourselves onto these potential creations. Since we cannot know what their values will be, we cannot know how they will value our continued existence. Ample reason, in my mind, to proceed with great caution.

    • #17
    • September 11, 2016 at 8:23 am
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  18. Profile photo of Mark Wilson Member

    This brings to mind the Cylons of the Battlestar Galactica remake.

    • #18
    • September 11, 2016 at 2:17 pm
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  19. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor

    I’m not sure how come a singularity would change nature or the structure of thinking-

    • #19
    • September 11, 2016 at 2:17 pm
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  20. Profile photo of John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Titus Techera:I’m not sure how come a singularity would change nature or the structure of thinking-

    It isn’t the singularity per se, but rather a qualitative difference in cognitive capability which comes with the singularity. (Most discussions of a technological singularity assume the development of artificial intelligence by the combination of increase in computing power and the development of software capable of general problem solving. There are differences in the brain emulation route.)

    After the emergence of artificial intelligence and the subsequent intelligence explosion, the artificial intelligences may surpass the capabilities of the human brain to the extent human cognition surpasses that of an insect, or to cite another analogy I’ve used before, that a 747 surpasses a hawk. I don’t think there’s any question that the structure and nature of thinking of a human is different from that of even a much more closely-related creature such as a mouse. There will probably be a wider gap between humans and mature artificial intelligence.

    It’s somewhat different for emulations. Their minds work precisely like human brains because that’s what they’re emulating. But they can run between a thousand and a million times faster, and their societies can consist of trillions of individuals with a much smaller environmental footprint than billions of humans. The characteristics of their society, driven by the nature of their existence, may differ as greatly from our own as the differences between industrial society and early agriculture, or agriculture and foragers. These changes in societal structure (or, if you like, the means of production) made major changes not in the structure of the human brain, but in what people think about, and the scale at which their societies were organised and ability to collaborate on large projects.

    • #20
    • September 11, 2016 at 4:27 pm
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  21. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor

    So the casual reader of the old Greek writers will notice how they thought through the psychology of democracy or capitalism. I don’t see that this other case is different in a radical way. The question is whether there is a radical change in the human being. Without thinking through human nature, there is hardly any way to do it…

    • #21
    • September 11, 2016 at 4:40 pm
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  22. Profile photo of Mark Wilson Member

    It occurs to be that these Em brains would necessarily be very different from human brains even if they were perfect emulations of the physical brain, because a human is much more than a brain. There are constantly countless sensory inputs, hormones, chemical signals from the body indicating hunger, thirst, tiredness, fatigue, sex drive. Without these would an Em brain suffer from extreme sensory deprivation? Would it perceive itself to be alive at all, since the instant before startup it was “fully human” and the instant after startup it’s just floating in cyberspace? Would it suffer Cotard’s Delusion, believing it had just died or was stuck in a dream state?

    • #22
    • September 11, 2016 at 10:36 pm
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  23. Profile photo of John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Mark Wilson: It occurs to be that these Em brains would necessarily be very different from human brains even if they were perfect emulations of the physical brain, because a human is much more than a brain. There are constantly countless sensory inputs, hormones, chemical signals from the body indicating hunger, thirst, tiredness, fatigue, sex drive. Without these would an Em brain suffer from extreme sensory deprivation? Would it perceive itself to be alive at all, since the instant before startup it was “fully human” and the instant after startup it’s just floating in cyberspace?

    An em would not be a disembodied brain. If it were, it would not be of any use to itself or others, as it wouldn’t be able to interact with the outside world or with other beings, human or em. While the focus on emulation is the brain, a complete emulation will have to include the rest of the central nervous system (located in the spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (distributed throughout the body) to provide sensory interface to the virtual reality and motor inputs when operating a robotic body. For example, consider vision. Today, virtual reality hardware presents synthetic images to the eyes. The retina and optic nerve process the light stimuli and encode it as serial pulse trains which are presented to the visual cortex of the brain, where feature extraction, motion detection, and interpretation are performed. In an em, vision will probably work by encoding an image, whether synthetic or from a camera observing the real world, in pulse trains as done by the retina and optic nerve, and delivering them to the emulated visual cortex. The same technique can be used for auditory, olfactory, taste, and touch sensations (all of which seem to end up as pulse trains by the time they reach the brain).

    Figuring out how the sensory and motor neuron systems work (and are modulated by bodily signals) is a large problem, but it’s probably no larger than emulating a brain with on the order of a hundred billion neurons and 1,000 trillion synapses.

    • #23
    • September 12, 2016 at 8:17 am
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  24. Profile photo of Mark Wilson Member

    John Walker: In an em, vision will probably work by encoding an image, whether synthetic or from a camera observing the real world, in pulse trains as done by the retina and optic nerve, and delivering them to the emulated visual cortex. The same technique can be used for auditory, olfactory, taste, and touch sensations

    But the other base urges I mentioned would seem to be more difficult. Those that depend on particular chemicals or hormones present in the blood stream which are not sensory inputs. You’d have to emulate a blood stream and provide realistic satisfaction of the urges. Would an Em be aware that it is no longer human? Could you convince it of that fact without causing emotional or psychological damage? I’m trying to compare it to convincing a human of this fact because the Em, being a copy of a live human, would start out with the “knowledge” and conviction that it’s human and always has been.

    • #24
    • September 12, 2016 at 1:06 pm
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    John Walker Post author

    Mark Wilson: Would an Em be aware that it is no longer human? Could you convince it of that fact without causing emotional or psychological damage? I’m trying to compare it to convincing a human of this fact because the Em, being a copy of a live human, would start out with the “knowledge” and conviction that it’s human and always has been.

    An em would remember all of its life as a human up to the point of being scanned, including the conscious decision to be scanned and reinstantiated as an em. Thus the em would start out knowing the motivations which caused the human progenitor to request the scan. One can envision criminal brain theft where people are scanned without their permission, but that’s likely to be the stuff of science fiction.

    As to the modulation of brain activity by hormones in the blood, that will have to be modeled for the emulation to be faithful. There are many hormones which affect the behaviour of neurotransmitters in the brain, and they play an important role in the functioning of the brain. It’s unlikely an emulation which didn’t account for them would work properly.

    • #25
    • September 12, 2016 at 2:12 pm
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  26. Profile photo of Judge Mental Member

    John Walker:One can envision criminal brain theft where people are scanned without their permission, but that’s likely to be the stuff of science fiction.

    I think you can stop that with a bit of tinfoil in your hat. John, you should probably look into that. Some of us have less to worry about.

    • #26
    • September 12, 2016 at 2:28 pm
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  27. Profile photo of MarciN Member

    I have been fascinated throughout my life with how the human mind works. Looking at it from my perspective of caring for a brilliant but mentally ill person, of caring for three children whose mental growth as babies and toddlers I got to witness up close, and knowing my own mind—which is to say, its interesting limits—I have nothing but questions.

    I am an editor. Sometimes I work on manuscript development; sometimes I just copyedit manuscripts. But I’ve been doing it for thirty years, which means I have read closely and interacted with about 12 books a year, or 360 books altogether. I’ve worked in so many fields that it is staggering to me. I started out in college textbooks in science, math, engineering, and computers, but I moved over to the soft side humanities not too long into my career.

    If only I could Google search my own brain! Assuming that every sensory experience a human being has changes a brain cell chemically and permanently, then what I’ve read and experienced over my lifetime must still be there. But I can’t get at it.

    [continued]

    • #27
    • September 13, 2016 at 11:06 am
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  28. Profile photo of MarciN Member

    [continued from comment 27]

    Furthermore, whenever I finish a manuscript, I close out my files, and the content of that manuscript is gone completely from my mind–meaning, the thoughts that make up my consciousness at any given moment. The closure is so final that I can pick up another manuscript right away and become engrossed in it immediately, without a shadow of the last manuscript interfering.

    I think everyone’s mind works the same way. When we watch a television show or a movie, when it is over, it’s gone from our attention and our thinking almost instantly. Yes, we remember some big things about it, but the millions of impressions that those images and sounds made on our consciousness are gone.

    Furthermore, those manuscripts I’ve read so closely have affected my judgment somehow. But I cannot retrace those steps accurately. I’m left with a shadowy feeling about things that I can’t explain as well as I should, given the amount of detail that went into the formation of that judgment.

    This complexity of emotion, concentration, attention, and cognition is why I think we are a couple of hundred years away from producing a true AI. Until we understand better how our own minds work, we will not be able to replicate it mechanically.

    And that’s probably a good thing. As we approach an AI capability, there are many safeguards—such as those protecting against brainwashing and propaganda—that need to be developed beforehand.

    • #28
    • September 13, 2016 at 11:08 am
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  29. Profile photo of Mark Wilson Member

    John Walker: An em would remember all of its life as a human up to the point of being scanned, including the conscious decision to be scanned and reinstantiated as an em. Thus the em would start out knowing the motivations which caused the human progenitor to request the scan.

    I wonder if there would be some probability of inducing psychopathy or sociopathy as the Em deals with the realization that it is no longer human. Perhaps in the bad cases it would undergo a kind of existential crisis or a moral breakdown of the kind certain people seem to have when they become suddenly rich or famous, once they feel free of material scarcity and social consequences.

    On the other hand, in the best cases it could be a transcendent experience in which the Em would have new and profound insights that have great value and benefit to humanity.

    • #29
    • September 13, 2016 at 3:25 pm
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