In Isaac Asimov’s “Prelude to Foundation,” book No. 1 of a seven-volume epic, Hari Seldon, a brilliant young researcher, employs mathematics to foretell the future of a gargantuan civilization that spans our home galaxy. That’s science-fiction.
But Robin Hanson, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a scholar at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, sets out to predict the future of humanity, in reality, not through the medium of a tale, but hard-bitten academic research in “The Age of Em.”
History, so far, he analyzes, has been a series of three paradigm-shifting epochs: foraging (that is, humans wandered the wilds in search of meat and roots and berries); farming (that is, they stayed close to their local plants and animals); and industry (that is, they invented power-driven machinery that replaced handmade tools.)
Per his calculations, the next great era will dawn sometime in the 22nd century, its outline shaped by the disruptive technology of “brain emulation,” which would enable an entire human brain to be converted from cells into circuits and then transferred onto a non-biological hardware.
This, of course, will produce plenty of robots. Only, sadly, they’ll look nothing like C-3PO or the Roomba. He speculates that the early generations of intelligent artificial intelligence will be “ems,” entities who aren’t human, but feel human.
In “Flatland,” a Victorian novella, published in 1884, Edwin A. Abbott tells the story of a land of two dimensions whose residents can’t envision a third dimension. “The Age of Em,” likewise, describes a world that’s as alien to us as we—you, I and everyone we know—are to the Flatlanders.
A mash-up of robotics and social theory, the book is a comprehensive treatise on what such a state could look like. Our progeny, it forsees, will be digital beings, existing as a huge hive of “minds,” literally, one a mental clone of the other (to an extent.)
Their economy would double every month—compared to 15 years at the present—“a growth driven less by innovation and more by em population growth,” an explosion, fueled by easy self-replication. One em would, on demand, be able to make a phalanx of facsimiles of itself.
In a world, where an army of workers can be created at the drop of a hat, labor is woefully cheap and wages fall far, dropping to a bare subsistence level. Ems work more than half their waking hours, but still, make just enough to make ends meets. Instead of shelling out cash for mortgage, rent, grocery, gas, medical bills, they’d have to pay for their own infrastructure.
An em reproduces by cranking out identical copies of himself or herself, each having identical memories and identical temperament. What’s most troubling in this picture is the end of childhood as we know it.
So, where does this leave humans? “Descendants of only a tiny fraction of humans dominate the new society,” those that are the smartest and the ablest—some 500 of them perhaps. The rest of humankind, though materially better off, would be eclipsed, reduced to a life of “retirees” of that world, existing on the periphery of em society.
This tomorrow, as envisioned by Hanson, weird as it is, is rich with meaty data. But his forecast is limited only to the club of rich nations, avoiding any reference to the developing world. Nor does he address how such a transition would be impacted by climate-change. In the next 100 years, the environment would’ve become much harsher, leading low-lying urban hubs to move to higher ground.
Most ems in that market would’ve desk jobs, requiring them to live and work in an immaterial world made of pixels and hex code, not atoms. Some tasks, though, will still need contact with the outside world, where trees grow and rivers flow, such as running a nanofactory, the size of a desktop chassis; repairing a road; constructing a bridge; driving a car.
As em minds are, typically, faster than human minds, em bodies are smaller than human bodies. Most ems are Lilliputian creatures, with minds that can run at many different speeds. The standard model (“kilo-em”) would think at 1,000 times the human speed. A body that feels natural for such an em to control is only half as tall as a LEGO brick.
To ems, distances will understandably, appear much, much greater. A physical commute across a city would take about 20 days (as compared to half an hour); a trip to Mars, a millennium (as compared to eight months.)
The clock would also appear to tick more slowly. A “day” would feel as long as nearly three years. Gravity would feel weaker; the winds, stronger; the sunlight, dimmer. Ems won’t be able to enjoy nature in all its glory. But on the bright side, small ems would possess capabilities that humans don’t, such as being able to run on water wearing ordinary shoes.
Their world would look spectacular to them, with “gleaming, sunlit spires, overlooking broad, green boulevards.”
It could be a place like “DeepArcher,” a dark, deep region of our Internet, described by Thomas Pynchon in the novel, “Bleeding Edge”: “What was once a train depot is now a Jetsons-era spaceport, with all wacky angles; jagged towers in the distance; lenticular enclosures up on stilts; saucer traffic coming and going in the neon sky.” To a pair of human eyes, though, it’d appear to be a forest of vertical plants.
Where one Mary belongs to a community of other Marys, women just like her, it’s hard to see that such a society could be anything, but egalitarian. But oddly, it too, is divided into classes, grouped by speeds. Faster ems will belong to the higher echelons of society.
Ems would live in tall, dense skyscrapers, in essence, vast piles of computer hardware, threaded with cooling pipes, with clouds of hot air billowing from them. Such metropolises would emerge in regions that are cold; safe from storms; and are close to water, likely in places, where Google and Amazon have enormous server farms (think: Norway.)