Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Tag: Artificial Intelligence

The Age of Em by Robin Hanson

I really don’t know what to make of this book.  It was on my bedside table for more than 3 weeks. This is very, very unusual. It is not that I couldn’t read it, it was actually quite interesting but I could manage only a few pages at a time, and that’s because I needed time to think about and reflect on what I had just read. It sounded so weird and so unbelievable that I wasn’t sure if this was a serious work from an accomplished academic, as Dr Robin Hanson, or a science fiction dystopia. Perhaps, it’s both.

Ok, let’s start.  Nowadays, our economy doubles roughly every 15 years, from every 1000 years during the farming period. If this trend were to continue, we should expect, according to the statistics models, that sometime during the next century, our economy to go to doubling every one month, or so.  This will last for a couple of years maybe, and then something entirely different will happen that would change everything. What will cause that disruptive change? The arrival of artificial intelligence, that is robots, smart enough to substitute wholesale for human workers.

There are several stories how this will become possible. One scenario is that we will keep writing and accumulating better software. At this rate, we need about three to four centuries for a full AI. Another scenario is that humans would be able to modify their biology so as to achieve a superhuman intelligence. Robin Hanson, who studied physics and was a software engineer before he become an economics professor at George Mason University, believes there is an entirely different way, and that is porting software from where it already exists, and that is the human brain.

To do that we need three things. First, fast computers, much faster than those today, second, scanning machines that will be able to produce a most detailed scan of the human brain with all its particular cell features and connections, and finally, computer models that would be able to process signals for each brain cell.  If we have all these, then we can have robots which will be whole brain emulations or “ems,” for short.  Robin Hanson expects that the first ems will appear within roughly a century or so.

Emulations are not a new idea, there have been in science fiction for many decades. Arthur Clarke investigated this idea in his novel The City and the Stars, in 1956 and more recently in 2003, in his novella The Cookie Monster, Vernor Vinge explores the idea of conscious computer simulations.

In The Age of Em, Robin Hanson focus on robots and how the world would look like at the next big era after ours. He explores what happens in this strange world that it is dominated by trillions of ems that live and work in liquid-cooled skyscrapers, in very dense and very hot cities where they can quickly interact with other ems. He talks about the physics the economy, the organisation and their attitudes to law, politics, love, sex, and a lot of different other things.

Ems are smart, efficient, conscientious and workaholics. They basically work all the time but despite their hard work, they earn just enough to survive. Because they are so many and because it is easy – although not inexpensive – to make a lot more, the value of the work goes down. It is the supply- demand concept of economics.

Ems congregate in related “clans” and make use of Decision Markers to make key group decisions. Psychologically are very human.  They are not ordinary humans, but they have all the psychological tendencies that humans have. They are after all emulation of human brains that are put on a computer. Therefore, they develop relationships, they have friends, lovers, work connections. Some ems have bodies, others do not.

Emulations do not have to feel pain, or hunger. They don’t have to face death as they can make billions of copies of themselves.  Em ethics are different from ours. Their society is less democratic and gender-balanced, more divided into district classes, and its leaders are more accessible and trusted.

But what about humans? If they survive, they will retire somewhere outside the dense cities and will live on pensions doing whatever they want to do. It is not very clear, humans are not the purpose of Robin Hanson.

The Age of Em is an efficiency, undemocratic utopia or dystopia, depending on your perspective.  The em scenario is not entirely persuasive to me but the book provides a baseline for future study in the important topic of artificial intelligence.

Post-Humans: Transcending our biological limitations

“When the boundary between magic and science had blurred until it was unrecognizable”

This a review of four books in one, they are small books, all interconnected and therefore makes sense to review them as one. It is the Post-Human series by David Simpson which has been an indie success in amazon kindle.

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Alfred Smee and the definition of Consciousness

Studying some recent papers about Artificial Intelligence (AI), I came across Alfred Smee. No, not Captain Hook’s right-hand man, not that Smee. Alfred Smee (1818 -1877) was a pioneer English physician who made contributions to numerous disciplines, from biology to electrical engineering, and metallurgy to neurology.

Alfred was genius. At the age of twenty-two he was appointed surgeon to the bank of England. It was a post created especially for him by the directors of the bank, who very cleverly thought that would be good for the bank to use Smee’s genius to good account. And, so he did. He invented the electrotype plate, which technique the bankers applied to the printing of counterfeit-resistant English banknotes.

Among other interesting things and ideas, he also tried to explain, theoretically and experimentally the electrochemical basis of vision, memory and logic as well as the origination and recombination of ideas. What I found interesting was his definition of consciousness, as it was described in his book “Principles of the Human Mind deduced from Physical Laws” published in 1849.

“When an image is produced by an action upon the external senses, the actions on the organs of sense concur with the actions of the brain; and the image is then a Reality.
When an image occurs to the mind without a corresponding simultaneous action of the body, it is called a Thought.

The power to distinguish between thought and a reality is called Consciousness.”

In the preface of the book, Smee says


“I apprehend that the time is fast approaching, when no other system of mental science will be acknowledged but that which is based upon physical laws and the structure of the brain”.



The book can be found and downloaded as a pdf from google.books
Image Credit:The Global Intelligencer


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