"These days," writes Dvorsky, "people worry about robots stealing our jobs. But maybe we should be more concerned about massive populations of computerized human brains." Yes, declares the futurist, maybe we should worry less about real things -- like the displacement of jobs in the midst of an unemployment crisis caused by outsourcing and automation in the absence of collective bargaining -- and more about unreal things like digital avatar armies attacking us from cyberspace. Thank heavens we have futurologists to keep our eyes on the ball!
"Called 'ems,'" Dvorsky declares -- that's what the "experts" in the non-field focused on these non-things call "them" is it, George, "ems"? -- "these infinitely-reproducible brains could change the world." Well, duh. That's what bleeding edge futurology always does -- It. Changes. Everything. Everybody knows that. That's why Segways "changed the way we think of cities." That's why encryption shattered the nation-state. That's why buckytubes gave us desktop nano-anything machines.
"To learn more about this prospect, I spoke to economist and futurist Robin Hanson." Dvorsky does not add, as he usually does not when he plays this little game, that Robin Hanson is a long-time contributor to the list-serves and conferences and the rest of the sub(cult)ural life of the transhumanoid sects of the Robot Cult that George Dvorsky is also a member of and uses io9 to proselytize for. Neither does Dvorsky mention that "Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute" for which Robin Hanson is a "Research Associate" was founded by Nick Bostrom who was also one of the founders of the World Transhumanist Association and then the stealth transhumanoid outfit the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and that, the suave respectability of the Oxford moniker aside, the Future of Humanity Institute is thronged with Robot Cultists, transhumanism's first web celebrity Anders Sandberg, serially wrong nano-cornucopiast Eric Drexler, expert in extra-terrestrial biology (it helps that there isn't any we know of yet) and existential-risk management (why we should worry about robocalypse and nano-goo more than real problems) Milan Cirkovic and other transhumanoid eminences grises. (I ask yet again, io9, were Dvorsky a Scientologist flogging the so-called "independent credentials" of fellow Scientologists would you think that is okay without a disclosure of the real relationship involved?) Anyhow, Hanson is writing a book about "whole brain emulations -- or what he simply refers to as 'ems.'" ...Oh, there we have it. One of his fellow-faithful transhumanoids is calling these non-things "ems" in the futurological hairball he is coughing up for Dvorsky to promote in his io9 column. Very nice.
In any case, Dvorsky, channeling Hanson, helpfully explains that "A brain emulation can be thought of as a type of brain upload." That is to say "ems" are non-things that are a subset of other non-things futurologists talk about instead of talking about real things that matter. More to the point, "uploads" are a preoccupation of some techno-immortalist sects of the Robot Cult who have made the mistake of pretending that a picture of them would be the same thing as them if the picture were a "sufficiently detailed scan" which it obviously would not be (terminological hanky-panky over that weaselly "sufficiently" notwithstanding). Why such a scan would not only be them but be an immortal version of them when no picture ever has been -- not to mention that no computer ever has been and no software ever has been -- is anybody's guess, but my own guess if I had to guess would be that it has a lot to do with futurologists really seriously being scared of dying who prefer pseudo-scientific reassurances on that score rather than more conventionally religious versions already on offer. Hanson's "ems" don't seem to promise to upload people into eternal cyberangel avatars in Holodeck Heaven, however, but only to create super slavebots and sexy sexbots when they get stuffed into robot bodies of The Future.
Hanson admits his "em" idea comes on the heels of decade after decade after decade of cocksure pronouncements by "researchers" like him that they were on the verge of creating artificial intelligence even though they were always completely wrong about that and, indeed, after all this time look like they haven't progressed much toward this goal since they started out. In a surprise move that is a surprise to no one who grasps the essential identity of futurology with con-artistry, Hanson has decided to take the lemon of an AI-discourse characterized equally by ignorance, megalomania, and failure and make some lemonade. Maybe the intoxication of so many sociopathically logo-assertive techbros among the foremost AI-cheerleaders with disembodied, a-historical, computational fantasies of intelligence had something to do with the problem as well, but don't mind me, I'm no "expert." Sure, maybe AI has always failed because nobody really ever understood the phenomenon of "intelligence" the AI engineers were trying to mechanically reproduce, but why take a pause to better understand what you have so long ignored to the ruin of your project, why not just take it in stride? Who needs to understand stuff? Just take a really good picture, let the black box stay black -- try not to contemplate that the force of the "whole" in that evocative phrase "whole brain" actually requires understanding of the whole in question -- and plug that puppy into a big-boobied mannequin or Mars rover or whatever, and, hell, we're off to the races! Or at any rate, we're grinding out more pop-tech pulp for the credulous futurologist's shelf (or, more likely, another hour's eye-strain on some techbro's kindle).
"If the scan and cell models are good enough [the very question for those with questions you know, dispensed with at the outset --d], the whole model must [must! presto! problems solved! --d] have the same input-output behavior as the original brain... So if you add artificial eyes, ears, hands, and so on [don't think too much about whether we have any of these add-ons, and you really do have to love that futurological "and so on" --d], it could talk with you and do tasks as well as the original. It could also do as well at arguing that it's conscious and deserves moral consideration [and so those whom we presently regard as conscious or worthy of moral consideration have merely fooled us by arguing well? watch yourselves, people, around this Robin Hanson fellow! --d]... Ems would remake the world [no self-respecting futurologist can refrain from at least one declaration that total earth-shattering history-ending transformation is implied by their stunning insights --d]... We humans are made [by whom? of course, if we are already "made" then the making of our like has already been rhetorically opened for business --d] of meat, our brains run [is that what brains do, "run" --d] at the same speed, we take decades to build, and we must be trained [training is building, then, is it? --d] individually... Because ems are easily copied [because that wildly implausible ease was stipulated at the outset in order to have a reason to read the article at all --d], you could train one to be a good lawyer and then make a billion copies who are all good lawyers... That one initial em could come from the very best suited human [note the assumptions embedded in this formulation: the satisfaction of abstract and hence (supposedly) copyable criteria yields the "best lawyer" as if such considerations of worth aren't really usually the result of a host of contingencies of circumstance, appearance, interpersonal chemistry when it is indeed "humans" making these decisions in the scrum of human events --d]; the typical em would be as sharp and capable as the very best humans [note that the "sharpness" and "capability" of tools denotes "best"-ness in humans once the instrumentalized circumscription of imagination required by the whole thought-experiment is made, a result with real effects in the world, even if the appearance in the world of "ems" isn't among those real effects, even if the treatment of humans as something more like "ems" is the only tendency --d] in the world. The em economy would thus be much more competitive because small efficiency gains would lead to a bigger displacements [about the market fundamentalist faith expressed in this logic I will say a tad more at the very end --d] of behavior."Heavens, what a lot of ifs! Now, complete failure and ignorance may seem a shaky foundation on which to erect so many confident assertions, but like last season's tragic AI-fashionista futurists handwaving about Big Data that would "scale" into the AI of artificial intelligence without anybody needing to understand the "ai" of actual intelligence Hanson's "ems" as snapshot black boxes that would "plug" into the AI of artificial intelligence without anybody needing to understand the "ai" of actual intelligence re-enacts the same desperate dead-ender gambit. Hey, techno-transcendent faith-based initiatives are a hell of a drug.
Just because it illustrates another point I often make about sub(cult)ural futurism, it is worth noting that Hanson isn't just an AI-deadender but a libertopian deadender, too. "[A] more competitive em economy will select more strongly against jurisdictions whose regulations create competitive disadvantages... For example, if most human-dominated jurisdictions are slow and cautious regarding the first ems, the em economy would blossom in the few places that allow quick adoption of em-friendly practices. Such places would soon dominate the world." It's been a while since I have seen somebody propose what James Boyle used to deride as the libertarian gotcha so baldly -- the argument that if a thing would be profitable were it to exist, then it must not only be possible but it must sweep the whole world irresistibly, all you pathetic nanny state luddite scum to the contrary notwithstanding! Obviously this is true, and it is the reason we all took a maglev-ramp jet this evening to our vacation homes in some L5 torus where we feasted on low-calorie super-nutritious cruelty-free cell-culture steaks wearing diamonds made dirt-cheap from dirt in our drextech desktops while gazing onto a planet without nation-states because of crypto-anarchists and without pollution because of highly profitable mega-industrial geo-engineering projects built by beneficent petro-chemical CEOs. It's all so obvious! Seriously, though, Hanson is famous for proposing "idea futures" markets that would presumably provide a greater financial stake in accuracy conducive to prediction than in gaming the system and profitably declaring the results accurate and also for proposing a rather biased conception of what it would mean to overcome bias and what such an overcoming would be good for, neither of which seem to me particularly attuned to human personality or history, but the reductionisms implied in which, I imagine, must be especially compelling to those market libertarian types who already like to indulge fantasies that there are no rational conflicts among people, that all contracts are noncoercive by fiat whatever terms of misinformation or duress articulate their terms, and that market orders arise spontaneously from natural forces of supply and demand wherever states do not hinder them rather than contingent parochialisms utterly dependent for their formation and maintenance on laws, treaties, norms, and infrastructural affordances usually dictated by incumbent elites to the detriment of majorities. Well, maybe you have to be an "em" to really get it.