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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, September 2, 2016

His Unbelievable Vision of a Post-Human Future

The Age of EM: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule the Earth by Robin Hanson (a professor of economics at George Mason University) is a new book that speculates in the greatest detail about what kind of world will arise if a weird possibility occurs. The weird possibility that Hanson imagines is that humans become "not the main inhabitants" of the earth, being overshadowed by what he calls “ems.” Hanson defines an “em” like this: “An em results from taking a particular human brain, scanning it to record its particular cell features and connections, and then building a computer model that processes signals according to those same features and connections.”

What Hanson is imagining is essentially android robots, but not robots who are controlled by artificial intelligence programming. Hanson is rather skeptical about artificial intelligence programming, and says on page 382 it will take two to four centuries before it is capable of achieving “human level” capabilities. But Hanson thinks there's a shortcut. He thinks we can get robots as smart as people by scanning human brains and then loading that information into robots. He thinks this will be feasible within about a hundred years. Hanson thinks that before our planet sees any robots smarter than man, there will be one or more centuries in which our planet is largely inhabited by robots about as smart as humans – robots whose electronic minds are duplicates of human brains.

Hanson gives us a cold vision that is morally repulsive. After discussing a destructive form of brain scanning that is rather like a turkey slicer (page 148), he suggests using eugenics to produce a superior stock of humans to have their brains copied into robots.
The rest of the world has pretty much rejected eugenics since the fall of the Nazis, but apparently not Hanson. On page 162 he says:

It is possible that sometime in the next half-century or so we we will be able to create babies of substantially higher genetic quality by embryo selection in the context of in vitro fertilization. If so, when they reach the right age these may be very attractive candidates for scanning into ems.

Does the professor thinks we should wait until the genetically engineered super-kids are grown, and then feed their brains into his brain scanner that is like a turkey slicer?

On page 146 the professor proposes that the millions of robot “ems” that are copies of human minds should be given only “wages near subsistence levels,” even though he assures us on page 150 that these “ems” are “mentally quite human.” He offers this cold justification for this cruel proposal.

Readers of this book may find near-subsistence wages to be a strange and perhaps scary prospect. So it is worth remembering that such wages in effect applied to almost all animals who ever lived, to almost all humans before a few hundred years ago, and for a billion humans still today.

And what about all the humans who would have all their jobs lost by this great army of “ems” that would appear? Hanson seems to have little interest in the fate of the old-fashioned creatures known as humans. I looked up “humans” in the index of his 384-page book, and I see the last reference to “humans” is on page 14. Hanson does not imagine that humans will become extinct, but he imagines on page 8 that humans will live in retirement cities, with the "em" robots living in separate cities (how is he is able to make so specific a claim I don't know). 

Hanson imagines that the human race will be economically eclipsed by robots that have copies of human minds, but we may ask: what would be the point of that? Hanson tells us that it would occur because such robots will be more efficient, and work much faster. But it is very far from clear that this would be true. Give me a year 2100 human armed with all the best year 2100 gadgets (and some pills helping him think faster), and such a person should do just as well as a robot with a brain copied from a human.

Hanson creates endless speculations based on this idea of robot minds being copies of human minds, but he does nothing to show the feasibility of the idea. So Hanson is like some person building a 10-story tower before laying a concrete foundation for such a tower. There are actually very good reasons for thinking that it is impossible to ever create a robot mind that is a copy of a human mind. One such reason is that while Hanson claims that the mind is just the brain, there are very good reasons for thinking they are not the same, and that you would not at all capture someone's mind by scanning his brain.

Let me specify some preliminary requirements that we should demand of any book centered upon speculations that robot minds can be created from scanning human minds. After these preliminary requirements are met, we can think to ourselves that we are not wasting our time by reading speculations about some possibility that will never be able to occur.

The first requirement we should demand is a detailed explanation of how it is that the human brain could possibly store memories stretching back 50 years. For the reasons I give in this post, scientists don't understand how the human brain can store memories for longer than three weeks. The most common explanation for memory is that humans store memories in synapses. But synapses are subject to molecular turnover which should prevent them from storing any memories for longer than a few weeks. So how is that humans can store memories for 50 years?

It may be too much to demand that a brain emulation theorist provide the answer to how humans store memories for 50 years, but we should demand that he can at least provide some possible answer – at least some speculative scenario which, if it were true, would explain how humans can store memories for 50 years. If no such scenario can be provided, we should not believe that you will ever be able to have robot minds that are copies of human minds.

The second requirement we should demand from our brain emulation theorist is an explanation of how such a mechanism for remembering 50-year-old memories could have naturally evolved (seeing that such a “humans will be replaced” thinker is presumably not someone who thinks some higher power had a role in human origins). This is a huge challenge, for while such a theorist may be tempted to imagine some very complicated scheme by which memories might be stored in the brain for 50 years, such a scheme will not be a plausible natural explanation unless it is something that might have naturally appeared through evolution. Here there is the huge difficulty that we cannot think of any reason why natural selection would give us memories lasting longer than a year or two. Primates could survive just as well if they only remembered memories going back a year or two.

The third requirement we should demand from our brain emulation theorist is some explanation that dismisses all of the evidence for human psychic abilities such as ESP and human survival after death. If such evidence is valid, then “your mind is your brain” assumptions are dead wrong. We have no way of explaining something like ESP as a function of the human brain, although it could be a sign of something like a human soul. If experiences such as near-death experiences are real, then we presumably have some kind of soul that survives death. But the brain emulation theorist cannot admit such possibilities.

Since such a theorist wishes to maintain that your mind is stored entirely in your brain (and not at all in any type of soul separate from the brain), such a theorist must somehow clear from the table all of the great deal of evidence that has been accumulated suggesting that there is a soul as well as paranormal psychic abilities. So our brain emulation theorist would have to somehow accomplish the long, difficult task of explaining why very many things that seem to be good evidence are not really evidence. I presume that would require at least a long chapter in a book.

As if all this is not hard enough, there is still a fourth requirement that our brain emulation theorist must accomplish before we should take seriously the claim that human minds could be copied to robot minds. The theorist must give a plausible explanation for how it could be that all the information in a human mind might be copied to a robot mind without destroying most or much of the information in the human mind.

There are good reasons for believing that even if your mind was entirely stored in your brain, it would be physically impossible to read the state of a mind in a way that would allow some robot mind to copy the contents of that mind. While things such as fMRI scanners can make large-scale maps of the brain, there is no type of external scanner that would allow us to know the exact molecular and electrical state of microscopic neurons. While we can imagine some tiny molecule-sized probe that could be injected into a brain and then read the state of one neuron, such a probe could never store more than a tiny bit of information. It would not work to simply inject millions of microscopic probes into someone's brain, for such probes would have no way of figuring out the exact positional coordinates of the neurons they were analyzing.

You might think that it is possible to do a destructive scan of the brain to determine its exact contents. We can imagine some machine that is something like a turkey slicer. First it would slice off one little slice of the brain, and then analyze that like a copy machine reading a document. Then the next little slice would be done, and so forth. But that would not work, for the very act of making these thin slices would disrupt any delicate information storage in the brain that was preserving memories.

To present a plausible scenario for robots emulating human minds, our brain emulation theorist would need to explain how this brain scanning would work, as well as do the three other items I mentioned. Hanson doesn't do anything like meeting the requirements I have mentioned.

Hanson does nothing to substantiate his claim that the mind is just the brain. Hanson's failure in considering the difficulties here are shown by page 148 of his book, where he says this about brain scans that would give human minds to robots: “The very first scans might perhaps be performed on cryonics customers, that is, people who had previously had their brains frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen, in the hope of being revived when technology improved, and who had agreed to allow em scanning later.” Determining the exact state of a brain that had just died would be a nightmare enough. Add brain freezing (with all of its resulting cell damage) to the mix, and the problem becomes 100 times worse. Hanson informs us that he is one of only 2000 living people who have arranged to be cryogenically frozen upon death.

The cryogenics fantasy (represented by the slogan “freeze, wait, reanimate”) was implausible enough. Apparently Hanson believes in an even wackier notion – freeze your brain, stay in cold storage for a few decades, then wait until someone copies your brain state into a robot.  What convenience – after that fatal car crash, you wake up 40 years later with a nice steel robot body! 


There are countless feasibility problems in the idea of copying human minds into robots, problems that Hanson has not paid attention to. The central assumption behind the idea is wrong. Your mind is not your brain, but something more than your brain. This is indicated both by well-substantiated psychic phenomena (such as ESP and near-death experiences), and also by the spectacular inability of neuroscience to explain basic facets of our mind such as consciousness, instant memory retrieval of obscure memories, and memories lasting 50 years despite very rapid molecular turnover in the brain (see here and here for why it is hard to imagine the last two will ever be explained neurologically). So Hanson's very elaborate speculations about what would happen if the world became full of “em” robots (with minds copied from human brains) are no more relevant than some speculations of what would happen if unicorns were to take charge of the planet.