Skip to main content

The Age of Em - Robin Hanson ***

I recently said about Timandra Harkness's Big Data, 'welcome to the brave new world', but if there were ever a book to fully reflect Shakespeare's complete original line in The Tempest, 'O brave new world that has such people in't', it is surely Robin Hanson's new book The Age of Em.

I don't know if it was done so the book title would echo 'age of empire' , but I find the author's term for uploaded personalities 'ems' a little contrived, like many made-up names - it's just a bit too short for what he covers. (And sounds far too like a shortening of Emma.) However there is no doubt that what Hanson is doing here is truly fascinating. It is far more than the lame subtitle 'work, love and life when robots rule the Earth' suggests, as is it's not about robots. It is attempting to forecast the nature of a world dominated by electronic 'people', initially created by uploading the mental patterns of humans.

What Hanson does brilliantly is to take the reader through all the different implications of such a world. Implications that simply won't have occurred even to many science fiction writers. What, for example, would happen if a single person is copied many times to make a slave army? How would the ems interact socially? What would their civilisation be like? I've never seen a book that took this idea to such a detailed logical extreme.

Unfortunately, despite the brilliance of the concept, the execution is not at the same level. It's like a non-fiction equivalent of Tolkien's The Silmarillion. If you are interested in the subject, it feels like something that ought to be a delight, but in fact the plodding academic writing, based on making repeated statements with no narrative flow, make it a pain of a book to read. We get exactly the same here as in 
The Silmarillion, with the added joy of inline Harvard-style references, which make it even harder to get any pleasure from reading it.

I think the best way to describe The Age of Em as is as a theory of science fiction book. Although Hanson is of the opinion that his vision of a world dominated by uploaded personalities will be possible within 100 years, I suspect that the complexity of scanning a brain to the level of individual neurons, their connections, their chemical makeups and electrical balances will take rather longer to achieve. What's more, the author proudly tells us that he intends to have his brain frozen when he dies with the hope of one day becoming an em. If making this happen with living people is difficult, the chances of a personality remaining in a frozen brain that could even approximate to the original are negligible - think more of the episode in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when her dead mother is brought back. Not advisable.

The other reason I'd label this theory of science fiction is that the whole business of futurology has always been terribly inaccurate. Niels Bohr was spot on when he said 'predictions can be very difficult - especially about the future.' Hanson attempts to defend the accuracy of futurology by pointing out specific examples that have come up with a surprisingly accurate prediction. But when you look at those examples, the accuracy is mostly retrofitted with hindsight. More to the point, this is a classic example of the scientific no-no of cherry picking. You don't show that something is effective by picking out the handful of cases where it has worked and ignoring the many thousands where it hasn't worked. Statistically, some guesses about the future are bound to be correct - but that doesn't make them accurate forecasts, it makes them lucky.

So don't expect a great work of popular science (to be fair, given those inline references, I don't think the author intended it to be popular science). But if you can put the effort in and grind through it, there are some genuinely fascinating considerations about what a society of uploaded individuals might be like. In fact, I'd say any science fiction author worth his or her salt should be rushing out and  buying a copy of this book. There are enough ideas here to spark off a thousand stories.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Tim Woollings - Four Way Interview

Tim Woollings is an Associate Professor in Physical Climate Science at the University of Oxford, leading a team of researchers in the Atmospheric Dynamics group. He obtained his PhD in Meteorology in 2005 and since then has worked on a variety of topics spanning weather prediction, atmospheric dynamics and circulation, and the effects of climate change. He has studied how the jet stream varies over weeks, years, and decades, and how we can better predict these changes. He was a contributing author on three chapters of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Tim worked at the University of Reading as a postdoc, research fellow and then lecturer before moving to the University of Oxford in 2013. He is now the Oxford Joint Chair of the Met Office Academic Partnership. His new book is Jet Stream.

Why climate?

It has never been more important to learn about how our climate system works, and how we are affecting it. You certainly get a lot of satisfaction when your work touches on hugely important …

The Apollo Chronicles - Brandon Brown *****

There were two reasons I wasn't expecting much from this book. Firstly, there have been so many titles on the Apollo programme and the space race. And secondly, a book that focusses on the engineering involved would surely be far too much at the nut and bolt level (literally), missing out on the overarching drama that makes the story live. Also there were so many people involved - 400,000 is mentioned - that we couldn't have much human interest because we would be bombarded with lists of names.

Instead, I was charmed by Brandon Brown's account. His father was one of the engineers, but he isn't given undue prominence - Brown picks out a handful of characters and follows them through, bringing in others as necessary, but never overwhelming us with names. And while it's true that there is a lot of nitty gritty engineering detail, it rarely becomes dull. Somehow, Brown pulls off the feat of making the day-to-day, hectic engineering work engaging.

I think in part this …

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expect…