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.


Hardback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Making Sense of Chaos - Doyne Farmer *****

This is a remarkable book, pulling together two key threads - chaos theory and economics. Doyne Farmer has a reputation as someone who breaks the mould: famously, he dropped out of studying physics at graduate level, working with a handful of others to put together a wearable computer (back in the 70s, when such a thing would have seemed pretty much impossible) to enable them to successfully beat the odds at casinos, picking up on the slight biases in roulette wheels. Now, he presents a powerful case for applying chaos theory to economics, modelling economies in a totally different, agent-driven way rather than the traditional approach taken by economists. This combines for me the impact of two books I've read and greatly admired, but in both cases had felt that there needed to be a next step. The first of these was Chaos by James Gleick, which got me all fired up about chaos theory, but proved a bit of a let down as it was great to explain why, for example, it's difficult to

Quantum Drama - Jim Baggott and John Heilbron ***

On a first glance of the cover you might think that Jim Baggott and John Heilbron were brilliant Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein impersonators. In fact Baggott is an excellent popular science writer and Heilbron was an esteemed historian of science, both specialising in quantum physics. There's another way the cover is misleading - you might think this was an in-depth exploration of Bohr and Einstein's relationship. The topics they argued about certainly come into it, but instead this is detailed look at how quantum theory developed. I've read a lot of books on quantum physics, but I've never come across one that goes into such painstaking detail of every step along the way, introducing the work of a good number of physicists who rarely make it into the public eye. These range from John von Neumann - well known but usually sidelined as a quantum physicist - to the likes of Oskar Klein and Hans Kramers. Similarly, Baggott and Heilbron go into many (many) steps along the w

Charge - Frank Close ****

Anyone who writes popular science books that are so thick they could act as doorstops should pay more attention to what Frank Close achieves. In a slim, small volume he manages to pack in a huge amount of information without compromising at all on quality. His latest such book is Charge - dealing with various types of charge from electrical to colour (in the quark sense). This starts off brilliantly with a point about electrical charge that had never occurred to me. Close tells us that with every breath you inhale sufficient electrons to absorb a charge of around 15,000 coulombs 'enough to spark 1000 bolts of lightning'. And if breathing steadily, the equivalent current would be about 3,000 amps. Thankfully, though, the balancing positive charge from the nucleus means you don't fry. (This is slightly misleading as the comparison with lightning only works if you consider charge - the current in a lightning bolt is typically about 10 times higher as it lasts a much briefer t