Book cover of 'The Age of Em'

It is the not-too-distant future and humans are firmly on the sidelines of the global economy. The world is dominated by synthetic emulations of human brains. Billions of these “ems” are packed into a few dense cities, which are mostly just rack upon rack of computer hardware, cooled by pipes that pull in rivers of iced water. Hot winds gust overhead. Some ems operate robot bodies but most have office jobs that mean they can live, work and play in virtual reality.

Science fiction? Not according to Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He sees this as a plausible future — one he describes in great detail in The Age of Em.

Prof Hanson, who studied physics and was a software engineer before he became an economist, says he used to love reading science fiction. The more he learnt about economics, however, the less the stories made sense. “Even stories where the physics is mostly right get the economics laughably wrong,” he writes.

Plenty of futurists and science fiction writers have toyed with the idea that the brains of particular humans could one day be scanned and “uploaded” into artificial hardware but Prof Hanson’s take is different. His aim is to use standard theories from the physical, human and social sciences to make forecasts about how this technological breakthrough would really change our world.

It is an alluring premise and his timing is impeccable: there seems no limit right now to the public’s appetite for books, articles and films about robots and artificial intelligence.

Like authors including Martin Ford, he says humans will be pushed out of the labour market by machines, but his book is less dystopian than much of the literature. Indeed, he dwells very little on the fate of humans and much more on the ems.

He predicts these ems will reproduce by creating exact copies of themselves, with the same memories, but the offspring will gradually diverge from the originals as they accumulate different experiences. Some of these copies will be “spurs” — shortlived replicas created to perform a specific task for a few hours only. Others, which are cheaper to sustain, will have long careers and eventually retire to run at much slower speeds.

Because workers of almost any quality will be available in unlimited volume, their wages will fall to near-subsistence levels, creating an em society that is poor and hardworking but relatively equal, at least in terms of income. (Ordinary humans will live far from em-cities but may be comfortably off with their em-economy investments.) One of the biggest threats ems face is “mind theft”: a stolen em could be enslaved, tortured or have its skills and knowledge copied.

The book is crammed full of such fascinating visions of an imagined future. Still, some readers will share criticisms the author says he has encountered. For any of this to seem plausible, one has to believe that we will invent the ability and be willing to scan and copy human brains. Not everyone will accept this.

One also has to believe that current economic and social theories will hold in this strange new world; that the “unknown unknowns” are not so great as to make any predictions impossible. Certainly, some of the forecasts seem old-fashioned, like the notion that male ems will prefer females with “signs of nurturing inclinations and fertility, such as youthful good looks” while females will prefer males with “signs of wealth and status”. Even so, the journey is thought-provoking. As Prof Hanson writes: “Just as visiting foreign lands can help you to better see the distinctive features of your homeland, envisioning foreign times can help you to see the distinctive features of your era.”

Some of the most profound questions raised here concern politics, law, rights and morality. Would ems be conscious? Would they belong to themselves or to the companies that created them — or to the humans from which they were scanned? Yet these are the questions on which Prof Hanson is most tentative and brief because he has set out deliberately to focus on the predictable and to avoid being “creative or contrarian”.

This is reasonable enough and the book succeeds on its own terms. Still, it does leave a hole. Perhaps it will fall to the science fiction writers to fill it.

The reviewer is the FT’s employment correspondent

The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth, by Robin Hanson, Oxford University Press, £20

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