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The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth

3.43  ·  Rating details ·  504 ratings  ·  83 reviews
Robots may one day rule the world, but what is a robot-ruled Earth like?
Many think the first truly smart robots will be brain emulations or "ems." Scan a human brain, then run a model with the same connections on a fast computer, and you have a robot brain, but recognizably human.
Train an em to do some job and copy it a million times: an army of workers is at your dispos
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published April 1st 2016 by Oxford University Press
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Mark Hebwood
Sep 12, 2016 rated it did not like it
Frustration and Incredulity

Well... this was a complete waste of time, a surprisingly pointless and, dare I say it, sloppy, attempt at projecting a possible future.

An era in which brain simulations run on computer hardware and allow the original owner of the consciousness to live on forever in her digitalised incarnation holds astounding opportunities, and intimidating risks. Such a technology would potentially alter society into something that differs from what we know today at the level of its
Jayson Virissimo
Sep 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Futurism, but without pretending social science doesn't exist. ...more
Brian Clegg
Jun 07, 2016 rated it liked it
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 wha
Jun 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Believe me that it's remarkable; it's easily in the top 5 most insightful books out of the 500 I have reviewed here. I called Superintelligence the most rigorous exploration of the nonreal I had ever read: this beats it by a lot. You will find yourself reading pages on the properties of coolant pipes and be utterly engrossed. It is imaginary sociology, imaginary economics, real fiction.

(But it lacks an ethnography entirely: no em speaks to us themselves.)

People tend to wrap Age of Em in ulterio
Clare O'Beara
Mar 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Ems or robot/computer brain emulations of people, are the subject of this book, with sociological implications and a note that this may be a short section of the future, replaced by something even stranger. I'm puzzled that the author speculates that ems will 'live' in a few major cities which don't have humans and the humans will all go and retire. Where to? There's already not enough land to house and feed the seven billion of us plus the few billion who'll be coming along in the next few year ...more
Taylor Barkley
Sep 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
A great book. Best described as a history of the future perhaps. Lots of research from diverse fields into what our brain emulation descendants and their society might look like. It’s weird; it’s plodding; it’s detailed; it’s fun. Obviously took a lot of work to write and research.
Nathan Taylor
Jun 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Robin Hanson has written the best book I've ever read on what the future may hold. Rather than explore many alternative possibilities, he deliberately picks a single future scenario to explore in great depth. Then leaves to others to work out alternates, building from his baseline. Hanson's chosen scenario is one where humans upload their minds to computers to create human emulations or ems. He uses standard social and physical science to grind out the details of what this world might look like. ...more
Mar 23, 2019 rated it liked it
I wasn't smart enough for most of this book, but at least the author was smart enough to finish each section with a searing, one-sentence summary even his dimmest readers could comprendo. His primary assertion is that "ems" ("emulations"--digital versions of human-like brains) will take over the earth (not in a MEAN way or nuthin) and that this will be the next/fourth major mode of "human" existence after the forager/farmer/industrial-types all got their turn.

Definitely the kind of book I wish
Jul 12, 2022 rated it really liked it
An interesting book attempting to forecast the future using some very reasonable assumptions. The crux of Hanson’s argument is that emulating the brain is easier than building artificial general intelligence (AGI) and hence emulated brains (ems) will happen sooner than AGI.

A recent paper by Yann LeCun (Chief AI Scientist at Meta and someone who has always been ahead of the game in the field of AI) proposes an architecture for an AGI that seems plausible based on what I know about neuroscience an
Garrett Petersen
Jun 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
[Full disclosure: I invited Robin Hanson onto my podcast, Economics Detective Radio, to discuss the book. You can hear the full interview here.]

There's so much to love in this book.

Hanson starts his foray into futurism with the assumption that we will eventually develop the technical ability to create human whole brain emulations, or "ems." That is, we will be able to scan a brain in all its detail, then simulate the functioning of that brain sufficiently well to have it mimic the thought proces
David Gross
May 14, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, geeky
It's looking increasingly likely that eventually we'll be clever enough to create artificial intelligence with at least human-level capability. Two likely ways we might do this are 1) to increase the sophistication and coordination of our intelligent algorithms, or, 2) to learn how to simulate the human brain in a computer in such a way that the simulation has equivalent capabilities to the original brain. Hanson puts his bets on the second option happening first, and has written this book to ex ...more
Apr 13, 2016 rated it it was ok
To be honest I thought this book will be like the book "The next 100 years" by George Friedman. I was wrong.

This book is about a very very very specific future scenario where there are a few relegated humans and the majority of the population is made by ems (shorter for brain emulations). Some of this ems live in a virtual world and a few live in the physical world. The author makes a very thorough and detailed explanation of this fictional future and spend most of the book outlining the organiz
Sandy Maguire
Oct 09, 2016 rated it it was ok
This book was a slog -- couldn't force myself to finish it. The concepts are interesting enough, but the writing is drryyyyyy. ...more
Jacob Williams
Aug 31, 2022 rated it it was amazing
By em, Hanson means emulated mind - a copy of the information that constitutes a human mind, extracted from a brain and running on a computer instead. He tries to predict the details of how this technology would impact society. I appreciate the relatively principled approach he brings to the subject:

Among the few who consider em social implications, most paint heaven or hell scenarios, or try to invent the new social sciences they imagine are needed to describe new social eras. In contrast, I
Jul 18, 2017 rated it liked it
I was torn by this book. The examination of a future world with human-mind-brain emulations (hence 'em') was a fascinating idea which is why I snapped up the book.

However, the outcome was a science fiction world without a storyline. The author clearly has done a lot of research and thinking about this possible future world, but chapters examining infrastructure of this world, politics and families were a bit...boring. I heartily encourage anyone who is writing science fiction about this world o
Andrei Khrapavitski
Feb 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
The work of a futurist is rarely appreciated. It is extremely hard to predict the future. Sci-Fi authors like to portray a distant future either as a dystopia where life is barely worth living or as some amazing paradise of abundance.
This work is different. Robin Hanson is an economist, and his portrayal of the world of full brain emulations or Ems is based on his reading of our current political and economic theories. He tries to imagine the world of ems through our current prism. Of course, s
Mar 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
I had never even considered the possibility of whole brain emulation, but Hanson sure makes a good argument for why it is likely to be the next major "age". This book is occasionally too technical for me, particularly the entropy stuff (I do enjoy saying "adiabatic" even if I can't define it), and I whiffed on groking combinatorial auctions and a few other sections. That said there is plenty of accessible stuff here, even just idea of a brain being able to run faster or slower and fork off copie ...more
Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Great exploration of an interesting idea. A little dry by comparison to what you'd get out of a science fiction novel, but it's interesting to reflect on our today's society through the eyes of this possible society. I benefited from reading this book. ...more
Thore Husfeldt
Sep 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Futurism done right.

Hanson explores a scenario based on a single, plausible technological and scientific breakthrough: “mind uploading,” i.e., the possibility of copying the brain/mind of a human and running the resulting copy on computer hardware. This scenario does not assume a vast improvement in our understanding of neuroanatomy (after all, the mind is merely copied and its behaviour simulated, not understood), nor does it posit artificial general intelligence.

All Hanson assumes is copy-and-
Jared Saia
Nov 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
She is an odd book, yet there are those of us who love her.
Bogdan Balostin
Dec 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: best-non-fiction
A history of the future.

First, let's get this out of the way. This is not a novel. This is not an engaging non-fiction book. This is a chronicle of a possible future written in dry academic language. There are no "click baits". There are no fear-mongering stories. There are no uplifting wondrous stories of the future. This book is emotionless.

Why should you read it? Well, not everyone should read it. But people with the power to decide our future should. Historians should, too. It's applied soci
Feb 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was a pretty mindblowing book. I've thought more than most about the distant future, robot uprisings, colonizing other planets, entering a Matrix or San Junipero-type simulation, etc., to the extent that I'm even signed up for cryonics to increase my chances of being there. But I realize now I had not thought about the real implications of having the technology to scan brains and emulate them on computer hardware. Robin Hanson has. He lays out a baseline, "least weird" scenario of what the ...more
Arnaud De Herrypon
Jun 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
The Age of EM is a wonderful exercise in "world Building", that is science fiction without the plot and characters. I particularly recommend the book if, like me, you often get frustrated with the superficiality of the background against which, otherwise, good futuristic stories take place (implausible dystopian political institutions, technological incoherence etc..). Robin Hanson, an economics professor known for his eclecticism (he trained in physics, worked as an AI researcher, studied many ...more
Dec 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was going to rate this book a 3/5. However, for sheer idea/concept per page value it is easily a 5/5. The writing may be dry and fairly methodical (possibly a positive?) and there are definitely some gripes with the methods (for example Hanson cites a statistically insignificant study on marriage at one point) but overall this book certainly delivers. It isn't so much about conceptualising ONE future as the most likely, but more about conceptualising ONE PLAUSIBLE future, with the main intent ...more
May 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Robin's book creates a unique genre that anyone who is interested in the trajectory of humanity in the next century should embrace. Hanson makes the point that far more people are historians that futurists. Futurism has been left to Sci-Fi and is often compelling but lacking in either economic or scientific rigor. Hanson actually is a good historian in the book and extrapolates a future that is hinted at by Sci-fi but explained in rational way in this book. He may be right or he may be wrong. It ...more
Jon Norimann
Sep 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics
The Age of Em discusses how a brain uploaded to a computer will be living life. It also discusses how internet cities of such brains will change the rest of the world and various other related issues.

Social science rather than computer science is the angle of attack, although tech issues are covered aswell. The technology assumed is highly speculative although just within what one can reasonably hope gets available in the next 100 years or so. Inferring consequences of such a technology is then
Tyler Fisher
Feb 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
A brave attempt at predicting the future from a former professor of mine. This book imagines the world after brain emmulation technology has arrived. That is, a technology that allows a human´s brain to be copied, and for that em to do thinking and living on its own. A crazy topic, but only one that can be understood by picking up the book.

At times technical, academic and repetitive it can be hard to read, but anyone who finishes is left with a great reward: a serious study of our future. And,
Very, very interesting. A compelling (epistemically compelling, rather than morally compelling) alternative future to the AI-dominated one which I've habitually been thinking in terms of.

It's really inspired me to be a better economic unit, who works hard at useful jobs and is agreeable/industrious/low-neuroticism/religious/intelligence/rational/whatever-else-correlates-with-productivity so that I can maximise my chances of getting uploaded to the em world and becoming a major clan.
William Kiely
Aug 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I appreciate how this book tries to accurately forecast the future. I like how Robin acts as a historian of the future to predict how the world may actually look given certain assumptions. And I like how Robin concretely states his confidence levels that the predictions made in the book will bear out in reality. I'd love to see more thoughtful people explicitly write out their thoughts on the future in this manner. ...more
Sep 19, 2016 rated it liked it
Wasn't quite what I was expecting -- I just gave it a skim after reading the introduction and first chapter. Very interesting concept, but not something I'm looking to spend a lot of time on today.

Note to self: revisit if/when brain uploading becomes a thing.
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Robin Hanson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. He has a doctorate in social science, master's degrees in physics and philosophy, and nine years of experience as a research programmer in artificial intelligence and Bayesian statistics. With over 3100 citations and sixty academic public ...more

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“To counter all these biases, both in my readers, and in myself, I try to move my estimates in the following directions. I try to be less confident, to expect typical outcomes to be more ordinary, but also to expect more deviations from typical outcomes. I try to rely more on ordinary methods, sources, and assumptions, and also more on statistics or related systems and events.

I expect bigger deviations from traditional images of the future, but also rely less on strange, exotic, unlikely-seeming, and hypothetical possibilities. Looking backward, future folk should see their world as changing less from their past than we might see looking forward. Seen up close and honestly, I expect the future usually to look like most places: mundane, uninspiring, and morally ambiguous, with grand hopes and justifications often masking lives of quiet desperation. Of course, lives of quiet desperation can still be worth living.”
“Humans who attend directly to vivid cases [of inequality] are capable of great empathy with inequality losers. They are also capable of great compassion and even a desire to help. However, we humans are also quite capable of avoiding contact and exposure that might produce such compassion, and of numbing ourselves to the plight of losers about whom it would be inconvenient to feel empathy. So rich people avoid visiting poor neighborhoods and nations, attractive people avoid socializing with the ugly, and pretty young women become numb to the losses of the men they reject.” 1 likes
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