The Robot Threat: Worry About Your Brain, Not Your Job - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Robot Threat: Worry About Your Brain, Not Your Job

The Robot Threat: Worry About Your Brain, Not Your Job

By Sanjena Sathian

Very cute but oh-so-devious.
SourceAkio Kon/Getty


Because some version of this may end up true. 

By Sanjena Sathian

You may have heard the buzz about automation — and fretted over the robots who will take your job and how the legions of unemployed will sustain themselves. But economist Robin Hanson says we shouldn’t bother about robot economics. Instead, he says, we should worry about what happens in a century or so when we’ve figured out “whole brain emulation” — or how to upload our brains onto computers. 

In The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth, Hanson predicts that the computers, with their humanlike abilities and machinelike ability to exponentially multiply those strengths, will become first a fraction and then enormously more advanced than us. Think of how much smarter we are than babies, than chimpanzees, which are just a bit below us in the animal kingdom. That’s right, you should be shivering. The human race, in Hanson’s line of vision, may be completely obsolete in a couple of generations. It will be replaced by humanlike Ems, who reproduce by copying, fear “mind theft” and organize by clans. 

Ostensibly an economist, the George Mason University professor has lived many lives: a philosopher of science, a physicist, a maker and dreamer of what became the Internet and an artificial intelligence researcher. His thinking is far from mainstream, but it builds on an idea that’s long been considered in sci-fi. At best, he’s a prophet. At worst, he gets a few things right. And he and many other Silicon Valley luminaries are increasingly asking, why don’t we study the future with the same intensity as we study history?

We chatted with Hanson about his ideas and what they say about the future of work (be ready to embrace the opportunities); sex (gender, he guesses, won’t go away); and governance (maaaybe bid democracy goodbye).

This interview has been edited and condensed.

OZY: Let’s start with a framework. What kind of book is this? It reminded me of Ray Kurzweil’s Age of Spiritual Machines, but it’s a unique style.

Robin Hanson: I’d like to think of it as serious futurism. There are many futurist books out there whose mode or tone is more inspirational or motivational or whose goal is advocacy. They’re trying to inspire you, or push you to action. There is also a more academic world of futurism where people are trying to be more careful. I’m hoping to be seen in that realm. I’m not trying to be inspirational or cast warnings, or inspire you to join a cult. I’m just trying to tell you the way I see it, as honestly and accurately as possible.


OZY: Yes, you had a beautiful explanation in the preface. We’ll share it:

I feel now like a traveler who has spied on a distant land from the safety of nearby hills, never actually meeting any specific person, or hearing specific words. I’ve returned home, with much to say, but mostly hungry for human communion. I’ve never felt as intellectually isolated or at risk as when writing this book, and I hope my desert days end now …

Was there a truth you held dear about the world that you were forced to rethink in writing this book?

R.H.: One common presumption most people have about the future is that the trend we’ve seen over the last two centuries will roughly continue: Increasing per-person income; increasing leisure, promiscuity, interest in the arts, travel; an increasing desire for democracy, aversion to slavery, reduced religion — a whole bunch of trends are all plausibly attributed to our increasing wealth. Usually the story of the future is that that sort of trend continues. 


The man with the plan for when the robots take our brains.

Source Courtesy of Robin Hanson

In this scenario, those trends reverse dramatically. For humans, things go back to the usual case in history: near-subsistence wages. We are in an unusual “dream time.” We see unusual things happening because of our unusual individual wealth, and that need not continue.

OZY: So how do we prepare?

R.H.: Well, make sure you have some assets. You’ll have to set up some sort of insurance or guarantee for those you care about, or push them out the door. 

The scenario I’m talking about doesn’t happen for many decades, so it doesn’t force anything to happen now. It might be a mistake not to do something, but nothing is forced. We can go on and ignore it. When it finally hits, it happens pretty suddenly; if you aren’t ready you may be in trouble.

The world may well fail to coordinate. There are two main kinds of things to do: One is to protect yourself against the downside, to buy insurance or collect assets that are valuable in a world like this. The other part is to be open to the upside. When this new economy shows up, it’ll be looking for some places around the world to start up and you may want to, as a place, be open to that economy. There may be a lot of regulatory areas that need to change. You’ll need to do a lot of things differently. 

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