Economist: Brain Simulations Will Take Over the Government, and Our Jobs, within 100 Years

A noted economist and futurist Robin Hanson sees a civilization of brain simulations or "ems" rising within the next 100 years.

Economist Robin Hanson’s new book “The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth” imagines a not-too-distant future when robots are commonplace in our life. And the smartest of these will be “ems,” or brain emulations.  These will be super-detailed scans of actual human brains that run as models on computers. And once we figure out how to pull that off cheaply, ems will take over most human jobs. 


The advantage ems will have is that they’ll be running 1,000 times faster than an actual human brain. You’ll also be able to copy them. Wouldn’t you rather scan and duplicate the brain of a Stephen Hawking and have that em do almost everything?  

The moment when ems will take over is similar to the singularity famously proposed by the futurist Ray Kurzweil. But Hanson thinks a brain em will come in the next 100 years, sooner than self-aware AI because they will be recreations of brains rather than harder-to-create brain consciousnesses. Brain ems can come as a culmination of the technology we already employ, like brain scans and models. One day we’ll just know everything there is to know about brains and will be able to get computers to mimic them. 

How will we create ems?  The book explains:

“An em results from taking a particular human brain, scanning it to record its particular cell features and connections, and then building a computer model that processes signals according to those same features and connections. A good enough em has close to the same overall input-output signal behavior as the original human. One might talk with it, and convince it to do useful jobs.”

And once that happens, ems will “basically beat humans at being more cost effective at all jobs,” says Hanson In an interview with Business Insider.

The Industrial Age will end and the Age of Ems will begin.

Emulations will perform most of their tasks in virtual reality, and for physical jobs like factory work they will have some specialized “bodies”. Ems will be functioning creatures that will develop and live in the same world as humans but will eventually develop their own civilization.

Once ems will be doing most of our jobs, humans will have to create a new civilization for themselves. Hanson imagines ems will be congregating in a few megacities full of technology, while the humans will live essentially retired in suburbs. The ems will be running all the businesses and government.

The rest of the people will generally not work, especially if they managed to make good investments or have government or corporate insurance. Some will financially benefit from being the originals whose brain scans were used to create ems. Interestingly, the descendants of the original human or “copies” will together be called a “clan”.

There will, of course, be many left behind. 

“If there are rich humans who just get a thrill out of hiring real human waiters or  ... even real human prostitutes, perhaps, then those jobs might be done by human,” Hanson says.

Still, Hanson doesn’t see the future as gloomy. The Age of Ems will come, but will eventually be replaced by something perhaps even stranger. From the human perspective, the Age of Ems will be an end result of the current, generally positive trajectory.

“People have seen consistent trends not only to individual wealth, but also towards more democracy, less slavery, more leisure, more promiscuity, less religion. In other words, the world is getting better. There’ve always been people telling you the world’s getting worse. Objectively, it’s less true today,” proposed Hanson. 

Hanson doesn’t see a Terminator-like scenario with Skynet attempting to exterminate humanity. He sees ems to behave more like giant corporations that will grow within legal means. 

Robin Hanson is an AI veteran, with 9 years of AI research under his belt at Lockheed Martin and NASA. He currently teaches at George Mason University and researches at Oxford University. 

If you want to think more about the singularity, check out these thoughts by Ray Kurzweil:

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.