Age of Em: Where Sci-Fi Meets Economics
Economics, many forget, is a creative endeavor. Much like any rigorous philosophy, or discovery in mathematics, advances in economic thinking--ones that truly take hold of the wider consciousness--require a kind of imaginative flair and daring.
The same goes for worthy science fiction. Aficionados know sci-fi is better described as “speculative fiction”; that is, it’s not about making up a new world from whole cloth, full of magic and adventure (that’s fantasty), but rather it takes science as we understand it today and extrapolates it creatively into the future.
Enter Robin Hanson’s Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth. Simultaneously an economic treatise and a work of deep speculative fiction, it’s a melding of genre rarely seen, but dearly welcome.
Age of Em tracks the economics of a world where we've achieved artificial intelligence and are capable of creating synthetic beings (“Ems”) magnitudes more intelligent but who still bear strong resemblance to us—beings with foibles of all kinds from vanity to perception of stature and the instinct to survive. What Hanson ends up describing is a kind of next step evolution from humanity, not a radical diversion from it. In Hanson’s view, this may be a rather short era in history on the way to ever more intelligent and divergent beings from us, but nonetheless a necessary step to describe.
By itself, this is audacious economic thinking. Orthodoxy here doesn't describe or even generally think of disruptive technologies or how things may change. Economics is most often concerned with equilibrium.
Which leads to the boldest claim of the book: Hanson claims all of his speculations are based on rigorous and established economic law: that the Age of Em is the inevitable outcome of economics as we understand it today.
While this bold assertion is baldly false, it reveals something hugely flattering about Hanson that he likely didn’t intend—the wide breadth of his knowledge. Throughout the book, stealthily, there are a range of very large scientific and philosophical assumptions about how culture works, how evolution and natural selection function, the true nature of human psychology, and so on. To do this book at all requires tremendous polyvalence and unification of worldview.
This feature is what makes the book daring and worthwhile—Hanson, simply, is willing to take chances, make big assumptions, and see where the cards fall. It’s a style of romantic academic endeavor long out of favor. Academics are so overburdened today with the concept of “rigor” and extreme over-citation (always a symptom of uncertainty), that they end up uniformly risk averse, boring, turgid. Age of Em just might, *gulp*, get more folks interested in economics.
And this, too, reveals much about science fiction. It’s not about being “right”, it’s about a rousing tale to illuminate what might be, and deepen what we know of today. Age of Em oscilates from something approaching narrative to the dryness of textbook explanation, but certainly is far more engaging than your normal economic tome.
Hanson's discussions about money, power, and recognition (signaling) of Ems teach us much about ourselves. His explorations of Em rituals and what law and government might look like are bravura economic speculations. Surprisingly, things like ritual don't go away entirely as most sci fi speculates once higher intelligence arrives.
Make no mistake, Age of Em isn’t sci-fi. It reads, often, closer to a textbook than an Asimov tale. But it’s a sign of the age: we tend to think of narrative as less scientific and these days nonfiction sells a lot more than science fiction, but narrative is as endemic to human understanding as basic cognition, and perhaps even beyond.
Finish with this excellent lecture from Hanson on his theory of Ems: