The Universe from an Intentional Stance

The Age of Em – summary of policy-relevant information

In this post I summarize the main (potentially) policy-relevant points that Robin Hanson makes in The Age of Em.

If you don’t have time to read the whole post, only read the section The three most important take-aways. My friend and colleague Ruairí also recommends to skip directly to the section on conflict and compromise if you already know the basics of Hanson’s em scenario.

You may check whether Hanson really makes the statements I ascribe to him by looking them up in the book. The page numbers all refer to the print edition, where the main text ends on page 384.


Many parts of the book are not overly interesting and not very policy-relevant. For example, Hanson dedicates a lot of space to discussing how em cities will have to be cooled. Some things are very interesting, because they are weird. For example, faster ems will have smaller bodies (some of them (if not most) have no bodies at all, though). And some things could be policy-relevant. Also, I learned a lot of interesting stuff on the go. E.g., what kind of hand gestures successful and unsuccessful people make. Or that employees are apparently happier and more productive if they just try to satisfy their bosses instead of trying to do good work. Hanson makes extensive use of valuable references to support such claims. In addition to the intrinsic importance of the content, the book serves as a great example in futurology without groundless speculation.

There is also a nice review by Slate Star Codex, which also gives an overview of some of the more basic ideas (section III). I find the whole Age of Em scenario a lot less weird than Scott does and also disagree with the “science fiction” criticism in section VI. Section V rips apart (successfully, in my opinion) the arguments that Hanson gives (in the book) to support the assumption that whole brain emulation will arrive before de novo AI.

What’s an em, anyway?

Hanson’s book argues that soon, human brains can be scanned and then run in a way that preserves their functionality. These scans are called mind uploads, whole brain emulations or ems. Given the advantages that these digital versions have over meat-humans (such as the possibility of speed up, copiability, etc.), these ems would quickly come to dominate the economy. Ems are similar to humans in many regards, but the fundamental differences of being digital have a variety of interesting consequences for an em-dominated world. And this is what Hanson’s book is about.

If you are not familiar with these ideas at all, consider for example Hanson’s TEDx talk or section III in the Slate Star Codex review.

The three most important take-aways

Competition and Malthusian wages

Without substantial regulation, the em world will be a lot more competitive (see p. 156ff.).

“The main way that em labor markets differ from labor markets today is that ems can be easily copied. Copying causes many large changes to em labor markets. For example, with copying there can be sufficient competition for a particular pre-skill type given demand from many competing employers, and supply from at least two competing ems of that type. For these two ems, all we need is that when faced with a take it or leave it wage offer, they each accept a wage of twice the full hardware cost [if they want to work at most half of their time].” (p. 144)

So even if for each job there are just two ems who are willing to do the job at very low wages, wages would fall to near-subsistence level almost immediately.

Who is in power in the em world?

In the em scenario, an elite-focus for our movement is more important than it already is. The elites (in terms of intelligence, productivity, wealth etc.) of our world will completely dominate (by number!) the em world. Therefore, influencing them is strategically much more important for influencing the em world. The elites within the em world will also be more important, e.g. because the em world may be less democratic or have a more rigid class and power hierarchy. This also suggests that it may be a little more important than we thought that the memes of our movement should make sense to elites.

Who becomes an em?

Which humans will be chosen to become ems and be copied potentially billions of times?

More stability in an em world

Overall, the class hierarchy of the em era will probably be more rigid than in the human era.

Conflict and compromise

It’s unclear whether cooperation and compromise will be more easy to achieve in an em world and whether there would be more or less risk of conflict and AI arms races.


It is highly unclear to me what values ems will adopt.

AI safety

Overall, ems seem more likely to get AI safety right. Arguments beyond Hanson’s are given in a talk by Anna Salomon (and Carl Shulman). Consider also a workshop report by Anna Salamon and Luke Muehlhauser on the topic.

Appendix A: Why regulation might be easier to enforce in an em world

Hanson largely assumes a scenario with low regulation, which makes sense—if only to be able to make predictions at all. However, there are also many reasons to believe that much stricter regulation could be enforced in the em world:

Appendix B: Robin Hanson’s moral values

What’s interesting about the book is that, while the scenario Hanson outlines would be considered dystopian by many, Hanson seems to consider it an acceptable outcome. (Consider his “Evaluation” section (pp. 367ff.).) Some striking examples are the following statements: