Non-Fiction Reviews

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

( 2016 ) , Oxford University Press, 20, hrdbk, xi + 426pp, ISBN 978-0-198-75462-6


This is a highly speculative, possibly over ambitious, but nonetheless fascinating 'thought exercise' as to the implications and possibilities of electronic minds. Here specifically think of organic human minds being copied and run electronically.

This mental transference aspect to the concept being explored is fundamental. The 'Em' of this book's title stands for 'brain emulation'. What we are not  talking about is robots or humans being transferred into some sort of positronic brain that then runs an android, though clearly this is an option within the author's premise though it is not one he explores.  What Hanson is specifically on about is the transference of the human mind into computers and hence an electronic cyberspace: this is more Greg Egan than Isaac Asimov. (Though Egan did on occasion have his 'Emulations' transfer into androids as well as roam virtual cyberspace constructs.)

Of course such mental transference or 'emulations' or 'ems' as Hanson has it has since the latter half of the 20th century become an established SF trope. Indeed, Robin Hanson does cite a number of SF works including by the aforementioned Greg Egan and also David Brin, Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross. So be assured that this book can speak to SF readers.

What Robin Hanson has done is to examine theoretical possibilities through the lens of social and soft sciences (primarily economics and psychology) together with some of the more speculative papers from science journals. Indeed the book is thoroughly referenced (over 30 pages of them) though the most referenced person are previous works of Robin Hanson himself: over a score of self citations. But don't mistake this last for being a vanity exercise: Hanson has thought about emulations for many years and this book brings many of those thoughts together.

This is a rich book with new concepts or implications explored on nearly every page. However, though the subject matter certainly resonates with SF and there are the above-mentioned SF authors' works, seasoned SF readers diving into this book will find that they can marry many of the concepts to SF stories. For example, punishment virtual realities have featured in Iain Banks 'Culture' novels, and the interrogation of multiple 'em' clones in Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief.

The strength of The Age of Em for the SF reader, or writer, is that it provokes thoughts and generates new ideas as to the likely SFnal implications and in this specific sense this book is a joy.

Robin Hanson's overall conclusions include: whether robotic or human ems think and feel much like humans; that their world looks and feels much like as ours looks to us; that ems locate in a few tall, densely packed cities divided almost equally between racks of computing hardware and cooling systems; and that most ems have office jobs, work and play in virtual realities. He has other notions too, but you will need to read his book to find them out.

Personally speaking, while Hanson's treatise is engaging and interesting, I confess that personally I simply do not buy into it. Not only have I read too much SF to think that em life will be as prescriptive as Hanson portrays, but coming from the biological sciences, I am acutely aware of the frailties of the human brain hence mind (on a psychobiological basis). Furthermore, I am uncomfortable in the way that the social science works Hanson draws upon to support his em conclusions: it is an apples and oranges thing, I do not think that they can readily translate from one to the other; from real life sociobiological constructs to, in effect, machine code. There is much we simply do not know about this, as yet, untrodden land glimpsed from afar.  But you may agree or disagree?  Eitherway, you are likely to enjoy doing so.

Nonetheless, Robin Hanson has provided many 'think-of-this' launch points for his readers. Certainly SF readers (and writers) will find that this helps stimulate their imaginations with regard to the possible electronic pot-human form. This is a solid work of fictional science. This last is not a put down: all science begins with hypotheses, or as Richard Feynman put it, 'guesses'. Hanson provides interesting hypotheses.

Jonathan Cowie

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