What would happen if we upload our brains to computers? | Robin Hanson


Someday, we may have robots
as smart as people, artificial intelligence, AI. How could that happen? One route is that we’ll just keep
accumulating better software, like we’ve been doing for 70 years. At past rates of progress,
that may take centuries. Some say it’ll happen a lot faster as we discover grand new
powerful theories of intelligence. I’m skeptical. But a third scenario is what I’m going to talk about today. The idea is to port the software
from the human brain. To do this, we’re going to need
three technologies to be good enough, and none of them are there yet. First, we’re going to need
lots of cheap, fast, parallel computers. Second, we’re going to need
to scan individual human brains in fine spatial and chemical detail, to see exactly what cells are where,
connected to what, of what type. And third, we’re going to need
computer models of how each kind of brain cell works — taking input signals,
changing interval state and sending output signals. If we have good enough models
of all the kinds of brain cells and a good enough model of the brain, we can put it together to make
a good enough model of an entire brain, and that model would have the same
input-output behavior as the original. So if you talk to it, it might talk back. If you ask it to do things,
it might do them. And if we could do that,
everything would change. People have been talking
about this idea for decades, under the name of “uploads.” I’m going to call them “ems.” When they talk about it, they say, “Is this even possible? If you made one, would it be conscious?
Or is it just an empty machine? If you made one of me,
is that me or someone else?” These are all fascinating questions
that I’m going to ignore … (Laughter) because I see a neglected question: What would actually happen? I became obsessed with this question. I spent four years trying to analyze it, using standard academic tools,
to guess what would happen, and I’m here to tell you what I found. But be warned — I’m not offering inspiration,
I’m offering analysis. I see my job as telling you
what’s most likely to happen if we did the least to avoid it. If you aren’t at least a bit disturbed
by something I tell you here, you’re just not paying attention. (Laughter) OK, the first thing I can tell you is that ems spend most
of their life in virtual reality. This is what you might look like
if you were using virtual reality. And this is what you might see: sunlight glinting off of water,
you might hear gulls flying above, you might even feel the wind
on your cheeks or smell seawater, with advanced hardware. Now, if you were to spend
a lot of time here, you might want a dashboard where you could do things like
make a phone call, move to a new virtual world, check your bank account. Now, while this is what
you would look like in virtual reality, this is what an em
would look like in virtual reality. It’s computer hardware
sitting in a server rack somewhere. But still, it could see
and experience the same thing. But some things are different for ems. First, while you’ll probably always notice
that virtual reality isn’t entirely real, to an em, it can feel as real to them
as this room feels to you now or as anything ever feels. And ems also have
some more action possibilities. For example, your mind just always
runs at the same speed, but an em can add more or less
computer hardware to run faster or slower, and therefore, if the world around them
seems to be going too fast, they can just speed up their mind, and the world around them
would seem to slow down. In addition, an em can make
a copy of itself at that moment. This copy would remember
everything the same, and if it starts out with the same speed,
looking at the same speed, it might even need to be told,
“You are the copy.” And em could make archive copies, and with enough archives, an em can be immortal — in principle, though not
usually in practice. And an em can move its brain,
the computer that represents its brain, from one physical location to another. Ems can actually move around the world
at the speed of light, and by moving to a new location, they can interact more quickly
with ems near that new location. So far, I’ve been talking about
what ems can do. What do ems choose to do? To understand that, we’ll need
to understand three key facts. First, ems by definition do what
the human they emulate would do in the same situation. So their lives and behavior
are very human. They’re mainly different because
they’re living in a different world. Second, ems need
real resources to survive. You need food and shelter or you’ll die. Also, ems need computer hardware,
energy, cooling, or they can’t exist. For every subjective minute
that an em experiences, someone, usually that em,
had to work to pay for it. Third, ems are poor. (Laughter) The em population can grow
quicker than the em economy, so that means wages fall down
to em subsistence levels. That means ems have to be working
most of the time. So that means
this is what ems usually see: beautiful and luxurious, but desks — they’re working most of the time. Now, a subsistence wage scenario,
you might think, is exotic and strange, but it’s actually the usual case
in human history, and it’s how pretty much
all wild animals have ever lived, so we know what humans do
in this situation. Humans basically do
what it takes to survive, and this is what lets me say
so much about the em world. When creatures are rich, like you, you have to know a lot
about what they want to figure out what they do. When creatures are poor, you know that they mostly do
what it takes to survive. So we’ve been talking about the em world
from the point of view of the ems — now, let’s step back
and look at their whole world. First, the em world grows
much faster than ours, roughly a hundred times faster. So the amount of change
we would experience in a century or two, they would experience in a year or two. And I’m not really willing to project
this age much beyond that, because plausibly by then something else
will happen, I don’t know what. Second, the typical emulation
runs even faster, roughly a thousand times human speed. So for them, they experience
thousands of years in this year or two, and for them, the world around them
is actually changing more slowly than your world seems to change for you. Third, ems are crammed together
in a small number of very dense cities. This is not only how they see
themselves in virtual reality, it’s also how they actually are
physically crammed together. So at em speeds, physical travel
feels really painfully slow, so most em cities are self-sufficient, most war is cyber war, and most of the rest of the earth
away from the em cities is left to the humans, because the ems
really aren’t that interested in it. Speaking of humans, you were wanting to hear about that. Humans must retire, at once, for good. They just can’t compete. Now, humans start out owning
all of the capital in this world. The economy grows very fast,
their wealth grows very fast. Humans get rich, collectively. As you may know, most humans today
don’t actually own that much besides their ability to work, so between now and then,
they need to acquire sufficient assets, insurance or sharing arrangements, or they may starve. I highly recommend avoiding this outcome. (Laughter) Now, you might wonder, why would ems let humans exist? Why not kill them, take their stuff? But notice we have many
unproductive retirees around us today, and we don’t kill them
and take their stuff. (Laughter) In part, that’s because it would disrupt
the institutions we share with them. Other groups would wonder who’s next, so plausibly, ems may well let humans
retire in peace during the age of em. You should worry more that
the age of em only lasts a year or two and you don’t know what happens next. Ems are very much like humans, but they are not like the typical human. The typical em is a copy
of the few hundred most productive humans. So in fact, they are as elite,
compared to the typical human, as the typical billionaire,
Nobel Prize winner, Olympic gold medalist, head of state. Ems look on humans
perhaps with nostalgia and gratitude, but not so much respect, which is, if you think about it,
how you think about your ancestors. We know many things about how humans
differ in terms of productivity. We can just use those
to predict features of ems — for example, they tend to be smart,
conscientious, hard-working, married, religious, middle-aged. These are features of ems. Em world also contains enormous variety. Not only does it continue on with most
of the kinds of variety that humans do, including variety of industry
and profession, they also have many new kinds of variety, and one of the most important
is mind speed. Ems can plausibly go from human speed up to a million times
faster than human speed, and down to a billion times
slower than human speed. Faster ems tend to have
markers of high status. They embody more wealth.
They win arguments. They sit at premium locations. Slower ems are mostly retirees, and they are like the ghosts
of our literature. If you recall, ghosts are all around us — you can interact with them
if you pay the price. But they don’t know much,
they can’t influence much, and they’re obsessed with the past,
so what’s the point? (Laughter) Ems also have more variety
in the structure of their lives. This is your life: you start
and you end, really simple. This is the life of an em, who every day splits off
some short-term copies to do short-term tasks and then end. We’ll talk more about
those short term versions in a moment, but they are much more efficient because they don’t have to rest
for the next day. This em is more opportunistic. They make more copies of themselves
when there’s more demand for that. They don’t know which way
the future’s going. This is an em designer, who conceives of a large system and then breaks recursively into copies
who elaborate that, so ems can implement
larger, more coherent designs. This an emulation plumber who remembers that every day,
for the last 20 years, they only ever worked
two hours a day, a life of leisure. But what really happened is,
every day they had a thousand copies, each of whom did a two-hour plumbing job, and only one of them
went on to the next day. Objectively, they’re working
well over 99 percent of the time. Subjectively, they remember
a life of leisure. (Laughter) This, again, is you.
You start and you end. This could be you
if at the start of party, you took a drug that meant
you would not remember that party ever after that day. Some people do this, I’m told. Toward the end of the party, will you say to yourself,
“I’m about to die, this is terrible. That person tomorrow isn’t me,
because they won’t remember what I do.” Or you could say, “I will go on tomorrow.
I just won’t remember what I did.” This is an em who splits off
a short-term copy to do a short-term task and then end. They have the same two
attitude possibilities. They can say, “I’m a new short-term
creature with a short life. I hate this.” Or “I’m a part of a larger creature
who won’t remember this part.” I predict they’ll have
that second attitude, not because it’s philosophically correct,
but because it helps them get along. Today, if the president says
we must invade Iraq, and you say, “Why?” and they say, “State secret,” you’re not sure if you can trust them, but for ems, a copy of the president
and a copy of you can go inside a safe, explain all their secret reasons, and then one bit comes out
from your copy to yourself, telling you if you were convinced. So now you can know
there is a good reason. I know you guys are all eager
to evaluate this world. You’re eager to decide
if you love it or hate it. But think: your ancestors
from thousands of years ago would have loved or hated your world based on the first few things
they heard about it, because your world
is really just weird. So before judging a strange future world,
you should really learn a lot about it, maybe read a whole book about it, and then, if you don’t like it,
work to change it. Thank you. (Applause)

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