Book review: The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth – Robin Hanson

by Jade Fell 

9780198754626 (1)
Oxford University Press, May 2016, 426 pp, ISBN 978-0-19-875462-6, £20.00, Hardback 

Ever wondered what a world inhabited almost entirely by intelligent machines might look like? Or even, what smart robots might look like and what their uses, design, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses could be? If any or all of these questions are in the back of your mind, then The Age of Em could be just the book you are looking for. In this revolutionary new publication, economist Robin Hanson combines existing theories in physics, computer science and economics to create a realistic vision of a world dominated by robots.

Each day, advanced reports emerge of experiments in how artificial intelligence and robotics is revolutionising the way we live our lives, but the realisation of a truly intelligent machine still seems far over the horizon. What kind of robots could equal the actions of a human being? Hanson looks to the robotic brain emulation, or ‘em’ as a solution for a truly intelligent machine. The premise is simple enough; take a detailed scan of a human brain and then build a computer model that processes signals in accordance with the same characteristics as the brain. The result is a robotic brain, which can be trained to carry out tasks in the same way as a human baby.

A single brain emulation can be copied thousands of times, creating a literal army of robotic workers with human-like intelligence. The Age of Em serves as an in-depth portrayal of a future where this has become a reality –  ems are the norm and cities, streets, transport and leisure are all designed around these new inhabitants. The era of the em is as different from our own today, as we are from the lives of the farmers and foragers who came before us. Progress has changed once again, with further steps towards efficiency, rendering previous assumptions about life more or less redundant. Moral progress no longer holds such an important position at the forefront of society, with ems, the new master race, rejecting many of the values we hold dear.

It’s a strange world and one which many of you may find unsettling, but is no different than our present lives are from the eras that came before us. To most of us, our lives today may feel preferable to the work-intensive existence of our ancestors, we may even enjoy living as we do today. The em era is no different; it feels good to be an em.

Hanson’s work is revolutionary, not in what it says, but how it attempts to say it. While the majority of previous literary presentations of a world ruled by machines are firmly rooted in the realms of fiction, this text is hard-core theory, attempting to create a realistic image of what a world inhabited by future technology would look like.

Let’s not attempt to flatter the author or reassure the reader by saying that The Age of Em is an easy book to read. It most certainly is not. Those with little experience of economics, physics or computer science may well feel as though they are traversing a figurative Everest of text, but once over the peak, the expedition feels more than worthwhile.

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