The Age of Em is Robin Hanson’s first book. A normal economist might have started with a more popular topic rather than something niche, with the title even containing the short term “em” he coined for emulations and that most people would find meaningless. He actually sent me an advanced version not intended for publication but instead for critique prior to writing a version for a popular audience, but given all the distractions available on the internet I never got around to reading that. He doesn’t seem to have had any shortage of such critique as the book is full of caveats and responses to possible objections. The typical big-idea book tries to get away with impressive boldness and devotes relatively scant attention to possible counter-arguments. This is not a typical book. It’s sort of like a non-fictional version of scifi, as it’s focused on a technology that doesn’t currently exist and may never come into existence, but there are no characters or made up burdensome detail or even a real plot. Hanson has complained that there is so much more history than futurism, so this book represents the thing he thinks there isn’t enough of. I’d say the reason isn’t because the idea hadn’t previously occurred to anyone but him, but rather that a market for reader attention will be inclined that way even if an ideal sort of futurism might be more “useful”. I should note that Hanson is one of the thinkers I most respect, and I think he’s more likely to be correct than Yudkowsky in the AI foom debate over whether emulations will come first, but like the little girl doing a book report on a text concerning penguins, I found there was more than I was eager to know. (more…)