In this week's Rule Breaker Investing podcast, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner has invited a special guest: Robin Hanson, a George Mason University economics professor and research associate at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute. Hanson has master's degrees in physics and philosophy and a Ph.D. in social science, and he previously worked on A.I. at Lockheed Martin and NASA. His recently published book is The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth.

Hanson joins us this week to discuss a broad topic: the future. His key prediction is that digital brain emulations will be able to do many of the things humans have to today. Where that might lead...well, let him tell it like a science fiction story without characters or a plot, but with a much more sensible and consistent universe. 

A transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Sept. 14, 2016.


Let's go with a little bit of storytelling. And any time you're writing a book about a hundred years from now, obviously there's going to be a lot of storytelling. It's a story. It's in your head. What's remarkable about your book is the depth to which you've thought about the implications of brain emulation and how it affects all sectors of society -- everything from how the economy works to who would be president if there even is democracy. The degree of admittedly speculative thinking that you've indulged in goes as deep as anything I've ever read about something this distant.

In fact, I'm wondering, Robin, if anybody in the world has thought more about the world a hundred years from now than you have -- literally and specifically a hundred years from now. Do a little bit of storytelling. I'm still alive, let's say. Let's say you're still alive. Where are we? What does the world look like?


So it's like a science fiction novel, except there's no plot and there's no characters, and the story environment makes sense. I've been a science fiction reader for a long time -- I've enjoyed it -- but the more I've learned over the years, the more frustrated I get with story environments not actually making sense if you're flicking through. And that's a standard thing in an action story.

In an action story, you've carried along, and you do this and you do that, and if you ever go back and think about [what your other options were there], you'll find there was lots of other things people could have done that would have made a lot more sense, but at the moment you didn't think of them, and that's how a lot of stories are. I say this makes sense. I've worked all through it.

So I'm claiming I'm not being very speculative in the sense of making things up. I am just applying standard theories, but to an unusual scenario. The speculative part, I would say, is I assume that this kind of robot shows up sometime roughly in the next century, and it's cheaper than humans. And everything after that, I claim, is applying standard theories. Not speculation. Not making stuff up. Not guesswork -- applying standard theories.

Now, that's how we work in the world today. That is, we have data from the past and we abstract that data into our best theories, and then we apply those theories in finance or everything else. And that's what I'm doing here. But you would like an image, so let's start with that image.

You are in a vast city. Almost all emulations are crammed into a small number of very big densities. If you look at it objectively, which sometimes you could, it's just racks and racks of computing hardware. Boiling hot. Huge cooling pipes crammed through it. It's ugly. It's functional. It's stuck.

But you don't look at it that way. You're an em. You mostly live in virtual reality. In virtual reality, it's a gorgeous city. It's got gleaming spires [and] broad, green boulevards, etc. And at any time you can meet with anybody in the city by just thinking of it, and you are instantaneously moved anywhere in the city, anytime you want, in order to meet with anybody.

You can go for a stroll, if you want, just to relax, but you don't really have to do things to travel. You can just instantly be somewhere else. Most of the ems are working most of the time, but they like work, and they're workaholics like many people you might know, so our image should start with them at work.


So let me paint a picture and you tell me if I have this right. Let's pretend, for example, that we have an Einstein-like figure, a human being at the time, sometime in the next century. Naturally we would want to emulate his brain, so we take the most genius human that we can find. And with technology that does not exist today...




...we map everything about it so that we're able, essentially, to replicate to the cell level what's happening in that brain. And then because stuff gets cheaper over time, the first human genome cost a billion dollars or more to develop, and now you can have yours, fifteen years later, for two hundred and fifty bucks. So we're able to take Einstein, and we're able to copy him into a robot, and then we're able to make a hundred or a thousand of those robots...


Or a billion.


Or a billion of those robots -- of those Einsteins. And then they start at the same starting line -- the billion of them -- but they then, from that point forward, autonomously have different experiences. Naturally, uniquely one has this or that experience versus another, and so you end up with all of these different versions of Einstein. Is that a fair recounting of some of the picture that you have in your head when you talk about ems?


Yes. So picture a billion Einsteins, but they aren't all born at the same moment. They're spread out over time. They take on different jobs and live in different cities. Some of them are plumbers. Some of them do physics. Some of them do music. They just do a wide range of different things, and each of them has thousands of other versions around them, so trained, slightly older, and recent. Ems run out in the sense of they get fragile with time and need to retire. Even though they're electronic, this is how software works today. Software rots, and so the em minds also rot.

So to be ready, they have versions of the ems who were started a year later, trained in slightly newer ways, and will retire a year later, all the way down the line. They see older and younger versions of themselves around, so they know where their life is going. They have a pretty good idea where it's going, and where they'll live, and who they'll marry, and what jobs they'll have.


Do they have consciousness?


They have all of the human psychological features that you and I do. That's the whole idea. The whole idea is that we don't have to understand how the brain works. All we have to understand is how each cell works, and we model the cells, and we don't care how the larger structure above it works. We can just make a copy and turn it on. So yes, they're conscious. They fall in love. They get mad. They lie to themselves.


And in the meantime, human beings are still around. It's just that our brains can only move at about a billionth, and it's hard to compete against a billion Einsteins if you want to be a plumber, and so we're still on this Earth, but we've been marginalized as the farmers and foragers were before us.


That's right. Now, this whole Age of Em I'm talking about might [have] as much growth in that Age of Em as there had been during the entire industrial era or during the entire farming era before, but it would all happen within a year or two. The economy might double every month. To typical emulations, who are running a thousand times human speed, that's actually a relatively slow change. They see the economy doubling every subjective century. But to humans sitting on the outside, it's blistering fast.

So the humans can't really change that much in a year or two. They're on the side, retired, but they only experience a year or two. But the ems can experience thousands of years of cultural change, and so they do.