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Of machines and men

Seeming to delight in delivering bad news, a speaker at the recent TEDx in Limassol tells THEO PANAYIDES that what is really important is to work out what is important


A profile is supposed to be personal, but sometimes you’d rather talk ideas than personal chit-chat. Take brain emulation, for instance. It’s a fairly common futurological scenario, and Dr Robin Hanson isn’t the first to mention it – but he’s the first to explore the social implications of such a scenario, and even has a book (still in draft form) on the subject. That’s been his big project for the past couple of years, though not the only one. “I’m a tenured professor,” he declares with a big chuckle (actually an associate professor of economics at George Mason University). “And, as many people know, the life of a tenured professor is a sweet deal”. He has freedom and discretion on how to spend his time, so “I use that freedom to pursue projects that others might think are silly or outlandish”.

Anyway, yes: brain emulation. “You take an individual human,” he explains, talking fast and fluently, his blue eyes unblinking, “and you take their individual brain. And you scan it in fine spatial and chemical detail to see exactly what’s where, then you have computer models of how each cell works, then you connect up the computer model with the same connections as in the brain that you scanned”. The result, if your scan and models are good enough – which they will be, eventually – is an “emulation” that “will have the same input/output behaviour as the original”. You can talk to it, it’ll talk back. You can ask it to do things. It is, to all intents and purposes, human.

“From its point of view,” explains Robin, warming to his theme, “it would remember the person it was just before the scan. And you’d have to convince it that it’s now a machine, because it remembers being human – and so it would have all the human personality and styles of thinking, and inclinations to rebel and fall in love and make jokes, etc. But it would be a machine, and able to be made in factories very quickly, so the population of emulations could grow very quickly.”

This is where his own work comes in – because his abiding theme (he is, after all, an economist) is that getting richer, which has been the trend for the past 100 years or so, can’t last forever. Wealth per person has increased in the past century, which is extraordinary: “For most of human history, incomes per person stood at a relatively constant level – near subsistence – even as civilisation expanded”. This will change, he believes, though not because the global economy will stop growing; rather, because the population will grow even faster – and that population will mostly be robots.

Robin’s vision of the future – not the far-off future but a future, quite possibly, that our children’s children will live to see – is one where men and machines co-exist. Machines will be faster, more efficient than people; “Robots will simply become the dominant form of production”. Human beings will be marginalised – but hopefully “humans would still be rich, comfortable, peaceful, their lives and livelihoods preserved”. It’s like the transition from farming to industry, he explains: farmers weren’t systematically exterminated as a result (indeed, subsistence farmers still exist), they just became less important. Humans in the vast, thriving robot economy of the future could even choose to be robots – just like many farmers chose to move to the city – through brain emulation.

It’s the kind of mind-expanding vision one expects to find at TED, the well-known forum where charismatic thinkers spread “ideas worth spreading”, and indeed we meet backstage at the recent TEDx Limassol – but in fact Robin didn’t talk about robots in his speech a few minutes earlier. “The universe is vast, dark, cold, empty and dead,” began that speech (you can watch it at, and he went on to talk about the Great Filter – the notion, to put it simply, that life is extremely rare in the universe, and something (a filter) prevents it from flourishing. “Something out there is killing everything – and you’re next!” he announced. The audience tittered, Robin smiled. His smile, when it flashes, is a wolfish grin, with an unmistakable tinge of Jack Nicholson.

It’s a downbeat subject, especially for TED which aims to make science inspirational – but that’s the point: Dr Robin Hanson is no cheerleader, more of a professional gadfly who seems to delight in delivering bad news. His blog is called ‘Overcoming Bias’ and that’s another of his pet themes, that our minds, left to their own devices, are biased, making decisions that ignore scientific evidence (unless, perhaps, someone like himself turns up with the uncomfortable truth). “We are not built to be honest,” he explains at one point. “Honesty is not our primary design criterion. We are built to be social, to be persuasive, to be loved or respected, and our minds are built in order to make us seem confident, interesting, capable. Honesty is way down the list!”

profile2-Will we interact with robots in the near future
Will we interact with robots in the near future

When he speaks of overcoming bias, he speaks from experience. Robin’s father was a preacher – and not just some wishy-washy vicar, but a Southern Baptist with a touch of fire and brimstone. “They take the Bible relatively literally,” he says of his folks’ denomination, “and they are emotional, and they take it seriously. I inherited many things from my parents,” he goes on, “and one of them is the idea of taking things seriously. That there are important things in the world, there are big things that matter, things can go very wrong, and it’s important to figure out what’s important.”

His parents ‘took it seriously’, all right. They were even missionaries at one point, carting the family off for a year in Australia. Robin has two brothers, and “the three of us would be like a little choir, we were all dressed in the same little suits” while their dad went from church to church as special guest speaker. Granted, this was the 70s, long before the internet and mass communication (Robin was born in 1959), but it still seems incredible – given the kind of person he is now – that it was only when he went to college that he started questioning the beliefs he’d grown up with; “I took physics in college, and the more I learned about physics, the less mysticism made sense”. Even as a teenager, he was firm in his convictions; indeed, he went even further, briefly joining a religious cult in California where the worshippers would “sing in tongues”.

And then what? Once he’d abandoned religion (or found a new one), did he have a big confrontation with his parents, berating them for having misled him? “No, no. That’s not my personality type,” he replies at once. “Other people do,” he admits; many of his colleagues who became atheists later in life are angry about their upbringing – but he knows that parents are invariably tempted to teach, and youngsters tempted to believe what they’re taught. “Another way of saying this is…” Robin pauses, the Jack Nicholson grin playing at his lips: “I don’t expect a lot out of humans. I love humans, humans are the best species I know, I tenderly enjoy their company and I love them – but I don’t expect high things from them, usually. I know how hard it is to just do the basics, so I don’t get angry at people for just being human.”

It’s an odd credo, a kind of backhanded humanism, loving people for their flaws and limitations as a parent might love a maladroit toddler. It fits with brain emulation, when you think about it – the implication that there’s no such thing as unique ‘human nature’, that everything about us can be mapped and scanned and replicated. One might call Robin Hanson supercilious – except that he includes himself in the equation, and would never think of forcing his views on others. After all, he notes, the wolfish grin swelling to a chuckle, “I’m weird! In a world with a variety of people, I am more unusual than most. So I actually want other people to tolerate my weirdness. It’d be especially foolish of me to try and make the rest of the world like me, because I’m more unusual… A world where diversity is tolerated is good for me – because I’m weird!”.

He’s determinedly hands-off – and, as he said, non-confrontational. “I’m not very pushy as a parent,” he admits (he has two kids, both now grown-up and “earning more than I do” in investment banking and software engineering). “I wasn’t much of a disciplinarian, and I’m not much of a preacher to my kids”. There’s a messianic, save-the-world streak in Robin Hanson – his dad preached the gospel; his wife is a social worker – but an even stronger awareness that help isn’t always appreciated. He tells me of a certain bird species where birds vie for dominance by forcing food down the throat of other birds: “They say ‘I’ve got extra food. You need food. Take this food’. And the other birds don’t like this”. He doesn’t want to be that kind of bird; he’d much rather stand on the sidelines, exploring outlandish ideas and telling people the universe is dead with a mischievous smile on his face.

Do they listen, though? A recurring theme in our conversation is the excellent solution (invariably proposed by Dr Hanson) that falls on deaf ears. A semi-exception are prediction markets, probably the idea he’s best-known for – the idea of solving debates through betting markets, getting people (quite literally) to put their money where their mouth is. Say there’s a “questionable claim, about global warming or something”. People don’t know who to believe, so you create a betting market. Partisans on both sides bet money, their bet reflecting how strongly they believe what they’re saying. Neutrals get a sense of the consensus – then, when the answer is discovered, those who were wrong lose their money. Over time, a “selection effect” takes hold, weeding out the loudmouths, leaving those who are consistently right.

It’s a good idea – and also works for companies, letting them see how likely a project is to succeed or fail. The snag, however, is that companies don’t want an accurate source of information, because it’s “politically awkward”. If a project fails, “what you usually want to say is ‘The reason it failed could not have been anticipated’”. People need the safety of lies; too much truth isn’t welcome, like the food being forced down a bird’s throat. It’s a case of humans being humans again, our minds not being wired for honesty. “Our minds lead us to think that whatever we were born with seems natural,” sighs Robin. People have no evidence for what they believe to be right, “they just like the comfort of believing what they were told, and being part of a community that believes the same thing. And, to most people, that matters more than trying to carefully figure out what’s right”.

‘Everything you know is wrong’ to quote the motto on my TEDx Limassol ticket – but Robin Hanson, as already mentioned, doesn’t really fit with those tech-obsessed visionaries either. He’s not much of a “joiner”, he says; “I don’t want to become part of an ‘us’ that pushes away the ‘them’”. He has little time for the starry-eyed clique trying to solve the world’s problems with gadgets and smartphones.

In a way, he still carries some of the old-fashioned preacher – or maybe he just stands outside Time, taking the long view, as befits a man making speeches about the universe. “The biggest thing that happened in history,” he tells me, batting out another Big Idea, “was the transition from foraging to farming”. Foragers were undisciplined, doing what came naturally as they roamed through the forests. Farmers needed discipline, rules, self-control – so they invented conformity and religion, training each other to ‘do the right thing’. “Part of what made that work was fear. Fear of starvation, of death”; but now things are changing. “As we’ve gotten rich, in the last few centuries, all those fears seem less compelling. So we don’t have to get married, or be faithful, or have long-term things. We don’t have to have kids, we don’t have to work hard”. We’ve become more promiscuous, more lazy, and also more “skittish” about things like slavery or killing animals, all the things that farmers accepted. “We’ve become more self-indulgent – like foragers, basically.”

What is he, exactly? Maybe a bit of both, literally foraging (as in exploring) the wilder reaches of academia but secretly longing for discipline, like the farmers of old. Then again, I don’t really know. I’ve learned a bit about his lifestyle – he reads widely; he goes biking; he likes movies, and peruses ‘100 Best Films’ lists to check how many he’s seen – but not very much. A profile is supposed to be personal, I remind him. But he shakes his head.

When interviewers talk to a musician or an athlete (or indeed a well-known academic), he points out, they’re forever asking them to ‘tell me about the rest of your life’ – yet “the way people become famous musicians or athletes is to focus so much of their energy on this professional thing, [so] there usually isn’t much of a ‘rest of their life’. And that’s not a message people usually want to hear, so they make up silly things in order to seem personal. You want to know about the athlete’s favourite food, or favourite books or something – but that really isn’t a central part of their life! The central part is the thing that they’re famous for. That is the person in front of you”. He’s right, as usual.

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