Search FQXi

If you are aware of an interesting new academic paper (that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal or has appeared on the arXiv), a conference talk (at an official professional scientific meeting), an external blog post (by a professional scientist) or a news item (in the mainstream news media), which you think might make an interesting topic for an FQXi blog post, then please contact us at with a link to the original source and a sentence about why you think that the work is worthy of discussion. Please note that we receive many such suggestions and while we endeavour to respond to them, we may not be able to reply to all suggestions.

Please also note that we do not accept unsolicited posts and we cannot review, or open new threads for, unsolicited articles or papers. Requests to review or post such materials will not be answered. If you have your own novel physics theory or model, which you would like to post for further discussion among then FQXi community, then please add them directly to the "Alternative Models of Reality" thread, or to the "Alternative Models of Cosmology" thread. Thank you.

Contests Home

Current Essay Contest

Contest Partners: Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

Previous Contests

Undecidability, Uncomputability, and Unpredictability Essay Contest
December 24, 2019 - April 24, 2020
Contest Partners: Fetzer Franklin Fund, and The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation

What Is “Fundamental”
October 28, 2017 to January 22, 2018
Sponsored by the Fetzer Franklin Fund and The Peter & Patricia Gruber Foundation

Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
December 2, 2016 to March 3, 2017
Contest Partner: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Fund.

Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
Contest Partners: Nanotronics Imaging, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, and The John Templeton Foundation
Media Partner: Scientific American


How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
Contest Partners: Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
Contest Partners: The Gruber Foundation, J. Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

Questioning the Foundations
Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
May 24 - August 31, 2012
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, SubMeta, and Scientific American

Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Scientific American

What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams

The Nature of Time
August - December 2008

Forum Home
Terms of Use

Order posts by:
 chronological order
 most recent first

Posts by the author are highlighted in orange; posts by FQXi Members are highlighted in blue.

By using the FQXi Forum, you acknowledge reading and agree to abide by the Terms of Use

 RSS feed | RSS help

Peter Jackson: on 5/30/14 at 18:28pm UTC, wrote Robin, I see you haven't yet responded to the above. I hope you can now...

Robin Hanson: on 5/27/14 at 14:21pm UTC, wrote I did meet Doug Engelbart, though not at Lockheed. I helped encourage him...

James Hoover: on 5/26/14 at 16:05pm UTC, wrote Robin, I am revisiting those reviewed and found that I rated yours on May...

Don Limuti: on 5/26/14 at 3:04am UTC, wrote Hi Robin, I was looking at your bio and noted your stint at Lockheed. ...

James Hoover: on 5/24/14 at 18:30pm UTC, wrote Robin, Interesting read and a novel approach to a daunting problem. Your...

Aaron Feeney: on 5/10/14 at 4:16am UTC, wrote P.S., I will use the following rating scale to rate the essays of authors...

Mohammed Khalil: on 5/6/14 at 17:09pm UTC, wrote Hi Robin, Great essay! I enjoyed your river analogy. I agree with you, the...

Peter Jackson: on 5/5/14 at 17:21pm UTC, wrote Robin, True, but I propose we could be far more useful if we also learned...


Georgina Woodward: "Compare: "Wild', existentially free particle, unmeasured, unperturbed, in..." in Quantum Physics and the...

Georgina Woodward: "1. The 'magic rabbit' does not come into being, upon the photo being seen...." in Quantum Physics and the...

Deserdi Chapas: "Report on ongoing Holographic Physics work at As humanity has..." in Alternative Models of...

umair zaheer: "Travel is the movement of people between distant geographical locations...." in Anatomy of spacetime and...

robin 435: "rsvsfascxseaczcfadv" in Anatomy of spacetime and...

David Vognar: "Electron Doping? by David Vognar I think it helps to visualize physics so..." in The Present State of...

Nick Fury: "Hi, when you get older there is not a single part of your body that is..." in Quantum Measurement and...

Lady Zecharia: "Can physics address - at least in principle - the truly deep questions of..." in The Present State of...

click titles to read articles

The Entropic Price of Building the Perfect Clock: Q&A with Natalia Ares
Experiments investigating the thermodynamics of clocks can teach us about the origin of time's arrow.

Schrödinger’s A.I. Could Test the Foundations of Reality
Physicists lay out blueprints for running a 'Wigner's Friend' experiment using an artificial intelligence, built on a quantum computer, as an 'observer.'

Expanding the Mind (Literally): Q&A with Karim Jerbi and Jordan O'Byrne
Using a brain-computer interface to create a consciousness 'add-on' to help test Integrated Information Theory.

Quanthoven's Fifth
A quantum computer composes chart-topping music, programmed by physicists striving to understand consciousness.

The Math of Consciousness: Q&A with Kobi Kremnitzer
A meditating mathematician is developing a theory of conscious experience to help understand the boundary between the quantum and classical world.

December 8, 2022

CATEGORY: How Should Humanity Steer the Future? Essay Contest (2014) [back]
TOPIC: Look Hard, Then Steer Slightly by Robin Hanson [refresh]
Bookmark and Share
Login or create account to post reply or comment.

Author Robin Hanson wrote on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 15:38 GMT
Essay Abstract

Humanity can best steer its future by working hard to clearly see the future it will have if we do nothing. Because most likely we will do almost nothing. I illustrate this idea with a parable of riding a vast fast river, and I apply it in the context of my current book project, where I offer an unprecedented quantity of credible detail on the social implications of a particular future tech: brain emulations. I describe small feasible changes which might improve this future.

Author Bio

Robin Hanson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University, and chief scientist at Consensus Point. After receiving his Ph.D. in social science from Caltech in 1997, Robin was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health policy scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1984, Robin received a masters in physics and a masters in the philosophy of science from the University of Chicago, and afterward spent nine years researching artificial intelligence, Bayesian statistics, and hypertext publishing at Lockheed, NASA, and independently.

Download Essay PDF File

Bookmark and Share

Tommy Anderberg wrote on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 07:12 GMT
Hi. Your big point (the amount of steering we can hope to do is more like swimming in a river than altering its course) is a good one which I pretty much take for granted, so you won't get any argument from me there. Instead, I'll nitpick about ems.

Much as I like the general idea ("Humans 3.0" in my essay) I have yet to see a convincing description of the technology. A couple of things...

view entire post

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
Author Robin Hanson replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 20:44 GMT
It is trivial when making a copy to mark one as the copy and inform it of that fact. I would have agreed ahead of time that in this situation it would do the agreed task and then end. If you wouldn't agree to this sort of thing, you wouldn't be a good candidate for this world. Others can be found would will agree.

There is a cost to run faster, which prevents everyone running as fast as possible. The computers are likely to be specialized for the purpose of running ems. It is quite possible to make such machine and still make it easy to copy their internal state to another such machine.

Bookmark and Share

Tommy Anderberg replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 21:56 GMT
All right, so you would select suicidal humans as clan templates. That's reassuring. :)

Yes, there is a cost to run faster: energy. But your whole premise is that ems are made viable by their ability to run faster than organic humans. The faster they are, the more work they get done per unit time, the more energy they can afford, the more profitable they become.

One interesting consequence of having them run on specialized hardware is that they could be very fast compared to us, maybe too fast for their own comfort. We find virtual worlds attractive because they are easily modifiable, thanks to the versatility of general purpose computers. But general purpose computers may not be able to keep pace with ems running on specialized hardware... and maybe that's what would keep them from wanting to run at full speed. It would make their world too dull.

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Author Robin Hanson replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 23:45 GMT
Ems can beat humans even if they aren't faster; they need only be cheaper. If needed supporting computers couldn't keep up with some speed, they you wouldn't run at that speed. You'd run slower, and cheaper.

Bookmark and Share

James Blodgett wrote on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 17:53 GMT
Hello Robin

I agree that we have a limited vision of the river ahead and a limited steering ability. Your markets give us some vision. They are a form of crowdsourcing. I try other forms: I try to crowdsource help in steering. Check out my essay. I should add markets. The one thing I question is your faith in uploads. I will assign them some small subjective probability, but I really doubt that we can determine what seems necessary for a high resolution version: the state of trillions of synapses and their interconnections. I doubt that remote scanning will ever have adequate resolution. Invading the brain with billions of nanobots might determine the state, but would seem to have problems determining interconnections. I doubt that we could slice the brain thinly enough to scan it without trauma (but I am no expert.) We already have low resolution emulations: actors playing folks who were prolific writers. I have seen these versions of Franklin, Twain, and Lincoln. When robots are smart enough they could also play the part of a historical figure. But I do not think that is what you mean. What am I missing that makes you think that uploads are likely? You say that the technology for scanning is likely to be ready within a century. On what do you base that?

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
Robin Hanson replied on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 20:39 GMT
The first uploads would be created via destructive scans, which we already have a lot of experience doing. We don't have sufficient resolution scans yet, in part because we aren't sure what chemical resolution is needed.

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Member Marc Séguin wrote on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 21:49 GMT

Thank you for your original, entertaining and thought-provoking essay. I really like your metaphor of the future being like a wide, fast, murky river at night. I've been thinking a lot about your opening statement, that we should work hard to clearly see the future we will get if we do NOTHING to steer it (because most likely humanity will do little to steer it).

If what...

view entire post

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
Author Robin Hanson replied on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 23:18 GMT
Answers to the question "How different could today have been from what it is" vary with the kinds of changes one allows in the past, relative to what actually happened. For the purpose of my essay I'm focused on changes caused by people trying to influence the distant future, changes that are in the direction they anticipated in order to obtain the effects that they desired. This is a very restrictive standard, a standard that few changes can meet. If you allow many more kinds of changes in your hypothetical, you can get a lot more possible change from what we have now.

It may well be that the world we have now depends sensitively on many random factors, so that had those gone differently the world we see would have been different. Even so, it might be that almost no one can foresee the effects of their actions with enough clarity to useful act in order to obtain changes they desire.

Bookmark and Share

Mark Avrum Gubrud wrote on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 23:33 GMT
Okay, page 1 is all about arguing that attempts to steer the future are futile. We just have to surrender to whatever technology, that autonomous force, is bringing us.

Page 2 introduces the idea that actually, we can do a reasonable job of foreseeing what technology, like it or not, is bringing us.

Then we get to the fun part: Ems. They're like Fisher-Price little people, only smarter and less physical. There's going to be this whole economy and society of ems, or uploads in conventional parlance. Why? Because otherwise AI is going to fail, but uploading will succeed.

The essay, and apparently the book, is full of confident assertions about ems, what they will be like, how they will fit into our world. And I mean confident. There's not the slightest doubt - Ems are going to do all the work, and they're going to have a class hierarchy, money, retirement....

Call me skeptical. I don't see how you get to whole-brain scanning at the level of detail necessary to make an upload work, even assuming you have the hardware to run it on. If you did have that level of technology, I don't see why you wouldn't have an understanding of the brain's circuits and learning mechanisms and more generally, how to make AI of human and superhuman capability that is tailored to what you want it to do, rather than being inherently egoist and potentially dangerous. Claims of expertise in AI research from more than a decade ago don't impress me that much, I'm afraid. Anyone who says there's not been much progress since then isn't paying attention.

I may agree that we're heading into the rapids, but that suggests maybe we'd best paddle to the shore, or look for a rock to wash up on or a branch to grab, i.e. STOP. At least until we can figure out what we do and don't want to do. I don't think the smart move would be to start planning for the age of the elves, I mean, ems.

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
Author Robin Hanson replied on Apr. 26, 2014 @ 23:40 GMT
I don't think I offered any explicit modifiers to connote confidence, and certainly not at the "not the slightest doubt" level. I do in fact have great doubts. Nevertheless it seems worth trying to puzzle out a best estimate, even in the face of great uncertainty.

Perhaps you aren't aware of the level of detail already provided by current brain scanning tech. The detail is impressive. Of the three techs required to main ems work, scanning seems the tech most likely to be ready first. But our impressive scanning tech does not translate into an understanding of how the brain works; we are still a very long way away on that.

I, and most AI researchers, disagree that everything has changed in the last decade, and most stuff from before then is irrelevant.

Bookmark and Share

Mark Avrum Gubrud replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 01:15 GMT
You are talking about maps of gross pathways or small sections of microscopic detail. If you are going to directly "upload" a fully entrained brain and have it work you need whole-brain data at sub-cellular, perhaps even molecular levels of detail. The whole thing all at once, or it will be damaged, and a large fraction of it at least, or it won't work at all. We're nowhere near that. Also, these maps of axons/dendrites don't reveal the synapse strengths or the cell-level learning mechanisms; we really don't know what is going on below all that spiking activity. If we had that kind of data, we'd probably know enough about how it works that we could design other systems based on the same mechanisms.

I didn't say everything has changed in the last decade but a lot has in terms of the performance level of systems in use and under development today. This has been driven not only by theoretical advances but to a large extent by hardware and data sets. We're still nowhere near brain levels of complexity but if we had the hardware that could run uploads it could as well run brain-derived and hybrid algorithms that would probably be more useful, safer, and ethical than the idea of creating human-like minds to use as slaves or indentured servants - or worse, to replace humanity wholesale.

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Author Robin Hanson replied on Apr. 27, 2014 @ 01:19 GMT
Brains have ceased activity and then restarted fine, so we don't need dynamic state info. So we could freeze a brain and slowly read off the needed info at our leisure. We could destructively scan a brain by slicing a layer off and then scanning the next layer; this is how it is done now. While we are not that far away from being able to do this at sub-cellular levels, many experts doubt that this level of detail is require; most of the info found there may well be redundant with info in the structure and connections of the cells.

Bookmark and Share

Joe Fisher wrote on Apr. 30, 2014 @ 17:49 GMT
Dear Professor Hanson,

Let me get this straight. According to some credentialed scientists, it has taken thousands of years of evolution for nature to produce the human brain. There appears to be about 7 billion human brains presently active on earth. Each of these human brains had to commence in a baby that was then born to a woman. You are saying that that was a waste of time for women. Here you are, you can fabricate a brain that is far superior to a natural born human one. The mighty Hanson brain only operates to Hanson's concepts of superior scientific knowledge. Hanson knows better than God what a brain should do.

Joe Fisher

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

James Blodgett wrote on Apr. 30, 2014 @ 22:48 GMT
No, Joe, you have got it wrong. Most artificial intelligence researchers want to create intelligence artificially, from scratch. Robin Hanson wants to read the soul, God's work, from actual human brains. If he can do it, God's work is not wasted. Indeed some speculate that God is using us to create heaven. The environment inside a computer would look a lot like what heaven is supposed be. The souls living there would live forever, or at least as long as computers could be kept running, perhaps until the heat death of the universe in 101000 years. "When we've been there ten thousand years; Bright shining as the sun; We've no less days to sing God's praise; Than when we'd first begun."

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
Joe Fisher replied on May. 1, 2014 @ 13:27 GMT

You honestly think that 7 billion women have given birth to 7 billion inferior brains? Then why did nature choose to create brains in this fashion? Why did nature create Hanson's brain that allowed Hanson to develop a superior brain to the one he was born with? Why did nature not grant you that same gift? The existence of God has never been proven in any court of law despite the fact that there is a standing reward of $1 million for the first parson that can provide such proof. Why do you need a fabricated intelligence to help you to prove that your God exists?

Joe Fisher

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Robert de Neufville wrote on May. 1, 2014 @ 04:06 GMT
I really enjoyed your essay, Robin. I agree with your overall point that we have a limited ability to influence the future, so our interventions will have to be well thought out. I also agree that seeing the future—to an extent—is not impossible.

But as a fellow social scientist I'm skeptical about our ability to see the future in as much detail as you seem to. Your vision of an em future is plausible, but still seems to me to assume too many things that we can't know. I don't see how, for example, we can possibly what ems—who will in a way be quite alien to us—will feel over hundreds of years about members of their clan. It likewise strikes me as extremely unlikely that ems will stay recognizably the same for long while information technology is developing rapidly. And although the rise of ems would be an enormously important development, I think there are other important developments that could radically alter the trajectory of the future.

You're right that some of the predictions people have made in the past were pretty good. But when enough people make predictions some are bound to be right even if they're just throwing darts. So I don't think we should be too confident in our predictions when we're making plans for the future. We certainly should prepare and plan for something like the scenario you outline. But I also think it is just one of many possible futures we need consider.


Robert de Neufville

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
Author Robin Hanson replied on May. 1, 2014 @ 13:32 GMT
Robert, I agree we shouldn’t be overconfident, that many past predictions were bad, that my scenario is just one of many to consider, and that other big changes could also make big differences. But even so, it still seems we should try our best to think through each scenario that we consider, using all the best standard results from all relevant fields.

I’d be happy to share my 94K word book draft with you, and would seriously consider any specific critiques you might have. But there isn’t much one can say in response to “we can’t possibly know” or “surely things won’t stay recognizably the same.” Those seem to me to be conversation-enders, and I want to continue the conversation. We can’t be trying our best if we just quit merely because we realize that eventually we must reach limits to our abilities to foresee. Instead, we should only quit when the complexity of the task exceeds our patience to work through the many relevant details.

Bookmark and Share

Robert de Neufville replied on May. 1, 2014 @ 19:31 GMT
I certainly don't want to end the conversation, Robin. I would love to see the draft of your book. My point was not that we can't know the future and shouldn't bother speculating. In fact, I think it is very important to speculate in the way you do. My point was rather that we need to recognize that our speculation is speculation. We have a strong cognitive tendency to imagine that the plausible scenarios we invent are necessary futures. But because of our limited ability to see the future, we need to plan and prepare for a wide range of contingencies.

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Author Robin Hanson replied on May. 1, 2014 @ 21:32 GMT
Robert, I agree we must watch for overconfidence. I can't find your email online, so email me at for book draft.

Bookmark and Share

John Brodix Merryman wrote on May. 1, 2014 @ 15:40 GMT

What if there were a far larger and immediate problem such as a financial medium designed to siphon value out of virtually the rest of the economy and store it as notational promises and this system was going parabolic, resulting in ever more social and environmental resources being consumed to power it. Wouldn't this be a problem for the actual generation involved to deal with?

Wouldn't both social engineers and even mechanical engineers view this as the elephant in the room? Yet most entries seem obsessed with what amounts to science fiction.


John Merryman

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
Anonymous replied on May. 3, 2014 @ 01:53 GMT
So honestly, you are surprised to find that there are websites which do not exclusively focus on your favorite issue?

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Peter Jackson wrote on May. 3, 2014 @ 20:47 GMT

That was the most fascinating essay so far. Thank you. I certainly agree with your log scenario too.

But one question; Do you think our real human brains are well enough developed to focus on ..cloning? from them, rather than focus on improving the way we use them, so improve their capability?

I think I perhaps see a long term plan hatching, 100 years to evolve our intellect more by better training us how to think, (to steer that log better), then when we're ready we'll have a much more useful em's!

I'll definitely look out for your book. I can't score at present for some reason, but look out for a boost when my powers return.

I see you have a physics masters so hope you'll read mine, a combination of.... well, you'll see I hope.

Well done and I hope your essay rises during the impending malestrom.

Peter Jackson

(full name given as though the system tells me I'm logged in I don't think AI's quite truthful enough yet!)

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
Author Robin Hanson replied on May. 3, 2014 @ 22:15 GMT
Humans are very useful today. In fact, they are the most useful part of the world economy. So copies of humans must also be very useful, even if they aren't improved over their current abilities.

Bookmark and Share

Peter Jackson replied on May. 5, 2014 @ 17:21 GMT

True, but I propose we could be far more useful if we also learned to use our on-board computers properly, including by thinking outside the Earth-centric frame. You queried if steering to a 'quantum leap' in understanding of nature (unification of classical and quantum physics) answered the question (on my blog) I responded as below;


I'm an enabler. I...

view entire post

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Peter Jackson replied on May. 30, 2014 @ 18:28 GMT

I see you haven't yet responded to the above. I hope you can now see that I've used the evidence of history to focus on what's really most effectively steered our advancement. I'm also suggesting the less Earth-centric thinking we'll need to understand the greater universe.

My scoring powers have returned so I'm pleased to give you a deserved boost.

Best wishes


Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Mohammed M. Khalil wrote on May. 6, 2014 @ 17:09 GMT
Hi Robin,

Great essay! I enjoyed your river analogy. I agree with you, the first step in solving humanity's problems is identifying those problems, and foreseeing their effect. In my essay , I touch upon a similar idea.

best regards,


Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

James Lee Hoover wrote on May. 24, 2014 @ 18:30 GMT

Interesting read and a novel approach to a daunting problem. Your parable of the river aptly describes our mindset concerning the environment, thinking we can remake our river (environment) rather than managing and predicting long-term damage -- in terms of survival and damage. Ems and AI implementation seems beyond a viable survival.

My essay speaks of "looking beyond" in terms of conventional science and Earth and "looking within" regarding the mind's untapped capabilities, the mind being a microcosm of the universe.

I would like to hear your thoughts.


Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
James Lee Hoover replied on May. 26, 2014 @ 16:05 GMT

I am revisiting those reviewed and found that I rated yours on May 24th.


Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate

Don Limuti wrote on May. 26, 2014 @ 03:04 GMT
Hi Robin,

I was looking at your bio and noted your stint at Lockheed. There is a chance that you worked with or met Doug Engelbart there. Doug was the founder of the ARC (Augmentation Research Center) at SRI International. The ARC group competed with the AI group at SRI. Doug's thesis was that AI was the stuff of science fiction, but computers were best used at augmenting human intellect, rather than imitating it. Doug was correct, his group essentially developed the personal computer in 1968, the AI group developed Robbie the robot which could stack boxes.

Now AI has improved and computer software (deep blue etc.) can beat a grand master in chess. But teams of human players using computers can beat any single computer in chess.... Augmentation still wins.

I have very real doubts about the current abilities and future abilities of EMS or Uploading.

Your essay had both a very practical suggestion for steering the future (Look Hard, Then Steer Slightly)

And it had a very science fiction aspect (Uploading). Making for a very interesting read.

Most impressive,

Don Limuti

Bookmark and Share
report post as inappropriate
Author Robin Hanson replied on May. 27, 2014 @ 14:21 GMT
I did meet Doug Engelbart, though not at Lockheed. I helped encourage him to raise his profile; he had given up for a while on thinking anyone cared about what he had to say. I agree that we are a very long way from being able to write human level AI software, and I agree that uploads/ems are many decades away. But within a century or so, they will probably be feasible, and we should think ahead.

Bookmark and Share

Login or create account to post reply or comment.

Please enter your e-mail address:
Note: Joining the FQXi mailing list does not give you a login account or constitute membership in the organization.