Disembodied Paleolithic Minds Will Go Crazy

My former teacher Robin Hanson argues that the most likely way forward for artificial intelligence is whole brain emulation, the process of copying a brain neuron-for-neuron into a computer simulation. Here are Robin’s posts on “ems“; here are my previous posts, which present objections to Robin’s hypothesis. In this post I’ll present one more.

I have become increasingly aware lately of how maladapted humans are to our current environment. We are apes from the Paleolithic Era. Yet here we are, eating grains and candy, sitting indoors at desks all day.

Robin has discussed our maladaptations before, but he seems to focus on cultural values and norms. In Robin’s terminology, there are forager values and farmer values. In the industrial age, as we grow wealthier and social pressure subsides, we retreat to more forager values. Robin speculates that a post-industrial em civilization may have more use for farmer values.

Culture evolves rather rapidly. Physiology evolves much more slowly, and for ems (which may be infinitely-lived) it evolves not at all. A big concern for ems, therefore, is health. Since ems don’t have physical bodies, we don’t need to worry much about cancer and heart disease. Rather, we need to address the problem of mental illness.

Is our industrial environment suited for the flourishing of our predominantly Paleolithic minds? I think the answer is that it’s clearly not optimal. Fifteen percent of people in developed countries are severely depressed; that includes four percent of preschoolers, who constitute the fastest-growing market for antidepressants. One of my new favorite blogs is Evolutionary Psychiatry, which documents the connection between modern diets and practices and numerous mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and dementia.

To some extent, we can use this information to help ems. To whatever extent that we need to simulate a diet for them (they won’t need food for energy), we can base it off of Paleolithic foods. Maybe we can be sure that their brains receive whatever signals our brains receive when we get copious amounts of sunlight and exercise.

But even this misses the point. However large a change it is to go from a hunter-gatherer environment to a modern industrial environment, it is a much larger change for a mind to go from the current environment to a disembodied existence. Ems will almost certainly go insane, no matter how much we try to help them. For every environmental factor for which we control, there will be perhaps thousands we have never considered.

This is of course not an argument against the technical feasibility of copying a mind into a machine. We may succeed at doing so. But if I am right, this accomplishment won’t change the world. Instead of getting cheap labor, we will get the experience of watching a human mind go rapidly insane. I am skeptical that subsequent iterations, if they are even allowed given the ethical considerations, will fare much better. It seems, therefore, that the singularity will have to wait for weak AI, which Robin says is much more difficult, to develop.

5 replies to “Disembodied Paleolithic Minds Will Go Crazy

  1. Robin Hanson

    Humans already commonly experience alien bodies. Some play video games and focus on virtual bodies and worlds. Some drive cars, trucks, planes, boats, etc. and focus on those being their bodies and eyes. Some are quadriplegics and have no working bodies to use. Most of these folks dont’ go crazy. And even if 90% of humans became crazy as ems, we could make trillions of copies of that 10%.

  2. Eli Post author

    Robin, a Google search for [quadriplegics mental illness] returns 503,000 results, which suggests that many if not most quadriplegics struggle with their mental health. But in any case, being a disembodied simulated brain seems like a more severe disruption of our evolutionary milieu than does quadriplegia.

    And playing video games or driving a truck for a few hours at a time seems like it wouldn’t compare at all. Gamers and drivers have access to all the normal human bodily experiences.

    I agree that if 10% of the population were able to avoid insanity while disembodied, we could make copies of them, and that would solve the problem. I still think that’s unlikely.

  3. Zac Gochenour

    Why would we even need 10%? Couldn’t we just make trillions of copies of 1%, or less? As long as not everyone would go crazy, it doesn’t present a problem to the em future.

  4. Eli Post author

    Zac, that’s right. I don’t think this is just a problem of em preferences. If it were, then it would make sense to find the outliers who did not go crazy. Rather, I think it is a matter of serious discordance between our embodied evolutionary milieu and the proposed disembodied states of ems. So I think this remains a problem.

    If you’re willing for trillions of ems to suffer, I suppose you could solve the problem by using an evolutionary algorithm on the simulated environment. To me it seems better to put those resources to use creating non-sentient AI.

  5. Wonks Anonymous

    Diagnoses are pretty subjective, I wouldn’t take the reported numbers seriously.

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