This is the third post in a series explaining my view that we could be in the most important century of all time. (Here's the roadmap for this series.)
- The first piece in this series discusses our unusual era, which could be very close to the transition between an Earth-bound civilization and a stable galaxy-wide civilization.
- This piece discusses "digital people," a category of technology that could be key for this transition (and would have even bigger impacts than the hypothetical Duplicator discussed previously).
- Many of the ideas here appear somewhere in sci-fi or speculative nonfiction, but I'm not aware of another piece laying out (compactly) the basic idea of digital people and the key reasons that a world of digital people would be so different from today's.
- The idea of digital people provides a concrete way of imagining how the right kind of technology (which I believe to be almost certainly feasible) could change the world radically, such that "humans as we know them" would no longer be the main force.
- It will be important to have this picture, because I'm going to argue that AI advances this century could quickly lead to digital people or similarly significant technology. The transformative potential of something like digital people, combined with how quickly AI could lead to it, form the case that we could be in the most important century.
Previously, I wrote:
When some people imagine the future, they picture the kind of thing you see in sci-fi films. But these sci-fi futures seem very tame, compared to the future I expect ...
The future I picture is enormously bigger, faster, weirder, and either much much better or much much worse compared to today. It's also potentially a lot sooner than sci-fi futures: I think particular, achievable-seeming technologies could get us there quickly.
This piece is about digital people, one example1 of a technology that could lead to an extremely big, fast, weird future.
To get the idea of digital people, imagine a computer simulation of a specific person, in a virtual environment. For example, a simulation of you that reacts to all "virtual events" - virtual hunger, virtual weather, a virtual computer with an inbox - just as you would. (Like The Matrix? See footnote.2) I explain in more depth in the FAQ companion piece.
The central case I'll focus on is that of digital people just like us, perhaps created via mind uploading (simulating human brains). However, one could also imagine entities unlike us in many ways, but still properly thought of as "descendants" of humanity; those would be digital people as well. (More on my choice of term in the FAQ.)
Popular culture on this sort of topic tends to focus on the prospect of digital immortality: people avoiding death by taking on a digital form, which can be backed up just like you back up your data. But I consider this to be small potatoes compared to other potential impacts of digital people, in particular:
- Productivity. Digital people could be copied, just as we can easily make copies of ~any software today. They could also be run much faster than humans. Because of this, digital people could have effects comparable to those of the Duplicator, but more so: unprecedented (in history or in sci-fi movies) levels of economic growth and productivity.
- Social science. Today, we see a lot of progress on understanding scientific laws and developing cool new technologies, but not so much progress on understanding human nature and human behavior. Digital people would fundamentally change this dynamic: people could make copies of themselves (including sped-up, temporary copies) to explore how different choices, lifestyles and environments affected them. Comparing copies would be informative in a way that current social science rarely is.
- Control of the environment. Digital people would experience whatever world they (or the controller of their virtual environment) wanted. Assuming digital people had true conscious experience (an assumption discussed in the FAQ), this could be a good thing (it should be possible to eliminate disease, material poverty and non-consensual violence for digital people) or a bad thing (if human rights are not protected, digital people could be subject to scary levels of control).
- Space expansion. The population of digital people might become staggeringly large, and the computers running them could end up distributed throughout our galaxy and beyond. Digital people could exist anywhere that computers could be run - so space settlements could be more straightforward for digital people than for biological humans.
- Lock-in. In today's world, we're used to the idea that the future is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Political regimes, ideologies, and cultures all come and go (and evolve). But a community, city or nation of digital people could be much more stable.
- Digital people need not die or age.
- Whoever sets up a "virtual environment" containing a community of digital people could have quite a bit of long-lasting control over what that community is like. For example, they might build in software to reset the community (both the virtual environment and the people in it) to an earlier state if particular things change - such as who's in power, or what religion is dominant.
- I consider this a disturbing thought, as it could enable long-lasting authoritarianism, though it could also enable things like permanent protection of particular human rights.
I think these effects (elaborated below) could be a very good or a very bad thing. How the early years with digital people go could irreversibly determine which.
I think similar consequences would arise from any technology that allowed (a) extreme control over our experiences and environment; (b) duplicating human minds. This means there are potentially many ways for the future to become as wacky as what I sketch out here. I discuss digital people because doing so provides a particularly easy way to imagine the consequences of (a) and (b): it is essentially about transferring the most important building block of our world (human minds) to a domain (software) where we are used to the idea of having a huge amount of control to program whatever behaviors we want.
Much of this piece is inspired by Age of Em, an unusual and fascinating book. It tries to describe a hypothetical world of digital people (specifically mind uploads) in a lot of detail, but (unlike science fiction) it also aims for predictive accuracy rather than entertainment. In many places I find it overly specific, and overall, I don't expect that the world it describes will end up having much in common with a real digital-people-filled world. However, it has a number of sections that I think illustrate how powerful and radical a technology digital people could be.
Below, I will:
- Describe the basic idea of digital people, and link to a FAQ on the idea.
- Go through the potential implications of digital people, listed above.
This is a piece that different people may want to read in different orders. Here's an overall guide to the piece and FAQ:
|Normal humans||Digital people|
|Possible today (More)|
|Probably possible someday (More)|
|Can interact with the real world, do most jobs (More)|
|Conscious, should have human rights (More)|
|Easily duplicated, ala The Duplicator (More)|
|Can be run sped-up (More)|
|Can make "temporary copies" that run fast, then retire at slow speed (More)|
|Productivity and social science: could cause unprecedented economic growth, productivity, and knowledge of human nature and behavior (More)|
|Control of the environment: can have their experiences altered in any way (More)|
|Lock-in: could live in highly stable civilizations with no aging or death, and "digital resets" stopping certain changes (More)|
|Space expansion: can live comfortably anywhere computers can run, thus highly suitable for galaxy-wide expansion (More)|
|Good or bad? (More)||Outside the scope of this piece||Could be very good or bad|
This piece focuses on how digital people could change the world. I will mostly assume that digital people are just like us, except that they can be easily copied, run at different speeds, and embedded in virtual environments. In particular, I will assume that digital people are conscious, have human rights, and can do most of the things humans can, including interacting with the real world.
I expect many readers will have trouble engaging with this until they see answers to some more basic questions about digital people. Therefore, I encourage readers to click on any questions that sound helpful from the companion FAQ, or just read the FAQ straight through. If you are reading the "eBook" or "consolidated PDF" version of this series, the FAQ will be next, followed by the rest of this piece. It probably makes sense to skim the FAQ's table of contents and then move on, depending on whether any of the questions seem interesting or important.
The best example I can think of, but surely not the only one. ↩
The movie The Matrix gives a decent intuition for the idea with its fully-immersive virtual reality, but unlike the heroes of The Matrix, a digital person need not be connected to any physical person - they could exist as pure software.