Alcor Member Profile: Robin Hanson, PhD

Alcor Member Profile
From Cryonics July-August 2017

By Nicole Weinstock

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Robin Hanson

“Question authority, but raise your hand first.” That used to be the bumper sticker on Robin Hanson’s car.

A cryonicist and Alcor member since 1995, Robin works as associate professor of economics at George Mason University. He holds a Ph.D. in social science from Caltech, has 3,500 citations (and counting), and is credited for pioneering the concept of “idea futures” or “prediction markets” nearly 30 years ago. Robin is also the author of a 2016 release, The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the World. A comprehensive exploration of an arguably likely future dominated by brains uploaded into virtual reality—one that has important implications for cryonicists in particular—The Age of Em is, like Robin, an incarnation of that same bumper sticker.

Given the oft-perceived conflict between technology and religion, it’s tempting to describe Robin’s parentage—two Christian missionaries with preaching side jobs, often incorporating vocals by their three sons—as “unlikely.” But his recent blog post on the unsurprising existence of Mormon Transhumanists and, in general, religious tech futurists, calls attention to this now arguably editorial descriptor. Indeed, the overarching theme of this blog, aptly titled “Overcoming Bias,” is about closing the gap between beliefs and reality, calling attention to natural biases and “our bias to believe we have corrected for such biases, when we have done no such thing.”

Awash in a mix of sheepish self-awareness and admiration, I must confess to being ever so politely schooled. Such is the beauty and the distinction of Robin’s writing.

The Hanson family poses for a photo, with Robin on the far right.

The Hanson boys had a good game of Cowboys and Indians at Christmastime.

Born in 1959, he grew up in St. Charles, Illinois, about 40 miles west of Chicago. Robin was the oldest of three kids in his family of five. Bonnie Hanson was a stay-at-home mom, while his dad, Don Hanson, was an IRS agent. Both his parents were devout Christians who ran revival meetings in the area, for which choral accompaniment by their three sons, was not uncommon. In the late 60s, with their hometown of St. Charles approaching 10,000 or so in population, they moved to San Diego, California. His father began a new career as a programmer for Jack in the Box, and both his parents found a new a church at which to preach. Robin and his siblings started their schooling anew. When he was in high school, they moved once more to Orange County, after which Robin pursued a B.S. in physics at the nearby University of California, Irvine.

Robin in grade school.

Meditating on the past, Robin recalls the Hanson sibling dynamic to have been relatively frictionless. Contrary to first-born birth order stereotypes, he identified as neither a classic authoritarian nor rebel. In fact, he so aptly described himself as “…a paradoxical rebel, because although in my research and my thinking I am definitely contrarian, I’m also a relatively conservative contrarian. I try to be polite about questioning authority, but not rude about it.” Interestingly, he came of age at the moment of transition from one counterculture to another—the loud colors, ample hair, and peace signs of the 1960s hippie era to the grimy punk alternatives of the 1970s. Yet, as Robin explains, the signifiers of the time held little interest for him.

“I wasn’t a rebel clothier…. I was always more like, ‘I’ve got some crazy things to tell you, and I better look normal while I do it’…. I’m thinking of the limited budget of a contrarian. You have to choose where to spend it. You could spend it on hairstyles or clothes,” or, his personal preference, “you could spend it on abstract ideas.”

There was one point of possible tension in the Hanson child trio growing up, and that was the television. Balancing different show preferences was a challenge for which the project-oriented nature of Robin’s dad, in particular, was perfectly primed. According to Robin, both his parents “always had a project that they were working on. There was always a grand tone to it—writing a novel, starting a business—various grand projects. So I sort of assimilated that idea of not only being a contrarian in some beliefs, but caching it out in projects.”

When it came to quarrels of the tele, Don set up a bidding program where his kids could place bids on the shows they wanted to watch. It just so happened that Robin had recently discovered sine waves, and so, seeing the various data sets produced by this creative entertainment solution, proceeded to model them. Says Robin, the social science Ph.D. to be, “I was modeling the social world basically—mathematically.”

Sine waves have applications in both math and physics, the latter being the area of Robin’s eventual B.S., as well as a revelatory intellectual experience in high school. “In every other class [the teachers] simply told me [information] and I had to spit it back. But in physics class they had me collect data to prove to me that each equation was really true. And I thought, ‘Wow, I really like this idea,’ because I wasn’t sure I could believe all the things these people were telling me over the years.”

This stance also explains how Robin managed to eliminate other possible areas of academic pursuit from his consideration: biology, medicine, and even engineering. Of the third, he recalls, “I thought I wanted to do engineering because I like to design things, and one of my favorite classes in high school was a drafting class…. But then when I took engineering classes, they were cookbook. They were these formulas you had to memorize, and so I went back to physics.”

Robin’s attraction to the more abstract ideas supporting various fields of interest was similarly shown in his approach—or rather, lack thereof—to homework. “In the last two years of college, I simply stopped doing my homework, and started playing with the concepts. I could ace all the exams, but I got a zero on the homework…. Someone got scatter plots up there to convince people that you could do better on exams if you did homework.” But there was an outlier on that plot, courtesy of Robin, that said otherwise.

His commitment to concepts garnered him admiration and strong recommendations from professors, which supported his trajectory towards an eventual M.S. in physics and M.A. in Conceptual Foundations of Science at the University of Chicago.

Snapshot of Robin during his grad school years at the University of Chicago (1981-1984).

Life after this graduate chapter in Illinois took him back to the sunshine state, but this time to Silicon Valley, where he worked as a research scientist in artificial intelligence at the A.I. Lockheed Center (1984-1989) and at NASA, in the Ames Bayesian Model-Based Learning Group (1989-1993). Concurrent with this work, he also contributed to the Xanadu Project, which was a radical effort to release a product similar to the World Wide Web before the web even existed. This Xanadu chapter catapulted his development of the “idea futures” or “prediction market” concept.

Robin smiles from his computer in Sunnyvale, California in the mid-80s.

For the econ virgins out there, prediction markets are exchange-traded markets that allow their participants to trade a predicted outcome of an event. Robin puts it in football terms: “If you bet on the Stealers winning a football game, then that is an asset that pays off if the Stealers win, and it doesn’t pay off if they don’t. And if you have people trading on that asset, the current estimate becomes a good estimate of the probability that the future event happens.” The unique value of the prediction market, and the reason why Robin believes it to play a large role in the hyperintelligent and efficiency-minded era of ems, is that is encourages informed betting. For the more controversial questions of life especially, this skin in the game approach will likely discourage self-purported “experts,” whose predictions may be poorly informed, to exert dominance over the market.

An introduction to cryonics was another important byproduct of the Silicon Valley years, and its tech-rooted cast. Ten years later, in 1995, after enrolling in his Ph.D. program at CalTech, Robin became an official Alcor member.

The decision to return to academia was a tough one for the Hansons, as Robin and his wife had two young children at the time. But as Robin explained, he needed the degree so his earlier work on prediction markets and other disruptive topics would be taken seriously. “Being a nobody, with no contacts or credentials, I reached a brick wall of silence, and that’s when I decided to go back to school and get a Ph.D. I needed more than I had.”

Robin and his wife, Peggy, at their wedding in 1987. They met at the University of Chicago within a week of their arrival.

While the hopes behind this decision have been met in large part, there is still, as Robin attests, an irony in that academia does not fully support the detailed nature and future orientation of his field of inquiry: “You have to understand that academia pretends and talks about itself as if the function of academia was to answer important questions. The function of academia is to credential certain people to be impressive.” According to Robin, it is much more difficult to be impressive in studying the future, versus the past, even though the future is of arguably greater relevance to the current generation of humans and the consequences of our actions. This notable disconnect inspired the more global goal of writing The Age of Em, about whole brain emulations: “My book is trying a new model of how you can study the future and be impressive.” Robin seeks to shift the paradigm through which we judge research and publications away from “is this a hard thing to do?” and towards, “is this important?” and “Does it answer questions more valuable in the world?”

With its 384 pages of thorough calculations and researched scenarios-to-come, the book demands that we ask: what is this future, this “age of em,” likely to look like?

In some ways, it’s very similar to our current era of life. Ems experience aging, and can be young, middle-aged or retired. They have lovers and partners, they group together according to commonalities, participate in both work and leisure, and require city infrastructure to support them. They still swear too.

Yet, there are distinct differences within these general commonalities resulting from a higher value on intelligence and efficiency (because there is a correlation between intelligence and efficiency). For example, ems can think faster than humans—way faster—because their movement is determined by circuit board signals. All of the hardware that supports them produces quite a bit of heat, which may require em cities to be built very high or underwater, to allow for cooling. Because ems value efficiency, and efficiency is generally greatest at middle age—where one is experienced, but not so massively that the weightiness of it slows productivity—it is, in Robin’s words, “a world full of middleaged peak productivity people.” Because ems can determine their appearance, allowing everyone to be gorgeous, other characteristics like charisma or dexterity might have greater cultural value.

Em culture aside, the question on many minds might be, how do ems come to be in the first place? Robin predicts that a likely source of brains to be scanned to create the first generation of ems, are consenting cryonics patients. Like most new technologies, the early scanning technology may damage the physical brain. This “destructive scanning” however, may not be very consequential in the em world where the human body is unnecessary, and virtual bodies are interchangeable. This has some potentially strong implications for cryonics patients, since holding out for a full-body revival hinges on the assumption that the body will still hold importance in the future. Like anything that loses cultural value, Robin explains, a loss of eagerness for the physical body may translate into a reallocation of time and resources into the fashioning of emulated bodies.

“After considering this, you lean a little farther in the direction of taking the bird in the hand. When emulation becomes possible, grab it, and go with it, rather than taking the additional risk and waiting for a full-body revival. Both because you’re lowering your risk, and because there’s gonna be a whole world of people working out emulated bodies and making them nice and fun and enjoyable…My summary statement is to consider this as the world you would be revived into, and think about what that implies about what sort of freezing and storage plans you might want to have, and what sort of character you might want to foster so you can be a more successful person in this world.”

Now that The Age of Em has been out for a year, Robin is looking forward to the release of his next book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, coauthored by Kevin Simler. Due to hit the shelves in early 2018, this book will connect with his work on prediction markets, among other concepts. “As a young social scientist and person, I had all these big problems in the world that I wanted to solve,” and yet, “We found that people are a lot less interested in our solutions than we thought they should be.” The Elephant in the Brain studies this pattern and why it keeps perpetuating itself through mental blind spots.

In the meantime however, he is eager to hear from readers about The Age of Em, and wanting to inspire change in the depth and nature of intellectual inquiry. “My two hopes are either I entice people to join my world of details, or entice them to take my approach to other areas.”

He awaits your feedback, and, contrarian that he is, especially looks forward to your areas of disagreement.

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