At least this is what you think you see. In fact, you live and work in virtual reality. Your city amounts to racks of computer hardware and the pipes that cool them. And you are not "you" in the traditional sense: You are an "em," a robotic brain emulation created by scanning a particular human brain and uploading it to a computer. On the upside, you process information 1,000 times faster than a human. On the downside, you inhabit a robotic body, and you stand roughly two millimeters tall.
This is the world Robin Hanson is sketching out to a room of baffled undergraduates at George Mason University on a bright April morning. To illustrate his point, he projects an image of an enormous futuristic city alongside clip art of a human castaway cowering on a tiny desert island. His message is clear: The future belongs to "ems."
This may sound more like science fiction than scholarship, but that’s part of the point. Hanson is an economist with a background in physics and engineering; a Silicon Valley veteran determined to promote his theories in an academy he finds deeply flawed; a doggedly rational thinker prone to intentionally provocative ideas that test the limits of what typically passes as scholarship. Those ideas have been mocked, memed, and marveled at — often all at once.
At eighty-seven, I am solitary. I live by myself on one floor of the 1803 farmhouse where my family has lived since the Civil War. After my grandfather died, my grandmother Kate lived here alone. Her three daughters visited her. In 1975, Kate died at ninety-seven, and I took over. Forty-odd years later, I spend my days alone in one of two chairs. From an overstuffed blue chair in my living room I look out the window at the unpainted old barn, golden and empty of its cows and of Riley the horse. I look at a tulip; I look at snow. In the parlor’s mechanical chair, I write these paragraphs and dictate letters. I also watch television news, often without listening, and lie back in the enormous comfort of solitude. People want to come visit, but mostly I refuse them, preserving my continuous silence. Linda comes two nights a week. My two best male friends from New Hampshire, who live in Maine and Manhattan, seldom drop by. A few hours a week, Carole does my laundry and counts my pills and picks up after me. I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.
It’s an arresting vision. If you think about it, however, the prospect that the human species could “upgrade itself” to godhood melts away. “Humanity” can’t become God, because “humanity” does not exist. All that actually exists is the multifarious human animal, with its historic enmities and intractable divisions. The idea that the human species is a collective agent, setting itself “big projects” and realising them throughout history, is a humanist myth. Surfacing here and there inSapiens, it didn’t do very much damage. In Homo Deus, which shows signs of having been written hastily, it muddles and undermines much of the argument.
What's remarkable is how much wit and pathos Prose manages to wring from this wildly unpromising jumping-off point. It brings to mind a graduate school writing teacher who challenged students to fabricate an interesting story about, say, an orthodontist. Prose's novel could be a lesson in point: Handled with imagination and élan, almost anything can be turned into compelling literature.