Digital People Would Be An Even Bigger Deal

post by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T15:23:41.195Z · LW · GW · 14 comments


  How could digital people change the world?
    reality and control of the environment
    these impacts be a good or bad thing?

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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. [LW · GW])


Previously [LW · GW], 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 [LW(p) · GW(p)] 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 [LW(p) · GW(p)]) I explain in more depth in the FAQ companion piece [LW · GW].

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 [LW · GW].)

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:

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:

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 humansDigital people
Possible today (More [LW · GW])


Probably possible someday (More [LW · GW])
Can interact with the real world, do most jobs (More [LW · GW])
Conscious, should have human rights (More [LW · GW])
Easily duplicated, ala The Duplicator [? · GW] (More [LW · GW])
Can be run sped-up (More [LW · GW])
Can make "temporary copies" that run fast, then retire at slow speed (More [LW(p) · GW(p)])
Productivity and social science: could cause unprecedented economic growth, productivity, and knowledge of human nature and behavior (More [LW(p) · GW(p)])
Control of the environment: can have their experiences altered in any way (More [LW · GW])
Lock-in: could live in highly stable civilizations with no aging or death, and "digital resets" stopping certain changes (More [LW · GW])
Space expansion: can live comfortably anywhere computers can run, thus highly suitable for galaxy-wide expansion (More [LW · GW])
Good or bad? (More [LW · GW])Outside the scope of this pieceCould 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 [LW · GW], or just read the FAQ straight through. Here is the list of questions discussed in the FAQ:

How could digital people change the world?


Like any software, digital people could be instantly and accurately copied. The Duplicator [LW · GW] argues that the ability to "copy people" could lead to rapidly accelerating economic growth: "Over the last 100 years or so, the economy has doubled in size every few decades. With a Duplicator, it could double in size every year or month, on its way to hitting the limits."


Thanks to María Gutiérrez Rojas for this graphic, a variation on a similar set of graphics from The Duplicator illustrating how duplicating people could cause explosive growth.


Digital people could create a more dramatic effect than this, because of their ability to be sped up (perhaps by thousands or millions of times)3 [LW(p) · GW(p)] as well as slowed down (to save on costs). This could further increase both speed and coordinating ability.4 [LW(p) · GW(p)]

Another factor that could increase productivity: "Temporary" digital people could complete a task and then retire to a nice virtual life, while running very slowly (and cheaply).5 [LW(p) · GW(p)] This could make some digital people comfortable copying themselves for temporary purposes. Digital people could, for example, copy themselves hundreds of times to try different approaches to figuring out a problem or gaining a skill, then keep only the most successful version and make many copies of that version.

It's possible that digital people could be less of an economic force than The Duplicator [LW · GW]since digital people would lack human bodies. But this seems likely to be only a minor consideration (details in footnote).6 [LW(p) · GW(p)]

Social science

Today, we see a lot of impressive innovation and progress in some areas, and relatively little in other areas.

For example, we're constantly able to buy cheaper, faster computers and more realistic video games, but we don't seem to be constantly getting better at making friends, falling in love, or finding happiness.7 [LW(p) · GW(p)] We also aren't clearly getting better at things like fighting addiction, and getting ourselves to behave as we (on reflection) want to.

One way of thinking about it is that natural sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology) are advancing much more impressively than social sciences (e.g. economics, psychology, sociology). Or: "We're making great strides in understanding natural laws, not so much in understanding ourselves."

Digital people could change this. It could address what I see as perhaps the fundamental reason social science is so hard to learn from: it's too hard to run true experiments and make clean comparisons.

Today, if we we want to know whether meditation is helpful to people:

But in a world with digital people:

The ability to run experiments could be good or bad, depending on the robustness and enforcement of scientific ethics. If informed consent weren't sufficiently protected, digital people could open up the potential for an enormous amount of abuse; if it were, it could hopefully primarily enable learning.

Digital people could also enable:

Virtual reality and control of the environment

As stated above, digital people could live in "virtual environments." In order to design a virtual environment, programmers would systematically generate the right sort of light signals, sound signals, etc. to send to a digital person as if they were "really there."

One could say the historical role of science and technology is to give people more control over their environment. And one could think of digital people almost as the logical endpoint of this: digital people would experience whatever world they (or the controller of their virtual environment) wanted.

This could be a very bad or good thing:


Bad thing. Someone who controlled a digital person's virtual environment could have almost unlimited control over them.


Good thing. On the other hand, if a digital person were in control of their own environment (or someone else was and looked out for them), they could be free from any experiences they wanted to be free from, including hunger, violence, disease, other forms of ill health, and debilitating pain of any kind. Broadly, they could be "free from material need" - other than the need for computing resources to be run at all.

Space expansion

If digital people underwent an explosion of economic growth as discussed above, this could come with an explosion in the population of digital people (for reasons discussed in The Duplicator [LW · GW]).

It might reach the point where they needed to build spaceships and leave the solar system in order to get enough energy, metal, etc. to build more computers and enable more lives to exist.

Settling space could be much easier for digital people than for biological humans. They could exist anywhere one could run computers, and the basic ingredients needed to do that - raw materials, energy, and "real estate"11 [LW(p) · GW(p)] - are all super-abundant throughout our galaxy, not just on Earth. Because of this, the population of digital people could end up becoming staggeringly large.12 [LW(p) · GW(p)]


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). Some are good, and some are bad, but it generally doesn't seem as though anything will last forever. But communities, cities, and nations of digital people could be much more stable.

First, because digital people need not die or physically age, and their environment need not deteriorate or run out of anything. As long as they could keep their server running, everything in their virtual environment would be physically capable of staying as it is.

Second, because an environment could be designed to enforce stability. For example, imagine that:

Alternatively, "digital correction" could be a force for good if used wisely enough. It could be used to ensure that no dictator ever gains power, or that certain basic human rights are always protected. If a civilization became "mature" enough - e.g., fair, equitable and prosperous, with a commitment to freedom and self-determination and a universally thriving population - it could keep these properties for a very long time.

(I'm not aware of many in-depth analyses of the "lock-in" idea, but here are some informal notes from physicist Jess Riedel.)

Would these impacts be a good or bad thing?

Throughout this piece, I imagine many readers have been thinking "That sounds terrible! Does the author think it would be good?" Or "That sounds great! Does the author disagree?"

My take on a future with digital people is that it could be very good or very bad, and how it gets set up in the first place could irreversibly determine which.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:10:30.255Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Footnotes Container

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comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:18:17.426Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

1.The best example I can think of, but surely not the only one.

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:17:49.029Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

2. 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.

The agents ("bad guys") are more like digital people than the heroes are. In fact, one extensively copies himself.

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:17:17.639Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

3. See Age of Em Chapter 6, starting with "Regarding the computation ..."

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:16:38.736Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

4. For example, when multiple teams of digital people need to coordinate on a project, they might speed up (or slow down) particular steps and teams in order to make sure that each piece of the project is completed just on time. This would allow more complex, "fragile" plans to work out. (This point is from Age of Em Chapter 17, "Preparation" section.)

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:16:19.432Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

5. See Age of Em Chapter 11, "Retirement" section.

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:15:58.152Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

6. Without human bodies - and depending on what kinds of robots were available - digital people might not be good substitutes for humans when it comes to jobs that rely heavily on human physical abilities, or jobs that require in-person interaction with biological humans.

However, digital people would likely be able to do everything needed to cause an explosive economic growth, even if they couldn't do everything. In particular, it seems they could do everything needed to increase the supply of computers, and thereby increase the population of digital people.

Creating more computing power requires (a) raw materials - mostly metal; (b) research and development - to design the computers; (c) manufacturing - to carry out the design and turn raw materials into computers; (d) energy. Digital people could potentially make all of these things a great deal cheaper and more plentiful:

  • Raw materials. It seems that mining could, in principle, be done entirely with robots. Digital people could design and instruct these robots to extract raw materials as efficiently as possible.
  • Research and development. My sense is that this is a major input into the cost of computing today: the work needed to design ever-better microprocessors and other computer parts. Digital people could do this entirely virtually.
  • Manufacturing. My sense is that this is the other major input into the cost of computing today. Like mining, it could in principle be done entirely with robots.
  • Energy. Solar panels are also subject to (a) better research and development; (b) robot-driven manufacturing. Good enough design and manufacturing of solar panels could lead to radically cheaper and more plentiful energy.
  • Space exploration. Raw materials, energy, and "real estate" are all super-abundant outside of Earth. If digital people could design and manufacture spaceships, along with robots that could build solar panels and computer factories, they could take advantage of massive resources compared to what we have on earth.
comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:15:25.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

7. It is debatable whether the world is getting somewhat better at these things, somewhat worse, or neither. But it seems pretty clear that the progress isn't as impressive as in computing.

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:15:00.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

8. Why would the copy cooperate in the experiment? Perhaps because they simply were on board with the goal (I certainly would cooperate with a copy of myself trying to learn about meditation!). Perhaps because they were paid (in the form of a nice retirement after the experiment). Perhaps because they saw themselves and their copies (and/or original) as the same person [LW · GW] (or at least cared a lot about these very similar people). A couple of factors that would facilitate this kind of experimentation: (a) digital people could examine their own state of mind to get a sense of the odds of cooperation (since the copy would have the same state of mind); (b) if only a small number of digital people experimented, large numbers of people could still learn from the results.

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:13:26.254Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

9. I'd also expect them to be able to try more radical things. For example, in today's world, it's unlikely that you could run a randomized experiment on what happens if people currently living in New York just decide to move to Chicago. It would be too hard to find people willing to be randomly assigned to stay in New York or move to Chicago. But in a world of digital people, experimenters could pay New Yorkers to make copies of themselves who move to Chicago. And after the experiment, each Chicago copy that wished it had stayed in New York could choose to replace itself with another copy of the New York version. (The latter brings up questions about philosophy of personal identity, but for social science purposes, all that matters is that some people would be happy to participate in experiments due to this option, and everyone could learn from the experiments.)

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:12:57.424Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

10. See footnote from the first bullet point on why people's copies might cooperate with them. 

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:12:39.191Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

11. And air for cooling.

comment by HoldenKarnofsky · 2021-09-13T02:12:27.515Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

12. See the estimates in Astronomical Waste for a rough sense of how big the numbers can get here (although these estimates are extremely speculative).

comment by Perhaps · 2021-09-14T02:18:10.716Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hi, I really like this series and how it explains some of the lower level results we can expect from high level future scenarios. However I'd like to know how you expect digital people will interact with an economy that has been using powerful, high-level AI models or bureaucracies [LW · GW] for a couple decades or longer(approximately my timeline for mind uploading, assuming no singularity). I've mostly read LessWrong posts and haven't done anything technical, but I feel that a lot of the expected areas in which digital people would shine might end up being accommodated by narrow-ish AI.