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Elon Musk vs. the Environmentalists – Some Lessons


One of the core values of our team is: we face and solve brutal realities.

Another on of our values is: we ask why. 

Recently, at a team retreat, we read and discussed Musk’s biography. It is well worth reading.

In reading the book – and reflecting on our values – I was struck by how Musk differs from many environmentalists.

Facing the Brutal Reality of Climate Change

Both Musk and the environmentalists care about the future of humanity.

Both Musk and environmentalists believe that humanity is at-risk due to human induced climate change.

In this sense: each has faced the brutal reality of the dangers of climate change.

Because of this brutal reality, environmentalists are doing important policy and conservation work.

Because of this brutal reality, Musk launched Solar City and Tesla.

Facing the Brutal Reality of Single Planetary Existence 

But Musk, in considering the threat of environmental disaster, did not stop asking “why” when it comes to the risk of human extinction.

Rather than being satisfied with the (true) morality tale of humans destroying the planet; he kept on asking why humans were so exposed to environmental collapse on Earth in the first place.

The answer is of course obvious: Earth is the only planet we live on. As it goes, so do we.

In terms of human continuity, it is very fragile to only live on one planet. Ultimately, even natural environmental shifts (volcano explosion, meteor, etc.) can destroy humanity. Musk realized this was a major problem that many environmentalists did not seem to be working on.

Yes, slowing human made climate change is important, but it is only a stop-gap solution. Leaving Earth is the more sustainable solution.

Completing this logic pathway (of asking why humanity is truly at risk) only requires the knowledge one might pick up in high school.

Ultimately, getting  down to the root solutions is as much as about mental habits as it is about knowledge: facing brutal realities, continuing to ask “why,” having the boldness of vision to put forth a solution – this is what is needed…. as well as having the operational capacity to make a good attempt to realize this vision.

It is rare that all these qualities sit in one person. This is what makes Musk so special.

And it is why we have Space X.

Our Work 

I’d like to think that some of our greatest successes in New Orleans were because we faced brutal realities and we asked “why” a lot.

Some of our biggest failures likely came from a failure to live out these two values.

When it comes to facing brutal realities, I find the following to be of use: soberly analyzing existing performance data; reading the criticisms of thoughtful people in other tribes; taking the time to quantitatively role forward your expected impact over 10-20 years.

When it comes to asking “why,” I find the following to be useful: sitting on potential solutions before acting on them; setting-up a culture and process for rigorous team questioning; having a board of directors that constantly questions your work; reading broadly to build-up false solution pattern recognition.


The Current Brutal Reality of Education Reform and Wage Growth

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Going from 16K to 18K in Annual Wages 

Last week, I did a post on Fryer and Debbie’s excellent new study on the Texas charter sector.

I emailed the authors about my hypothesis that the growth of high-quality charters – even if they aren’t that much better than average traditional schools – could still be of great value if these new charters displaced chronically failing schools.

Roland was kind enough to respond but pushed that even if my hypothesis is true, the story still might be a depressing one.

His point: the numbers from his study indicate that even if we replaced all these failing schools with high-performing charters, we’re still only talking about ~1-2K in extra earnings per year for these students.

Given that many of these students end up lower income brackets, this might mean going from 16K to 18K a year in annual salary. Hardly game changing in terms of life outcomes – and surely not a ticket to the middle class.

Confronting this Potential Reality

When a study tells you what you don’t want to hear, the first reaction is often to not deal with it (in some ways I did this in my previous post).

So everyone in education reform needs to deal with this potential reality: there is some possibility that the best that education reform has to offer can only, on average, move a student from 16K to 18K a year.

Of course, this is only one study of one state. We don’t yet know if these numbers will hold under different contexts, methodologies, or timeframes.

But, at the very least, your belief that a great school can radically increase wages should be a little lower after reading this study.

Other Considerations

I’m still mulling this over, but in conversations with Roland and folks I work with, certain ideas bubbled up:

The data doesn’t capture recent improvements: A lot of the best charters have only really started focusing on college and career over the past 5 years or so. As such, the students who received the full suite of redesigned high schools, counseling, and career support aren’t represented in this study. To the extent you believe the best charters are problem solving machines, you might believe this to be true.

The work is generational: Perhaps reformed schools can only, on average, push students who would have been in deep poverty to achieve average poverty / lower middle-class status. And perhaps their children, who will grow up in better educated environments, will the be ones  to more fully make it into the middle class. But this story could be unwound through raised expectations: if we told kids they were going to make it to the middle class, and they don’t, how will they react?

Colleges are the bottleneck: Perhaps these real gains in learning are being wasted by ineffective two year and four year colleges – and that without higher education reform we won’t be able to translate K-12 gains into wage increases.

Society is tough: Just because you’re better educated doesn’t mean you can overcome racism, lack of social capital, and an over-reliance on signaling.

More interventions are needed: Great schools can’t solve everything; interventions that work on family poverty, health, and parenting are needed for schools to really move kids as far as they need to be moved.

The schools aren’t really that good: A bunch of teaching to the test just jacks up crystallized knowledge but doesn’t really give kids the human capital qualities they need to succeed in the workforce.

What Do you Do in the Face of Ambiguity?

Leaders need to make hard decisions in the face of incomplete data.

Often times, this means relying on some combination of probabilistic thinking, intuition, ideology, and philosophy.

But, at some point, you need to walk away if the data is telling you what you’re doing is not working.

I don’t think one study is enough to walk away from the promise of urban charter schools, especially since they’ve achieved so much on less penultimate markers.  I think there’s a lot more experimentation and research that needs to be done to help us understand if we can translate academic gains into wage growth.

But it’s worth thinking about when you would walk away.

Because if there is no point at which you’d walk away, then what do you really stand for?

An Alternative Interpretation of the Fryer / Dobbie Texas Charter School Study

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Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie just published an excellent study on the Texas charter school sector.

But it’s unclear to me that they captured a very important implication of their research.

I. Study Overview

The study found that charter schools in Texas, on average, have no impact on test scores and a slightly negative impact on earnings.

More interestingly, the study found that No Excuses charter schools increase test scores but only have a small and statistically insignificant impact on earnings.

Their paper ends with this cautionary statement:

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II. Walking Through Low Effect Size and High Effect Size Schools 

The famous Anna Karena quote goes something like this: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I think the opposite is true of schools.

When I visit low effect size schools, I am often saddened by the level of dysfunction. Students walk the halls aimlessly, teachers seem woefully unprepared for working in a low-income environment, and the principal generally spends her day putting out fires.

When I visit high effect size schools, I’m often struck by how different they are. While most hit the basics of a calm culture and thoughtful instruction, they vary greatly in atmosphere, curriculum, and staffing models – as well as the overall student experience. A Summit school is very different than a Collegiate Academies school, despite both achieving high effects. Even No Excuses schools can feel fairly different from each other, though they do tend to gravitate around some core practices (that Fryer has helped illuminate).

I also think I would struggle mightily in a blind walk through of .1 and .2 effect size schools; it is highly unlikely I would be able to tell you which school has which effect.

So while it’s easy to identify schools that are a total mess, it’s a little difficult to tease out what’s going well in non-dysfuctional schools, as well as to distinguish between high-performing and very-high-performing schools.

III. Bad Schools Have Bad Effects on Earnings, Good Schools Have Neutral Effects on Earnings

I found this to be the most interesting chart in the study:

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What you see here is that going from (-.2) to (0) effect really matters for earnings. This is indicated by the rising slope in the bottom left quadrant.

Interestingly enough, once you hit (0) effect, going to (.2) effect has little effect on earnings. This is indicated by the relatively flat slope in the the bottom right quadrant.

In short, getting rid of bad schools could have a major effect on the earnings of graduates in an education system (assuming our economy is not a zero sum signaling game).

In a sense, this fits my experiences in spending time in schools. It’s very easy to see how a totally dysfunctional environment could negatively impact students, whereas it’s a little more difficult to tease out the additional impact on students once the basics are in place.

IV. Portfolio Management: What Happens When Charter Schools Grow?

In a world where states and districts are managing their portfolio of schools, the growth of functional schools will be accompanied by the phasing out of dysfunctional schools.

In the best possible world, the growth of new effective charter schools will be accompanied with a reduction in under-performing traditional and charter schools.

Overtime, a system can potentially rid itself of failing schools.

This is what happened in New Orleans.

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While the above analysis is more weighted toward absolute scores (rather than effect sizes), my hunch is that the story would stand with effect sizes as well (I have not run this data yet).

I think much of New Orleans’ gains were driven by the phasing out of failing schools.

It is much less clear to me that schools in New Orleans, to date, have figured out to crack the code of creating schools that are radically superior to your average functioning traditional school.

Hopefully they will.

V. No Excuses Charter Schools May Allow Us to Eliminate Failing Schools and Raise the Aggregate Earnings of Low-Income Students in the United States 

So another way to interpret this study is that the growth of No Excuses charter schools could be the key to eliminating failing schools and raising wages of low-income students who would have otherwise have attended failing schools.

Two things would have to hold true for this to be the case: (1) government action or family choice lead to the phasing out of failing schools and (2) No Excuses schools can maintain their neutral effects on earnings even if they enroll the most challenging students from the phased out failing schools.

In other words, for now, the importance of charter school growth might be much more directly tied to eliminating failing schools rather than vastly outperforming functional district schools.

If this is right, No Excuses charter schools might still very well be the most important education reform of the past quarter century.

Should Ed-Tech Platforms Empower or Restrict?

I’ve previously written on being bullish about the potential of ed-tech platforms.

Currently, both Summit Public Schools and Alt Schools are leading the way on developing platforms that may eventually be used by thousands of schools across the country.

Many people are drawn to ed-tech platforms because they can: (1) support teachers to curate innovative lessons and execute more personal coaching; and (2) allow children to learn at their own pace and explore their intellectual interests.

In short, ed-tech platforms are about empowerment.

But it is unclear to me that empowerment will be the only way that ed-tech platforms improve education.

I think they might also improve education by restricting educators and students.

I’m still trying to work through this, but see below for a graphic representation:

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The goal of many (thought not all) personalized and ed-tech enthusiasts is to move from wherever they are to the top right corner.

This vision has much to be said for it, and under the right conditions it very well may work.

But there is also another option – one based more on restriction than empowerment. A couple of great educators have been pushing me to think about this path as well.

The argument for restriction goes something like this:

  1. The No Excuses charter movement has learned a lot about what it takes to increase the learning of students who are multiple grade levels behind.
  2. It will be very difficult to scale No Excuses charter schools due to human capital, operational, and political constraints.
  3. Professional development has proved generally ineffective in spreading the practices of No Excuses charters to mediocre charter and traditional schools.
  4. A tech platform that utilized software that mimics the instructional practices of No Excuses charter schools – and then frees up teachers to do scripted small group and individual tutoring – could be a way to scale the core components of the No Excuses model while bypassing traditional human capital, operational, and political constraints.

Under this scenario, the goal is to move from the bottom-middle row (I do think No Excuses charters are empowering students more than before) to the top-middle row (with more scripted curriculum and teaching structure preventing this model from being ed-tech progressive).

In this model, the tech platform is really a backend way to scale a high-performing whole school model, in that the platform would dictate curriculum, assessments, pacing, and staffing.

Ideally, this packaged model would only take up 3-4 hours a day, and there could still be plenty of time for true project based instruction, extracurriculars, etc.

In summary: perhaps there is a (mostly) best way to teach basic reading and math, and, perhaps, a tech platform can scale this (mostly) best way.

And maybe the “big data” from such a platform could further evolve the (mostly) best way.

I’m not really sure. All feedback welcome.

It’s Nothing Like Uber


I was recently talking with Kristi Kimball from the Schwab Foundation and our conversation turned to discussing analogies that are used to describe the charter school sector.

We both noted that Uber is sometimes tossed around, in that Uber is often competing with a highly regulated and politically powerful incumbent.


But now imagine that if instead of working with drivers who provided their own cars, Uber had to buy or lease taxis from the taxi companies that they were competing with, or they had to buy a new fleet of cars everytime they entered a market.

Now imagine if these cars were not cars but were school buildings that cost about $20 million a piece.

Now imagine if buying or building these cars schools buildings often required the permission of another government agency, so entering the market required the approval of two regulators, not just one.

Now imagine if instead of being a billion dollar for-profit company with access to capital,  Uber was a non-profit organization reaching out to a capital market that was just beginning to understand what their company does.

Now imagine if instead of having to hire people for a skill that most of us learn when we’re sixteen, Uber had to hire people who could do one of the hardest jobs in the world – a job so hard that if a teacher changes professions he or she inevitably looks back and says: that was the most difficult job I ever had.

Now imagine if, instead of hiring a recent business graduate as a general manager to lead their city operations, Uber had to hire people to do a job (lead a high-poverty school) that one business school professor described to me as the hardest leadership job in the country save for being in combat.

Now imagine if instead of being judged on whether or not the company could get someone from point A to point B for a decent price, Uber was judged on whether or not it could put a dent in centuries of historical poverty and racism and help all students complete an education that enriches their lives and puts them on track for a good job.

And now imagine that Uber’s ultimate aim was not simply to win, but to make everyone better – so much so that they spent significant resources on documenting their best practices, publicly sharing all they know, and providing direct training to their “competitors” – with the hope that everyone can get better and innovate as quickly as possible.

I wish it were like Uber. But it’s not.

It’s much, much harder.

And it’s much more important.

The teams of educators, in charter and district schools alike, who are achieving great things in partnership with communities deserve our highest praise and support – as do the students and leaders in these communities who are doing the hardest work of fighting for a better tomorrow.

These educators, students, and community leaders are tackling problems that most private sector companies can’t even begin to understand.

Can We Raise IQ Through Schooling?

Whether or not schooling can increase fluid intelligence is perhaps the most important research question – and instructional challenge – in the education sector.

The reason the question is so important is as follows:

(1) Increased IQ is connected to numerous positive outcomes.

(2) IQ is based on a combination of crystallized and fluid intelligence.

(2) We have evidence that schooling can increase crystalized knowledge.

(3) We have much less evidence that schooling can increase fluid knowledge.

(4) Figuring out how if / how we can increase fluid knowledge will be very important to continuing to raise IQs.


The benefits of increased IQ seem to be numerous.

As a recent post from the Atlantic noted:

IQ correlates with chances of landing a financially rewarding job. Other analyses suggest that each IQ point is worth hundreds of dollars in annual income—surely a painful formula for the 80 million Americans with an IQ of 90 or below… Studies have furthermore found that, compared with the intelligent, less intelligent people are more likely to suffer from some types of mental illness, become obese, develop heart disease, experience permanent brain damage from a traumatic injury, and end up in prison, where they are more likely than other inmates to be drawn to violence. They’re also likely to die sooner.

Garret Jones also covered what a nation’s collective of IQ can mean for well-being:


This is not to say that having a high IQ is necessary to lead a meaningful life; rather, it’s only to say that increases in IQ are at the very least correlated with positive outcomes, and this is especially true at the societal level.


Previous research indicates that it’s difficult to increase fluid intelligence through schooling.

For example, research on the best charter schools in the country point to the fact that it’s easier to achieve gains in crystalized knoweldge than it is for fluid knowledge:

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Other research generally reflects this result: schools are more likely to deliver gains in crystallized rather than fluid knowledge.


With this context in my mind, I was excited to see Scott Alexander and Tyler Cowen blogging and tweeting about a new study from Sweden – a study that claims that an increase in years of schooling raised IQs for low-income / farmer families.

Here are the effects they found on IQ and EC (emotional control) for an additional year of schooling; the extension in schooling was rolled out across the country in phases which allowed for quasi-experimental analysis:

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As you can see, the IQ effects are the largest for children of farmers and manual laborers.

Interestingly enough, the extra year of schooling reduced emotional control across most classes; the authors posit that this might be because education instills less emotional control than actually working, and that the rolling out of an additional grade might have stressed the educational system and negatively impacted school culture.

In detailing the IQ increases, however, the authors of the study do not directly comment on the whether or not the IQ gains were achieved through increases in crystallized or fluid intelligence.

They do describe the test used, but they are not clear about which sections tested which types of intelligence.

Intelligence was measured at conscription with four sub- tests: A) Instructions, 40 items measuring verbal ability (e.g. ‘strike the fourth number, put a ring around the se- cond’); B), Concept discrimination, 40 items measuring verbal and reasoning abilities in which the task is to choose the one of five concepts that does not belong; C) Paper form board, 25 items measuring visuospatial ability in which the task is to pick one of four sets of pieces that can form a given figure (a variation of the Minnesota Paper Form Board);35 and D) Technical comprehension, 52 items (a figure is shown and questions about a technical problem asked).

Given that it seems that the test covers some crystalized knowledge (technical comprehension – perhaps?), it’s difficult to say whether or not the gains in IQ reflect gains in fluid intelligence.


Without a clear break down of the score changes across various components of the intelligence test, the study is hard to interpret.

We already know that schooling can increase crystallized knowledge; if this is what actually happened here, then we’ve simply added to a robust body of exiting evidence.

We don’t know whether schooling can increase fluid knowledge; if this is what actually happened here, then it’s a pretty big deal.

The Answer is 6.7 Miles. What is the Question?

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The question is: how far, on average, would a family send their child to attend a school that is in the highest category of the state accountability system compared to a school in the lowest category of the state accountability system?

This is from a recent report on the DC public school system. The analysis, while useful, isn’t perfect in that it only includes families who utilized the enrollment system, but it does add to the emerging literature on the revealed preferences of families that participate in transparent enrollment systems.



Here’s another answer: it increases racial integration.

The question is: does DC’s unified enrollment system increase or decrease racial segregation?

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Shockingly enough, assigning families to neighborhood schools that are zoned by property values is not a great way to decrease segregation.



Answer: Unclear.

Question: Do parents care about a school’s academic growth (as opposed to absolute test scores)?

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Interesting but not shocking. Parents probably care a lot about peers and status.

Also interesting, this seems more true of low-income families:

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This raises an interesting question for policy makers: given that growth more accurately measures a school’s impact, should they design grading systems that prioritize growth (as DC’s charter framework does) even though low-income parents might care more about absolute scores?

Or perhaps not – maybe low-income families aren’t considering the growth based performance framework because the government is hiding this information:

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One last answer: Families who aren’t assigned to a school in the lowest performance category, as well as the politicians and superintendents who seek their favor.

The question: who loves neighborhood schools?

It remains shocking to me that public leaders in cities such as Oakland are vehemently opposed to unified enrollment on the grounds that such systems will undermine public education.

The only thing a unified enrollment system undermines is the privilege of those who benefit from institutional racism and widespread income inequality.



How I’ve Changed as a Leader

This is my second time leading an endeavor.

The first time, I succeeded two CEOs (Sarah Usdin and Matt Candler) in leading New Schools for New Orleans.

Now I’m working with a great team to coordinate the education investments for two philanthropists.

I’m nearly a year into my new role, and a few recent events have caused me to think about how I’ve changed.

In case it’s of use to others, here’s some thoughts on how I’ve changed.


1. I put less weight on three year strategic plans and more weight on quarterly objectives.

While I still think it’s important to have a long-term theory of change and BHAG – as well as sketch out three year goals – I think most of this can be done in a few paragraphs, a few slides, and a spreadsheet with a few tabs. I used to have a greater belief in the utility of longer-term plans, as well as the detail such plans required.

Now, I think three year and one year goals are useful for vision setting and team alignment, but that when comes to really executing work in fluid environments, you can really only plan (and hold people accountable) for the next 3-4 months of work.

This might be different in more stable industries or organizations.

2. I’m less willful. 

I worry about this, but I do think that I’ve softened a bit in my stubbornness and doggedness. In some sense, this is good, as I’m much more open to pragmatic solutions and compromises, as well as novel ideas that originate from people very different than myself. I also care less about being proven wrong, and am more willing to rapidly adopt solutions that are born out of realizing my errors.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if it’s better to be 65% right and 85% obsessed than it is to be 85% right and 65% obsessed.

The world often bends to doggedness.

3. I try to escalate bets.

This is tied to (3), as when you’re sure  you’re right the objective is to go big on what you believe rather than testing what you believe.

Now, I try to find lower stakes ways to test my beliefs before going big.

The risk here, I think, is being less disciplined on what you believe because you’re willing to “fail fast,” as they say.

4. I trust myself less in interviewing candidates.

I try to follow all the best practices in interviewing (top grading, etc.), but ultimately I spend way more time on references than I used to. Ultimately, the math here is simple: I put more weight on the views of people I trust and have known a candidate for years than I do my own views that have been formed after a few hours of interviews.

5. I better understand the connection between my own health and my ability to lead. 

This one I’m crystal clear on: I lead better when I exercise, meditate, and get enough sleep.

When I don’t take care of myself, it is hard to differentiate whether negative thoughts are arising from legitimate work concerns or whether they are arising from a lack of healthiness. It is hard to lead when you can’t tell the difference.


There is one thing that has roughly stayed the same: I lead and execute by harnessing systems level momentum.

Some people build great products, others narrow in on a perfectly tuned strategy.

I don’t think I’ve really ever been able to do either of those things; rather, I think my skill has been in understanding broadly what a system is capable of becoming, and how it might get there. In this sense, I can see the Northstar, and have a decent idea on what levers to pull and what levers to leave alone – but just about everything thing else is a mess that must be worked through via trial and error – sometimes with more error than I would like.

Which Charter Sector is Better: Denver or Detroit?

In education reform circles, the Denver charter sector is held up as a success story.

Detroit’s charter sector, on other hand, is held up as a cautionary tale of authorizers run amok: mediocre schools, over supply, and no accountability.


Yet, if you review CREDO’s urban charter study, the data tells a different story (one that is easy to see given that Denver and Detroit are right next to each other when you arrange cities by their first letter).

When compared to local district schools, Detroit charters perform better than Denver charters.

See below for math (purple) and reading (beige) marginal effects.

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In reading, the Detroit charter sector has 2x the effect of Denver’s charter sector!

More interesting data: the performance curve in Detroit is also better (the bands, starting from the left, are: worse than district, equal to district, better than district).


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93% of Detroit charters are equal to or better than the district in math and 96% are better or equal to the district in reading!


What’s going on here?

Well, Denver’s traditional schools are probably better than Detroit’s traditional schools, which brings the Denver charter effect down.

That being said, Denver’s charter sector has a ton going for it that Detroit doesn’t: Denver is a talent magnet; there are multiple high-quality CMOs; and Denver has closed down many low-performing charters.

The Denver ecosystem is ripe for the scaling of high-performing charters.


A few reflections:

1. Reform narratives are often tethered to the status of individuals and organizations rather than the actual data.

2. Given that parents in Detroit can’t enroll their children in schools in Denver, we should not decry a charter sector that is providing families better options than what they would otherwise have access to.

3. Test scores aren’t everything, so we shouldn’t solely judge a charter sector based on CREDO data.

The world is ever complicated.

Book Review: The Age of EM


The George Mason economics department is the only academic department in the country whose books I almost always read.

This is quite surprising given how many academic departments there are, as well as the fact that GMU is not a selective university.

But it is true.

I hope they keep churning out good books.

They’ve also been very hospitable. Bryan Caplan and Robin Hanson took me to get good Indian food a few years ago.


Robin’s new book is The Age of EM: Work, Love, and Life When Robot Rule the World.

It is worth reading for (at least) the following reasons:

It is a survey of  us: To extrapolate what the em world might be like, Robin summarize the key findings of numerous academic fields. This vehicle makes the book a fascinating survey of what we know about humans – think David Brook’s The Social Animal, but through a more removed lens, and with a deeper blend of hard and soft sciences.

It might not be too far away: One never knows with such things, but it’s probably worth spending some time on what the world might look like over the next few centuries.

It is a thoughtful framework: The underlying framework of the book is a model based on the idea that:

(1) Once one understand the physical conditions of a society (population size, physical hardware, energy sources, etc.); and

(2) catalogue what research on humans tells us about how varying these conditions affects societies; then

(3) one can make reasonable predictions about what any society might be like so long as its members are somewhat similar to humans and you can approximate the society’s baseline physical conditions.

Like any model, it’s biggest risk is probably garbage in -> garbage out.

But, at the very least, Robin is transparent in what’s going in, so readers can judge for themselves.


Here’s a brief summary of the book:

1. The next singularity (hunter gatherer -> farmer -> industrial age) may occur when we are able to upload human brains onto computer hardware. Robin calls these ems (emulations).

2. This will likely occur before AI becomes conscious through non-copying methods (think Ray Kurzweil type predictions).

3. While ems will surely be very strange to us, given that the are born from copies of human minds, they should not be so strange that our knowledge of human societies will be completely inapplicable to em societies.

4. As such, applying key research insights from humans (psychology, economics, sociology, etc.) can help us predict what this next world might be like. Robin goes on to do this in each chapter by applying key principles of academic areas to the likely conditions of the em era. There is too much here to summarize – read the book if you want more detail.

5. Em brains will move very fast (due to better hardware), so while the em era might only last a few human years or decades (until the AI singularity occurs), for the fastest ems, the subjective era will last much longer that, perhaps thousands of years.

6. Understanding the em era may help us make better policy decision as we transition into the em era, as well as better predict what will happen after the em era.


Here are some of the most interesting ideas in the book:

1. Mind speeds: I had not previously spent much time thinking about how our brain’s hardware affects the speed at which we think. As it happens, our minds are spectacularly slow compared to what’s feasible with other materials! Better hardware, as well inequalities of hardware across individuals, will likely drive many parts of em society.

2. Death in the time of copies: An individual’s relationship to death is much different when you can make and store copies of yourself. Given how much of our current lives and societies are wrapped in who dies / how they die / when we die – a world where death is less central has major implications for identity, values, and relationships.

3. Security concerns are paramount: Theft (making copies of you without your permission) thus becomes almost more of an issue than death. As such, laws and cultural taboos will shift with security becoming more central to em value systems.

4. Less democratic: In a short period of a time, a well run non-democratic regime can outperform your average democracy. However, in the modern human world, these regimes often implode on themselves before they can dominate the rest of the world. But in the em world, things will move so fast (economic doubling rates are incredibly fast, every month or two!), that the rewards to short bursts of effective non-democratic regimes may be very high.

5. Religion: I tend not to think of robots as religious, but Robin makes the case that the utility of religion (nicer hard-working people) and the values of the em world (more farmer like) should lead to increased religiosity.

6. Increased utility: The sheer number of ems, coupled with their high mind speeds – as well as the likelihood that there lives will be ok in terms of meaning and happiness – suggests that the transition to an em world will be a positive utility move.


I am not an expert, so these may be foolish questions, but here were my questions and critiques:

1.Predictive power: While it seems clear that humans can make decent forecasts within their singularity (Robing gives some examples), it’s another to think that humans can make decent forecasts across singularities. Could a hunter and gatherer really have predicted the  industrial world? A farmer?

2. What is it really like? I wish that Robin had introduced us to an  em (or em clan) and then followed them through the book. A real life example would have helped me get a better feel for the em world. I would loved to have been told a story, for example, of an em clan trial  where they punished one of their own copies for stealing the identity of a rival clan, which resulted in a nuclear war strike on one of the clan’s main cities. Or something like that. I could have used more em perspective to get a feel for their world.

3. Avoiding Malthusian conditions: Robin seems convinced that the low cost of reproduction will lead to Malthusian conditions. And he is skeptical that a world government (if it even existed) would be able to stop replications. Perhaps. But in our own time the rapid decline in birthrates, which was an emergent phenomenon not mandated by government, was also unexpected. Is is not possible this could happen in the em world as well? Perhaps via culture? Perhaps it would become taboo to replicate yourself, akin to teenage pregnancy? Robin views our maladaptive (from a reproductive standpoint) society as an odd blip – but perhaps this will be a common condition of all advanced lifeforms?

4. Evolution: I wish there had been a chapter explicitly organized around evolution. Natural selection has been the dominant algorithm of humanity, exactly how would this work in the em world? Robin covers many evolutionary themes but an explicit chapter would have helped me think through and re-read on the issue.


As a non-expert, this book was very hard to review.

I hope I did it some justice.