Economics can be a dry and boring subject, but in the end it boils down to one thing – stuff, and who gets to have it. Humans needs stuff. They need stuff like food, shelter, and safety. The more sophisticated human culture becomes, the more sophisticated becomes the stuff we need. Now we also need things like TVs and art. The thing is, there’s only so much stuff to go around, which means if some people are getting the good stuff, someone else has to do without it.
In today’s world there are broadly two ways in which we decide who gets to have what. Centrally-planned economies such as in socialist or communist societies make a central decision about who gets the good stuff. The idea is generally that scarce resources are distributed by a central authority so that everyone gets a fair share. Unfortunately, because of human nature this usually ends up being a system where the really good stuff goes to the people with the authority, and everyone else is equally poor.
The other main system is the free market. Here people create things that other people might like and they trade them for stuff they want instead. In the early days, that was done directly through bartering, but we invented money to make the calculation and trade of value easier. This means you don’t need to know exactly how many bushels of wheat a cow is worth – you can use money as a measure of both.
Capital, Dear Chap
Capitalism, which is one type of free market system, has been massively successful in generating wealth and advancing our technology. It has uplifted us all and done the most to alleviate poverty. On the flipside, capitalism also creates great inequality in terms of wealth. This is something that upsets the sensibilities of a lot of people; especially those that think socialism is a good system. It’s unclear whether inequality of wealth actually matters if the poorest person in a society has everything they need to live a good life.
Of course, even in the best capitalist societies there are still people who starve or who have no homes, so it’s not perfect by any means. Still, it’s hard to deny all the positive ways capitalism has shaped the modern world. It’s the competition of capitalism that largely (but not solely) drives the effort to make better technology and provide cheaper services at a higher quality.
No matter what economic system is in place today, there is one thing that they all have in common. That single shared aspect is scarcity. How much of a thing there is plays a key role in how much it should cost. The more scarce something is, the more valuable it is – assuming, at least, that anyone wants it in the first place. It matters little if something is incredibly scarce but no one actually wants it. Scarcity is about something that people really want but of which there is not enough, such as food or housing.
Inevitably, this means that people with the most wealth are willing to pay more to get scarce things – whether this wealth is in the form of capitalist money or socialist authority. What if this was not the case? What if the things we need most in life were so abundant that their prices effectively dropped to zero? That’s what we refer to as “post-scarcity” economics.
One of the factors that make people believe a post-scarcity world is possible is the continuing automation of, well, everything. Specifically, if manufacturing was mostly or entirely automated, it would bring down the cost of the thing being made in various ways.
This idea is not new of course. Mass production, whether of cars or cups, makes each individual product much, much cheaper. You can make so many that they aren’t scarce; although the profit on each item sold becomes less, you sell so many that you make more money in absolute terms. Even mass production still involves things that are scarce – things like material, energy, and human labor. Those are still the big factors that prevent mass-produced items from being so cheap they are almost free.
Modern hi-tech factories are very automated, but they still require people to do some of the most complex tasks; not just complex in terms of mental ability, but even in terms of dexterity. Yet the robots that man our factories are becoming smarter and more dexterous all the time. There is no serious opposition to the idea that one day factories that make things like cars or washing machines will be able to do so without any human oversight. Automated vehicles would bring raw materials to the factory. Robots would offload it, process it into the final product, and then ship it to the consumer or another factory for further processing. Even the mining operations that extract the raw materials could be automated. Once the capital cost of all this machinery is paid off, the price of the product and the quantities in which it could produced would drive the price down to a very low level. If the raw material extraction is completely automated, the same would apply.
Ironically, manufacturing robots themselves are mass produced to scale, which makes them enormously expensive. To jumpstart a modern robotic factory requires Bill Gates money, but revolutions in modern electronics and computing has started to shift automation into smaller businesses. For example, Baxter is a versatile and affordable robot designed to slot into existing manufacturing lines right next to human workers. It’s a revolutionary idea and means that small businesses can replace simple human labor with something automatic. Baxter is also great because it doesn’t require you to have any technical programming knowledge. If you can operate a smartphone, you can operate Baxter.
3D Printers Are Actually Robots
You may not think of them in this way, but 3D printers like this Select Mini are actually robots.
Pretty cool when you think about it, right? You feed raw material into the printer and you get something out on the other end. While current 3D printers are not that versatile, in the future it may be that they could make anything at all – from food to sophisticated electronics. The idea that every home will have a garage-sized 3D printer in their home means that mass production now becomes an on-demand, decentralized practice. All you need to do is keep the flow of raw material coming.
We’re already at the point where the house itself can be printed with a 3D printer.
Really Small Bots
So big and mid-sized robots have a large role to play in all of this but, ironically, really (really) tiny robots possibly have the largest role to play of all. I’ve written about nanobots before(LINK), but what you may not have realized is that these amazing hypothetical robots will play a crucial role in the creation of a post-scarcity economy.
On the one hand, they promise a way to manufacture sophisticated objects in a way that looks more like growing things than building them. Molecular-scale manufacturing changes everything about how we make things and what we can make. The materials will be stronger and cheaper than ever before possible. They’ll also be more eco-friendly. After all, if your basic component is the molecule itself, you’ll only produce as many as you need. These products are therefore going to be a lot more energy-efficient than what we have today. And they’ll last as long as you need them to.
You may be thinking at this point that there is one major flaw in the post-scarcity dream. Some things are scarce no matter what – raw materials being one, and energy being the other.
For a post-scarcity economy to work, you need a supply of energy and matter that is essentially limitless. Having a universal molecular manufacturing method is one thing, but you need to power it. Solar energy is one possible solution, along with other renewable resources such as wind and geothermal energy. Nanomaterials and nanobots themselves will also likely extract more from these sources than we currently can.
Even more promising is nuclear energy. Not the dirty fission energy that current nuclear stations use, but the clean fusion power that drives the stars themselves. We’re not talking about cold fusion here, which is essentially wizard magic as far as modern science is concerned, along with perpetual motion machines. We’re talking about regular old hot fusion, which we know works because there’s literally a ball of fusion energy in the sky.
The problem is that stars achieve nuclear fusion through the crushing gravitational forces at their cores. So we have to find a way to start and sustain a mini-sun inside something the size of a power plant. It’s been a long and hard road, but scientists are starting to make progress towards this goal. In 2016 MIT’s experimental fusion reactor set a new record before getting a federal shutdown.
In the case of raw material, it’s actually not so much that there isn’t enough of the materials we would need to defeat scarcity, it’s that they’re too hard to acquire. Robotic mining systems would let us get to materials that we would otherwise have to leave alone. Nanobots will also allow us to extract things like gold and platinum from other material, where before it would be impossible to get it out. You can also make materials at the molecular level from other substances.
We can also look beyond the Earth itself. There’s more raw material in the asteroid belts and other planets of the solar system than we could ever hope to use. Right now it would be more expensive than all the money in the world to get to it. But in a world of nanotech, fusion energy, and advanced AI space mining, it not so far-fetched.
Despite all the actual material that’s out there, something far more important is hyper-advanced recycling methods. If you have cheap and clean energy, it means it’s worth spending it on recycling materials instead of consuming new ones. Nanobots, in particular, may be able to break down products right back into the pure raw material they were before. Imagine that you put your old clothes back into a machine that breaks them down and rebuilds them. Or think of a machine that just repairs material by partially breaking it down and rebuilding it. Eventually you may not need a special machine at all – the nanobots will permeate everything.
What Will People Do?
In all of this there’s a lot of fear about what human beings will do in such a post-scarcity world. After all, there will be little reason for most people to work. Even today, automation is really starting to threaten people’s jobs. What many people fail to understand is that a post-scarcity world is also a post-money world. If the price of everything is effectively zero and no one has to work to make anything, well that’s it – right?
I think a lot of people forget that post-scarcity really only refers to material things. Ideas, art, and other truly human activities will remain scarce. Yet people will be freed up to pursue higher-level callings without the need to grind themselves into an early grave just to live. So I expect that there will be an incredible elevation in the arts, literature, film, and even more. Any citizen will have the choice of what they want to do for a living without having to even consider if it will help them live. If you want to do nothing but underwater basket weaving, you’ll be free to do it.
True post-scarcity is, of course, not actually possible in the sense that things will be unlimited. It’s just that things will be so plentiful that the economic rules of scarcity we use to find our way in the world of value will have to be rewritten. But it doesn’t mean such a society would not be cohesive.
Deal with It
Of all the different transhumanist ideas, post-scarcity seems like one of the more inevitable ones. We already have a post-scarcity economy when it comes to a lot of digital products, and as manufacturing automates more and more, we’ll see how our current economic rules begin to break down.
I expect there will be periods of turmoil because of this, but it’s unlikely that the march towards general post-scarcity will be halted by human beings. While it may be a painful transition in the short term, in the long term humanity will be much better off because of it.