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Journal WillWare's Journal: Dude, where's my post-scarcity society?

People who know me know that I've had a deep interest in nanotechnology for a lot of years. There was a Scientific American article in 1989 describing cell repair machines that got me interested, and soon I read Engines of Creation and started reading and posting on sci.nanotech, going to conferences, and occasionally even writing software. So I'm down with the whole molecular manufacturing thing. One of the particularly interesting ideas associated with nanotechnology is the post-scarcity society.

Imagine a robot with enough smarts and dexterity that it can build a copy of itself. Call this a "capable robot". Start with one capable robot, tell it to make more of itself, go away for a few months, come back, and you have an army of them. Not surprisingly, this has economic implications.

Those economic implications depend strongly upon the cost of the input materials that the robot uses for self-replication. If the robot is only snapping together two complex subassemblies, then there are no implications. If the robot digs up ore and smelts it into metal, makes its own lathes and drill presses and nuts and bolts, and purifies its own silicon from rocks and sand, then the implications are big.

The implications are big because the input materials are cheap. The robot does not have to participate in a complex interwoven economy to get its subassemblies, it makes them itself. The price of a freshly-minted robot drops to nearly the same as an equal weight of rocks and sand. You can give the robot to anybody and they can instruct the robot to make more robots.

The price of a capable robot is infinite today (completely unavailable), and some day it will be billions of dollars, and a year or two later it will be falling precipitously and it will level off near the cost of the raw materials to make a new robot.

If capable robots were distributed to every village, they could change life on Earth. Poverty could be wiped out. Diseases could be cured. We could live in a robot-labor-powered paradise. It has been argued that we might easily end up in a robot-labor-powered hell of perpetual unemployment. So the distribution of capable robots is important to understanding how they would reshape the world.

So there are some interesting questions.

  • Is this "capable robot" idea possible at all? In the short term, it's more efficient to manufacture stuff in stages (one guy smelts ore, another guy builds a metal lathe, and a third guy builds a building). The capable robot trades away economic efficiency in favor of economic opportunity.
  • We are currently on a trajectory of increasing concentration of wealth; the gap between rich and poor is growing while the middle class is shrinking. Can capable robots turn that around? What mechanisms and policies can we put in place today so that when robots arrive, the poor and unemployed aren't left behind?
  • How do these questions and answers change when we replace robots (presumably built with technology available today) with mature nanotechnology? The cost of inefficiency declines.

As far as the thing about not leaving the poor and unemployed in the dust, Marshall Brain has suggested that everybody get a $25000 minimum wage just for breathing. It's interesting, and even affordable. I have what I think may be a better idea.

Suppose Acme Robots (or a real robot company) offers robot purchasing savings accounts. I open my account and plunk down twenty bucks. Then I go about my business for ten or fifteen years. My money collects interest at some reasonable rate, and one day the price of a capable robot decreases to the amount in my account. On that day, Acme Robots ships me a capable robot (or just tells one of their robots to walk to my house). In the developing world, the initial deposit might be shared among all the families in a village, or a group of villages. When the robot arrives, one of its jobs is to make more robots.

Could cheap robots help to discover new medical treatments, or find the next new galaxy or solve the next mathematical grand challenge? These are more computer questions than robot questions since the challenges involved (aside from the physical working-in-the-lab part) are primarily cerebral. So: Could advances in computer hardware and software trigger advances in scientific and medical progress? I think so. Big fast computers enable simulation. They enable literature database searches. They can sift through mountains of data to find correlations that might be too subtle for human minds to notice.

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Dude, where's my post-scarcity society?

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