Will we ever have the space opera future?

May 22 JDN 2459722

Space opera has long been a staple of science fiction. Like many natural categories, it’s not that easy to define; it has something to do with interstellar travel, a variety of alien species, grand events, and a big, complicated world that stretches far beyond any particular story we might tell about it.

Star Trek is the paradigmatic example, and Star Wars also largely fits, but there are numerous of other examples, including most of my favorite science fiction worlds: Dune, the Culture, Mass Effect, Revelation Space, the Liaden, Farscape, Babylon 5, the Zones of Thought.

I think space opera is really the sort of science fiction I most enjoy. Even when it is dark, there is still something aspirational about it. Even a corrupt feudal transplanetary empire or a terrible interstellar war still means a universe where people get to travel the stars.

How likely is it that we—and I mean ‘we’ in the broad sense, humanity and its descendants—will actually get the chance to live in such a universe?

First, let’s consider the most traditional kind of space opera, the Star Trek world, where FTL is commonplace and humans interact as equals with a wide variety of alien species that are different enough to be interesting, but similar enough to be relatable.

This, sad to say, is extremely unlikely. FTL is probably impossible, or if not literally impossible then utterly infeasible by any foreseeable technology. Yes, the Alcubierre drive works in theory… all you need is tons of something that has negative mass.

And while, by sheer probability, there almost have to be other sapient lifeforms somewhere out there in this vast universe, our failure to contact or even find clear evidence of any of them for such a long period suggests that they are either short-lived or few and far between. Moreover, any who do exist are likely to be radically different from us and difficult to interact with at all, much less relate to on a personal level. Maybe they don’t have eyes or ears; maybe they live only in liquid hydrogen or molten lead; maybe they communicate entirely by pheromones that are toxic to us.

Does this mean that the aspirations of space opera are ultimately illusory? Is it just a pure fantasy that will forever be beyond us? Not necessarily.

I can see two other ways to create a very space-opera-like world, one of which is definitely feasible, and the other is very likely to be. Let’s start with the one that’s definitely feasible—indeed so feasible we will very likely get to experience it in our own lifetimes.

That is to make it a simulation. An MMO video game, in a way, but something much grander than any MMO that has yet been made. Not just EVE and No Man’s Sky, not just World of Warcraft and Minecraft and Second Life, but also Facebook and Instagram and Zoom and so much more. Oz from Summer Wars; OASIS from Ready Player One. A complete, multifaceted virtual reality in which we can spend most if not all of our lives. One complete with not just sight and sound, but also touch, smell, even taste.

Since it’s a simulation, we can make our own rules. If we want FTL and teleportation, we can have them. (And I would like to note that in fact teleportation is available in EVE, No Man’s Sky, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and even Second Life. It’s easy to implement in a simulation, and it really seems to be something people want to have.) If we want to meet—or even be—people from a hundred different sapient species, some more humanoid than others, we can. Each of us could rule entire planets, command entire starfleets.

And we could do this, if not right now, today, then very, very soon—the VR hardware is finally maturing and the software capability already exists if there is a development team with the will and the skills (and the budget) to do it. We almost certainly will do this—in fact, we’ll do it hundreds or thousands of different ways. You need not be content with any particular space opera world, when you can choose from a cornucopia of them; and fantasy worlds too, and plenty of other kinds of worlds besides.

Yet, I admit, there is something missing from that future. While such a virtual-reality simulation might reach the point where it would be fair to say it’s no longer simply a “video game”, it still won’t be real. We won’t actually be Vulcans or Delvians or Gek or Asari. We will merely pretend to be. When we take off the VR suit at the end of the day, we will still be humans, and still be stuck here on Earth. And even if most of the toil of maintaining this society and economy can be automated, there will still be some time we have to spend living ordinary lives in ordinary human bodies.

So, is there some chance that we might really live in a space-opera future? Where we will meet actual, flesh-and-blood people who have blue skin, antennae, or six limbs? Where we will actually, physically move between planets, feeling the different gravity beneath our feet and looking up at the alien sky?

Yes. There is a way this could happen. Not now, not for awhile yet. We ourselves probably won’t live to see it. But if humanity manages to continue thriving for a few more centuries, and technology continues to improve at anything like its current pace, then that day may come.

We won’t have FTL, so we’ll be bounded by the speed of light. But the speed of light is still quite fast. It can get you to Mars in minutes, to Jupiter in hours, and even to Alpha Centauri in a voyage that wouldn’t shock Magellan or Zheng He. Leaving this arm of the Milky Way, let alone traveling to another galaxy, is out of the question (at least if you ever want to come back while anyone you know is still alive—actually as a one-way trip it’s surprisingly feasible thanks to time dilation).

This means that if we manage to invent a truly superior kind of spacecraft engine, one which combines the high thrust of a hydrolox rocket with the high specific impulse of an ion thruster—and that is physically possible, because it’s well within what nuclear rockets ought to be capable of—then we could travel between planets in our solar system, and maybe even to nearby solar systems, in reasonable amounts of time. The world of The Expanse could therefore be in reach (well, the early seasons anyway), where human colonies have settled on Mars and Ceres and Ganymede and formed their own new societies with their own unique cultures.

We may yet run into some kind of extraterrestrial life—bacteria probably, insects maybe, jellyfish if we’re lucky—but we probably ever won’t actually encounter any alien sapients. If there are any, they are probably too primitive to interact with us, or they died out millennia ago, or they’re simply too far away to reach.

But if we cannot find Vulcans and Delvians and Asari, then we can become them. We can modify ourselves with cybernetics, biotechnology, or even nanotechnology, until we remake ourselves into whatever sort of beings we want to be. We may never find a whole interplanetary empire ruled by a race of sapient felinoids, but if furry conventions are any indication, there are plenty of people who would make themselves into sapient felinoids if given the opportunity.

Such a universe would actually be more diverse than a typical space opera. There would be no “planets of hats“, no entire societies of people acting—or perhaps even looking—the same. The hybridization of different species is almost by definition impossible, but when the ‘species’ are cosmetic body mods, we can combine them however we like. A Klingon and a human could have a child—and for that matter the child could grow up and decide to be a Turian.

Honestly there are only two reasons I’m not certain we’ll go this route:

One, we’re still far too able and willing to kill each other, so who knows if we’ll even make it that long. There’s also still plenty of room for some sort of ecological catastrophe to wipe us out.

And two, most people are remarkably boring. We already live in a world where one could go to work every day wearing a cape, a fursuit, a pirate outfit, or a Starfleet uniform, and yet people don’t let you. There’s nothing infeasible about me delivering a lecture dressed as a Kzin Starfleet science officer, and nor would it even particularly impair my ability to deliver the lecture well; and yet I’m quite certain it would be greatly frowned upon if I were to do so, and could even jeopardize my career (especially since I don’t have tenure).

Would it be distracting to the students if I were to do something like that? Probably, at least at first. But once they got used to it, it might actually make them feel at ease. If it were a social norm that lecturers—and students—can dress however they like (perhaps limited by local decency regulations, though those, too, often seem overly strict), students might show up to class in bunny pajamas or pirate outfits or full-body fursuits, but would that really be a bad thing? It could in fact be a good thing, if it helps them express their own identity and makes them more comfortable in their own skin.

But no, we live in a world where the mainstream view is that every man should wear exactly the same thing at every formal occasion. I felt awkward at the AEA conference because my shirt had color.

This means that there is really one major obstacle to building the space opera future: Social norms. If we don’t get to live in this world one day, it will be because the world is ruled by the sort of person who thinks that everyone should be the same.

Reasons for optimism in 2022

Jan 2 JDN 2459582

When this post goes live, we will have begun the year 2022.

That still sounds futuristic, somehow. We’ve been in the 20th century long enough that most of my students were born in it and nearly all of them are old enough to drink (to be fair, it’s the UK, so “old enough to drink” only means 18). Yet “the year 2022” still seems like it belongs in science fiction, and not on our wall calendars.

2020 and 2021 were quite bad years. Death rates and poverty rates surged around the world. Almost all of that was directly or indirectly due to COVID.

Yet there are two things we should keep in perspective.

First, those death rates and poverty rates surged to what we used to consider normal 50 years ago. These are not uniquely bad times; indeed, they are still better than most of human history.

Second, there are many reasons to think that 2022—or perhaps a bit later than that, 2025 or 2030—will be better.

The Omicron variant is highly contagious, but so far does not appear to be as deadly as previous variants. COVID seems to be evolving to be more like influenza: Catching it will be virtually inevitable, but dying from it will be very rare.

Things are also looking quite good on the climate change front: Renewable energy production is growing at breathtaking speed and is now cheaper than almost every other form of energy. It’s awful that we panicked and locked down nuclear energy for the last 50 years, but at this point we may no longer need it: Solar and wind are just that good now.

Battery technology is also rapidly improving, giving us denser, cheaper, more stable batteries that may soon allow us to solve the intermittency problem: the wind may not always blow and the sun may not always shine, but if you have big enough batteries you don’t need them to. (You can get a really good feel for how much difference good batteries make in energy production by playing Factorio, or, more whimsically, Mewnbase.)

If we do go back to nuclear energy, it may not be fission anymore, but fusion. Now that we have nearly reached that vital milestone of break-even, investment in fusion technology has rapidly increased.


Fusion has basically all of the benefits of fission with none of the drawbacks. Unlike renewables, it can produce enormous amounts of energy in a way that can be easily scaled and controlled independently of weather conditions. Unlike fission, it requires no exotic nuclear fuels (deuterium can be readily attained from water), and produces no long-lived radioactive waste. (Indeed, development is ongoing of methods that could use fusion products to reduce the waste from fission reactors, making the effective rate of nuclear waste production for fusion negative.) Like both renewables and fission, it produces no carbon emissions other than those required to build the facility (mainly due to concrete).

Of course, technology is only half the problem: we still need substantial policy changes to get carbon emissions down. We’ve already dragged our feet for decades too long, and we will pay the price for that. But anyone saying that climate change is an inevitable catastrophe hasn’t been paying attention to recent developments in solar panels.

Technological development in general seems to be speeding up lately, after having stalled quite a bit in the early 2000s. Moore’s Law may be leveling off, but the technological frontier may simply be moving away from digital computing power and onto other things, such as biotechnology.

Star Trek told us that we’d have prototype warp drives by the 2060s but we wouldn’t have bionic implants to cure blindness until the 2300s. They seem to have gotten it backwards: We may never have warp drive, but we’ve got those bionic implants today.

Neural interfaces are allowing paralyzed people to move, speak, and now even write.

After decades of failed promises, gene therapy is finally becoming useful in treating real human diseases. CRISPR changes everything.

We are also entering a new era of space travel, thanks largely to SpaceX and their remarkable reusable rockets. The payload cost to LEO is a standard measure of the cost of space travel, which describes the cost of carrying a certain mass of cargo up to low Earth orbit. By this measure, costs have declined from nearly $20,000 per kg to only $1,500 per kg since the 1960s. Elon Musk claims that he can reduce the cost to as low as $10 per kg. I’m skeptical, to say the least—but even dropping it to $500 or $200 would be a dramatic improvement and open up many new options for space exploration and even colonization.

To put this in perspective, the cost of carrying a human being to the International Space Station (about 100 kg to LEO) has fallen from $2 million to $150,000. A further decrease to $200 per kg would lower that to $20,000, opening the possibility of space tourism; $20,000 might be something even upper-middle-class people could do as a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. If Musk is really right that he can drop it all the way to $10 per kg, the cost to carry a person to the ISS would be only $1000—something middle-class people could do regularly. (“Should we do Paris for our anniversary this year, or the ISS?”) Indeed, a cost that low would open the possibility of space-based shipping—for when you absolutely must have the product delivered from China to California in the next 2 hours.

Another way to put this in perspective is to convert these prices per mass in terms of those of commodities, such as precious metals. $20,000 per kg is nearly the price of solid platinum. $500 per kg is about the price of sterling silver. $10 per kg is roughly the price of copper.

The reasons for optimism are not purely technological. There has also been significant social progress just in the last few years, with major milestones on LGBT rights being made around the world in 2020 and 2021. Same-sex marriage is now legally recognized over nearly the entire Western Hemisphere.

None of that changes the fact that we are still in a global pandemic which seems to be increasingly out of control. I can’t tell you whether 2022 will be better than 2021, or just more of the same—or perhaps even worse.

But while these times are hard, overall the world is still making progress.

The economics of interstellar travel

Dec 19 JDN 2459568

Since these are rather dark times—the Omicron strain means that COVID is still very much with us, after nearly two years—I thought we could all use something a bit more light-hearted and optimistic.

In 1978 Paul Krugman wrote a paper entitled “The Theory of Interstellar Trade”, which has what is surely one of the greatest abstracts of all time:

This paper extends interplanetary trade theory to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer travelling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is derived from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved.

The rest of the paper is equally delightful, and well worth a read. Of particular note are these two sentences, which should give you a feel: “The rest of the paper is, will be, or has been, depending on the reader’s inertial frame, divided into three sections.” and “This extension is left as an exercise for interested readers because the author does not understand general relativity, and therefore cannot do it himself.”

As someone with training in both economics and relativistic physics, I can tell you that Krugman’s analysis is entirely valid, given its assumptions. (Really, this is unsurprising: He’s a Nobel Laureate. One could imagine he got his physics wrong, but he didn’t—and of course he didn’t get his economics wrong.) But, like much high-falutin economic theory, it relies upon assumptions that are unlikely to be true.

Set aside the assumptions of perfect competition and unlimited arbitrage that yield Krugman’s key result of equalized interest rates. These are indeed implausible, but they’re also so standard in economics as to be pedestrian.

No, what really concerns me is this: Why bother with interstellar trade at all?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favor of interstellar travel and interstellar colonization. I want humanity to expand and explore the galaxy (or rather, I want that to be done by whatever humanity becomes, likely some kind of cybernetically and biogenetically enhanced transhumans in endless varieties we can scarcely imagine). But once we’ve gone through all the effort to spread ourselves to distant stars, it’s not clear to me that we’d ever have much reason to trade across interstellar distances.

If we ever manage to invent efficient, reliable, affordable faster-than-light (FTL) travel ala Star Trek, sure. In that case, there’s no fundamental difference between interstellar trade and any other kind of trade. But that’s not what Krugman’s paper is about, as its key theorems are actually about interest rates and prices in different inertial reference frames, which is only relevant if you’re limited to relativistic—that is, slower-than-light—velocities.

Moreover, as far as we can tell, that’s impossible. Yes, there are still some vague slivers of hope left with the Alcubierre Drive, wormholes, etc.; but by far the most likely scenario is that FTL travel is simply impossible and always will be.

FTL communication is much more plausible, as it merely requires the exploitation of nonlocal quantum entanglement outside quantum equilibrium; if the Bohm Interpretation is correct (as I strongly believe it is), then this is a technological problem rather than a theoretical one. At best this might one day lead to some form of nonlocal teleportation—but definitely not FTL starships. Since our souls are made of software, sending information can, in principle, send a person; but we almost surely won’t be sending mass faster than light.

So let’s assume, as Krugman did, that we will be limited to travel close to, but less than, the speed of light. (I recently picked up a term for this from Ursula K. Le Guin: “NAFAL”, “nearly-as-fast-as-light”.)

This means that any transfer of material from one star system to another will take, at minimum, years. It could even be decades or centuries, depending on how close to the speed of light we are able to get.

Assuming we have abundant antimatter or some similarly extremely energy-dense propulsion, it would reasonable to expect that we could build interstellar spacecraft that would be capable of accelerating at approximately Earth gravity (i.e. 1 g) for several years at a time. This would be quite comfortable for the crew of the ship—it would just feel like standing on Earth. And it turns out that this is sufficient to attain velocities quite close to the speed of light over the distances to nearby stars.

I will spare you the complicated derivation, but there are well-known equations which allow us to convert from proper acceleration (the acceleration felt on a spacecraft, i.e. 1 g in this case) to maximum velocity and total travel time, and they imply that a vessel which was constantly accelerating at 1 g (speeding up for the first half, then slowing down for the second half) could reach most nearby stars within about 50 to 100 years Earth time, or as little as 10 to 20 years ship time.

With higher levels of acceleration, you can shorten the trip; but that would require designing ships (or engineering crews?) in such a way as to sustain these high levels of acceleration for years at a time. Humans can sustain 3 g’s for hours, but not for years.

Even with only 1-g acceleration, the fuel costs for such a trip are staggering: Even with antimatter fuel you need dozens or hundreds of times as much mass in fuel as you have in payload—and with anything less than antimatter it’s basically just not possible. Yet there is nothing in the laws of physics saying you can’t do it, and I believe that someday we will.

Yet I sincerely doubt we would want to make such trips often. It’s one thing to send occasional waves of colonists, perhaps one each generation. It’s quite another to establish real two-way trade in goods.

Imagine placing an order for something—anything—and not receiving it for another 50 years. Even if, as I hope and believe, our descendants have attained far longer lifespans than we have, asymptotically approaching immortality, it seems unlikely that they’d be willing to wait decades for their shipments to arrive. In the same amount of time you could establish an entire industry in your own star system, built from the ground up, fully scaled to service entire planets.

In order to justify such a transit, you need to be carrying something truly impossible to produce locally. And there just won’t be very many such things.

People, yes. Definitely in the first wave of colonization, but likely in later waves as well, people will want to move themselves and their families across star systems, and will be willing to wait (especially since the time they experience on the ship won’t be nearly as daunting).

And there will be knowledge and experiences that are unique to particular star systems—but we’ll be sending that by radio signal and it will only take as many years as there are light-years between us; or we may even manage to figure out FTL ansibles and send it even faster than that.

It’s difficult for me to imagine what sort of goods could ever be so precious, so irreplaceable, that it would actually make sense to trade them across an interstellar distance. All habitable planets are likely to be made of essentially the same elements, in approximately the same proportions; whatever you may want, it’s almost certainly going to be easier to get it locally than it would be to buy it from another star system.

This is also why I think alien invasion is unlikely: There’s nothing they would particularly want from us that they couldn’t get more easily. Their most likely reason for invading would be specifically to conquer and rule us.

Certainly if you want gold or neodymium or deuterium, it’ll be thousands of times easier to get it at home. But even if you want something hard to make, like antimatter, or something organic and unique, like oregano, building up the industry to manufacture a product or the agriculture to grow a living organism is almost certainly going to be faster and easier than buying it from another solar system.

This is why I believe that for the first generation of interstellar colonists, imports will be textbooks, blueprints, and schematics to help build, and films, games, and songs to stay entertained and tied to home; exports will consist of of scientific data about the new planet as well as artistic depictions of life on an alien world. For later generations, it won’t be so lopsided: The colonies will have new ideas in science and engineering as well as new art forms to share. Billions of people on Earth and thousands or millions on each colony world will await each new transmission of knowledge and art with bated breath.

Long-distance trade historically was mainly conducted via precious metals such as gold; but if interstellar travel is feasible, gold is going to be dirt cheap. Any civilization capable of even sending a small intrepid crew of colonists to Epsilon Eridani is going to consider mining asteroids an utterly trivial task.

Will such transactions involve money? Will we sell these ideas, or simply give them away? Unlike my previous post where I focused on the local economy, here I find myself agreeing with Star Trek: Money isn’t going to make sense for interstellar travel. Unless we have very fast communication, the time lag between paying money out and then seeing it circulate back will be so long that the money returned to you will be basically worthless. And that’s assuming you figure out a way to make transactions clear that doesn’t require real-time authentication—because you won’t have it.

Consider Epsilon Eridani, a plausible choice for one of the first star systems we will colonize. That’s 10.5 light-years away, so a round-trip signal will take 21 years. If inflation is a steady 2%, that means that $100 today will need to come back as $151 to have the same value by the time you hear back from your transaction. If you had the option to invest in a 5% bond instead, you’d have $279 by then. And this is a nearby star.

It would be much easier to simply trade data for data, maybe just gigabyte for gigabyte or maybe by some more sophisticated notion of relative prices. You don’t need to worry about what your dollar will be worth 20 years from now; you know how much effort went into designing that blueprint for an antimatter processor and you know how much you’ll appreciate seeing that VR documentary on the rings of Aegir. You may even have in mind how much it cost you to pay people to design prototypes and how much you can sell the documentary for; but those monetary transactions will be conducted within your own star system, independently of whatever monetary system prevails on other stars.

Indeed, it’s likely that we wouldn’t even bother trying to negotiate how much to send—because that itself would have such overhead and face the same time-lags—and would instead simply make a habit of sending everything we possibly can. Such interchanges could be managed by governments at each end, supported by public endowments. “This year’s content from Epsilon Eridani, brought to you by the Smithsonian Institution.”

We probably won’t ever have—or need, or want—huge freighter ships carrying containers of goods from star to star. But with any luck, we will one day have art and ideas from across the galaxy shared by all of the endless variety of beings humanity has become.

Could the Star Trek economy really work?

Jun 13 JDN 2459379

“The economics of the future are somewhat different”, Jean-Luc Picard explains to Lily Sloane in Star Trek: First Contact.

Captain Picard’s explanation is not very thorough, and all we have about the economic system of the Federation comes from similar short glimpes across the various Star Trek films and TV series. The best glimpses of what the Earth’s economy is like largely come from the Picard series in particular.

But I think we can safely conclude that all of the following are true:

1. Energy is extraordinarily abundant, with a single individual having access to an energy scale that would rival the energy production of entire nations at present. By E=mc2, simply being able to teleport a human being or materialize a hamburger from raw energy, as seems to be routine in Starfleet, would require something on the order of 10^17 joules, or about 28 billion kilowatt-hours. The total energy supply of the world economy today is about 6*10^20 joules, or 100 trillion kilowatt-hours.

2. There is broad-based prosperity, but not absolute equality. At the very least different people live differently, though it is unclear whether anyone actually has a better standard of living than anyone else. The Picard family still seems to own their family vineyard that has been passed down for generations, and since the population of Earth is given as about 9 billion (a plausible but perhaps slightly low figure for our long-run stable population equilibrium), its acreage is large enough that clearly not everyone on Earth can own that much land.

3. Most resources that we currently think of as scarce are not scarce any longer. Replicator technology allows for the instantaneous production of food, clothing, raw materials, even sophisticated electronics. There is no longer a “manufacturing sector” as such; there are just replicators and people who use or program them. Most likely, even new replicators are made by replicating parts in other replicators and then assembling them. There are a few resources which remain scarce, such as dilithium (somehow involved in generating these massive quantities of energy) and latinum (a bizarre substance that is prized by many other cultures yet for unexplained reasons cannot be viably produced in replicators). Essentially everything else that is scarce is inherently so, such as front-row seats at concerts, original paintings, officer commissions in Starfleet, or land in San Francisco.

4. Interplanetary and even interstellar trade is routine. Starships with warp capability are available to both civilian and government institutions, and imports and exports can be made to planets dozens or even hundreds of light-years away as quickly as we can currently traverse the oceans with a container ship.

5. Money as we know it does not exist. People are not paid wages or salaries for their work. There is still some ownership of personal property, and particular families (including the Picards) seem to own land; but there does not appear to be any private ownership of capital. For that matter there doesn’t even appear to be be much in the way of capital; we never see any factories. There is obviously housing, there is infrastructure such as roads, public transit, and presumably power plants (very, very powerful power plants, see 1!), but that may be all. Nearly all manufacturing seems to be done by replicators, and what can’t be done by replicators (e.g. building new starships) seems to be all orchestrated by state-owned enterprises such as Starfleet.

Could such an economy actually work? Let’s stipulate that we really do manage to achieve such an extraordinary energy scale, millions of times more than what we can currently produce. Even very cheap, widespread nuclear energy would not be enough to make this plausible; we would need at least abundant antimatter, and quite likely something even more exotic than this, like zero point energy. Along this comes some horrifying risks—imagine an accident at a zero-point power plant that tears a hole in the fabric of space next to a major city, or a fanatical terrorist with a handheld 20-megaton antimatter bomb. But let’s assume we’ve found ways to manage those risks as well.

Furthermore, let’s stipulate that it’s possible to build replicators and warp drives and teleporters and all the similarly advanced technology that the Federation has, much of which is so radically advanced we can’t even be sure that such a thing is possible.

What I really want to ask is whether it’s possible to sustain a functional economy at this scale without money. George Roddenberry clearly seemed to think so. I am less convinced.

First of all, I want to acknowledge that there have been human societies which did not use money, or even any clear notion of a barter system. In fact, most human cultures for most of our history as a species allocated resources based on collective tribal ownership and personal favors. Some of the best parts of Debt: The First 5000 Years are about these different ways of allocating resources, which actually came much more naturally to us than money.

But there seem to have been rather harsh constraints on what sort of standard of living could be maintained in such societies. There was essentially zero technological advancement for thousands of years in most hunter-gatherer cultures, and even the wealthiest people in most of those societies overall had worse health, shorter lifespans, and far, far less access to goods and services than people we would consider in poverty today.

Then again, perhaps money is only needed to catalyze technological advancement; perhaps once you’ve already got all the technology you need, you can take money away and return to a better way of life without greed or inequality. That seems to be what Star Trek is claiming: That once we can make a sandwich or a jacket or a phone or even a car at the push of a button, we won’t need to worry about paying people because everyone can just have whatever they need.

Yet whatever they need is quite different from whatever they want, and therein lies the problem. Yes, I believe that with even moderate technological advancement—the sort of thing I expect to see in the next 50 years, not the next 300—we will have sufficient productivity that we could provide for the basic needs of every human being on Earth. A roof over your head, food on your table, clothes to wear, a doctor and a dentist to see twice a year, emergency services, running water, electricity, even Internet access and public transit—these are things we could feasibly provide to literally everyone with only about two or three times our current level of GDP, which means only about 2% annual economic growth for the next 50 years. Indeed, we could already provide them for every person in First World countries, and it is quite frankly appalling that we fail to do so.

However, most of us in the First World already live a good deal better than that. We don’t have the most basic housing possible, we have nice houses we want to live in. We don’t take buses everywhere, we own our own cars. We don’t eat the cheapest food that would provide adequate nutrition, we eat a wide variety of foods; we order pizza and Chinese takeout, and even eat at fancy restaurants on occasion. It’s less clear that we could provide this standard of living to everyone on Earth—but if economic growth continues long enough, maybe we can.

Worse, most of us would like to live even better than we do. My car is several years old right now, and it runs on gasoline; I’d very much like to upgrade to a brand-new electric car. My apartment is nice enough, but it’s quite small; I’d like to move to a larger place that would give me more space not only for daily living, but also for storage and for entertaining guests. I work comfortable hours for decent pay at a white-collar job that can be done entirely remotely on mostly my own schedule, but I’d prefer to take some time off and live independently while I focus more on my own writing. I sometimes enjoy cooking, but often it can be a chore, and sometimes I wish I could just go eat out at a nice restaurant for dinner every night. I don’t make all these changes because I can’t afford to—that is, because I don’t have the money.

Perhaps most of us would feel no need to have a billion dollars. I don’t really know what $100 billion actually gets you, as far as financial security, independence, or even consumption, that $50 million wouldn’t already. You can have total financial freedom and security with a middle-class American lifestyle with net wealth of about $2 million. If you want to also live in a mansion, drink Dom Perignon with every meal and drive a Lamborghini (which, quite frankly, I have no particular desire to do), you’ll need several million more—but even then you clearly don’t need $1 billion, let alone $100 billion. So there is indeed something pathological about wanting a billion dollars for yourself, and perhaps in the Federation they have mental health treatments for “wealth addiction” that prevent people from experiencing such pathological levels of greed.

Yet in fact, with the world as it stands, I would want a billion dollars. Not to own it. Not to let it sit and grow in some brokerage account. Not to simply be rich and be on the Forbes list. I couldn’t care less about those things. But with a billion dollars, I could donate enormous amounts to charities, saving thousands or even millions of lives. I could found my own institutions—research institutes, charitable foundations—and make my mark on the world. With $100 billion, I could make a serious stab at colonizing Mars—as Elon Musk seems to be doing, but most other billionaires have no particular interest in.

And it begins to strain credulity to imagine a world of such spectacular abundance that everyone could have enough to do that.

This is why I always struggle to answer when people ask me things like “If money were not object, how would you live your life?”; if money were no object, I’d end world hunger, cure cancer, and colonize the Solar System. Money is always an object. What I think you meant to ask was something much less ambitious, like “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” But I might actually have a million dollars someday—most likely by saving and investing the proceeds of a six-figure job as an economist over many years. (Save $2,000 per month for 20 years, growing it at 7% per year, and you’ll be over $1 million. You can do your own calculations here.) I doubt I’ll ever have $10 million, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never have $1 billion.

To be fair, it seems that many of the grand ambitions I would want to achieve with billions of dollars already are achieved by 23rd century; world hunger has definitely been ended, cancer seems to have been largely cured, and we have absolutely colonized the Solar System (and well beyond). But that doesn’t mean that new grand ambitions wouldn’t arise, and indeed I think they would. What if I wanted to command my own fleet of starships? What if I wanted a whole habitable planet to conduct experiments on, perhaps creating my own artificial ecosystem? The human imagination is capable of quite grand ambitions, and it’s unlikely that we could ever satisfy all of them for everyone.

Some things are just inherently scarce. I already mentioned some earlier: Original paintings, front-row seats, officer commissions, and above all, land. There’s only so much land that people want to live on, especially because people generally want to live near other people (Internet access could conceivably reduce the pressure for this, but, uh, so far it really hasn’t, so why would we think it will in 300 years?). Even if it’s true that people can have essentially arbitrary amounts of food, clothing, or electronics, the fact remains that there’s only so much real estate in San Francisco.

It would certainly help to build taller buildings, and presumably they would, though most of the depictions don’t really seem to show that; where are the 10-kilometer-tall skyscrapers made of some exotic alloy or held up by structural integrity fields? (Are the forces of NIMBY still too powerful?) But can everyone really have a 1000-square-meter apartment in the center of downtown? Maybe if you build tall enough? But you do still need to decide who gets the penthouse.

It’s possible that all inherently-scarce resources could be allocated by some mechanism other than money. Some even should be: Starfleet officer commissions are presumably allocated by merit. (Indeed, Starfleet seems implausibly good at selecting supremely competent officers.) Others could be: Concert tickets could be offered by lottery, and maybe people wouldn’t care so much about being in the real front row when you can always simulate the front row at home in your holodeck. Original paintings could all be placed in museums available for public access—and the tickets, too, could be allocated by lottery or simply first-come, first-served. (Picard mentions the Smithsonian, so public-access museums clearly still exist.)

Then there’s the question of how you get everyone to work, if you’re not paying them. Some jobs people will do for fun, or satisfaction, or duty, or prestige; it’s plausible that people would join Starfleet for free (I’m pretty sure I would). But can we really expect all jobs to work that way? Has automation reached such an advanced level that there are no menial jobs? Sanitation? Plumbing? Gardening? Paramedics? Police? People still seem to pick grapes by hand in the Picard vineyards; do they all do it for the satisfaction of a job well done? What happens if one day everyone decides they don’t feel like picking grapes today?

I certainly agree that most menial jobs are underpaid—most people do them because they can’t get better jobs. But surely we don’t want to preserve that? Surely we don’t want some sort of caste system that allocates people to work as plumbers or garbage collectors based on their birth? I guess we could use merit-based aptitude testing; it’s clear that the vast majority of people really aren’t cut out for Starfleet (indeed, perhaps I’m not!), and maybe some people really would be happiest working as janitors. But it’s really not at all clear what such a labor allocation system would be like. I guess if automation has reached such an advanced level that all the really necessary work is done by machines and human beings can just choose to work as they please, maybe that could work; it definitely seems like a very difficult system to manage.

So I guess it’s not completely out of the question that we could find some appropriate mechanism to allocate all goods and services without ever using money. But then my question becomes: Why? What do you have against money?

I understand hating inequality—indeed I share that feeling. I, too, am outraged by the existence of hectobillionaires in a world where people still die of malaria and malnutrition. But having a money system, or even a broadly free-market capitalist economy, doesn’t inherently have to mean allowing this absurd and appalling level of inequality. We could simply impose high, progressive taxes, redistribute wealth, and provide a generous basic income. If per-capita GDP is something like 100 times its current level (as it appears to be in Star Trek), then the basic income could be $1 million per year and still be entirely affordable.

That is, rather than trying to figure out how to design fair and efficient lotteries for tickets to concerts and museums, we could still charge for tickets, and just make sure that everyone has a million dollars a year in basic income. Instead of trying to find a way to convince people to clean bathrooms for free, we could just pay them to do it.

The taxes could even be so high at the upper brackets that they effectively impose a maximum income; say we have a 99% marginal rate above $20 million per year. Then the income inequality would collapse to quite a low level: No one below $1 million, essentially no one above $20 million. We could tax wealth as well, ensuring that even if people save or get lucky on the stock market (if we even still have a stock market—maybe that is unnecessary after all), they still can’t become hectobillionaires. But by still letting people use money and allowing some inequality, we’d still get all the efficiency gains of having a market economy (minus whatever deadweight loss such a tax system imposed—which I in fact suspect would not be nearly as large as most economists fear).

In all, I guess I am prepared to say that, given the assumption of such great feats of technological advancement, it is probably possible to sustain such a prosperous economy without the use of money. But why bother, when it’s so much easier to just have progressive taxes and a basic income?

Because ought implies can, can may imply ought

Mar21JDN 2459295

Is Internet access a fundamental human right?

At first glance, such a notion might seem preposterous: Internet access has only existed for less than 50 years, how could it be a fundamental human right like life and liberty, or food and water?

Let’s try another question then: Is healthcare a fundamental human right?

Surely if there is a vaccine for a terrible disease, and we could easily give it to you but refuse to do so, and you thereby contract the disease and suffer horribly, we have done something morally wrong. We have either violated your rights or violated our own obligations—perhaps both.

Yet that vaccine had to be invented, just as the Internet did; go back far enough into history and there were no vaccines, no antibiotics, even no anethestetics or antiseptics.

One strong, commonly shared intuition is that denying people such basic services is a violation of their fundamental rights. Another strong, commonly shared intuition is that fundamental rights should be universal, not contingent upon technological or economic development. Is there a way to reconcile these two conflicting intuitions? Or is one simply wrong?

One of the deepest principles in deontic logic is “ought implies can“: One cannot be morally obligated to do what one is incapable of doing.

Yet technology, by its nature, makes us capable of doing more. By technological advancement, our space of “can” has greatly expanded over time. And this means that our space of “ought” has similarly expanded.

For if the only thing holding us back from an obligation to do something (like save someone from a disease, or connect them instantaneously with all of human knowledge) was that we were incapable and ought implies can, well, then now that we can, we ought.

Advancements in technology do not merely give us the opportunity to help more people: They also give us the obligation to do so. As our capabilities expand, our duties also expand—perhaps not at the same rate, but they do expand all the same.

It may be that on some deeper level we could articulate the fundamental rights so that they would not change over time: Not a right to Internet access, but a right to equal access to knowledge; not a right to vaccination, but a right to a fair minimum standard of medicine. But the fact remains: How this right becomes expressed in action and policy will and must change over time. What was considered an adequate standard of healthcare in the Middle Ages would rightfully be considered barbaric and cruel today. And I am hopeful that what we now consider an adequate standard of healthcare will one day seem nearly as barbaric. (“Dialysis? What is this, the Dark Ages?”)

We live in a very special time in human history.

Our technological and economic growth for the past few generations has been breathtakingly fast, and we are the first generation in history to seriously be in a position to end world hunger. We have in fact been rapidly reducing global poverty, but we could do far more. And because we can, we should.

After decades of dashed hope, we are now truly on the verge of space colonization: Robots on Mars are now almost routine, fully-reusable spacecraft have now flown successful missions, and a low-Earth-orbit hotel is scheduled to be constructed by the end of the decade. Yet if current trends continue, the benefits of space colonization are likely to be highly concentrated among a handful of centibillionaires—like Elon Musk, who gained a staggering $160 billion in wealth over the past year. We can do much better to share the rewards of space with the rest of the population—and therefore we must.

Artificial intelligence is also finally coming into its own, with GPT-3 now passing the weakest form of the Turing Test (though not the strongest form—you can still trip it up and see that it’s not really human if you are clever and careful). Many jobs have already been replaced by automation, but as AI improves, many more will be—not as soon as starry-eyed techno-optimists imagined, but sooner than most people realize. Thus far the benefits of automation have likewise been highly concentrated among the rich—we can fix that, and therefore we should.

Is there a fundamental human right to share in the benefits of space colonization and artificial intelligence? Two centuries ago the question wouldn’t have even made sense. Today, it may seem preposterous. Two centuries from now, it may seem preposterous to deny.

I’m sure almost everyone would agree that we are obliged to give our children food and water. Yet if we were in a desert, starving and dying of thirst, we would be unable to do so—and we cannot be obliged to do what we cannot do. Yet as soon as we find an oasis and we can give them water, we must.

Humanity has been starving in the desert for two hundred millennia. Now, at last, we have reached the oasis. It is our duty to share its waters fairly.

What would an interplanetary economy look like?

JDN 2457397

Today’s post is the second Reader’s Choice topic, chosen by a vote of my Patreons.

Remember, you too can vote on future topics if you pledge at least $10 per month.

Actually, there was a tie between two topics; since I was in an SF mood today, I decided to do this one as the official Reader’s Choice post. The second, “The challenges and possibilities of a global basic income”, I’ll do as a later post. (If I don’t get around to that before the next vote, you can of course always vote for it again.)

Will we ever colonize outer space? Many people thought we’d be there by now.

In Blade Runner, released in 1982, Roy was built and deployed to the outer colonies in 2015, which you may remember as the year that just ended.

Predictions of the future are often wrong, but predictions from the 20th century of the 21st century seem to be consistently overoptimistic about technology. In a past Idiot Free Zone post, I hypothesize that this is due to the confusion between exponential and logistic growth.

Paul Krugman is also a big fan of SF (it is actually about as likely that I’d run into Krugman at Worldcon as at an economics conference), and he wrote a paper on the possibility of interstellar trade way back in 1978. I think he’s kind of satirizing economic theorists actually; he uses sophisticated mathematics to address a problem that doesn’t exist in the real world—just like they do.

I think we will eventually at least reach the point of interplanetary colonization, if not actually interstellar. To begin, let me emphasize that vital distinction. Mars is currently about 60 million kilometers away at its closest approach. The core of the Alpha Centauri system is 4.24 light-years away, which is about 40 trillion kilometers. The distance from Ann Arbor to Toledo is about 84 kilometers. Thus, the difficulty of going to Alpha Centauri is about as much higher than that of going to Mars as the difficulty of going to Mars is compared to going from Ann Arbor to Toledo—each a factor of 700,000 times the distance.

With current technology, we can send robots to Mars (how cool is that? We did get some of the future we were promised). A typical trip takes about half a year. It costs us about $2.5 billion to do that, though India somehow managed to at least make Mars orbit for $75 million. Even if we use the $2.5 billion figure, that still means our current economic output the US and Europe alone could support hundreds of missions per year if we were willing to pay for it. (Devote the entire US military budget to NASA and we could land a new robot on Mars every day.) Interplanetary travel is most definitely feasible.

Interstellar travel on the other hand, is still far out of reach. In principle we are limited by the speed of light; in fact, it’s a good deal worse than that. The fastest we have ever gotten a spacecraft leaving the Solar System is about 60,000 km/h; at that speed it would take almost one billion hours to get to Alpha Centauri, which is over 100,000 years. We will need substantial breakthroughs in spacecraft propulsion before we can even consider sending anything to even the nearest stars. (I wouldn’t give up hope completely, however; in 1901 someone could just as well have criticized H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon on the grounds that no one will ever invent a propulsion system powerful enough to reach the moon.)

By the time we manage interstellar travel, our technology will be so much more advanced it’s hard to even imagine what things will be like. But interplanetary travel we could probably do right now.

So let’s suppose we do in fact establish colonies on other planets—most likely Mars and Mercury, as well as several moons of Jupiter and Saturn. What would our economy look like once we did?

For a decidedly Game of Thrones take on this situation, see The Expanse. Their scientific accuracy is quite good (although they still have sound in space!); so far, their economic accuracy seems pretty good as well, but so far I haven’t seen enough yet to be sure.
One thing I think The Expanse does get right is that asteroid mining is a vital part of the interplanetary trade network. The thing that’s currently keeping us from colonizing other planets is a lack of economic incentives to bear the enormous cost of space travel. Asteroid mining is one thing that might actually provide those incentives, if we can leap just a few more technological hurdles in terms of mining robots and spacecraft propulsion.

Many asteroids contain metals such as silver, gold and platinum at concentrations 20 times as great as anything found on the surface of the Earth. The amount of iron and nickel they contain is even larger; we could supply the entire iron production of the Earth (3.2 billion tonnes) with a single asteroid, 16 Psyche, for the next million years. That one asteroid over 2e19 kg of nearly pure iron-nickel, which is 200 quadrillion tonnes. Many asteroids also contain large concentrations of other useful and rare metals, such as lithium and neodymium.

It is unlikely we would actually try to colonize asteroids (they do in The Expanse, but I’m not sure I buy it). None are large enough to support an atmosphere (kind of by definition), so we’d have to build space stations large enough for permanent habitation. With such ludicrous amounts of iron all around us, that might be possible; but would it be cost-effective? I think it’s more likely that we would have temporary habitats, able to support people for several months or maybe a few years, and people would basically do “tours of duty” working in the asteroids, and then return home. This is similar to how we use space stations right now; you can live there for a long time—the standing record is over a year—but nobody lives their whole life there. It might be a sort of “seasonal” work, where the seasons are decided by large-scale orbital mechanics rather than local planetary axial tilt. (We might have to start doing “seasonal adjustments” to statistics based on this!) Provided that the workers are paid a substantial portion of the spoils—by no means a certainty, as we all know from sweatshops around the world—this work could easily be lucrative enough that you become a millionaire after a tour or two and then retire.

But they might well return home to Mars, since the orbital transfer from the asteroid belt to Mars is considerably easier (it has what we call a lower “delta-v”) than the same transfer all the way back to Earth, and the launch and landing are even easier still. Mars does support an atmosphere—currently very thin and not breathable, but that could change with terraforming. It is also large enough to spread out with room for many homes, greenhouses, power plants, etc., and has enough gravity to at least keep human bodies as a basic level of functioning without too much additional support. (Mars’ gravity is about 40% that of Earth’s.)

Of course, most of the products we make are going to be used on Earth—most of everything is going to be used on Earth, probably for centuries to come. It’s possible that we’ll end up like the British Empire did where the colonies are more populous than the source, but it will take a long time for that to happen. (Moreover, the primary reason—cheap, fertile agricultural land—will not apply unless we happen upon a habitable planet or get very good at terraforming.) This means we will need to ship something from Mars to Earth. But since the delta-v is exceptionally high, we’ll want to ship as little as possible. I think this means that we will do most of the refinement and even manufacturing on Mars, and then ship prefabricated components to Earth. Any process that removes mass will be done on Mars, to minimize the amount of mass that needs to make the trip to Earth.

And what will Earth provide in return? As we import this huge quantity of metal (or metal components), what will we export in return?
Well, one possibility is that we won’t—at first, we (by which I mean “our corporations”) will simply retain ownership of the entire supply chain and do all the accounting as though production were being done entirely on Earth. We won’t think of it as “trade”, just as corporations engaging in a series of prospecting and mining ventures. At least at first.

Yet this will become increasingly unwieldy, just as it became unwieldy for the British Empire to retain control of all its colonies and collect their taxes for the Crown. Communication between Mars, Earth, and the asteroid belt will be relatively fast—a few hours delay at worst—but travel will be very slow and very expensive. Local institutions will form and assert themselves, and may eventually topple the corporate managers, expropriate their assets, and create new governments. The corporations could see the rebellion coming a year in advance from the transmissions, and still be powerless to stop it because the ships will take too long to arrive.

Once new local governments form, we will start thinking of it as “trade”. So what will we be trading? To some extent people on Mars might simply accept Earth currency (perhaps US Dollars, or Euros, or as I like to imagine some unified currency, perhaps the Atlantic Union Dollar); but only if they can then use that Earth currency to buy things they actually need. What will they actually need?

Food, for one. Some amount of food production will be done on Mars by necessity—you can’t survive if you depend entirely on imported food to survive. But it will be expensive, and most likely nutrient-dense but tasteless and monotonous genetically-engineered vegetable products. People will get tired of eating bricks of processed Aresoy(TM) for the 17,000th time and will crave real food; Earth will respond by selling them frozen steaks at $12,000 per kilogram. Probably only luxury foods will be imported, actually; why spend $11,900 for a hamburger when you can spend $12,000 for filet mignon? Nominal income on Mars will be huge—millionaires will be ubiquitous. At purchasing power parity, it may not be so impressive, once you account for the ridiculous cost of food and housing. It’ll be like living in Silicon Valley—on steroids.

Water, perhaps. This one is not as obvious as it may seem. While Earth does have the largest concentration of liquid water (except for a couple of moons of the gas giants), there is plenty of ice in them thar asteroids. It will most likely be cheaper (albeit not cheap) to obtain water by capturing and melting down asteroid ice than to ship it all the way from Earth.

But I think the most important Earth export will beculture. The main products that Martians will want to buy from us will be books, movies, songs, video games, hologram simulations. They will be blueprints, patents, 3D printer schematics. Those who travel to Mars will be bold, adventurous, many of them loners and misfits—but deep down they will still sometimes long for the comforts of the books they read as children, the songs they listened to as teenagers. The beautiful thing about selling culture is that it can be transported almost for free—just add it to the radio transmissions you were already sending. Mars will also produce its own culture, of course, but the much smaller population and constant struggle for survival will mean that most of the cultural flow will be outward from Earth to the colonies rather than the reverse. The Internet won’t work normally between Earth and Mars due to the time delay, but there will be something like it, a local MarsNet that caches material from the Internet on a delay of a few hours and then shares it with the colony. You won’t download webpages in real time, you’ll request them a day in advance. You won’t send instant messages, but sending email will be hardly any different. (Instead of Nigerian princes we’ll start getting scam spam about Martian mining entrepreneurs.) Whoever owns this communication monopoly will become fantastically rich, perhaps even more so than the mining companies themselves—because the mining companies have overhead.

Overall, the increased availability of previously-scarce metals like gold, lithium, and neodymium will make new technologies possible and also widely available, including battery technologies that might finally allow Earth to wean itself off of carbon emissions. (Unfortunately, our current means of spacecraft launch are all very carbon-intensive. We will need to invent nuclear engines that don’t leave fallout so that we can launch with them from the ground.) Like all trade, the mutual imports and exports between Earth and Mars will benefit both societies.

But unless we change course dramatically as a society, interplanetary trade will make one problem even worse, and that is inequality. I am having trouble foreseeing an interplanetary trade system that doesn’t involve making the middlemen who own the shipping and networking companies rich even beyond the wildest dreams of today’s plutocrats. We will witness the birth of humanity’s first trillionaires, individual men (and let’s face it, probably men, unless we figure out gender equality too) who own as much as not just entire countries, but as entire large First World countries. The GDP of France today is $2.8 trillion per year; the CEO of Aresoy or MarsNet could well make more than that on dividends. Of course, that provides him a great incentive to start the project now—but what will it mean for our societies when one person can buy a spaceship as casually as we would buy a cup of coffee?