Falsifying Economics

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

The most common job in a majority of US States is “truck driver.”

Tesla is testing an all-electric, self-driving semi truck that can operate autonomously 98% of the time — just needs help in construction zones and the “last mile” between the off ramp and the loading dock.  And Starsky Robotics is testing tech that would allow one driver, acting remotely, to guide 30 trucks per shift.

So that’s 29 folks out of work, and it doesn’t end there: Think of all the hoteliers, restauranteurs, and fuel station operators along the route.  Think of the petroleum delivery system that is going to be displaced by an augmented electrical grid, or even replaced entire (at least in some places) by distributed renewable generation.  No need to deliver diesel, even more trucks off the road and even more drivers affected.

So we can expect 10, 20 million people to lose their jobs from this one set of innovations?

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  There’s technology 10-30 years out that has the potential, eventually, to falsify the assumptions underlying the entire economic system.

Home Micromanufacture

“The age of being able to print off anything – from washing machine parts to shoes – in your home is approaching.”  3D printers: 10 machines for home manufacturing.  While the machines to print objects made of metal, or complex machinery, are at present prohibitively expensive for home use, many devices well within the price range of a serious, middle-class hobbyist can produce an impressive array of toys, gizmos, and objets d’art with complicated internal structure that would be all but impossible to make without the methods of additive manufacture.  I’m acquainted with a person who was using a $300 RepRap to print reducing gearsets and other moving parts.


Image: MakerBot Replicator, $1,749, ibid.

Professional-grade equipment is already up to the task of printing quite complex objects including gears, bearings, and other moving parts.  70% of Sculpteo’s bicycle project was 3D-printed, and the product completed a 1000-kilometer ride.  Mastery of the shapes and geometries is now proven capable of producing fairly complicated machines.  The basic logic of additive manufacture scales to houses and even bridges, so at the moment there seems to be no upper limit in that regard, at least, and the products are not limited to dumb structures like plastic toys and stacks of cement; Eric Mutchler of Solid Concepts, Inc has printed a working Colt .45 pistol.  More on the implications of that in a later blog, perhaps.

Meanwhile, additive manufacture is becoming a default tool, from industry leaders to dilettantes.  Quite probably someone on your block has one, and they’re making whatever they want with it.

Cornucopia Machines*

Universal Assembler: Uses raw atoms and molecules to construct consumer goods, and is pollution free. Can be programmed to build anything that is composed of atoms and consistent with the rules of chemical stability. Eric Drexler talks about these assemblers as nanorobots with telescoping manipulator arms that are capable of picking up individual atoms, and combining them however they are programmed. 

Nanotechnology Now

An “active cell aggregate”, or “shape shifter”, is an aggregation of similar, space-filling polyhedral machines, preferably built by molecular nanotechnology methods. “Active” means each machine, or “active cell”, has the capacity to exchange power and signals with other similar machines, and to interact with the external environment. A robot constructed in this manner can have a very large and detailed envelope of motion. By incorporating simple manipulators onto the various faces of the polyhedron, a universal assembler, or “overtool”, may be possible, for molecular, mesoscopic, and macroscopic assembly.

IEEE XPlore Digital Library, A description of a universal assembler

Molecular Assembly

Current rapid prototyping or 3D printing machines need to be supplied with the raw material on which they work, specific plastics in the case of the depositional technology of a MakerBot, or rare metal oxides in the case of a DMLR machine, but “molecular assembly” means making not just objects, but substances from base atoms or molecules — this is real alchemy.

And if you can make objects out of substances that you can also make, there seems to be no limit to what objects you could produce.  New phone?  Pair of shoes?  Alternator for that old truck?  No problem; just push the appropriate buttons and wait.

Here’s the Problem

The entire way in which economic resources, and therefore, to a large extent, material power, have been distributed is according to the marginal product of the factors of production and the scarcity of various items and resources.

Therefore not just things like the job market or the products in the supermarket are steered and determined by how hard people are willing to work to get various items (or alternatively, how much labor suppliers can extract from their customers in exchange for them, the value of “money” being just a function of time spent on tasks and how those tasks are valued), but profound and essential elements of our politics are determined by these elements that have heretofore been ineradicable limits on our behavior: the scarcity of time and product.

Take a moment to notice what I’m not saying:  I’m not defending any particular economic system; I am merely noting that the systems presently entrusted (however undeservedly) with our safety and prosperity depend in some way on these assumptions.  We know we can live in this world, because we’re doing it now; we don’t know (for sure) if we could live in a different world, because we haven’t done it yet.

But imagine you had a solar-powered machine in your back yard, into which you could shovel a few pounds of soil, a liter or two of water, and a handful of scraps of metal, push a few buttons on it, and then passively wait while it dutifully printed out whatever you wanted, including other machines like itself — boots, broccoli (or a reasonable and nutritive facsimile thereof), blankets, books, a new iPad, roofing shingles, Ebola Zaire….

And when you’re done with the items, you just put them back in the hopper and the machine turns them back into base matter to be used again.

What’s the value of labor when nobody has to do anything to get anything?  What’s the value of product when everybody already has everything they want?


Zero.  The very concept of value — and with it necessary predicates of our social and political systems — goes to zero without scarcity.  It seems to me that in the presence of universal (or even just very versatile) manufacture technology the only things that would have value would be energy (which can be had practically forever from the Sun and the wind) and atoms — which would recycle indefinitely, since any creditable universal constructor would also be a universal deconstructor (we’ve already stipulated and demonstrated the ability to move atoms around).

And what motivates people to cooperate with one another when they have nothing of value to trade?  Why do I go to work?  I go to work to get something of value: the medium of exchange.  What for?  To get scarce stuff that I need to live.  And why would anyone hire me?  Well, among other things, because I’m not a jerk.  My material security thus depends on other people regarding me well (or at least, not too poorly).  I am therefore motivated to treat other people well so that they will treat me well.  But what if we cut the motive?

We’re not cut out for this

Our evolutionary history bears directly on the social-perceptual aspects of our psychology.  Humans have been intensely social throughout evolutionary history.  In the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer environment in which we evolved, humans probably lived most of the lives in groups of approximately fifty to two hundred individuals (Dunbar, 1996).  Successful membership in these groups depended on one’s ability to solicit friendships, monitor allegiances, detect insult and exploitation, avoid offense, and track and fulfill obligations.  These abilities rely on facets of human psychology.  An individual’s failure to succeed in group living might have led to ostracism, and in that hunter-gatherer environment, such ostracism could have been deadly (e.g., “Social Brain Hypothesis,” Dunbar, 1998; Brother, 1990; Barton & Dunbar, 1997, Jolly, 1996).

Social Perception: Detection and Interpretation of Animacy, Agency, and Intention M.D. Rutherford, Valerie A. Kuhlmeier, Eds, MIT 2013.

Without access to the power of the group, isolated human individuals would have fallen victim to predation or perished for lack of resources.  Therefore, we are evolved to cultivate relationships for the purpose of getting things we need.

Social structures designed to facilitate the provisioning of scarce resources are “core features of human sociality.”  We are not evolved — and we have not yet learned — how to do without these limitations on our options.

So.  What if we don’t need each other anymore?

We don’t know yet, because we can’t have done the experiment.  But I am not convinced that the absence of scarcity would be entirely benign.  It may free us to create art, cultivate relationships, and maximize our actualization as individuals.  But it could also lead to anomie, isolation, and boredom, even nihilism.  For if we had no need to maintain relationships with our neighbors, we may fall into a black hole of hedonism — and our response to the endless supply of cheap thrills on the Internet does not provide very heartening examples of how well we will deal.  Presented with an infinitude of entertainment, many people are now addicted to their phones and social media and suffering depression and dysfunction as a result.  What if such an embarrassment of riches applied to everything we need?

We’re already long since at a point where I and my neighbors tend to go from the garage door opener to the remote control without taking any time to mend fences.  What if we never had to leave our houses at all?

And we haven’t gotten into what might be the result if people use cornucopia machines to produce weapons of mass destruction or infectious agents, but perhaps that’s better elaborated in a subsequent blog.

To be clear, my bias is to think that more of what we value is good, generally speaking.

But it is not obvious to me that the adjustment to the end of scarcity will be pleasant.  At best, between here and there is strong pressure against employment at the same time as the means of universal production are far from perfect.  We won’t need factory workers or even stores or clerks in stores long before technology can truly provide all of the things we might desire, so between here and there probably lies vast unemployment and extreme poverty if there aren’t intermediate solutions in place such as a universal guaranteed income or negative taxation.

So, best think about how to get from here to there, I think.


*The term “cornucopia machines” is borrowed from the novel Singularity Sky by Charles Stross, whose books you should read.

Featured image due CBS, I Love Lucy, “Job Switching,” 1952.  Video, hilarious.  Ethyl and Lucy have more than they can consume.




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