Saturday, November 12, 2005

The post-scarcity economy

The phrase post-scarcity economy was coined in the 1950s by economist Louis Kelso, but it could have been envisioned any time after the Industrial Revolution. The idea is that automation drives down the price of all goods to effectively zero, money becomes meaningless, and the entire population goes on perpetual vacation.

I want to distinguish between what venture capitalists call "nanotechnology" today and the real thing. The quickest way to do that is to refer you to Ralph Merkle's website, or the Wikipedia article. When referring to real nanotechnology, I'll use the abbreviation "MNT".

Many have conjectured that MNT will bring about a post-scarcity economy. There is also conjecture that sophisticated robots could do the same without nanotechnology (see Marshall Brain's novella Manna). In the robot case, an important axiom is that the robots can build more robots, thereby driving down the price of robots. The same axiom exists in the nanotech case; nanotech fabricators can make more nanotech fabricators.

The big idea here is self-replication. A robot is self-replicating if it can build a copy of itself from the available raw materials. The idea is that the first robot costs a huge amount in development, and every robot after that is free because it's built by another robot. But available raw materials turns out to be a fly in the ointment. If the raw materials are sand and gravel, then robots are indeed cheap. But if the necessary raw materials are subassemblies from Home Depot and Radio Shack, then robots can't get any cheaper than the stuff you need to buy for the next one to be built. The price of raw materials plays a very important limiting role in this picture of abundant free robots doing all our work for us.

For a robot to build more robots from sand and gravel, it must replicate all the arts of ore mining, metal smelting, and machining, to make just the metal parts. There will also be rubber and plastic parts, and probably silicon electronic parts. The "self-replicative robot" probably now occupies several acres, and is really a self-replicating robot factory, producing both robots and more robot factories. In order to accept cheaper less-organized raw materials, the unit of replication needs to be more complex.

MNT simplifies matters somewhat. Products are built out of carbon and other common elements, "machining" is done at a molecular level, and no smelting is needed. Putting all the pieces together into one desktop nanofactory becomes feasible. The raw materials are atoms (dirt, air, water), time, energy, and software.

Sometimes, what we really want from a post-scarcity economy is self-sufficiency. Complete self-sufficiency means that you can trundle off into the woods, build a log cabin, catch your own food, make your own clothers, and perform your own medical services. A nanofactory will make all that much more practical.

In the meanwhile, a limited form of self-sufficiency is the freedom to choose whether or not to trade with other people or businesses. This is feasible as long as the things I'm buying aren't products made by monopolies.

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