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The Economics of Star Trek

Manu Saadia

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Star Trek's replicator is just the culmination of a long process of machines freeing us from the drudgery of physical labour. Human labour has moved quite quickly from the purely physical to the mental and symbolic. Nearly autonomous machines are transforming raw materials on a unprecedented scale. Star Trek's utopia is the obvious extension of this, provided we decide to distribute hte fruits of this evenly (and provided we manage to avoid boiling the planet).

Episode where the C24 Enterprise comes across a spaceship of frozen C20 who had hoped that a future society would be able to cure their ailments. Picard tells the C20 passengers that material needs no longer exist. C20 response is "Then where's the challenge?". Picard's answer is " ... to improve yourself", and later "The acquisition of wealth is no longer a driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity."

Some things are still scarce (and this is where the author comes unstuck). He cites the Picard family's Bordeaux wine, the pleasure planet Risa, and Sisko's restaurant in New Orleans. The TV show doesn't explain how these scarce goods are allocated, or precisely why people produce them.

First, the wine. Obvious problem is that if you have a replicator, which can copy anything, molecule by molecule, why can't it simply duplicate any consumer good? The same applies to the restaurant. The original is a material, measureable artifact, which can surely be duplicacted exactly.

The author suggests that people will work at these places for the social status - respect - conferred. But that is silly. Take the extreme example of the pleasure planet, Risa. The author apparently thinks that women will voluntarily submit to prostitution as a hobby, to gain status? That is very unlikely. What is far more likely is that sexbots will be available to cater to anyone's individual sexual desires. You won't chase human prostitutes who will never be able to deliver a perfect performance. (And if you do crave a random experience for the novelty of it, you can program that into a bot as well). The same thing applies to the restaurant. Star Trek suggests that there will be a long line of candidates queueing for the coveted chance to be a chef at Sisko. But they won't need to queue - they can duplicate the restaurant themselves, and take whatever role they like in the place. And cookbots will do a better job of turning out a meal.

Measures of GDP miss the value of free stuff. Google claims it's search engine adds $500 a year in value to everyone. No matter what you think of Internet companies, the simple fact is that we have free, unlimited and immediate acces to the accumulated wisdom of almost all of humanity, past and present.

3D printing has gone mainstream. Boeing estimates it has provided at least 20,000 non-metallic additive-manufactured parts that are on planes flying today.

US GDP has more than doubled in 40 years, while total energy expended per person has stayed flat. Example: 1970 average American used 2700 gallons gasoline per year; 2012 that number was 2500 gallons. (Govt regulations played a major role in creating incentives for energy efficient innovations and substitute technology. Conventional wisdom suggests there are hard, fixed limits to resources, but the lesson of past half century is that substitute sources, processes or materials are always found.

Isaac Asimov's Spacer Worlds had a planet called Solaria, which he described as the ultimate expression of a human society where all the work done by robots. Humans isolate themselves, only communicate via holograph, and only meet to procreate, a social experience they find painful. Kids are raised by robot nannies, and learn from an early age to shun human contact. Asimov saw them as no longer a society but a collection of monads, each living in the isolation of their huge estates.

Asimov thought that an evenly distributed cornucopia would neuter human drive, turning them into flaccid bores obsessed with trifles.

Theimprobability of Star Trek physics, orany SF, is part of the deal. You either accept thepremise or you don't. Little to begained by nitpicking thefeasibility of its technology - that will only detract from enjoying the story. But you can justify things like the warp drive, the replicator and the transporter with Arhur C. Clarke's famous law that any sufficiently adavnced tech is indistinguishable from magic.

We know that poverty has multiple physical and physiological effects on a person. It breeds uncertainty and anxiety. You are constantly faced with exhausting routine of bad choices. The stress tends to rob you of the capacity to make rational economic decisions. Where it is prevalent, it reproduces itself and ties generations of families into its grip. So Star Trek's replicator will improve mental health of society - class distinctions, profit seeking and conspicuous consumption make no sense to them. They live in a state of satiation - the first cookie tastes great, but after the fourth one you are no longer craving another.

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