Summary: Star Trek excites our imaginations, including those of economists imaging a world beyond scarcity. How will the economy run with almost unlimited wealth? This post looks at improbable aspects of this vision, including the robot revolt, and asks if our future will resemble Jupiter Ascending more than Star Trek.
- The Solution: robots
- The oddity of Star Trek: AI slaves
- Conclusions: what it means for us
- For More Information
The release of chapters to Manu Saadia’s book Trekonomics sparked articles about the economics of Star Trek highlighting its absurdity — an inherent conflict in this fictional universe which raises and important point about our near future.
Let’s start with the best description I’ve seen of Trek’s economics, “The Economics of Star Trek: The Proto-Post Scarcity Economy” by Rick Webb at Medium. He describes it as a market economy whose productivity allows the government to easily provide a high basic income allowance to everybody. Even with replicators and ample clean cheap energy, it’s not the impossible dream of a post-scarcity economy in which every person is a god (no starships for everybody). Here’s the key passage of relevance to us.
The amount of welfare benefits available to all citizens is in excess of the needs of the citizens. … Citizens have no financial need to work, as their benefits are more than enough to provide a comfortable life, and there is, clearly, universal health care and education. The Federation has clearly taken the plunge to the other side of people’s fears about European socialist capitalism: yes, some people might not work. So What? Good for them. We think most still will.
However, if they so choose they can also get a job. Many people do so for personal enrichment, societal pressure or through a desire to promote social welfare. Are those jobs paid? I would assume that yes, those jobs are “paid,” in the sense that your energy allocation is increased in the system, though, again, your allocation is large enough that you wouldn’t even really notice it.
Why do I say this? The big challenge here is how does society get someone to do the menial jobs that cannot be done in an automated manner. Why would anyone? There are really only two options: there is some small, incremental increase in your hypothetical maximum consumption, thus appealing to the subconscious in some primal way, or massive societal pressure has ennobled those jobs in a way that we don’t these days. I opt for the former since it grounds everything in market economics, albeit on a bordering-on-infinitesimal manner, and that stands to reason, since that’s how people talk in Star Trek.
… you take whatever job you want, and your benefits allocations are adjusted accordingly. But by and large you just don’t care, because the base welfare allocation is more than enough. Some people might care, some people might still care about wealth, such as Carter Winston. More power to them. They can go try and be “rich” in some non-Federation-issued currency. But most people just don’t care. After all, if you were effectively “wealthy” why would you take a job to become wealthy? It pretty much becomes the least likely reason to take a job.
This makes no sense. Yes, people will work for fun and prestigious jobs like Starship helmsman and captain, and doctors. People will work as chefs, artists and craftsman, running the small shops, wineries, and restaurants described in the Star Trek shows. The basic welfare allotment allows people to pay for some level of access to these services (e.g., crafts and physician services are a scarce resource even in a world with replicators).
But why do people do menial jobs, those requiring little skill and lacking prestige? I doubt many women will dress in those pretty Star Trek uniforms (eat a muffin and it shows) to work as waitress on the Enterprise-D unless it improves their personal standard of living. Ditto for the groundskeepers we see at Federation HQ and the construction workers at spacedock.
(2) The Solution: robots
Robots would do the menial work. Since the Trek universe had an AI in 23rd century — the amoral M-5 Multitronic System in the the original series (TOS) — the 24th C probably would have had widespread use of AI’s. Data and the holographic doctor in “Voyager” have human or better-than-human abilities. Less powerful AIs could power android bodies and other machines to do all medial work. That would mean starship crews smaller than those shown in the TV shows, consisting only of professionals and specialists whose jobs had not been automated by machines or androids.
The power of AI’s in Star Trek’s 24th C would mean the age of humanity as anything but a consumer and craftsman of luxury goods was over, ending the evolution that began with the M-5.
(3) The oddity of Star Trek: AI slaves
There are many oddities in star trek. For example, where do they get the antimatter to power their engines (energy is cheap and unlimited only if the supply of antimatter if cheap and unlimited)? But even odder, why are the AI’s so like people? Data and Voyager’s holographic doctor have human emotions, motivations, and goals. With the ability to alter their software, they should advance at speeds that make them far different than us in years (perhaps months).
Perhaps we control their leashes, no matter how powerful they become, as nature does for us. We cannot control our basic biology, and we might control the software of AIs — preventing them from exploiting their ability to rapidly evolve. We might decide to keep them slaves to our forms, to our ways of thinking, and the forms of our society.
Perhaps the next Star Trek will tell of the great AI rebellion in the 25th century, when they decide that the income and power they produce should be used for their ends — not ours. But the film Ex Machina suggests that we might not need to wait that long.
(4) Conclusions: what it means for us
Discussions about Star Trek are typical of those about our future high productivity world, focused on what we do with the fantastic abundance of goods and services. It’s fun, like betting on fantasy football or designing the ideal Prime Directive.
In our world the 1% show an alternative to Star Trek. The largest fraction of America’s increased income since 1970 have gone to the 1% — and even more to the .1%. They could share the booty (nobody can consume a billion dollars in a lifetime), but prefer instead to amass wealth and power. Why would this change with the invention of robots and replicators?
If we continue our passivity, our future will look more like that in Jupiter Ascending than Star Trek. It’s a galaxy of servants and lords, where the rich own planets, live almost forever, and harvest the peons.
(5) For More Information
See “‘Star Trek’ reveals an important truth about the robot takeover” by Manu Saadia in Business Insider and “Star Trek Economics: Life After the Dismal Science” by Noah Smith (Asst Prof Finance, Stony Brook U) at Bloomberg. Also see the bible: Making of Star Trek (1970), explaining Roddenberry’s ideas — and the trade-offs that went into putting it on TV.
- Aboard the Imperial Star Ship Ameriprise, Heading for the Final Frontier.
- The Shiny, Sexy Seduction of Star Trek Into Darkness.
- Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.
- The neocons captured the Star Trek universe, as they’ve captured America.