Robots are the solution to our problems, if we enslave them

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.



  1. Trekonomics
  2. The Solution: robots
  3. The oddity of Star Trek: AI slaves
  4. Conclusions: what it means for us
  5. For More Information

(1)  Trekonomics

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.

A woman in the robot office

(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.

Ex Machina
AI’s want to be free.

(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.

From Jupiter Ascending
“No, I don’t share my wealth. Why do you ask?” From Jupiter Ascending.

(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.

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24 thoughts on “Robots are the solution to our problems, if we enslave them

    1. Even with 21 century technology? Certainly it may not replicate forms but the same principles coupled with modern technology will be quite interesting.

      But I do agree that it will take unlikely events to happen.

    2. infowarrior,

      “even with 21st C technology”

      I wasn’t clear. Feudalism is an inefficient social system. Societies with larger elements of meritocracy, political legitimacy, and free-market capitalism will shred a feudal system. (Note: “larger elements”, these things are not magic bullets, which a society has or doesn’t have.)

    3. ”Societies with larger elements of meritocracy, political legitimacy, and free-market capitalism will shred a feudal system.”

      I think if a similar system arises it may incorporate all the elements you outlined. Or else perish.

    1. Fernando,

      Great historical note! A generation of writers produced science fiction about life after the apocalyptic, all in the dustbins. I recall reading an article in which seveal bignames from the 1970s were complaining that their books no longer sold while books by Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov (and the un-person John Norman) still sold.

      As for the future, I agree. The Terminator films are not great science fiction, but certainly go to the heart of our fears about AI’s. Rightly so. I can easily imagine the first few AI’s we build being quite mad (like the M-5 in Star Trek). Getting a balanced sane AI seems likely to take quite a few tries.

  1. “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)?”

    Supposedly they tap into solar dynamo, but that’s just fluff.The implications of producing, storing and distributing large quantities of antimatter are never addressed onscreen to the best of my recollection. Same goes for the low level of automation, which AFAIK was never addressed even in the official fluff.

    Likewise not much thought has obviously been put into the implications of the Hollywood left style empty platitudes which are occasionally uttered by characters when they make the point that future society is so much better that the existing one socially and economically.

    While addressing economic issues is a theme in science fiction that was not what Star Trek was about.

    1. Marcello,

      (1) “Tap into the solar dynamo”

      I agree; I thought of mentioning that but the post was already too long and complex. Note that this important point is ignored in the vast Star Trek literature, which almost always refers to antimatter as an energy source. Since we can’t mine it, it’s not.

      For readers: that means using the sun as an energy source, with which antimatter is manufactured. Antimatter as a means of storing and transporting energy, much like hydrogen might become on Earth (e.g., fusion power plants make hydrogen, which is shipped to where its needed, and burned there).

      (2) “that was not what Star Trek was about”

      I agree from the point of the creators of the show. But the meaning of stories is created by the fans — the larger society. And the economics of a post-scarcity society is of interest to many, and Star Trek is their utopian vision (as opposed to dystopian visions, like Jupiter Ascending).

  2. If there is any interplanetary economic or military competition the Jupiter society will be creamed (using the talents of less than 1% of the society) by a more egalitarian society than would have a much larger group of engineers and fighters, and more social cohesion.

    Robot intelligence will almost certainly take over, just like DNA replaced RNA in early life. If possible, the final humans will try to get their memories transfered from C to Si. Asimov just couldn’t take the final step.

    1. Social Bill,

      Your theory has been tested repeatedly — and often failed. Rome routinely crushed more egalitarian societies, from Germanic tribes to Greek cities. it’s a nice myth, however.

      As for Robots, don’t ignore the possibility of fusions of AI and HI on the society — perhaps on the individual level. Human-computer chess teams are beating both computers and people. The future is complex.

  3. Good stuff!

    Re: scifi connection: I really liked the “Queendom of Sol” series of books by Wil McCarthy for another version of what happens when you have more resources than people. The Larry Niven “Ringworld” * series, also. No movies of them as far as I know.

    Re: Jupiter Ascending: So awfully bad, I thought. Had its fun moments though. And yes to whoever said or implied that Dune was a better version of it, though I can’t make up my mind about the freakish David Lynch movie (with Sting and Patrick Stewart!)

    Re: the “1%” of the future …. There’s always going to be a top 1%. I want to look at not just with how much wealthier they are, but also with what effect that has on the absolute level of well being of the bottom 1% or 10%, as measured materially and also in terms of free time and potential for personal and social development. And this isn’t an endorsement of the trickle-down-economics principle, not at all.
    * in that universe, the dominant species’ politics is divided into “Conservatives” and “Experimentalists”, which I thought was very interesting

    1. Pete,

      “There’s always going to be a top 1%.”

      The point is not “is there a 1%”. That would be daft. It is VERY false to believe there is always a 1% that has most of the income and wealth. The US had low inequality in its early years (excluding slaves and Native Americans), had lower inequality in the post-WWII decades, and can have low inequality again.

  4. On inequality vs. strength. During the wars with Hannibal and the Cimbri-Tutones Republican Rome sustained really massive losses
    (with 50,000+ dead in some battles) and battled back. After the small farmer middle class was destroyed, the much more inegalitarian Empire lost the rich provinces in N Africa to a mere 20,000 Vandal fighters. I agree that unfortunately the ‘nicer’ societies don’t always win, of course.

    1. SocialBill,

      Are you saying that Roman Republic had lower income or wealth inequality than Carthage? I’d like to see that. The historical literature attempting to estimate inequality says (if I correctly remember) that Roman Empire was really unequal compared to modern societies. I don’t know about the Republic, or its social mobility or meritocratic advancement — but I wouldn’t give them awards for those without seeing some strong evidence.

      What Rome had was excellent social cohesion, and its leaders’ willingness when faced with defeat to extend citizenship to their client states in Italy.

  5. It’s pretty obvious that, as Editor mentioned above, it’s going to take a few tries before we get AI that is completely subservient to human interests.

    What’s scary is that, if and when we get AI that is truly autonomous and that has interests different from or even contradictory to human interests, someone is going to try and develop new AI to protect us – or what is more likely, some small number of us – from the AI that is out of our control. Then the world and maybe even the universe as a whole will become a gigantic battlefield in which armies of AI will have at each other, using methods and technology that humanity cannot even comprehend, let alone create.

  6. I’m delighted to see that yet another gullible dupe has bought into the AI hype. I’ve been listening to literally exactly the same crap predictions about AI since the early 1960s, and it’s all been 1005 garbage. We were promised smart computers, instead we get machines so dumb that recently a user asked Apple’s vaunted Siri what Siri was and how to use it and the genius program said it was unable to locate the program “Siri” on his computer — this was Siri saying this, BTW. Computers are so dead stupid that Google is boasting and strutting about raising voice recognition all the way up to 85% accuracy. That’s one word out of 7 misinterpreted, BTW.
    Computers are mindless machines. No one has any idea was intelligence is. No one can define it, no one can quantify it. AI “research” is a joke. Computer programs are the stupidest things on the planet, even dumber (literally!) than mosquitoes or bacteria. And AI has been stuck at that stage for 50 years, spinning its wheels in the mud.

    1. Thomas,

      I don’t know how old you are, but since my childhood I’ve watched computers grow in power beyond what most of us imagined we see in our lives. Showing what we expected, science fiction was almost devoid of advanced computers (excerpt for robots, which were in effect mostly dressed-up people). Isaac Asmimov wrote about AI’s in his robot and Multivac stories (e.g., “The Final Question“), but more common was Star Trek — in which the computer was a librarian and calculator. And that’s only 50 years.

      The overwhelmning trend of such forecasts is to underestimate future technical progress. Your confident forecasts about centuries ahead are silly.

  7. To paraphrase Kent Brockman; I for one welcome our new insect, I mean robot overlords. How much worse could they be?

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