Our future will be Jupiter Ascending, unless we make it Star Trek

Summary: Will our future be like Star Trek or Jupiter Ascending? Star Trek shows us a world beyond scarcity where everybody benefits. In Jupiter Ascending the 1% takes the wealth produced by technology and uses it to rule us. We can choose to make Star Trek our future if we are willing to work for it, but now we’re condemning our children to live in Jupiter Ascending.  {First of two posts today.}

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

Consider the increase in the West’s wealth since 1750 and the advancement in technology. Imagine similar progress for another 250 years, to the time of the original Star Trek TV series. Rick Webb describes that world in “The Economics of Star Trek: The Proto-Post Scarcity Economy“, a market economy whose productivity allows the government to easily provide a high basic income allowance to everybody.

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.

Discussions about Star Trek often focus on what we do with the abundance of goods and services produced by their fantastic tech. It’s fun, like composing fantasy football teams or designing the ideal Prime Directive.

In our world the 1% shows us an alternative to Star Trek. The largest fraction of America’s increased income since 1970 has 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? Continue current trends for a few centuries and you reach Jupiter Ascending — a world of servants and lords, where the rich own planets, live almost forever, and harvest the peons. A world like that of our past, as seen in Pride and Prejudice.

Enterprise-D

This is the natural course of events for our future. Increased productivity comes from machines and intellectual property. Those who build them earn a living, while the wealth they create goes to those who own them. Software engineers live in nice homes while plutocrats own estates, yachts, submarines, and jets.

Our society has begun to adapt our new reality. The institutions formerly supported by the middle class, such as magazines and charities, find rich patrons to survive. Unions, the center of organized opposition to the 1%, have faded to shadows of their former strength. The major Republican candidates for president agree that taxes on the rich must fall and social services for the rest must be cut. Hillary, like her husband, likes the current rate at which the 1% grows in power and wealth, but wishes to tinker at the edges.

Visions of a great future, like that of Star Trek, can inspire us to act. But the window to do so will close eventually, if the 1% gains enough power that they become invincible. We will leave a dark future to our children if we continue our passivity. Perhaps that fear can shake us from our apathy.

For More Information

See “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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20 thoughts on “Our future will be Jupiter Ascending, unless we make it Star Trek

  1. Forgive me, but I find the grafting of past inequality regimes on to the future to be naive and inaccurate.

    1. One could of told such stories in the 40s & 50s about computers. Technology that obliterated jobs, being hoarded by an elite (as it was at the time.) What happened instead? Personal computing. Mobile phones. Hoarding technology has proven to be largely impossible.

    2. Meanwhile, wealth inequality has flowed largely from holding capital, not hoarding tech.

    3. The capital causing this inequality is real estate (c.f. Rognlie), not corporate equity.

    So, nearly all of the pieces that build this particular interpretation don’t work the way they need to in order to revive Robber Barons, or worse, Feudalism.

    (Meanwhile, the Wachowski’s would seem to rely exclusively on elites/robots needing human bodies in order to tell these sorts of fables. It works as storytelling, but it won’t happen.)

    Nonetheless, we have a lot of work to do to get to Star Trek, and I desperately hope we do it. :-)

    1. Jules,

      I don’t understand your comment. It doesn’t match anything I’ve said here. I suggest giving rebuttals to quotes to prevent this problem. For example, what is this “hording tech” that you discuss?

      “The capital causing this inequality is real estate (c.f. Rognlie), not corporate equity.”

      The rise of income inequality is largely due to income extraction by senior corporate executives and those in the financial sector. Income inequality on this large scale leads to wealth inequality.

      “the Wachowski’s would seem to rely exclusively on elites/robots needing human bodies in order to tell these sorts of fables.”

      Wow. It’s a metaphor for a future of fantastic inequality. It’s not intended to be taken at that level of specificity. Also, what “robots needing human bodies”?

  2. I was a bit sloppy in response, my apologies.

    The hoarding I was referring to was from your synopsis here: “In Jupiter Ascending the 1% takes the wealth produced by technology and uses it to rule us.”

    I presumed it’s the hoarding of the tech that was causing the inequality, as that’s been a recent Sci-Fi trope, and the one specifically to which I object.

    “They could share the booty… but prefer instead to amass wealth and power. Why would this change with the invention of robots and replicators?”

    Robots and replicators make everything cheap – including robots and replicators. There’s no way to prevent that dynamic, and no real motivation to do so.

    You can maintain that an overclass of people will control the tech to maintain total power, but all it takes is one defector liberating the technology and the entire regime disintegrates.

    (None of the key elements to the production and operation of Robots, Artificial Intelligence, or Computing in general have been kept out of my plebiscite hands; I(we!) have access to them all, and I fail to understand how these genies will be put back in bottles for some elite.)

    I think this scenario is silly, also because all other inequality regimes have arisen at least in part because of actual resource constraints, not just merely because people are greedy and bad. (Which they are! So let’s say the elite somehow has a monopoly on all of this stuff – it was be a regime of control, not deprivation. The abundance produced by the technologies would be unavoidable. Think the Soviet Union, instead with overflowing shelves of goods.)

    “Wow. It’s a metaphor for a future of fantastic inequality. It’s not intended to be taken at that level of specificity.”

    I understand it’s a metaphor, but it’s a really bad one!

    “Also, what “robots needing human bodies”?”

    I am referring to the Matrix films, which apparently had a similar dynamic. (I haven’t seen Jupiter Ascending.)

    1. Jules,

      “I presumed it’s the hoarding of the tech that was causing the inequality, as that’s been a recent Sci-Fi trope, and the one specifically to which I object.”

      That’s not remotely relevant here. Income inequality refers to the sharing of gains produced by increased productivity of tech — not hording of the tech. There is a large literature about rising inequality, where all of this has been researched quite thoroughly. See the For More Info section to links where this is discussed.

      “There’s no way to prevent that dynamic, and no real motivation to do so.”
      Again, irrelevant to this.

      “I think this scenario is silly”
      Pretty much everybody else who has looked at this disagrees. My suspicion is that you’re not familiar with any of this work.

      “Referring to the Matrix, which apparently had a similar dynamic.”

      No it didn’t. The Matrix is not remotely relevant here.

    2. “Income inequality refers to the sharing of gains produced by increased productivity of tech — not hording of the tech.”

      This is incomprehensibly pedantic. If the productivity gains of technology are not shared at all, they must be in some way “hoarded” to prevent others from using them.

      “There is a large literature about rising inequality, where all of this has been researched quite thoroughly.”

      I am aware. I am also aware that there are a number of different ways that inequality is measured and a number of different possible explanations thereof.

      “Again, irrelevant to this.”

      If the inaccurate way advantage technology and society is depicted in Sci-Fi is irrelevant to today’s economic predicament, then we are in total agreement. That was why I was critiquing such ideas in the first place.

      “Pretty much everybody else who has looked at this disagrees.”

      No, not everybody. Seems to me to be only some people, who not coincidentally have no detailed technical knowledge of the technologies that will allegedly bring on these dystopian scenarios.

      “My suspicion is that you’re not familiar with any of this work.”

      Not as deeply as you – for certain – but I have read a number of papers and pieces that make this particular case, as well as a number of alternatives.

      “No it didn’t. The Matrix is not remotely relevant here.”

      I’ll take your word for it. Was merely making an observation about the Director’s habits – not implying anything else.

    3. Jules,

      I have no idea what you are saying, or with what you disagree. Your comments appear unconnected to anything I’ve said. To give one specific: “hoarding of technology” is not the same as “hoarding of the productivity gains from technology”.

      Hoarding of technology implies keeping its use for oneself, a commonplace in history. For 150 years the Chamberlen family keep secret the invention of obstetric forceps. Other examples are the 18th century silk weaving industry in Italy and Britain’s late 18th century textile industry (successfully stolen by American entrepreneurs).

      “Hoarding” (not my word, or anybody else I’ve read) of gains concerns of distribution of income, usually expressed in terms of income from an organization or nation.

    4. “I have no idea what you are saying, or with what you disagree.”

      I concede that my arguments against various Sci-Fi tropes may not apply to either you or the film, and that unduly confused things. My apologies.

      What I am saying is:

      1. It is far from settled what the causes or consequences of either wealth or income inequality are.

      2. That the technology, automation and productivity end-game scenario of inequality resembling the Eloi and Morlocks is ridiculous and will not happen.

      “To give one specific: ‘hoarding of technology’ is not the same as ‘hoarding of the productivity gains from technology’.”

      I agree. However, in order for a certain class of people to “hoard of the productivity gains from technology” for the indefinite future, they would necessarily have to actually hoard the technology itself. (The high capital costs of industry in the past made that not so much easy-to-do as it was an inviolable law.). However, in the case of the technologies that are currently implicated in present and future inequality – AI & Robotics – this can not and will not happen.

      I apologize if you did not mean to imply that this would happen, and only meant that the productivity gains would be captured.

      (The article you link to by Jeremy Grantham is not claiming that, but rather that Capitalists will own everything and workers will have nothing. This is precisely what I’m arguing against.)

      “Hoarding of technology implies keeping its use for oneself, a commonplace in history.”

      I am aware that this happened often in the past. It will not happen with AI & Robotics. The fundamental and foundational knowledge of the state-of-the-art is largely public, and the capital costs are at best temporarily high and typically negligible.

      “‘Hoarding’ (not my word, or anybody else I’ve read) of gains concerns of distribution of income, usually expressed in terms of income from an organization or nation.”

      In that case, I apologize for using the wrong terminology.

    5. Jules,

      Thank you for explaining.

      (1) That’s a generic rebuttal. Very little in the social, political, and economic sciences is ever “settled”.

      (2) “resembling the Eloi and Morlocks is ridiculous and will not happen.”

      You continue with this nutty mischaracterization of what I said. Please stop. At some point this becomes troll-like behavior.

      (3) “they would necessarily have to actually hoard the technology itself”

      No. They merely need to owe it. That is, control a large share of the income gains from its use. Economics call this “rent”.

      (4) “rather that Capitalists will own everything and workers will have nothing. This is precisely what I’m arguing against.”

      I don’t see you argue, just asserting that what’s happened so often in the past cannot happen again. Whatever.

      (5) “AI & Robotics – this can not and will not happen. The fundamental and foundational knowledge of the state-of-the-art is largely public, and the capital costs are at best temporarily high and typically negligible.”

      Please read about “intellectual property” laws. Disney has retained control of “mickey mouse”, knowledge of which is public and the capital cost for use of are near-zero. Microsoft has control of Windows, ditto. The probably complexity of AI & robotics software and hardware will make this even easier. Even more so for the other possible breakthrough technologies: fusion, genetics, and nanotechnology.

    6. *(1)* “That’s a generic rebuttal. Nothing in social, political, and economic sciences is ‘settled’.”

      I took “There is a large literature about rising inequality, where all of this has been researched quite thoroughly” and “Pretty much everybody else who has looked at this disagrees” to be an assertion that you believed the cause and consequences of inequality to be “settled.”

      *(2)* “You continue with this nutty mischaracterization of what I said. Please stop. At some point this becomes troll-like behavior.”

      I meant this more of a characterization of my beliefs than of yours. I apologize for the offense.

      The thought experiment in the Jeremy Grantham article is – at the very least – flirting with that sort of extreme.

      *(3)* “No. They merely need to owe it. That is, control a large share of the income gains from its use. Economics call this ‘rent’.”

      But rather than income gains from AI & Robotics going to a smaller and smaller group of people, the rapidly decreasing cost implies to me that it is at least possible that the rent from these particular technologies can go to a larger and larger number of people.

      Industrial Revolution: the technology that drives it becomes cheaper, but essentially never cheap enough that the average person can make use of it.

      Information Revolution: the technology that drives it becomes cheaper to the point that the average person can make use of it in a decade – usually that is worst case.

      These two different paradigms produce different results. I don’t believe there is an industrial revolution analogue to the following article where a man builds a self-driving car in about a month, for fun:

      http://www.bloomberg.com/features/2015-george-hotz-self-driving-car/

      *(4)* “I don’t see you argue, just asserting that what’s happened so often in the past cannot happen again. Whatever.”

      I have several times explained precisely why I believe these particular technologies can not function in the way they did in the past, shown here again:

      a. Robots and replicators make everything cheap – including robots and replicators. There’s no way to prevent that dynamic, and no real motivation to do so.

      b. None of the key elements to the production and operation of Robots, Artificial Intelligence, or Computing in general [are secret.]

      *(5)* “Please read about ‘intellectual property’ laws. Disney has retained control of ‘mickey mouse’, knowledge of which is public and the capital cost for use of are near-zero.”

      Please read about “intellectual property” laws, the distinction between patents, trademark and copyright, and find the fact that Disney’s ridiculous reliance on copyright bears no relation to nearly 70 years of freely available prior art in AI and Robotics that can not be patented or has already expired.

      “Microsoft has control of Windows, ditto.”

      Which is why a great many of us in technology left the platform a long time ago for a free and open one. We saw that future coming and prevented it from being relevant. The largest and most aggressive company on earth’s #1 priority was maintaining and expanding monopolistic control – but widespread availability of free intellectual property killed their dream dead. (And they still manage to make good money anyhow! Everyone won.)

      “The… complexity of AI & robotics software and hardware will make this even easier.”

      Increasing innovation in these fields is not necessarily about increasing complexity. For example, simple advances – such as better batteries – immediately increases the productivity of robotics technology that has already existed for decades. None of the current advances in machine learning rely upon increased complexity of any kind.

      “Even more so for the other possible breakthrough technologies: fusion, genetics, and nanotechnology.”

      There are *much better* arguments for these three technologies behaving more like those of the past. However:

      Fusion: Table-top fusion would seem a non-starter; so traditional capital structures are very much at play. Competition with every other existing form of energy strictly limits the rent potential, however.

      Genetics: Not my field, but similar dynamics of crashing costs and widespread availability are starting to prevent consolidation and/or control.

      Here’s a link to one of many DIY CRISPR projects – the revolutionary, game-changing state-of-the-art biotech – available for about $75: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/diy-crispr-kits-learn-modern-science-by-doing#/. That particular genie is out, and there are likely many more to come.

      Nanotech: At this point, capital intensive and therefore completely conceded as a good candidate for rent capture. However, there’s no obvious technical reason why it would stay that way forever.

  3. I’ve been thinking about the flow of wealth from the middle class to the super rich. The 1% is supposed to be hardly any concern when 85 individuals actually “own” 50% of the world’s wealth. Be that as it may, it is saying that the trickle-down theory has failed. How, though?

    What I think or wonder is this. In prior days, wealth was material. You had stuff or you had dollar bills. Investments were limited to the very rich and the even more rich actually owned businesses. Stuff that made stuff. The rise of investment “packages”, the stock market and – possibly most important – debt, took away the stuff and replaced it with paper or electronic digits. So our wealth is not in things we can touch, or in dollar bills that we use to get stuff or get services, but locked into paper or virtual paper.

    My own situation: I have perhaps 0.2% of my wealth in readily available money. Even if I want to buy something, I would have to liquidate stocks, mutual funds (more stock) or get the owners in a private company to buy me out. I’m illiquid despite my reasonable wealth, and this wealth flutuates by the whims of economic winds. Currently it is down perhaps 25% from 18 months ago. If I had cash or assets like property, I’d be in the same place I was (within the local economy for cash).

    Now I got rid of debt. But if I hadn’t, my debt would have risen relatively to my wealth. But who holds the debt? The banks and those who hold debt bonds. The indebtedness of the Western world is at an all time high. The super rich are the ones – not the 1%ers – who hold the debt.

    So if you take the global debt and REMOVE it from consideration, does 85 people really own 50% of the world? And is the debt the problem that causes the economy to fall down? All the debt servicing makes the 85 richer but is no longer circulating usefully within the economy. Debt servicing and banks do not create economic growth through the creation of things. They allow the creation of the creation of things, but if nobody has the money (because it is going to debt servicing or stock investments – again business creation, not the market for the goods businesses create), then the companies have no outlet.

    It seems to me that an economy or society that invests in the stock market and gives a large portion of its wealth generation to debt servicing will bring paper wealth and power to the ones at the top in financing – but who create nothing themselves – by removing the ability of the consumer to consume. A man like Gates might become twice as rich next year as his stocks rise in value, but he does not spend twice as much, or even proportionately to the middle class. Large wealth is stagnant.

    So – what is the impact? The discussion of 85 people owning 50% of the world’s wealth is an optical problem more than a real problem of loss of control from the middle class. The real problem is that the wealth is “virtual”, not real, and stagnant. Stranded assets, really, because they are not being accessed to DO anything.

    If the stock market, mutual funds were not available to me and so highly considered, I would have, by now, purchased property and, probably, a business that made stuff people wanted. I’d be creating services and employing others. As it is a large bank and a large investment firm buy and sell paper. I never see the money as it is reinvested. When I retire, I’ll get some money out as a cashflow. But slowly. Not an empowering thing.

    1. Douglas,

      “So if you take the global debt and REMOVE it from consideration, does 85 people really own 50% of the world?”

      I don’t know about “85”, but removing debt from the balance sheet does not substantially change the world distribution of wealth — if you also remove the associated asset that it acquired. Otherwise the exercise is pointless.

      “And is the debt the problem that causes the economy to fall down?”

      I don’t know what “fall down” means, since neither the US nor world economy is “falling” excerpt in the usual cyclical sense. Excess debt increases volatility, and can cause large downturns when it’s burned off. But such events are of little long-term significance. How many people have even heard of the “Long Depression” of the 19th C USA?

  4. I think you have to accept the premise of irredeemable asshole elites who really do live forever. I could easily see this happening since all it would take is for a few sociopathic immortal opportunists to end up owning everything and then perpetually remaining the irredeemable assholes who rule in the universe of Jupiter Rising.
    Intergenerational sociopathy permanently maintained is a much bigger stretch. Hard to imagine an enduring dynasty of sociopathic irredeemable assholes. What a miserable (and self destructive) family that would be.

    1. Peter,

      “Sociopath” is psychobabble, with no fixed meaning.

      “a much bigger stretch”

      Whenever this subject comes up, comments fill with people denying the past and present — let alone the future. The British aristocracy still owns a third of British land, and probably more of British wealth.

  5. To get to a star trek future i think we need to examine and rethink infrastrucure and tech ecosystems. I suspect the rise of the ultra elite and powerful is a reflection of the underlying infrastructure topology from which our great wealth derives. High degrees of centralization may be efficient but also consolidate capital and decision making excessively. Maybe it would take something like the development of an open source distributed infrastructure ecosystem to change this underlying topology and level out the playing field, opensourceecology.org comes to mind in terms of ideology (not in terms of execution).

    Bottom line i just don’t see how we can arrive at any sort of equitable solution when a small portion of the population engineers and works on critical tech and infrastructure and a much smaller group owns it. Everyone else is divorced from the decision making process leaving them to be programmed consumer peons or worse.

  6. Re economic fall down.
    China, Europe, South America and Canada are hurting. Unemployment is up. Energy related business is having a crise even in the US. But lower energy costs aren’t stimulating either business or consumer spending? Why? Because disposable income does to the financial sector, not the producing goods sector?

    The 85 owning 50% of global wealth has been in the news lately. Whatever the number, I suspect it is small, especially since the rise of global conglomerates. But it is the ownership of debt and deby servicing that concerns me. This value and income stream is completely backward looking and goes to building paper rather than physical wealth. Debt enriches the administrators, not the producers or even the managrrs of production. The social benefit has already been received, but because the payback/loan ratio may be >2, it hobbles further production or consumption by the producing sectors

    In theory debt leads to growth greater than the interest rate. But personal experience is minor compared to many private and sovereign debt holders. Real debt exceeds the growth in income to pay it off. And long before bankruptcy or even insolvency, it cripples individual consumption and community economic support. Income is siphoned of into the paper and digital holdings of the administratorts.. It is obvious that it is not recycled, trickled down.

    Holding debt is considered holding assets. But they are virtual assets. If Google were valued on the market at 10 bucks tomorrow, the company and its physical services would stll be there but the virtual value would be gone. The apparent wealth of the world would be diminished. Reverse it, and the apparent global wealth would increase. The physical wealth wouldn’t have changed either way.

    Debt and the modern stock market have, IMHO, distorted our understanding of wealth and economic health. And – since the principle of debt based social growth can be seen wrong – lead us into a phase of increased economic disparity. And cyclic turmoil.

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