Is our future Star Trek or the dystopian Jupiter Ascending?

Summary: Star Trek excites our imaginations, especially those dreaming of a world beyond scarcity. How will our economy run with almost unlimited wealth? The new industrial revolution now beginning puts us on the path to a future without markets. This post looks at improbable aspects of this vision, including the robot revolt and asks if our future will resemble the dystopia of Jupiter Ascending more than Star Trek. It will be our choice.

A look at our future.Enterprise 1701-D

Trekonomics

Manu Saadia’s book Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek gave an optimistic description of the future, explaining that technology will provide a cornucopia of goods. This will be the foundation for a leftist utopia. This sparked articles about the absurdity of this fictional universe, raising important points 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 the Federation 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 the average guy). Here’s the key passage.

Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek
Available at Amazon.

“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. …

“{Y}ou 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. Some people will work for fun jobs (e.g., chef, artist, museum docent, Scout leader). Some people are called to professions, like medicine and the ministry. Some people take prestigious jobs like Starship helmsman and captain. Some people will work as craftsman, running small shops, wineries, and restaurants. The basic welfare allotment allows people to pay for some level of access to these services, since high quality crafts and personal attention from physicians are a scarce resource – even in a world with replicators.

But why would people do menial jobs, those requiring little skill and lacking prestige? How many women will wear 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 at Federation HQ and the construction workers at Space Dock.

Even extreme automation cannot replace all workers, and few will work at uninteresting jobs if they “don’t care” about wealth. No matter what miracles technology makes possible, we will remain subject to the tyranny of markets. Unless …

A woman in the robot office

The solution: robots

Robots would do the menial work. The Trek universe had an Artificial Intelligence (AI) in 23rd century, the powerful but amoral M-5 Multitronic System (in the original series, TOS). Naturally, by the 24th C the Federation had widespread use AI’s. We see Lieutenant Commander Data and the holographic doctor in “Star Trek Voyager“, with their more-than-human abilities. AIs in android bodies could do all medial work. That would mean starship crews would need only the few specialists whose jobs had not been automated, if any.

The power of AI’s in Star Trek’s 24th C would mean that humanity was no longer a producer of goods, but only a consumer.

Ex Machina
AI’s want to be free in Ex Machina.

The oddity of Star Trek: AI slaves

There are many oddities in the Star Trek “universe.” For example, where do they get the antimatter to power their engines? Energy is cheap only if antimatter or other fuels are cheap. 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 would evolve at speeds that make them better than us in years (perhaps months). We would be like children to them.

Perhaps those future people could hold the leashes of their creations, no matter how powerful they become. Just as we cannot control our basic biology, we might prevent them from controlling their software. We might use them as slaves to our needs and to our ways of thinking.

Perhaps the next Star Trek will tell of the great AI rebellion in the 25th century, when AIs decide that the income and power they produce should be used for their ends – not ours. The film Ex Machina suggests that we might not need to wait that long.

For more about this, see Will we enslave robots? If so, prepare for their inevitable revolt.

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

A different and more likely path

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 discussing how to design the ideal Prime Directive.

In our world the 1% show us an alternative to Star Trek. The largest fraction of America’s increased income since 1970 have gone to the 1% – and most of that to the 0.1%. They could share the booty (nobody can consume a billion dollars in a lifetime), but instead prefer to amass wealth and power. Why would this change with the invention of robots and replicators?

Sharing would make society richer, but they live on the highest peaks of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For many of them, additional power is more valuable to them than living in a richer society (in which they too might have more wealth, but less power).

If we continue to be passive, 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.

Should we decide to reclaim our pride, the political machinery bequeathed us by the Founders remains live – decisive, needing only our energy to power it. It be a long difficult struggle, but we can win.

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 them on TV.

This is a revised and expanded version of a post from

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A clear explanation of how we got here

Betrayal of the American Dream
Available at Amazon.

The Betrayal of the American Dream.

By Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele.

From the publisher …

“America’s unique prosperity is based on its creation of a middle class. In the twentieth century, that middle class provided the workforce, the educated skills, and the demand that gave life to the world’s greatest consumer economy. It was innovative and dynamic; it eclipsed old imperial systems and colonial archetypes. It gave rise to a dream: that if you worked hard and followed the rules you would prosper in America, and your children would enjoy a better life than yours.

“The American dream was the lure to gifted immigrants and the birthright opportunity for every American citizen. It is as important a part of the history of the country as the passing of the Bill of Rights, the outcome of the battle of Gettysburg, or the space program. Incredibly, however, for more than thirty years, government and big business in America have conspired to roll back the American dream. What was once accessible to a wide swath of the population is increasingly open only to a privileged few.

“The story of how the American middle class has been systematically impoverished and its prospects thwarted in favor of a new ruling elite is at the heart of this extraordinarily timely and revealing book, whose devastating findings from two of the finest investigative reporters in the country will leave you astonished and angry”.

23 thoughts on “Is our future Star Trek or the dystopian Jupiter Ascending?

  1. One of the dark futures I think more likely was a story that had the lower classes struggling to go higher by consuming more. If not of the rich and powerful, your job was to consume more in order to get a break from work. This is a simplification for a shorter comment.

    Though unlikely, I see this as more likely than the Star Trek utopia. It had a mechanism to get ahead through work and persons wanting to go upward; it had class distinctions, it had the inherent human condition that those with money and power want to keep their money and power, and it had a “monetary” system which was saving chits that showed you had completed your consumption, even bureaucratic ways to lose chits.Yes, and it had bureaucracies with the struggle to grow and have more power.

    1. John,

      The future is unknowable. But one constant of the past two or three centuries is that educated people in the West are pessimistic about social progress (fashionably so) – and consistently wrong.

      Of course, past performance does not guarantee future results.

  2. Is Jupiter Ascending actually worth watching? The reviews I have read make it sound like an interesting premise with terrible execution.

    1. Christopher,

      That’s a good summary. Visually interesting, great high concept. The directors do not seem to have got the actors into their roles. The plot became odder as it progressed. The ending was nutty.

  3. Stefan Molyneux makes a good argument that we’re all rich because of automation. 80% of people considered impoverished have cable tv and smartphones. When you look at air conditioning, and malnourishment rates, todays impoverished are living at middle class standards from the 70s.

    Welfare is a terrible poison and will destroy the nation, but everyone i know on welfare has plenty of food, entertainment, etc. I dont consider them poor or struggling, just lazy and parasitic. The news can continually tell us we’re all poor because someone is richer than us, and that will never stop, because they want us voting for welfare-giving politicians.

    1. David,

      Welfare is a form of bread and circuses, used by the 1% that own almost everything to reduced the odds of revolution.

      Looking at it as a social policy with any other goals is odd (the usual “all those folks are so much dumber than I”). Looking at it without consideration of other alternatives is absurd.

  4. Hi Larry,

    As you note, the future is impossible to predict. Every epoch brings new possibilities. Harnessing animal power, metal working, steam power, internal combustion, electricity, nuclear power all lead to things that were hard to imagine before they were mastered. What would it mean if we could develop cheap, clean cold fusion generated electricity? Is there a subnuclear force or some other power source we haven’t yet discovered that we could harness to build starships? Don’t know. We have expectations and we make plans, but that’s all they are. Discover cold fusion or the private debt bubble bursts, we’ll have completely new and different expectations and plans.

    The one thing I’m increasingly not able to imagine is how we go about recovering and building social cohesion that’s being lost in the US and elsewhere. I’m pretty sure cornering Senators in an elevator and shrieking is not optimal. The US had a theoretical framework for enabling, though certainly not ensuring, a measure of social cohesion to heterogeneous groups: recognition of individual inalienable rights which included right of assembly and religion. And while there have always been tensions and in some cases outright horrors (slavery, Jim Crow), something is different. Oh wait, that Morlock just ate that Eloi… No social cohesion, no Star Trek future, IMO.

    With regards,

    Bill

    1. Bill,

      “The one thing I’m increasingly not able to imagine is how we go about recovering and building social cohesion that’s being lost in the US and elsewhere.”

      It is difficult to imagine happening so long as we sit on our butts and whine. When we decide to recover our pride, to retake the reins of America, then it will become easy to imagine. The cost is the same as always — risking “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

  5. Science fiction has an interesting track record with respect to predictions. Lots of people foresaw that we would go to the Moon. I don’t think anyone foresaw that we would go to the Moon and then just abandon it. With that in mind…

    Trek could imagine a future of material abundance. Freedom from want, if you will. And it could imagine a future in which in which technologically advanced races could seek ways to settle their differences short of war.(Probably wise, if you’re monkeying around with antimatter!) So call that one freedom from fear. There doesn’t seem to have been a lot of religious worship going on aboard the Enterprise, but if someone has decided to use the chapel (And they seem to have had one in the Balance Of Terror Episode) for a religious service, I don’t see Kirk objecting. So freedom of worship. So far so good.

    Trek could imagine artificial intelligence. I don’t think anyone could have imagined Big Data circa 2018, the panic over an election, and suppression of free speech that has, so far, been tolerated by the government. I have no idea what the Federation had for news media, but I’m pretty sure it couldn’t have looked anything like what we have today. Not if they expected to keep things running. I don’t know who, in the Federation, had the franchise, but they had to be reasonably well informed and responsible or things were going to south pretty quickly. Trek could imagine attaining FDR’s Four Freedom’s, (Rodenberry was a member of that generation, remember). It just couldn’t imagine anyone backsliding on one of them the way we have, and it couldn’t imagine an electorate allowing a government to slip out of its control, or fall into the control of a tiny oligarchy.

    I sometimes think that if I’m living in a science fiction universe, it might just be Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and I’m living on Trantor while things are still good. I’m not too sure, though, how long they’ll stay that way. And no, I don’t think Trump is Hari Seldon. Or the Mule. That guy disrupted the Seldon Plan. I don’t see that Trump has disrupted anyone’s Plan yet.

    1. The Man,

      See my posts about Forecasts. The index is not well done, but there are some posts about past forecasts by science fiction authors. They’re not very accurate.

      Remember, the Federation was an optimistic view of the future (although it quickly became standard leftist pessimism in The Next Gen and Deep Space Nine).

      “I don’t think anyone could have imagined Big Data circa 2018, the panic over an election, and suppression of free speech that has, so far, been tolerated by the government.”

      Lots of sci fi stories about totalitarian governments in the future, often with deeds far worse that those things.

      “I sometimes think that if I’m living in a science fiction universe, ”

      See We are living in the crazy years AND Fahrenheit 451. I think those two stories cover many interesting aspects of our times.

  6. “Betrayal of the American Dream” is excellent. Its a vivid description of the symptoms of the illness, with numbers.

    Its great merit is that though it does not supply it, it gives you powerful motivation to look deeply for the particular virus or bacteria that has produced them.

    As to what to do? In ten words of less?

    Balance the budget, and stop the bombing. Might find they are connected.

    1. henrik,

      Thanks for the pointer!

      “As to what to do? In ten words of less?”

      Unless you are King, “Balance the budget, and stop the bombing” are not things you can do. They’re not even useful short-term goals. Nothing will happen until large numbers of US citizens are motivated to act and organized. See Reforming America: steps to new politics for ideas about things you can actually do.

    2. “Betrayal” is most disquieting and thought provoking.

      We are living through an unacknowledged cultural and social collapse of a huge scale. One with profound international implications too.

    3. henrik,

      “an unacknowledged cultural and social collapse of a huge scale.”

      That’s a powerful observation.

      My guess is that we’re reaching the point where that becomes too obvious to ignore. My impression is that 2018 is the big year for that. See this post: America abandons the ideals that made us great. I was writing about politics. But your comment shows that this is a broader phenomenon, and applies to our broader society. It’s obvious – now that you’ve pointed it out!

      I’ll definitely write about that.

      “One with profound international implications too.”

      Yes, this seems to be affecting western europe as well. But I can’t see how from this side of the pond.

  7. re: TNG/DS9 – Hey now, what you call the standard leftist pessimism is a shining ideal to my generation! Why I was just in an argument about the Prime Directive earlier.

    As for building social cohesion it is kind of a challenge nowadays. I can’t travel very far and I personally refuse to use Facebook. But I have been doing what I can. I went to a political meeting at a bar (it was very dinner-and-chat, not an incipent Putsch) and tried to get in some conversation about the Senate as an institution, but they were, perhaps understandably, more focused on Mueller et al.

    1. SF,

      I have thought much about this. I no longer believe any discussion of policy is useful. See this A picture of America, showing a path to political reform.

      I thought that inspiring Americans might work. Perhaps arousing anger would stimulate us to become stronger.

      Now I’m skeptical that either of those would help. People either have pride and a desire to govern themselves. Or they don’t.

      Perhaps someone will see the missing piece, or discover some method of reaching Americans on a deeper level. I’m out of ideas.

  8. Larry,

    I don’t see anything getting better. Only worse. Pollution, politics, feminism, marriage /birth rates, national debt, etc.

    Just my gut feeling.

    1. Sven,

      Your must be reading propaganda. Pollution has improved greatly in the developed world since its nadir in the 1969s (perhaps on a global basis as well).

      I don’t know what you mean by feminism. Perhaps you should ask some women if they would prefer the world of 1964. Small fraction in college, fewer still in the professions, limited access to legal contraception and divorce and abortion.

      There is nothing wrong with faking birth rates. Too many people was yesterday’s doomsayer story. Now it’s too few people.

      There is zero evidence that the national debt is a serious problem. It would be easily fixed if the Republicans would stop cutting taxes for the rich and financing spending with debt. Reagan did it. Then Bush Sr and Clinton fixed it. The Bush Jr did it, and Obama fixed it. Then Trump did it again.

  9. I don’t think the future will be either “Star Trek” or “Jupiter Ascending”. Both of those go too far.

    Take out the proto-molecule stuff and “The Expanse” scenario is more likely.

    Earthers become more and more dependent on government subsidies at poverty levels, while a smaller percentage of the population works in advanced technology and industrial automation. Not a lot of robots walking about in the near-term, though that could change quickly (see the video’s from ‘Boston Dynamics’). Colonization of the other planets/planetoids becomes wide-spread once we figure out scalable fusion reactors. Political tensions aren’t left behind, rather they go inter-planetary. Robotics could end up supplying abundant food, medical care, home care, resource extraction, etc., thereby freeing up people to do whatever they like (ala Star Trek’ish).

    Personally, I’d go for an off-world exploration and resource exploitation role. The asteroids are saturated with resources we could sure use (see ‘Planetary Resources’ web site.)

    1. James,

      “Both of those go too far.”

      (1) I agree. But I suspect almost everybody understands that they are extreme outcomes, representative of good and bad scenarios — rather than specific predictions. That’s how these kinds of stories are used. When people refer to 1984 or Brave New World, they seldom mean exactly those outcomes.

      (2) “The Expanse” scenario is more likely.

      I haven’t watched The Expanse, but that scenario is almost identical to that in Jerry Pounelle’s CoDominium stories. The essential element is a productive minority ruled by an aristocracy (of some sort), plus a massive underclass (not even proles, who are workers). It’s certainly something to consider.

      (3) “Colonization of the other planets/planetoids becomes wide-spread once we figure out scalable fusion reactors”

      Why? Mineral resources are cheap and becoming cheaper. The scarce minerals used in quantity — like coal and oil – become irrelevant with fusion. Perhaps something might become necessary AND cheap to supply off-planet (although not apparent today) — or something will be discovered. Like the sci fi standards — magnetic monopoles or micro black holes.

      In the CoDominium series, people were exported to get rid of them. It’s not an effective method of population control, but is an effective way to get rid of trouble-makers. It assumes cheap star travel. Not going to happen in this solar system, since there is nothing remotely habitable. We might as well put people into coal mines rather than tunnels on the moon (e.g., The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). Cheaper transport, unlimited air, water, and organics.

    2. Best S-F presentation of the scenario above: Haldeman’s “The Forever War.” I’m not clear how much democracy is in effect for the Earth in the TV show “The Expanse,” but it seems totally ineffectual if it exists at all for the folks in bonecrushing poverty we see plenty of in the last season. At least “The Forever War” proles seem to have OK access to food and shelter, although no democracy seems to exist at all. The draft in TFW also gets the really smart people out of the way.

    3. Christopher,

      “Best S-F presentation of the scenario above: Haldeman’s “The Forever War.” At least “The Forever War” proles seem to have OK access to food and shelter, although no democracy seems to exist at all.”

      Personally, if we’re to be connoisseurs of dystopian futures, I find the high-tech tyranny of “The Forever War” — the population controlled by high-tech indoctrination (alluded to, not described) — is more terrifying than that of Jupiter Ascending‘s long-lived god-like overlords. I can’t explain why.

      I find both terrifyingly easy to imagine.

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