Post-Scarcity & Management of Resources: A Debate of Possibilities and Challenges
Post-Scarcity & Management of Resources
A debate between Singularity Utopia (SU) of Singularity-2045.org and René K. Müller (RKM) of OccupyConcepts.org
October 10-18, 2012
RKM: What is “Singularity” as in your domain name? Is it a brand of some sort?
SU: The Singularity represents a concept, not a brand; therefore many different organizations or people use the word. Vernor Vinge was the first person to define the concept using the word “Singularity”, and before Vinge “I. J.Good” defined an “intelligence explosion” regarding computers becoming increasingly more sophisticated at an accelerating rate.
Ray Kurzweil has done a lot to popularise the Singularity, therefore he’s often associated with the Singularity in the way Dali, Picasso, Rembrandt, or Leonardo da Vinci can be associated with art, but the Singularity is not about any one person similar to how art is bigger than a handful of noteworthy artists.
Wikipedia’s Technological singularity is a good starting point for more information.
RKM: I have been involved in the Occupy movement, e.g. see Post-Scarcity (PS) entry of the Wiki which I run. Right now I research possible ways to make the Resource-based Economy (RBE) a feasible solution which leads me to the Post-Scarcity and Singularity topic.
SU: Wow – that’s excellent news that the Occupy movement is starting to explore the Post-Scarcity concept. I have tried to spread awareness regarding Post-Scarcity in Occupy and Anonymous circles, maybe I had some impact. Generally I feel awareness of these issues is on the cusp of starting to snowball. Perhaps in the new year we will start seeing massive awareness regarding our technological future.
RKM: Well, Occupy is somewhat dormant, some prominent activities now due the one year anniversary, I personally focus now on possible solutions. The Zeitgeist Movement (TZM) people were also very active here in Switzerland in Occupy, and I maintained contact to look at the seriousness of RBE, but I have been a bit skeptic, as the groundwork and the details have not been laid out neither by The Venus Project (TVP) nor the TZM; I was close to give up on the idea of RBE when I encountered TheResourceBasedEconomy.com which addresses RBE more holistically, which appeals to me.
SU: I don’t consider the RBE concepts to be valid but I recognise that our world could be significantly improved with better management-sharing. RBE seems to be an ill-defined and ill-conceived concept because our economies are already RBE.
RKM: Can you elaborate more on your skepticism?
SU: Well, what exactly is RBE? If it is Post-Scarcity, then why not just say Post-Scarcity? Post-Scarcity is clearer whereas Resource Based Economy doesn’t give an indication that the resources are super-abundant, beyond scarcity. Currently our economies are based on resources, whereas when everything is free there will be no economy to base resources on, thus resources will be irrelevant similar to how we don’t currently worry about the air we are constantly breathing. There is plenty of air to breathe therefore we don’t talk about Air Based Leisure Time, or the Oxygen/Air Based Economy.
Wikipedia states “The term resource-based economy is applied by the Venus Project to a hypothetical economy in which goods, services and information are free.”
How do you define RBE and how do you think it differs from Post-Scarcity?
RKM: Take a look at Resource-based Economy where I summarized some of the key issues, and also formulated the criticism.
SU: This is where I disagree strongly with RBE advocates, when they say we already have enough resources. They say scarcity is merely a distribution/greed issue. While I fully recognise the 1% make things a lot worse for the majority, compared to how things could be, I am sure, looking at all factors, that we cannot have Post-Scarcity merely by having better distribution; thus things will not be free with better distribution based on our current technology.
On the issue of how, it is a simple issue comparable to how you breathe. How do you breathe? You simply suck air into your lungs; you never worry about a scarcity of air because it is all around us, it is not scarce.
How would people gain access to free computers in a Post-Scarcity situation? It would be similar to breathing air. You would simply compute via the super-abundance of computers all around you. Intel have stated (via their resident futurist Brian David Johnson) that meaningful computation (the chip size) will approach zero size in 2020, which means you could potentially have cheap microscopic computers in clothes, cups, paint, anything.
Recently I read about the ability to print solar cells. Imagine how 3D printing will have developed 20 or 30 years from now, we will be able to print anything, for example imagine being able to print powerful computers, or imagine printers that can deconstruct printed objects. So if computer chips are zero size by 2020, what about 2030, or 2040? What will evolved AI be capable of 30 years from now?
Look at various aspects of technology then project them 30 years into the future and that is the how.
Today I looked at pay-as-you-go cell phones in the supermarket and the cheapest one was only 14 US$, which is cheaper than 10 years ago and the technology in it is incredibly sophisticated compared to 10 years ago. You can also buy a corded landline handset for only $3.45. In another ten years companies will possibly give cell phones away or perhaps they will cost $2; or perhaps we must wait 20 or 30 years before there is such a drop in price, but the sure thing is that by 2045 everything will be free.
RKM: What is the difference between having sufficient for all and Post-scarcity? What is free? When is something free for you?
SU: The difference between “sufficient for all” and Post-Scarcity is that the “sufficient for all” idea would or could entail rationing, there would likely be strict management of scarce resources to entail the sufficiency. Sufficient for all would or could entail mere provision of basic needs such as food and shelter, whereas Post-Scarcity entails no management or rationing, there is no need to regulate scarce resources, there are no limits in a Post-Scarcity situation.
“Sufficient for all” is imprecise because it could apply to a very wide variety of situations depending on how you define sufficient. For example the amount of platinum per individual could easily have a differing level of sufficiency for each person. A sufficient amount of cake per person is a differing measurement for each person similar to a sufficient amount of computing power. I am sure many millionaires think they have insufficient funds, which is why they are so desperate to earn more money; whereas many poor people might opt for eternal retirement if they had only 1 million in currency.
I doubt you could ever have a situation where everything is free if the resources are scarce. If there is very effective management of scarcity to entail a “sufficient for all” scenario, you will nevertheless have prices despite the sufficiency. Something is free in the monetary sense when it has no price, and there will always be price in a scarcity situation because human greed, the fear of scarcity, cannot be completely eliminated during a scarcity situation.
RKM: You said “Something is free in the monetary sense when it has no price, and there will always be price in a scarcity situation because human greed, the fear of scarcity, cannot be completely eliminated during a scarcity situation”.
Yes – you precisely said “free in the monetary system” – RBE proposes management of the resources directly (how it’s done is not said) without the abstraction layer of money; hence, there is no price, therefore free as of money. What I was looking at, and argued with others so far, was that things still have overheads to manufacture, regardless if you use money or not, e.g. attention and work by humans, oil to drive a truck to transport the goods, etc. Assuming an alien comes to Earth, and does not know what is money, for him it will look like coordinated working to get things done. Now, I asked what “free” is for you, since there are many aspects: without money there are no prices, yet, there is still work to perform. Now, what I really want to look at, let’s put aside all profit and monetary aspects, and looking at the sole energy / matter level, when we are in year 2100 and there is post-scarcity (well, I don’t know exactly what post-scarcity fully means as I didn’t read those sci-fi books which describe it); no scarcity, full abundance of everything we need – no management or rationing as you said above; do we still consume, absorb nutritients through intake of food, in other words, is there still food -> digestion -> excretion -> compost -> etc?
I made this point in RBE discussion with Harald Sandø from TheResourceBasedEconomy.com and others, saying, that even if all resources are abundant, there is still a need to manage them; and it goes like this: Whenever there is something to consume, where energy / matter changes its state, it usually moves, is displaced; if you live on a farm the management is simple, you comprehend with a sight / look the quantity and state of a resource, you consume it at the time of need, and compost it and put it on the field then again – a closed cycle, nothing goes lost, there is no trash, all energy / matter is staying close (neglecting the sun-heat dispersion, etc). Now, why is there no big overhead of management? Due to the abundance? No, due to the easy comprehension. When there is more distance between the good to consume, the consumption, and the recycling, you are facing the transportation of each part – and you rather not mix fresh water with used water, eatable goods with still not yet fully composted piles of excretions; that physical distance and isolation is crucial; each state of resource requires its own space and time to transform.
Now, I don’t know how far those post-scarcity ideas go, perhaps human bodies can be altered so that nutrition can be extracted from the sunlight and the air around us, literally rendering the digestion part of our body serve another purpose than what is assumed today – the question then arises, would there still be some kind of excretion, or just a radiation or dispersion of energy as of entropy? Would a human being just harvest and concentrate energy in order to live, and that without waste whatsoever?
As you can see, free / abundance / post-scarcity is almost irrelevant to those things which I look at right now, it’s a sole energy / matter management, regardless if scarce or abundant (it leads to the same challenges).
Let me know if some of the writers who promote or proposed Post-Scarcity have looked at this aspect, of resource – consumption – waste cycle – at which scale this has grown or shrunk or generally is dealt with.
SU: I actually said free in the monetary “sense” of the word, instead of the libertarian sense, not “system,” regarding when you asked “what is free.”
I appreciate what RBE wants to do regarding there being no money, but I don’t think it is possible because money is an inevitable product of scarcity.
Adding some clarification to my explanation of free, I should point out that if everything is free in the monetary sense then everything will be free in the liberation sense, which means there will be no work and no governments. I was unsure what precisely you wanted to know regarding the definition of free, therefore I merely explained one aspect of being free: no prices. Of course if you have a situation where NOT everything is free in the monetary sense (only some goods and services are monetarily free) then you will not have total freedom.
Possibilities are limitless regarding future humans, which is epitomised by an ISS astronaut when he stated: “We’re just trying to do a simple thing, which is to remind people back on Earth that the impossible is possible.”
RKM: Occupy focuses on the monetary aspect very much, for me the analysis of the monetary system is almost done – RBE looks for the resource distribution procedure without the money layer, but not saying how – Post-Scarcity (PS) deals with technology-based abundance, and I want to know how resources are managed; that which all three have in common.
SU: Management of resources in a PS situation is not needed because a PS situation is self-managing; similar to how air production for humans, the air we breathe in daily, is not managed. The air analogy is however imperfect because these days there is some air management, for example the reduction of air pollution, therefore a better analogy is the production of sunlight. Post-Scarcity is self-perpetuating, fully automated, without the need for human intervention or management, similar to how no human intervention is needed regarding the availability and production of sunlight. The sunlight analogy is also imperfect because eventually the Sun will die. PS is infinitely more secure, dependable, and automated than the production of sunlight.
The “how” of PS is simple, it is via automated and very smart machines unobtrusively within every aspect of our world, which automatically allow available resources to be utilized in an extremely efficient manner, so that resources are essentially limitless.
The reason why I discount RBE is because money is a logical, natural, and inevitable aspect of scarcity, therefore things can not be free via better human management of resources if scarcity exists. Via better human-management of resources we could make our world a vastly better place, potentially feeding and housing everyone and giving everybody a higher standard of living, but the technological proficiency is currently not sufficient to create a PS world where everything is free, thus RBE is invalid. Our economy and our pricing system is already based on resources, therefore a Resource Based Economy is what we already have. Admittedly our current resource management is out of date and inefficient, but even if our current management was perfect, based on our current technology, this would not create PS, thus things would not be free because whenever there is fear of scarcity there are prices.
RKM: You said: “The ‘how’ of PS is simple, it is via automated and very smart machines unobtrusively within every aspect of our world, which automatically allow available resources to be utilized in an extremely efficient manner, so that the resources are essentially limitless.”
The Venus Project advocates speak alike, “automatically allow available resources to be utilized in an extremely efficient manner”, can you give me a link or reference this is laid out in details, because these manners or ways I am interested.
You further stated: “The reason why I discount RBE is because money is a logical, natural, and inevitable aspect of scarcity, therefore things cannot be free via better human management of resources if scarcity exists.”
The problem I encountered is, that one ends up with the use of a currency or abstraction layer like money when handling resources, it is for tracking resources to know where which are (supply), and where which are needed (demand). It’s almost a design decision for a complex problem solving mechanism, the use of an abstraction layer like money simplifies decisions for humans or an algorithm, whereas a demand / supply / quality / state-of-resource matrix (envision like a language translation matrix, instead of a language it’s a resource) would be another approach which I haven’t seen formulated yet – and exactly this managing of resources I am interested in – it’s an universal approach.
You further stated: “Admittedly our current resource management is out of date and inefficient, but even if our current management was perfect based on our current technology this would not create PS, thus things would not be free because whenever there is fear of scarcity there are prices.”
Be aware, when you say “automatically allow available resources to be utilized in an extremely efficient manner” – that efficiency, however it is achieved, is due to the calculation of what you call a price:
energy * time * assessment (weigh priority) + investment (maintenance of the infrastructure) + expenses (running costs, e.g. fuel) = price.
And when I say price here, forget coins or bills, or a number in your bank-account, but simply a number (weigh of the priority and currency can be self-chosen within an algorithm). And note, the calculation I just mentioned is recursive, as the “investment” (maintenance of infrastructure) is also a price, and “expenses” (running costs like fuel) as well; even at the scale of nanobots, harvesting molecular energy from nutrition, if those would be programmed, internally they would have that formula to compare different ways to achieve something, and then decide which one is more efficient, because only then you could say “extremely efficient manner”. Whatever model you have for PS and you speak of efficiency, you have to calculate efficiency, means, you end up with a “price”, “costs” or “overhead” which has the structure as mentioned, because it’s needed to determine what is efficient.
Some people told me, “but when there is abundance all will be free”. The idea of abundance assumes the supply to be abundant therefore be irrelevant in the calculation of a price / overhead, but what about demand? What is an abundance of water? 2 liter or a gallon water bottle while lying at the beach, or drowning in a river overflowing in a city after days of rain in the neighboring mountains? People speak of abundance, but they assume already that their demand is met. It is is always a supply / demand / quality / state-of-resource question: low supply vs demand = scarcity, high supply vs demand = abundance; but these alone cannot make up management of a resource. Given the experiences we made, we learned that resources are cyclic in their quantity / existence, perhaps all material resources are cyclic this way, from the cosmos, the suns, the planets, the seasons (tilted axis of a planet), day / night (if only one sun close enough, multiple suns = only day, or long days and long nights, etc), life of organic life-forms; that is why I have been trying to combine ideas of Permaculture (observation of nature in its rhythm and interdependencies) to economics in general. It is the cyclic or fluctuation of supply and demand, along with quality and state of resource which makes this a complex problem solving – some has gone completely unnoticed because we have assumed things to be granted, when in reality they have been met due to a long learning as part of the evolutionary process in each one of us.
What I observed with all the money, price, abundance and post-scarcity discussion, there is a set of assumptions and ideas, yet, when thought through, you end up with the same questions, and those seem neglected most of the times.
SU: I cannot give precise details because the technology has not yet been invented, but there are plenty of precursors. Generally regarding automation there are many large robots we can look at, and on the micro or nanoscale there are plenty of DNA robots or primitive nano-factories for producing or delivering drugs, or you can consider the re-engineering of viruses and bacteria. Synthetic-biology is full of precursors regarding novel automated systems of high efficiency. The list of smart devices is big. Smart devices show how actions and decisions are being automated. Looking at Artificial Intelligence (AI) we note Watson. There are also many 3D-printers regarding decentralized cheap production, but a leap of the imagination is needed to see how all these aspects of technology will evolve and converge over the next 30 years.
Perhaps the best link-reference for how things will progress, is the statement by Intel that computer chip size will approach zero in 2020. Justin Rattner (Intel CTO) has stated: “Science and technology have progressed to the point where what we build is only constrained by the limits of our own imaginations.”
Planetary Resources have stated it’s likely that one small asteroid (near Earth) could contain more platinum than has been mined in the entire history of Earth, which is one example of how the universe is rich with resources. We should also note how aluminum was more expensive than gold or platinum in the 1840s because primitive technology entailed difficulties extracting aluminum from the earth. In the year 2012 we are limited by our level technology thus things are not free.
Delving deeper into the how, we need to consider very sophisticated nanotechnology, no later than 2045, which will easily create any element via rearranged atoms, via rearranged protons, neutrons, electrons. Consider how elements are created via nucleosynthesis; consider the power of splitting an atom. The universe contains great power, immense resources, but we don’t have the tools to efficiently exploit the bounty. If nature can create something we can also create an improved version. We can refine and control nature, this is what technology is all about.
RKM: Regarding “AI”, I was born in 1966 and I read about AI when I was 15, and it was said to be 10-20 years away (remember the movie “2001 Odyssey”, it’s overdue since 11 years); here I am and AI is a running joke for me whenever I read this term. One should speak of narrow AI, and this is what algorithms with some heuristics do. The main challenge for AI is context.
SU: Yes, earlier forecasts for AI were over-optimistic, but we should note the current arrival of Watson, which demonstrates how things are starting to noticeably progress. Imagine if Watson was created 20 years ago, not early 2012. Watson is not yet one year old, if you date its birth to the point where it won Jeopardy. Considering the newness of AI it would be silly to dismiss AI as a joke based on previous incorrect forecasts. Merely because previous predictions were wrong this does not mean all predictions will be wrong, it does not mean AI will eternally be impossible.
Often with the big problems we see many years of partial success, or outright failure. Finally the knowledge starts to crystallize, and then the explosive period of high efficiency is imminent. I think in 2022 (only 10 years from this debate) people will have a much better grasp regarding the future potential of AI.
We need to remember the sophisticated algorithms we are utilizing today are a very new field. We are babies learning to walk. Things will improve dramatically but when you are trying to take your first steps it can seem impossible that you will ever run. As a child I thought I would never grow-up to be the size of an adult, yet here I am, and although it seemed to take forever it was only a relatively short space of time to become an adult.
Waiting for sophisticated technology to make all goods and services absolutely free doesn’t instantly solve the agony of poverty, but awareness of pending Post-Scarcity can improve our world this moment, immediately, via hope for the future. There is extensive sociological and psychological research demonstrating how mere expectations are incredibly powerful. Our expectations change the world, which can be seen in placebos, nocebos, social-reflexivity, and self-fulfilling prophecies. Our thoughts create our future. It is therefore vital for us to have positive expectations. Via positive expectations of the future this shapes our actions in the present. Our expectations help us strive constructively towards our intelligent future where everyone is happy.
All conflict arises from scarcity but scarcity won’t last forever, therefore it’s wrong to base our actions on temporary conflict. We need to look wisely at the future and act accordingly. When everyone is aware of inevitable Post-Scarcity, we can all direct our efforts towards accelerating its arrival. Instead of focusing on the conflict between the 1% and 99% it’s more productive to unify our efforts; therefore we avoid wasting energy fighting each other. The 1% will naturally oppose a redistribution of wealth, but nobody will oppose our free future where everyone is equally rich beyond their wildest dreams. In the future everyone will be infinitely wealthy; there will be no conflict over resources.
Hope arises from Post-Scarcity awareness. Hope can seem a small thing but it has a colossal potential to change the world.
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The full unedited exchange can be read at Google+ which has slightly different information and also other topics.