Will money become obsolete in the mid-21st-century?
Will technological changes within the next fifty years bring forth an era of super-abundance on Earth, such that a new moneyless vision of human transactions emerges naturally? It is my assertion that this next great step for human interactions has become inevitable. All economic roads eventually lead to the end of money in the next century.
[Note: Herein, “money” is defined as “any symbolic medium of exchange.” It might be beads, or shells, or coins, or slips of paper, or numbers in a database. In any case, it is understood that the money itself is generally purely symbolic of “value” (except where it takes the form of precious metals) and of little use except in that it may be exchanged for objects of real value.]
First of all, what do I mean when I use the term emergence?
Emergence is a concept in philosophy, also used frequently in science, and in particular within the field of evolution.
The term “emergent” was coined by the pioneer psychologist G. H. Lewes, who wrote:
“Every resultant is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same — their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogeneous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.” (Wikipedia Entry on Emergence)
Let’s say there are many ways to talk about and understand emergence as a concept, and how it applies in realms of science and human relations. For the purposes of this argument, however, I want to focus on one specific use of the term as it applies specifically to human economic transactions. Allow me to give just one example, and if you do not fully understand, please visit the Wikipedia page linked to the above passage to read more about emergence.
Example: The domestication of dogs was an emergent behavior among humans. Canine species exist by two methods: predation and scavenging. They will generally engage in the latter if they can find a reliable source from which to scavenge. Humans, of course, produce more useful and tasty waste than most other species. Dogs naturally gravitated towards humans, and humans found them useful as guardians against other more dangerous predators. They fed the scavengers their scraps gladly, and slowly these ex-predators turned scavengers became pets. This would have happened no matter what, because of two simple facts: 1) canines scavenge, and 2) humans are wasteful. Taken independently, neither of those two simple facts will cause dogs to become “man’s best friend,” but taken together, they always will. The domestication of dogs was therefore an inevitable result of the interaction of canine and human populations. It emerged naturally.
Economics Emerged and Money Emerged
Economics (or trade) itself emerged naturally from the intersection of several factors in human social interactions. That is to say, several social realities existed, which caused money to come into existence. It was inevitable. Those factors were:
- Scarcity exists. There was not enough of everything for everyone to have all they wanted at all times.
- Humans live in tribes. Social organization of the species has us in close proximity to each other.
- Different humans began to develop different skills. Unlike animals, which all have roughly the same skill set, differentiated only by their species and sex, different humans may have wildly different skills.
- These three facts taken together create a necessity for exchange. No one human generally provides all that he or she needs for him or herself, so exchanges with others must take place.
- Thus, first economics itself, most likely in the form of barter with neighboring tribes, emerges naturally as a result of the above factors, and next money emerges.
Money, of course, will emerge naturally as a result of the emergence of economics. Imagine how difficult it would be if you were skilled at catching fish, but poor at making cloth, and the clothier also was a fisherman. You would have nothing of value to offer the clothier. What could you exchange? And thus, money emerges as a natural result of the natural interaction of several social realities.
Technology and Emergence: The Singularity
Many readers may already be familiar with the technological Singularity. The concept has become quite popular in the media in recent years, and two documentaries on the topic have just recently debuted. Many authors and futurists make predictions about technological trends, but for the purposes of this discussion, I will limit the discussion to the predictions of Ray Kurzweil, from his book The Singularity is Near. He predicts breakthroughs in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics that will transform human society as we know it.
By 2025, Kurzweil predicts humanity will have succeeded in making computers with as much processing power and memory capacity as the human brain, and nanomachines capable of repairing disease as well as building just about anything. The Singularity refers to an event when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence, and begins to design even higher orders of intelligence. Kurzweil predicts we shall achieve this milestone by 2050.
Several technologies related to the coming Singularity will have a massive impact on economics:
- Robotics: As machines increasingly replace humans in the means of production, as well as in the most dirty and dangerous jobs, the cost of many products will drop dramatically. Machines will be built to repair machines, and soon, the majority of human labor will be replaced with machine labor. After the nanotech revolution predicted by Kurzweil for around 2025-2030, big robotics might be used to gather some resources, but nanorobotics will likely be used for everything else.
- Nanotechnology: The first self-assembling nanoreplicator will be a milestone, and will open the way to advanced medical nanites that can seek out and destroy cancer cells or foreign invaders. It will result in technologies that can repair much of the ecological damage we have done to Earth. It will result in new methods of power generation, and liberate us from centralized systems.
- Artificial Intelligence: Already, the machines are almost designing themselves…with some human support. Even weak AI, such as some of the current software programs that analyze and optimize human-input circuit designs rapidly, dramatically effects product development costs. Consider that in the early days of computing, a team of engineers might create a few dozen revisions of a design. Today, one design can be fed into a software program by a single designer, and that circuit design can be analyzed and revised by an artificial intelligence thousands of times over, each time running a simulation on the performance of the chip. At the end, the user can select the best design, based on which features are most important to the overall design, such as operating temperatures, clock speeds, or chip size.
These will be three of the main technologies that will converge to make most human labor obsolete by 2030. That is, essentially all resources required by humans will be gathered by machines, moved to the humans by machines, and distributed to individual humans by machines. The effective cost of running most industry will have dropped to zero. Even the heads of industries will barely be required, as an adequate AI can do a more than decent job of commanding thousands of robots of various shapes and sizes.
2030 Emergence: The Death of Money
The economics-altering explosion will be superabundance. Our technology will produce an era in which any good required for human life may be obtained on demand, and with no human cost. In such an era, there will be no need for money, and a moneyless society will simply emerge, just as money had naturally emerged thousands of years earlier.
I am not predicting the end of economics as a whole. I am predicting the end of money as a tool of economics. In the future, certain resources will still have value: rare ones. Scarcity will still exist, in the sense of when a major project must be undertaken, and several tons of platinum is required for the project. I seriously doubt, however, that money will be the form used in such transactions. I have no idea what will be used as a medium of exchange; perhaps other physical resources, or less-tangible idea resources. But I would imagine some medium of exchange will be required for those who wish to build a trans-Atlantic rail system, for example, or a Martian base.
I imagine certain other exchanges will still have value, but I cannot see a reason why money would be used for such exchanges. Mostly, these fall under the category of human service to humans. For example, I would imagine that many people would still enjoy studying an art such as a musical instrument, or a new language, or to experience a massage from an expert human, rather than from a machine. Yet, assume you were an expert in psychotherapy, and worked with other people frequently, whenever you felt inspired to do so. Imagine you could set your own hours, because you have no need for money to buy food, or clothing, or pay bills like electricity or water. Imagine you could work only with those clients who are sincere and will most benefit from your help. Why ask them for money? What will you buy with it? Everything you require is at your fingertips for free. The common person will simply have no use for money.
I think economies will become increasingly unstable around the globe as we approach the Singularity. When nanomachines arrive around 2030, we can expect the idea of money as a whole to implode. I would expect the years between now and then to reflect a kind of chaos, as the costs of producing certain goods drop to zero, one at a time. For example, what happens if grain production is the first industry fully automated, from end to end? [By “end to end” I mean from the planting to the harvesting to getting it into a human end-user’s hands.] Suddenly the “cost” of all grain production has dropped to zero. What effect does that have on industries that use grain? What effect does it have on the price at market? How long does each of these incremental changes take to stabilize?
My prediction is that such changes will begin to happen so rapidly that they never stabilize. Essentially, I am predicting that economies will entirely implode from the inside out, as a result of their costs of production dropping to zero. I am predicting that this will begin slowly at first, one industry at a time, and then more rapidly, culminating in the complete end of money sometime around 2030.
For the common person, the future might look a lot like Gene Roddenberry’s vision of his fictional United Federation of Planets. Everything one requires to live provided free of charge. No money in common society at all. People engaging in whatever work they find meaningful and engaging in leisure far more than we do now.