“How is this even a business?” my late father asked when I described a notional model for human space colonization. “How are you going to make money? What product are you going to sell?”
Admittedly the model — developing a swarm of self-replicating , self-repairing decentralized, solar-powered construction automata and using them to mine asteroids and produce more such automata as well as habitable colonies— is not monetizable in the same fashion that building a picture-sharing smartphone app, or social network, or web search engine is.
And although there are ways to monetize space colonization — it is, essentially, a very extreme kind of full-stack real estate development — I think my father hit upon the fact that this kind of venture is of a fundamentally different nature to the modern economy as it exists on Earth today.
And the more I think about this kind of economic development, the more fascinating I find it.
I would never have started thinking about this process if it wasn’t for the Moore’s Law-style cheapening of solar energy and the accelerating development of robotics and AI. We are heading toward a world where plentiful solar energy is very cheap to capture, cheap to store thanks to breakthrough in batteries, and where advanced computing and robotics technologies give us very many options in terms of what to do with that energy.
I believe that aside from ending global poverty and hunger (which are already falling at very rapid rates) and powering complex virtual reality simulations, space exploration and colonization will form a very major aspect of what we do with our newfound energy inheritance.
Why? Well, consider that enough energy from the Sun hits the Earth in an hour than we use in a year. Then consider that only 0.000000045292 percent of the Sun’s energy hits the Earth. There’s a whole lot of energy up there, radiating out into space. Energy we could do useful things with. And that’s just one star.
Then consider the fact that natural resources on Earth such as water, hydrocarbons and metals exist in very finite quantities. There are vastly more of all of these things up in space.
Finally, consider the dangers of not colonizing space. A one-planet species is a very endangered species. One global cataclysm — like a nuclear war, or asteroid strike, or pandemic bug — could wipe us out. Colonizing space would remediate this problem.
So, what is going to change?
At the most basic level, economics all boils down to physics. As humans our behaviour is circumscribed by physical limitations, and physical needs and wants.
We use markets and monetary systems as means to efficiently satisfy needs and wants given the finite resources that are currently accessible. Markets work by matching willing buyers and willing sellers, simultaneously allowing the buyers to get the most they can given the sellers’ needs, and allowing the sellers to get the most they can given the buyer’s needs.
We bring new resources into the orbit of the economy via human labour, which is a finite resource subject to feeding, clothing, housing, transporting, educating. Human labour is subject to tiredness, and emotions, and competing desires, and quitting the job and finding another better paying or less tiring one, and all kinds of things. Satisfying these needs requires the development of a highly fungible medium of exchange, such as money to coordinate all of these complexities.
Replacing human labour with automated labour removes many of these complexities and replaces them with a simpler framework altogether: the cost of energy. The more automated a system becomes, the less important the flow of a fungible medium of exchange becomes. Access to sustainable and replenishable sources of energy — to run the robots, drones, AI and other such automata — becomes the key determinant factor. This is a whole new post-transactional economy.
Obviously money will remain an essential factor for coordination in inter-human economic relations. But for highly-automated ventures — particularly those operating in space, where there is currently no such thing as the rule of law, no easy access to subcontractors, and plentiful natural resources in asteroids, moons, planets, and solar energy, and so forth — it is more of a case of capturing resources and deploying them as needed, at least at the frontier where there is no clear system of property ownership beyond the law of the jungle. And space — unlike Earth — is a huge and endless frontier.
This kind of development, of course, is only really possible given very high levels of technology and massive economies of scale and given massive pre-existing resources. You need to have control of a swarm of highly-developed robots in the first place to be able to get to the stage where they can become self-replenishing and self-perpetuating (so long as they can gain access to energy). And you need highly efficient energy capturing technologies (like nuclear fusion or high-efficiency photovoltaic cells) to keep your EROEI ratio positive.
But once you have these things (all of which are gradually coming to fruition) it becomes plausible to ride the swarm all the way up until you have constructed a Dyson sphere around the Sun. And once you have a single Dyson sphere capturing the entirety of the Sun’s energy output, sending new swarms out to other stars to repeat the process seems just a matter of hitting the repeat button.
Of course, I expect arms races will reduce the efficiency of any such process. The potential gains from expansion into space in terms of power and reach and resources are so massive that many different actors will want to get a piece of the action, and grab what they can get. I would be surprised if many of the huge gains in resources we get from colonizing space aren’t wasted on endless warfare between different groups and ideologies.
But that has been a major pattern throughout human history. And we have made it a long way already.