Can greed eliminate greed?

Rich people hang out with other rich people. But the same applies to every sub-group of humanity; birds of a feather flock together!  Could a global society exist where flocking into naturally emergent sub-groups could be exploited to optimise resource distribution? How much wealth does each sub-group need? What universal protocols could eliminate bias in resource distribution between such groups? Could all the groups be as rich as each other, according to their self-defined notion of wealth?  Can we find a system in which each group is self-sufficient with no one group obliged to work for the others to maintain the status quo?

Only one quarter of the land area of Earth is enough to provide a roomy 100 m x 100 m square of land for up to 2.5 billion families of four people. The incident sunlight over that area can provide up to 20 MW of power, and the top few mm of top-soil from that area provides the same amount of material used by the average American in one year (~100 tonnes of stuff).  Two mm of topsoil from that area is enough to build a mansion!

How can one use sunlight to convert a large empty plot of land, which consists only of high quality soil, into a big beautiful mansion without the need for anyone to come in and do lots of work to make it happen? In such a scenario, instead of relying on wage slaves to do our dirty work, we could seek to build a local infrastructure from local materials in which energy from the sun drives trillions of chemical reactions organised throughout a technological hierarchy to add up to the things we want, all under computer control.

Sounds impossible, but such a system already exists in the form of biology! Think about it… a jungle is a collection of trillions of chemical reactions powered by sunlight. The decision about which chemical reactions happen is determined by the genes of the various species, which can be considered to be a form of computation. Thus a jungle is a system which has local computer control over a solar powered hierarchy of chemical reactions, and in which material is naturally organised in local ecosystems.

Building a synthetic version of a such a biological system could therefore create the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: poverty and pollution! A combined finance, pollution control and research and development strategy aimed at creating economic and technological tools to maximise and equalise value and well-being might result in locally defined ecosystem-like infrastructures that surround us and our kindred.  Such an infrastructure could use sunlight to pay for everything (rather than slave workers) and would automatically balance our inputs and outputs with the local environment.

The main difficulty lies in the complexity of objects required to build such an infrastructure.  One aspect of the difficulty is the level of imagination required to conceive of objects that could do these things. The basic building block of such an infrastructure must be capable of manipulating individual atoms, resulting in devices that are 100 times smaller than those found in modern smart phones. If cost is roughly proportional to complexity and an iPhone currently costs around £500, a single “brick” in this infrastructure might cost around fifty thousand pounds using today’s technology and currency!  Since there are about twenty thousand bricks in a standard house, even a very simple house capable of providing this kind of infrastructure would cost around a billion pounds.

Perhaps a really, really rich billionaire might choose to build such a house to show off to his peers, however, not even the richest billionaire can do this because we don’t yet know how!  And the research required to find out would probably be more expensive than the house itself.

It is therefore extremely ironic that a penniless tribesman living in the Amazon already has an infrastructure of such complexity entirely for free!    Biological cells possess the required complexity to make this vision happen and that is perhaps one reason why turning to biology (synthetic or otherwise) as a base technology could be a smart move.  Instead of destroying our natural capital in the head long pursuit of higher GDP, we could use our insatiable appetite for economic growth to invest in a bio-inspired infrastructure designed from the outset to meet everyone’s fundamental needs. Such a system would be powered by sunlight and have the ability to create what people needed locally, in a way which doesn’t pollute, by design!

Of course,  monetary investors require a monetary reward.  So people living on the land and using the infrastructure could pay rent to the rich people who own the land and infrastructure. However, those rich people won’t have anything to spend their monetary rewards on because the infrastructure they invested in already would provide everything they needed and more.  So, they may as well not bother charging us cash to live there – it wouldn’t change their standard of living.  Perhaps we could use our spare time to make beautiful objects and artworks, or conduct scientific research, and allow everyone access to such things – for free!  In such a global system everyone could live locally with the people that matter to them nearby, with the best physically possible standard of living.

It seems to me that no matter how big and rich the billionaires get, their insatiable need to grow ever larger fortunes will ultimately force them to invest in the technology for which there is the greatest demand. The largest demands are food and shelter, and solving that problem in the way I described here, will not only eliminate pollution, but will eventually make the monetary value of their fortunes worthless.  No one would need cash to survive!  In other words: all is free to those who can afford it….  and that’s why rich people hang out with other rich people.


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