Greed in Space

16 Sep

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what will actually happen as computers and robots begin to have the ability to do every job that humans can do. Those who are familiar with my writings know that I am enthusiastic about using self-replicating robotic systems to build an infrastructure that makes it possible for humans to colonize the solar system. Due to the large volume of quality resources in space and the potential for almost unlimited expansion into space, I expect space industry and colonization to dominate the 21st century. It will become clear, as I progress with this discussion, why I feel justified in making this assumption.

The plan for colonization of space goes something like this. A self-replicating robotic system will be sent to an asteroid to begin mining and manufacturing other self-replicting robotic systems. Once a sufficient army of robots is built up, those robots will begin to manufacture space transports and space stations suitable for human habitation. Very soon, the transports will begin to land on earth and take people to space. I have worked out the math for this process and determined that after a self-replicating robotic system is sent up, it would be 15 years until every single living soul on earth could be living comfortably in space. In other words, if the robotic system is sent up in 2025, by 2040, everyone could have a comfortable, spacious, space-born estate.

That is the mechanics of the plan; what about the economics? I have been tracking the progress of space mining and it is evident that the first space mines will be privately funded. The Federal Aviation Administration has given Moon Express permission to land a craft on the moon. Deep Space Industries is building autonomous spacecraft that can mine asteroids. Planetary Resources is also developing technology that will allow it to begin exploring asteroids. So far, no government has shown direct interest in space mining, although Planetary Resources is backed in part by Luxembourg. When the first self-replicating robotic system is sent up, it is likely to be funded by a private corporation. So, how will this corporation pursue this? They will certainly want to make some profit, but will they become so greedy that they effectively shut everyone else out? Maybe they will build the huge space habitats that I envision but charge people astronomical amounts to move there. Instead of everyone having a comfortable space habitat, a handful of people will have entire giant space stations all to themselves.

But does that matter? What happens next? Will we end up with a system like in the film Elysium, where a handful of people live in opulence and everyone else lives in drudgery, or will something else happen? What will the fabulously wealthy people who inhabit space do next?

Anyone who has seen the film Elysium, and really thought about it, has made the same observation. If the society depicted has all those robots that can do all the work, why, instead of using them to suppress the proletariat, do they not use them to greatly expand their manufacturing base? Why do they not use that expanded manufacturing base to build more robots? Why do the not use their greatly expanded manufacturing base and robotic army to build another Elysium?

Suppose a corporation builds the first space habitats, and sells or rents them at exorbitant prices that only the very wealthy can afford. What will happen next? Once all the very rich are living in space and have all the opulence anyone could possibly pine for, will they just sit there and be rich for the rest of eternity?

My guess is that they will want to get in on the action. They will invest in robots that do more mining and building. In fact, it will be difficult to keep them from doing this. If anyone owns even one self-replicating robotic system, they will be able to set up an enterprise of their own.

Open Star Cluster in the Constellation Swan

It is possible that the first people to set up mining in space will try to cut them out by staking claims to nearly everything up there, but I strongly suspect that governments will act to prevent this. Governments are bound to notice that a handful of parties are hording all the resources, and they are going to set up some kind of taxation and regulation system to keep it in check. Since an extraterrestrial corporation that owns all of space would be an extraordinary security threat, they are likely to do this sooner rather than later.

I have given some thought to the kind of taxation and regulation that will be needed. Since there are no natural or easily defined boundaries in space, it seems fairly evident that we will need to tax people by the mass and makeup of material they lay claim to. If someone lays claim to a cubic kilometer of material, an assessment will be made as to the mass and makeup of that volume of material. If it is mostly lighter elements, the party claiming it will be taxed less than they would if it was composed largely of metals and elements that can be used as nuclear fuel. The tax will be progressive, so that two cubic kilometers will be taxed at a higher rate per kg than one cubic kilometer. In this way, it will be beneficial for any enterprise to involve as many investors as possible. This will speed up the democratization of space.

Sunlight will probably be the most popular power source in space. I have worked out a sensible way to tax people for the use of sunlight. When a person sets up a solar panel, they are effectively laying claim to the portion of the sun that generates the energy that illuminates their panel. By drawing lines from the perimeter of a solar panel to the center of the sun, a pyramidal slice of the sun is defined. The size of the slice defined is determined by the surface area of the solar panel and its distance from the sun. The percentage of the sun a party claims by setting up a solar panel will be determined by the volume of this slice. The amount they are taxed will be set accordingly. Very large solar panels that are close to the sun will represent large solar claims and will be taxed more. Very small panels that are far from the sun will represent nearly negligible claims and will be taxed less. Since objects that do not collect solar energy still block sunlight, they may be charged in the same manner as solar panels for the slice of sun they block.


A strategy similar to taxation for the use of sunlight may be worked out for charging people to park facilities of various sizes in orbit around the sun, as well as the planets and their moons. Perhaps, they can be charged on the basis of how close they park and how massive their facilities are. Since there will be an advantage to parking close to the sun or close to large planets, the calculation may be as simple as determining the mutual gravitation of any facility and any object it is close to.

Putting all of this together, the taxation of any project in space can be determined by a combination of how massive it is, what materials it is composed of, how far it is from the sun, how much surface area faces the sun, and the mutual gravitation of the project to any other massive object. Some additional taxes may be assessed for high risk projects that are likely to stir up a lot of loose regolith or generate stray projectiles that increase the risk to other space-born facilities. Note that objects that are far from the sun (perhaps in the Kuiper belt) and not close to any planets will be taxed at a much lower rate than objects that are close to the sun. Since AI will be in charge of all the taxation, it will be possible for taxes to be adjusted on a moment by moment basis.

The taxes that are assessed can be used to fund the AI that regulates space colonization and to further democratize space by setting up basic (not very basic) habitats for people who want to get started in space and have little or no money. Ideally, these habitats will be funded as loans to the recipients, since giveaways are always bad economic policy.

When we consider the ease with which new parties will be able to insert themselves into the space mining and manufacturing process and the regulations that are likely to be in place, it becomes clear that a lot more people than the original prospectors are going to get in on the action. Assuming that the very first people to set up manufacturing in space are not somewhat altruistic, someone is going to come along that is. They will say, “Hey, wait a minute, there are plenty of resources up here for everyone. Why not make it possible for everyone to move to space if they want to? Why not make it possible for anyone and everyone to live in opulence?”

However, suppose that absolutely no one who sets up manufacturing in space has even one altruistic bone in their body. As more and more people get in on the self-replicating robotic manufacturing gig, there are going to be fewer and fewer people for them to sell their wares to. Eventually, they will be selling large facilities to people who have almost no capital for whatever they are willing to pay. Sooner or later, someone will be heard to say, “Hey, I have a dozen space stations, and I only want to pay taxes on seven. Why don’t you take the other five?”

So, the problem really does not come down to how greedy people are. Human greed may make a bit of difference in the beginning, but sooner or later the resources of space will be somewhat democratized. It is certainly true that a handful of people will live in more opulence than others. However, the least opulent estate will still dwarf anything we are accustomed to on earth.

Someone may object, saying, “But wait a minute, even in space, resources are limited!”

That is true, but there are a lot of resources in space. The asteroid Ceres has a volume of 421 million cubic kilometers and a mass of 9.39×10^20 kg. Probably, nearly all of it is usable. Keep in mind that we are learning how to build superior materials out of elements as basic as carbon. 9.39×10^20 kg is enough mass to build 1.32×10^13 aircraft carriers. That is nearly 2000 aircraft carriers for every person on earth. It should be enough. That is just Ceres. If it does not have enough resources, there are other asteroids, and we can always start mining some of the smaller moons. Also, it seems unlikely that anyone will build really large facilities just for themselves. At some point, they are likely to concentrate their wealth toward improving the quality of their facilities. While these higher quality projects may require greater craftsmanship, they will seldom require more materials.

All in all, a sensible way of governing and regulating space can be worked out so that everyone gets a reasonable share and everything functions smoothly.

The title of this article was “Greed in Space” because it seemed like it would be a discussion of how human nature would determine the future of colonization of the solar system. However, as always, when economics is taken into account, it turns out that human nature is and always will be subsidiary. People are, after all, economic animals, and economics dictates their ultimate behavior.


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