The Human Condition:

Replicator Economics – April 14, 2013

They say that in the Star Trek future there is no money. Because of unlimited supplies of energy through matter-antimatter annihilation and unlimited supplies of goods through energy-to-matter conversion—or “replicator”—technology, issues of want and scarcity disappear. People no longer need money to live. The only medium of human exchange, presumably, is service. And this is not service in the form of servants and slaves, because computers and machines will do most of the heavy lifting; this is the kind of service you train and compete for, like a place in Star Fleet or a chance to gain and share knowledge on a science team.

I was thinking about that second leg of the economic ladder this morning as I poured a cup of coffee from my drip coffee maker. The famous line from Captain Picard—“Tea, Earl Grey, hot!”—went through my mind. And then how I would order my coffee—because I like it more cold than hot, but I do like a good coffee blend from Peet’s. But what, in the memory banks of a food replicator, is a good blend? As opposed to a mediocre blend? As opposed to bad coffee, made from indifferent beans, poorly roasted, insufficiently brewed in pot laden with oily scale from previous makings, and a few coffee grounds escaping into the cup?

I’m assuming that the proposed replicator technology is truly based on conversion of energy to matter. That is, it transforms some kind of pure energy stream, perhaps captured high-energy photons, into various kinds of quarks, then assembles those into the requisite number of protons, neutrons, and electrons, then assembles those into atoms of the necessary atomic number and weight, then assembles those into the appropriate molecules and aggregates them into the desired material. So, a cup of tea is mostly porcelain cup and water, imbued with enough kinetic energy to register on the human tongue as “hot,” and suffused with the right blend of tea extracts, tannic acid, and bergamot oil to qualify as properly brewed Earl Grey.

This would be opposed to a replicator that functioned as some kind of three-dimensional printer: laying down molecules of porcelain from one storage cell, water from another, and various extracts of tea and orange oil from still others. Presumably then, if the machine were not properly maintained, the request for “Tea, Earl Gray, hot!” might one day be answered with “All out of tea extracts. Would you like some coffee?”

By starting from pure energy, the only limits on the machine would be its programming. The person who designed that cup of Earl Gray tea for the machine’s memory banks would at some point have needed access to an actual cup of tea, to break it down, analyze its molecules, and begin writing the code that called for so many quarks. Then the program would convert them into so many atoms of silicon and other minerals for the porcelain, so many hydrogen and oxygen atoms for the water, and so many carbon atoms to compound the tea components. Given that the machine is starting from a base of featureless photons, rather than any store of halfway assembled components like porcelain clay and water, the choice of materials is based purely on taste and esthetics. Why settle for porcelain when you could have a cup made of pure gold? Or cut and faceted diamond? Except that if you wanted to possess gold or diamonds, they could be made more simply, in larger quantity—and without being drenched in smelly tea—by calling for them with another program.

In such a world, what happens to intrinsic or esteemed value?

In our world based on things found in nature, grown on a hillside, or dug from beneath the Earth’s surface, things have value due to the two basic drivers of any economic exchange: the plenitude or scarcity of supply, and the needs or desires of demand. Earl Grey tea commands a slightly higher price—has more value—because it comes from plants that are marginally less easy to grow or find than the black tea blend in your basic bag of Lipton’s, and because enough people like the taste of Earl Grey to pay the premium it commands in the marketplace. Gold and diamonds are more valuable than porcelain because they are rarer on Earth than the aluminum and silicon found in clay.

But in the world of replicators that start with charged photons and proceed to quarks, the only rare thing is the skill of the product designer who writes the program that formulates the quarks into atoms and molecules. Presumably, to start with, the designers with the greatest skill and reputation are those who can capture the most qualities of taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of that originally analyzed cup of Earl Grey tea, or of a once-sampled juicy steak, freshly broiled lobster tail, or vanilla sundae with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, nuts, and a cherry.

But then two things happen. In the first instance, where issues of scarcity and need drop out of the economic equation entirely, taste takes over. If it’s all the same bunch of quarks, who would order an indifferent black tea? Or an ordinary cup of American ditchwater coffee? Or a greasy hamburger, ineptly grilled, on a stale bun dipped in day-old butter? Everyone will be drinking the rarest Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, eating Beef Wellington made with Kobe beef and liver pâté from Strasbourg, and any and all of the other richest, most exquisite foods imaginable. If you’re going to reproduce a recipe, why not copy the best chefs using the most expensive materials?

The second thing to happen revolves around that word “imaginable.” First, as the actual eating of rare foods prepared by the most talented chefs, or listening to music played on instruments made by the renowned masters, or any other rare experience becomes a treat from the past, reputations bend and deflect. Everyone’s drinking Blue Mountain coffee and eating Kobe beef … let’s try something different! In the far future, as humankind’s taste buds and other senses retreat faster and faster from actual contact with tea grown on a mountainside and cows fed on grass and grain, people will seek out new sensations. For a while, they might try to resurrect ancient flavors—a real McDonald’s Big Mac® made with American cheese and a sesame bun—but since no one has actually seen such a thing in a hundred years, the replicator designers will be working with amateur chefs trying to recreate the food from scratch, possibly using soy proteins and hydroponic grain.

Humans are restless creatures. The things that fade most quickly from the collective memory are foods, because they are so ephemeral. Art hangs around for centuries in museums, as do weapons, articles of clothing, and other artifacts of everyday life, but the taste of food disappears.1 We have some notion that the Egyptians ate geese and onions; that the Romans ate state-rationed bread from Egyptian wheat, as well as dormice and larks’ tongues; that the Renaissance Italians learned noodle making from the Chinese, because we have written records to that effect. No one remembers those tastes, and it takes a bit of research to even begin to understand how those dormice were raised, prepared, seasoned, and cooked.2

With replicator technology, some exquisite tastes from the past would survive as human favorites long after the actual species of tea or coffee, plant or animal had died out on Earth. But just as quickly, a new team of inventive programmers would begin experimenting with new tastes and textures, new categories of food. The old science fiction meme where nourishment in the far future will become something bland and mechanical—an “energy pill” or a “protein paste”—suffered from insufficient imagination and poor understanding of human nature on the author’s part. If we really do get programmable replicators, look forward to cakes and pâtés, meringues and icings with currently unimaginable flavors and inscrutable nourishment requirements.

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot!” works as a cherished line in a video from the 20th century, but the future is going to be weirder than we can imagine, compared with which “Romulan ale” will pale in comparison. We might even be eating dormice again.

1. The other comparable ephemeral I can think of is music. We can play and listen to Medieval music up through the Renaissance and into today because it has all been written down in notation we still can read. We have some idea of ancient Greek and Roman music, at least the tones if not the melodies, because we have classical analysis of their scales and harmonics. But who knows what ancient Egyptian music sounded like? Unless the instruments and melodies have been preserved by ancient tradition—as I suspect has occurred in places like the Middle East or India, although even traditions evolve—the echoes have long since faded on the wind.

2. All right, so I’ve Googled it. But I won’t provide the recipe here. Look it up yourself.