Section 2.0 - History and Concept Development
In section 1.0 (Introduction) we identified three large-scale problems: insufficient development, a deteriorating environment, and technological unemployment. All three are unintentional side effects of how civilization evolved in the past, and may develop in the near future. The growth of modern civilization is still incomplete and unevenly distributed. This results in the first problem, of insufficient development. We've made poor choices in the past due to lack of knowledge, and incentives built into the economic system. These are negatively affecting the environment, the second problem. A lack of foresight, combined with how our economic system works, may lead to the third problem of large-scale unemployment.
Before trying to devise solutions, we should first understand the history and processes which brought us to where we are. So this section first covers processes like expansion, growth, and self-improvement in nature, before people evolved. Then we look at how people have tried to satisfy their needs and make their lives better. More specifically, technology has a long history in human culture. We take a look at its history, leading up to modern technology. Physiological and social changes happened to us in parallel, along with unsuspected and undesirable side effects, resulting in the current state of civilization.
Section 2.1: Self-Improvement and Seed Factories will explore self-improvement as an idea, and its relation to ideas like progress and economic development. The latter part of the 20th century brought a new idea, that of machine self-replication. Technologies like computers and automation developed quickly in this period, taking replication from an idea to a real possibility. The initial idea was a machine system would copy itself unassisted, by making and assembling copies of all its own parts. But doing this with physical systems, rather than software, has proven quite complex. Modifications to this idea have resulted in the seed factory concept as we describe it in these volumes.
Since the idea is fairly new, Section 2.2: Further Research and Development will consider open questions and what isn't yet known about it. We also look at the current state-of-the-art in related areas of knowledge and experience. Lastly, we look at related projects and development, and topics for future research and development needed to implement the seed factory approach.
1.0 - Natural Processes
Expansion, growth, replication, and tool use are processes which predate civilization, and even modern humans as a species able to think about them. People have always exploited them in the past, knowingly or not, and continue to do so today. A short review of their history is in order for a couple of reasons. The first is to understand how modern civilization arrived at its current state. The other is to identify processes and methods available for us to use. Then we can combine them in new ways, adapt them to meet our needs, and use them to help solve our pressing problems.
The natural world doesn't doesn't call the changes that happen to it better or worse. Those are labels that people apply based on our needs, desires, and opinions. We need at least some physical space and and objects like food and shelter to keep living. Beyond the bare necessities, most of us strongly desire extra things to make our lives better. If we aren't satisfied with how much of those we have, we think more is better. On that basis we describe some natural changes as improvements, and when nature does it without our help as self-improvement. These changes are most evident in what we have learned in the sciences of Astronomy and Biology.
1.1 - Astronomy
Expansion as a process appears to be as old as the Universe itself. Red-shifts in the spectra of galaxies, supernova brightness and light curves, and the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation imply that space itself is expanding. This seems to be the combined effect of strong repulsive forces from Cosmic Inflation during the Big Bang ~13.8 billion years ago, and Dark Energy, which continues to accelerate the expansion. If the inflation theory of cosmology is correct, the growth of large scale structures, now hundreds of millions of light years in size, can be traced to microscopic quantum fluctuations during the inflationary era.
Stars, planets, and galaxies grow by Accretion, the addition of more matter to what is already there. Since the force of gravity is linear with mass, the ability to attract more matter is proportional to the mass already collected. This leads to Exponential Growth, until all the nearby matter is consumed. Any growth process which is proportional to the current size leads to exponential increases over time. We will see many examples of this in the course of these volumes.
Stars replicate in a limited sense. They are born with different masses, and their energy output increases much faster than mass. This is known as the Mass-Luminosity Relation. So the larger stars use up their fuel much more quickly, despite starting with more. As these stars reach the end of their life, they emit large amounts of gas or explode. The shock waves from these processes can create high density areas in molecular clouds. These denser areas can collapse to form a new generation of stars. Our own Sun is thought to be a third generation star whose formation was triggered by a supernova explosion of a nearby older star.
Planets grow by an exponential process from smaller bodies. A growing Protoplanet has a stronger gravitational field, so it can attract nearby gas, dust, and other small bodies to itself. As it gets larger, it's gravity can also change the orbits of other bodies. This causes collisions, with the larger bodies tending to keep more of the combined mass. Debris from collisions continues to collect by attraction and more collisions. Eventually most of the available mass is (1) thrown into the parent star, (2) ejected from the solar system, (3) thrown far enough outwards that further collisions are rare, or (4) is gathered into planets and moons around them.
Galaxies formed and continue to evolve by a similar process. Quantum fluctuations produced regions in the early Universe that were denser than others. They tended to attract other nearby matter to form clouds. The clouds in turn attracted each other, forming larger and larger structures like galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Our own Milky Way galaxy is still consuming smaller ones, as evidenced by streams of gas and stars from their remains. The Andromeda galaxy and ours are predicted to collide in about 4.5 billion years. The larger the distances, the longer these growth processes take, so they are incomplete in the Universe today. It is not evident how astronomical processes could be used in factories, but we can incorporate the ideas of expansion, replication, and exponential growth into their design.
1.2 - Biology
Living Things on Earth have grown and reproduced for 3-4 billion years (GY). This started soon after, as a percentage of the age of the planet, the surface cooled enough and frequent large asteroid impacts ended about 3.8 GY ago. Life as we know it requires water and Organic Compounds. These were either included in the planet's original formation, or delivered afterwards by impacts of comets and asteroids.
Growth and reproduction are two of the defining features of Life. Another defining feature of life is Metabolism, the use of available energy to convert ingested materials into parts of the organism. Some of the new parts are for self-maintenance, and some are for growth. At some point in its life cycle the organism has grown enough to make copies by division at the cellular level. Small organisms like Bacteria and some Algae consist of a single cell which divides repeatedly. Large organisms like whales and trees consist of many cells. They individually divide, become specialized for different tasks, and are grouped into larger structures. Organisms can also incorporate non-living matter, like the mineral parts of bones and shells, or the bark of trees.
The replication of a large organism involves partitioning one or a small number of cells into an Embryo or Seed, a smaller and simpler entity than the mature organism. This entity contains all the information to build the mature organism, in the form of long double-chain polymer molecules known as DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid), often after mixing genetic data from two parents. The sequence of DNA units directs the construction of various Proteins, which in turn perform a variety of functions necessary for life. One of these functions is separating the two strands of DNA molecules, and assembling complementary units to make a matching strand for each (Figure 2.0-1). When a cell divides, each copy then contains the full set of instructions so it can continue to live. The initial seed or embryo cells then divide and specialize until they become a mature copy of the parent organism. Humans, being large organisms, grow and replicate in this way, both at the cellular and whole organism level. The process of growth from an embryo or seed is at least 400 million years old.
Self-reproducing organisms have DNA sequences 0.1-670,000 million units in length. Changes to the sequences happen for a variety of reasons. The resulting differences in how the organisms live and die have produced all the various Species that exist now, and have existed in the long history of our planet. There are several scales at which these changes can happen: at the individual unit level, to longer segments of DNA, and by wholesale reshuffling in Sexual Reproduction. Until very recently, the changes were unplanned and undirected, so the evolution of species was random and slow.
Most of the energy for life ultimately comes from the Sun. Waste products and dead organisms are recycled by other organisms, or accumulate as sediments, which are converted to rock formations by geologic processes. Over very long periods of time, the rocks can again become available as raw materials for life. Communities of living things, together with the non-living surroundings they interact with, form linked Ecosystems. These are dynamic entities through which energy and materials flow, often in cycles with feedback loops.
All living things directly modify their surroundings by ingesting food, rejecting wastes, and using local energy sources to sustain themselves. Many species also indirectly modify their surroundings by building non-living constructs outside their bodies, such as Nests, Burrows, and Dams. Once built, these structures can perform functions like shelter from the environment or protection from predators. The non-living objects don't need constant biological activity to sustain them. As living things, people also interact with and modify our surroundings, build non-living objects, and participate in ecosystems with other living things. We depend on the self-expansion and replication abilities of other living things to supply our food, and other products we need and use.
We can apply ideas from biology, such as specialization during growth, replication via a smaller and simpler starter entity (i.e. a seed), and replication of information into our designs. We can also incorporate the ideas of energy and material sources, recycling, and ecosystems of related elements. Because so many features from biology can be included into a self-expanding factory, we can consider it a form of Artificial Life.
2.0 - Technology and Culture
The natural processes of expansion and replication long predate the ~200,000 year history of modern humans. As living beings we continue to participate in these processes, and they continue to operate in nature. What makes us distinct is our creation of technology and culture. In a broad sense, Technology includes the knowledge and skills needed to make things, but also putting them to practical use for all the tools, artifacts, and products we make. So a tool like a hammer is a technological artifact, but knowing how to make and use hammers is a part of technological knowledge. Humans also produce Culture - entities that persist beyond the death of individual people. Both technology and culture involve growth and replication processes. We can meet modern needs by intentionally using such processes in cultural artifacts like factories.
2.1 - Recent Evolution and Early Tools
Some animals actively use Tools, objects which are not permanent parts of their bodies. Tools let them perform tasks more effectively than their bodies can alone. Most animal tool-use is passed genetically or arises spontaneously. They lack a knowledge component, so we don't call them technology. Knowledge is learned, saved, and passed on to others. We don't know exactly when the first technologies arose that were passed on this way. Before that, they arose spontaneously each time, and were then lost when that individual died. Many of our relatives among the primates have been observed using simple tools such as sticks and leaves to gather food. Some groups of wild chimpanzees use tools to chop large fruit into smaller pieces so they can be eaten. Neighboring groups do not do this, suggesting knowledge is being learned or passed on within the group that does. So this would count as a very early technology.
We presume our early human ancestors also made this kind of transition from spontaneous to learned tool-use at some point millions of years ago. This was likely among the Hominid (Great Apes) family of primates to which we belong, but an earlier species now extinct and distinctly different from us. It is hard to pin down exactly when and how the History of Technology began. The oldest technologies of all are foraging and nest building using nothing more than hands and feet. Other species of Great Apes do this, and presumably so did our ancestors millions of years ago. However, the remains of meals and nests are biological, and perish over such long periods.
Beyond using the body, we can speculate about using sticks and unmodified rocks to knock down fruit or kill prey. But wood decays, and while stones can last, they don't leave evidence of their use. The ones which were used as tools, like chimpanzees are observed doing today, are indistinguishable from all the other stones which were not. Stones modified by flaking or worn from chopping and cutting are the earliest evidence of technology. We know the technology was being passed on, because of the persistence of particular techniques and their geographic spread over time. If they were spontaneous inventions, which were then lost when the inventor died, the timing and distribution would be more random.
Modern Humans appear to be the last surviving species or subspecies of the genus Homo, although DNA analysis indicates some interbreeding with extinct relatives. We emerged in anatomically modern form about 0.2-0.3 million years (MY) ago. This is long after the appearance of early technologies like stone tools (3.3 MY), controlled fire (0.5 - 1.5 MY), and using them for preparing and cooking food (0.5 - possibly 2 MY). So our evolution to modern form happened in parallel with early technology, and it may have contributed to that evolution.
Compared to other tool-users, modern humans seem to be unique in several ways. These include (1) the number of different objects we make, and their complexity, (2) significant transfer of knowledge from person to person, and indirectly by way of external records, (3) extensive use of tools to make other tools, and (4) creating tools which can carry out tasks to some degree on their own. These differences have combined to produce accelerating growth and an increasingly complex society.
2.2 - Technology Accumulation and Acceleration
The key advantage technology has given us over genetic evolution is the speed at which it can accumulate and spread. It helped our ancestors evolve to modern form, out-compete our relatives, and build a civilization which dominates the planet. We are even at the point of artificially modifying genetics, doing so much faster than natural changes happen.
Tool marks on fossilized bones and shaped stone tools date back about 3-4 million years, which starts a period we call the Stone Age. These artifacts indicate making and using tools was intentional by that time. The spread of more advanced stone tools over Africa and Eurasia, and their similarity and persistence, indicates knowledge was being passed on. This makes them the first identifiable class of technology, if not the first to develop. Stone tools are harder and sharper than our body parts, and replaceable when broken, but limited by the muscle power we can supply.
The next great advance was harnessing Fire. This increased usable energy, and allowed transforming materials in ways not possible using only stone tools. Fires occur naturally, so it is uncertain when we first learned to use it and pass on the knowledge. Evidence from caves containing human fossils, hearths, and the remains of fires indicate the technology had been mastered no later than 0.5 MY ago, but possibly starting a million years earlier. Aside from the immediate uses for warmth and discouraging predators, fire led to cooking. Various cooking methods increase available calories, reduce toxicity and pathogens, and preserve some foods for later use. Stone tools, fire, and cooking gave us a survival advantage. It also allowed us to evolve to modern form, with larger brains that need more energy.
In the last quarter MY, modern humans have developed additional technologies at an accelerating pace. These include clothing, language, ceramics, domesticated species, and many others. There is a strong positive-feedback loop that causes this acceleration. Improved tools conferred a survival advantage on early humans. Their numbers multiplied and they spread geographically. Assuming a constant rate of inventiveness at a given point in our evolution, more people means more inventions. New locations with a greater variety of living conditions encouraged new solutions to the problems they faced. For example, cold climates led to a need for clothing. New inventions, once made, could then spread elsewhere and be further modified, supplying greater survival advantages.
On top of this feedback loop was the gradual increase in the size and energy use of our brains. This presumably increased our inventiveness over the last three million years, but it also allowed for larger social groups. Modern humans form groups of about 150 people, compared to about 40 for our distant ancestors. Larger groups allowed for specialization of skills and therefore becoming more expert in each, further increasing our survival and numbers. Specialized skills encouraged developing specialized tools for each task. For example, axes and the many varieties of chisels and saws all cut a material by concentrating forces at a narrow edge. But their sizes and shapes have evolved according to the specific materials and needs of the work. Specialized tools were an improvement over the previous generic ones. They improved survival and increased population, adding to the feedback loop.
2.3 - Knowledge Transfer
DNA encodes genetic information, and is passed from generation to generation. But it doesn't change at all, or very little, in the life of a given individual. It can slowly change through mutation, and shuffling during replication. The organisms better adapted to their environment by changes in their DNA are selected for. But it may take many generations for an improvement to spread through a population. In contrast, learning is a process which allows variable information to accumulate within the life of a single organism. The ability to learn has evolved in many forms throughout the animal kingdom (Moore, 2004). While that evolution was at the same slow pace of other genetics, once gained, information could accumulate faster. For most species, the learning is lost when the individual dies and must be done anew each generation. Knowledge transfer is more efficient since the organism doesn't have to repeat all the trial and error in accumulating knowledge. Instead it receives useful information previously learned by others, and has the opportunity to improve on it and pass the improvements to the next generation.
Early knowledge transfer used methods like observation and imitation, with later additions like gestures and pantomime to focus attention. These transfer methods didn't require special tools. Language and memory techniques are technologies that allowed larger amounts of knowledge to be stored and transferred, over longer time periods. They need training, but still did not need external tools. Art and writing further increased the quantity, persistence, and accuracy of knowledge transfer, and began to store the knowledge externally to people. These techniques now required tools like pigments and chisels to put the information on durable media like stone. Our ability to store, transfer, and copy knowledge externally has only improved with time, with more and more advanced tools to do it with. Pictorial art, such as cave paintings and figurines, didn't require specialized knowledge to understand because they were similar to the originals they represented. Pictorial symbols were more abstract and required some learning to understand. Finally, abstract symbols like numbers and alphabets required the most learning to use, but could represent ideas and new things which didn't yet exist. Along with increasing abstraction, our storage media have evolved from marked stone to clay, papyrus, printed paper, and the rapidly changing electronic methods.
2.4 - Sequential Toolmaking
Parts of the body are the universal first tools, but they are grown rather than made, and their variety is fixed by genetics. For a given species, body parts have a fixed repertoire of actions they can perform. For example, human elbows are limited to less than 180 degrees in bending. They are also limited in terms of strength, size, durability, and other features. You can use your fist as a hammer, but only for certain light tasks without injury. Many animals use natural objects, like rocks and twigs, as tools to pound or poke. Fewer will modify natural objects to suit a task. Humans, and our recent relatives, seem to be the only species who first make one tool, then use that to make another. Hammerstones are natural round stones used to shape other stones, or to crush, pound, or grind other materials. They are found, rather than made, so they don't represent sequential toolmaking. A Hand axe may be shaped by a hammerstone. If it is then used to cut and shape a Digging Stick, which in turn is used to dig up food, that is a sequence of two tools, both of which are made.
Sequential toolmaking requires enough memory and planning to accomplish the whole series. The knowledge and production may require several people, but they all have to exist within a society. Modern humans have developed by far the most complex sequences of tools used to make other tools. This includes loops which lead back to earlier and simpler ones. As our social groups got larger, their members developed specialized skills. One of the skills became making tools for others to use. Specialized toolmakers persist as a significant segment of industry, since modern civilization can't function without all the tools they make. This includes making better tools than the ones we already have, a process we expect to continue in the future.
The oldest identifiable tools are split and flaked stones from Kenya that are 3.3 million years old. These types of tools were not used to make more tools of the same kind. If they wore out or broke, you needed to start fresh with new rocks. The skills and knowledge, however, could be copied by observation and imitation, even if language did not exist yet. Later in our history, the original stone tools started to be used to make secondary tools. For example hand choppers and scrapers made from split rocks can be used to cut and peel branches, which can then be used as clubs, or handles for stone axes.
The earliest use of tools to make more tools may date from using Digging Sticks and Hammerstones to excavate and flake stones, which in turn can cut and sharpen more digging sticks. Over time, hand tools such as these started to be used to make better tools and artifacts, a process which still continues today. Eventually, specialized groups of toolmakers developed, such as blacksmiths, who were able to copy their own tools plus make tools for other people. We can make a distinction between the toolmakers - those who can make tools, and nearly everyone else - who use tools made by others. Modern society is filled with tools, from kitchen utensils to smartphones. But the vast selection tools and machines found throughout civilization can all trace their existence to the self-making toolmakers.
Early blacksmiths could copy tools for themselves and others, but their work was not mechanized and certainly not automated. Animal, water, and wind power later augmented human muscles, and increased total production. More recently steam and electrical power further improved production rates. As the scale of production and the knowledge involved grew, toolmakers also became specialized. The mining industry, steel mills, foundries, and machinery builders still retain the collective ability to make more tools and machines of the type they themselves use. So as a group they are still able to replicate themselves, and make tools and machines for others.
2.5 - Self-Operating Tools
Domesticated species may be considered the earliest self-operating tools. They are improvements over acquiring food in the wild, and agriculture is an important technology, so they fit within our definition of tools. Since they are living things, hunting dogs can chase prey, livestock can forage, and cultivated plants can grow, all without constant human attention or work. Domestication only started about 15-30,000 years ago, while non-living tools have a much longer history. For three million years or so those tools were passive, not doing anything unless people used them. It wasn't until about 7,500 years ago, with the development of sail power, that non-living tools could start to perform active functions to some degree on their own. Wind provided an external energy source to move the sail, and the boat it was attached to. As long as the wind is steady, the boat can continue to move without constant action by people. This differs from rowing or paddling, which do need constant action. Any self-operating tool, whether a trained dog or a machine, needs an outside energy source in order to operate. For passive tools, people and their food are the energy source which makes them work.
Simple tools, like a hammer, need a person's constant attention and muscle power to operate. More complex ones, like an electric drill, replace some or all of the muscle power, but still need our full attention and guidance. A Mill powered by wind or water may not need constant attention to keep turning and grinding, though it still needs labor for other tasks. It is therefore partially self-operating. Automation, robotics, computers and their software, and now artificial intelligence, are recent technologies which further reduce how much attention and intervention by people is required. Collectively we call tools that use these technologies Smart tools. If our tools no longer need our strength, attention, guidance, or control, the need for our labor is reduced or eliminated.
In theory, a set of sufficiently smart tools could be given instructions, then then proceed to build everything else we need and want with little effort on our part. This includes making copies of itself. In practice, we don't yet have tools that smart. The ones we do have, though, are increasingly able to work on their own and need less help from us. Smart tools are the latest in a long series of Productivity Improving Technologies. Like new sources of energy and mechanization, they will lead to a better quality of life, but in the process can disrupt a system based on trading labor for other goods and services.
2.6 - Cultural Elements
Culture includes both non-material elements, and Material Culture. Non-material culture includes things like patterns and knowledge. For example, an early Hunter-Gatherer band could persist as a pattern for a much longer time than any member lived. Language and how to use it is knowledge that can be passed down through many generations orally, without ever being written down. Material culture, like tools and cities, if maintained, can also last well past the life of any individual. The life span of an artifact, however, does not determine if it is cultural. The important feature is whether it exists independent of human biology. For example, a fast food soft drink cup may only be used for a few minutes, or sit on a shelf for years, but our internal biology does not affect these lifetimes.
All kinds of cultural elements can exhibit growth and replication. A hunter-gatherer band can grow to the point it divides into two bands. A language can grow by the addition of new words, and by new people adopting it. New languages can form when people live far enough from each other that they rarely communicate. Shifts in vocabulary and usage then lead to enough changes that there are two distinct languages instead of one. Widespread distribution of media like books and video have tended to stabilize language content, and worldwide communications means nobody is too far away to interact. Although the trend is now for small languages to disappear in favor of the more common ones, the remaining languages continue to grow by adding new words and speakers. Cities can grow by constructing additions and larger replacements. Historically they reproduced by setting up colonies in new locations.
The oldest elements of culture that showed growth and replication predate modern humans. They include Band Society, and early types of technology in the form of hunting, foraging, and tool-making skills. Species of the genus Homo, of which modern humans are the only surviving member, expanded repeatedly across the world over the past few million years. Successful social groups therefore presumably divided when their population became larger than a given area could support. Skills could grow by accumulation of details and technique and by specialization. Each person has a limited memory and time to learn. So specialization allows more total skills to be passed on. Cultural replication included making new copies of tools from raw materials, but not generally using an existing tool to copy itself. Instead, a collection of tools was brought to bear on making copies of its members.
3.0 - Industry and Economics
[Development from hunter/gatherer bands who all did same generic tasks to neolithic then industrial eras with lots of specialization. Specialized work and trade through money.]
1.3 - Economics
Prior to the development of tool-use and technology, our ancestors survived the same way as other animals. They were part of biological ecosystems, and obtained their food mainly from other living things. Both primates and their food sources were self-reproducing, and self-expanding to the point of filling their ecological niches. Goods and services, and therefore trade, were limited in scope, consisting of highly local things like sharing food and grooming. Studies of living primates indicate they have a sense of fairness and reciprocity, so our ancestors likely did too. These behaviors enhanced group survival, but they also underlie modern trade.
Early Trade - By the start of the Neolithic, around 12,000 years ago, modern humans had developed a number of technologies and tool types. These included an assortment of stone tools, fire, cooking, clothing, some domesticated species, and ceramics. Prior to the development of agriculture, societies were more mobile, because they had to follow or go to where the food was. This limited the amount of tools and other artifacts they could accumulate to the level of seasonal camps. Whatever they could not carry to the next location had to be left behind and made anew, or if durable enough, stored in caches for later return. Since people at that time were anatomically modern, their social groups could average 150 members, and people could specialize in different tasks. Specialization requires trade for the goods and services made by other specialists. The mobility of hunter-gatherer cultures meant they also encountered other groups in the course of their seasonal movements. This also encouraged trade between specialties among the groups, or trade of items and materials which came from more distant places.
The Neolithic Revolution marks the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture and fixed settlements as a way of life. This seems to have happened seven times in separate locations around the world. Domestication of plants and animals increased their quality as food sources. Intentional planting and care of herds greatly increased the food supply relative to the natural state. The increased quality and quantity of food allowed for large increases in population density. Raising plants and animals was an investment of labor with a delayed return. The need to protect the work that went into agriculture led to less mobile populations. Fixed settlements then gained the ability to store food reserves, better protect people and their animals from the elements, and protect them from natural and human predators. At this stage people were still replicating themselves and their food supply through biology, and copying their tools and artifacts through technology. Individual settlements gradually expanded, and their numbers increased by starting new ones in in different geographic regions.
Economic Evolution - The increased work that went into agriculture led to property rights as a way to secure that work. Increased productivity in food production allowed more people to engage in other crafts and services. One of the new specialties was trading items made by others, i.e. merchants. The amount of goods a merchant can handle isn't limited in the same way as a single farmer is limited in the area of crops they can grow. Ownership of the goods can be vested in one person, but they can hire as many people as needed to do the physical work. Similarly, a large area of land can be acquired by conquest or purchase, and then worked by many slaves or tenants. Concentrated ownership made it possible for much larger gains than what one person could do on their own. Another route to unequal wealth was the use of force. Taking what others have made, by pillage or taxation, is also not limited by one person's labor, especially if they hire soldiers or tax collectors.
The development of property rights, division of labor, organized trade, accumulation of wealth, and taxation all came out of the Neolithic Revolution. They produced an economic system with recognizable elements that persist to this day. World population was on the order of 5 million at the start of the agricultural transition. By the time iron production became widespread, about 1000 BC, it had grown to about 50 million, and by the time of Classical Greece to 150 million. The much larger population led to more rapid improvements in technology, including in economic systems. The trend of population growth and accelerated change has continued to the present day.
Modern Economies - From a technical standpoint, modern economies are highly specialized. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks 818 Detailed Occupations, each of which are further specialized. For example, farmers and ranchers are listed as one occupation type, but dairy farms, field crops, and fruit orchards all use different skills and equipment. The US Census Bureau tracks 1,057 different industries under the NAICS Standard, all of which use different tools and skills to produce different goods and services. From an operational standpoint, modern economies are based on a mixture of voluntary trade and action, and involuntary use of force, actual or implied. To the extent people find the functions of government useful, and are willing to pay for them, they are funded voluntarily. There are always some people who must be forced to contribute against their will, so it is not all voluntary.
When the dominant mode of trade and action is voluntary, we call it a Market economy. When that economy also includes large proportions of capital accumulation, wage labor, and trade using money, we call it Capitalism. Modern economies typically include a capitalist sector, smaller scale individual trade, plus a variable sized government sector whose control varies from autocratic to extensive public choice and direction. Trade is now interconnected on a world-wide scale, so there are no truly isolated economies any more. There are many local variations in the scale of government, capitalist, and individual sectors, in the extent of physical and social development, and in the local environments and resources which underlie the economies.
Capitalist economies have an implicit goal of perpetual self-expansion. This is driven by the desire for a better quality of life, and the accumulation of wealth and power. These drives are expressed in monetary form by increasing profits and market values. Perpetual growth for some can be at the expense of others. Over-consumption of resources and discharge of wastes in the pursuit of growth can damage the environment in which we all live. So while modern economies have brought many benefits, they have also created problems, some of which we consider in the next section.
2.0 - Economic Problems and Approaches
Our modern economic system is mostly based on large-scale capitalism. By large-scale, we mean large amounts of capital vested in a smaller number of people and organizations. They then employ larger numbers of people for their specialized labor, and pay them wages in return. For example, in the US, only about 10% of workers do so for themselves rather than others. The capitalists keep a share of the revenues as profits. The majority of people, both wage-earners and capital owners, then use the money they obtain as an intermediate good to trade for the other goods and services they need. The goods and services in turn are mainly produced by the capital owners and their organizations, forming a complete trading system. A system where most people work for wages is a relatively recent historical development. For example, in the United States (US) the majority of workers were agricultural until 1880, and worked for themselves (see Table 2 in Output, Employment, & Productivity in the United States, Brady, NBER, 1966).
The current system is fairly efficient, and has allowed for rapid economic growth over the last few centuries. But it has also caused problems due to the pace of change, job insecurity, and economic inequality. In the future, smart tools may cause wholesale work displacement, and break the cycle of money by which the system operates. The current system has other problems, such as environmental impacts, and the social effects of spending so much time at work and commuting rather than with family. However, here we mainly focus on economic problems, their effects on people, and attempts to deal with them. Large-scale work displacement isn't yet severe, but we will look at proposals to deal with it. It is unclear if these proposals would work on a large scale, so additional solutions are desirable.
2.1 - Economic Problems
Modern economies evolve, and many of their problems can be traced to the effects of change. Other problems can be traced to inequalities of resources and distribution. We group these problems into three current ones: the pace of change, job insecurity, and economic inequality; and one future one: work displacement.
The Pace of Change - The time since the Neolithic Revolution is only 1/300th of the time since the first recognizable tools. Agriculture allowed a large population increase, which then greatly accelerated a feedback loop. The loop consists of (1) more living people are able to invent better technology more quickly, and (2) better technologies then allow more population growth. History since the start of agriculture has therefore been marked by a general acceleration of change. As long as the changes were slow relative to the working life of an individual, they were not a major problem. A given person could continue their current craft, with their existing skills and tools, until they stopped working. They could gradually be replaced by a new generation of people following new methods. So long as most people worked for themselves, which until the last few centuries largely meant farming, they could adopt new tools and methods on their own initiative if they so chose. The capital required for such changes was not yet beyond individual means. For example, the horse collar, horseshoe, and heavy plow increased farm production by 50% and allowed working heavy soils that were previously unsuitable. These improvements were not unreasonably expensive for farmers at the time.
In recent centuries, the pace of change has greatly accelerated. Hand weaving of cloth was replaced by machine looms, and farm tools went from animal to tractor power over time spans of about 50 years. In the late 20th century, electronics repeatedly doubled in performance every few years. The capital required to produce and use the new powered machinery often grew far beyond individual means. For their work to remain economically competitive, people were forced to work for those who had the capital and machines, rather than themselves. Old skills and entire job categories could become obsolete within a working lifetime. People often could not afford to enter new fields, due to time and expense of retraining, or the capital required to start in them. In many cases people had to take whatever work was available. This was despite not being what they wanted to do, or if they were suited to it. In some cases, their old skills were no longer useful, and it was too late in their lives to learn new ones, so they were simply left behind.
Job Insecurity - Although farming has many risks, getting laid off for business reasons is not one of them. Labor is a cost to any business, so owners and management have a constant incentive to reduce it, and thereby increase profits. They generally employ people only when the expected income from those workers exceed their added costs. Shifts in market demand, competition, and new technologies can all make previous jobs uneconomic. Businesses may then resort to layoffs if other worker attrition, from retirement or choice to work elsewhere, isn't fast enough. The level of job insecurity from all causes combined is greater than that caused only by technological change. It includes factors like making bad business decisions or losing market share to competitors. These can happen even if the total market size and the technologies used haven't changed. Changes which affect employment in a given enterprise constantly happen, so a percentage of people are always at risk of losing their job. In the US, the actual rate of involuntary job separations is about 15% per year, with between 3.5 and 10% unemployed at any given time. Lack of work is a problem in a system where most people rely on it as the means to supply their basic needs. Our economic system assumes you trade your labor for money, so that later you can trade the money to others for the goods and services they can supply you.
Economic Inequality - Early humans had to work together and share to ensure survival. Their seasonal movements did not allow for accumulating many physical goods. So economic inequality was limited. Since the development of property rights and gaining from the work of others, the inequalities could grow. For example, ancient kings accumulated far more wealth and power than their slaves or peasants. We have a higher average quality of life today, but these inequalities persist. Stored wealth provides a reserve to withstand setbacks like job loss or illness. Low income inhibits building such reserves, so setbacks can be catastrophic. Lack of resources can result in poor education, which can perpetuate in later generations. Poverty also can result in poor nutrition, health care, and living conditions. Relative poverty can persist even in developed economies, and even while the poor are working.
Work Displacement - New technologies, such as automation, robotics, software, and artificial intelligence, have been developed since the mid-20th Century. They enable Smart Tools, which are increasingly able to replace part or all of the work people do in existing jobs. The tools may still need a person's attention part of the time, but significantly less than when the work is done without them. If fewer people are needed for a given amount of work, then without other changes, those people become unemployed.
The technologies of the Industrial Revolution replaced large amounts of manual labor in the past, but the pace of change was slower. People were able to transition to work in other fields, including new ones enabled by better technology. The problems with smart tools is their ability to be rapidly introduced, and to do jobs so well that humans aren't needed at all in doing those tasks. Demand for new types of goods and services can create new jobs, but some people are not suited for high-skill jobs like programming and designing robots. The number of new jobs may also be much smaller than the ones lost. If new jobs are not created fast enough the unemployment rate may increase in coming years.
Some examples of current and near-term work displacement include:
- Self checkout at supermarkets and card readers at gas station pumps. These have reduced the need for cashiers.
- The mass introduction of warehouse robots by Amazon, which reduces how many workers are needed to fill orders.
- The ongoing development of self-driving vehicles, which may affect all kinds of transportation and delivery jobs. Automated warehouses plus automated delivery puts all kinds of retail jobs at risk, by entirely bypassing retail distribution.
- The development of AI agents like Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google Assistant, coupled with augmented/virtual reality devices. They are currently used for home automation and entertainment. But in the future, schools may face pressure to replace some of the teacher's work with interactive systems using these kinds of tools. What happens to those teachers and school systems in that case?
Note that the wealthy, those with sufficient retirement income, and beneficiaries of social programs are not at immediate risk of becoming unemployed. Their needs are met in other ways than through jobs. Also a significant number of people are dependents of workers, so in total only about half the US population is currently working or between jobs, and directly at risk of displacement. However, large-scale replacement of work has broader effects on the entire economic system than just the people who are out of work. It can eventually affect everyone.
Without earned income, the unemployed don't pay income and payroll taxes. They don't buy as many goods, so sales taxes also go down. Therefore governments will lose a share of the revenue they need to function. Lower government revenue means social programs and government employment also decrease, further lowering economic activity. The businesses the unemployed no longer patronize also lose income and employment, even if they use smart tools. The owners of such businesses lose a share of their income too. Lack of enough paid work is then a systemic problem for a capitalist economy which depends on it as an integral part. Such spirals of contracting economic activity are called recessions or depressions, and cause large-scale unhappiness and even civil unrest. These are undesirable results. If the existing system can't handle this problem, then what sort of system should replace it? If changes are required, how do we manage the transition?
2.2 - Previous and Recent Approaches
Modern humans are Social Animals. We constantly interact with other people and depend on them, rather than operate as lone individuals. Some things we can do for ourselves, such as cooking meals at home. But for many other things, such as the electricity and natural gas for the cooking, the production of the appliances and utensils we use, and the production and supply of the food to cook, we rely on other people. There have always been members of society who are disadvantaged in some way, or can't fully contribute to the functions of society. Examples include the very young or old, and those who are injured or sick. Because we function as a society, we care for others and realize we may become disadvantaged ourselves at some point. Care for others is carried out at the level of family and friends, through voluntary contributions and organizations, and through involuntary programs funded by taxes and operated by governments. The care has one of two goals. The first is solve the person's disadvantages if that is possible. So we raise and educate children, and heal the sick and injured, so they can function as part of society. If the problems are unsolvable, such as the ones that happen to very old people, our goal is to give them at least a decent quality of life.
The economic problems noted in the previous section affect those who are able to work, but disadvantaged by their circumstances. Their skills may be obsolete due to technological change, or their employer no longer finds their work useful enough to cover their wages. They then are left without income buy the things they need. They may not have the capital, or access to it, to purchase improved equipment. They may also lack the time, funds, or ability to learn new skills. These disadvantages leave them unable to enter new fields and continue working. In the future, so much work may be displaced by smart tools that there simply isn't enough left for the people who want or need it.
People have dealt with past economic problems the same ways we deal with other problems in society. They approach them as individuals, through family and friends, voluntary organizations, or involuntary programs. Previously used methods have had varying levels of success, and none have yet had to handle wholesale replacement of work. Proposals to meet the challenges of smart tools may be inadequate. To the extent they are not full solutions, or we are uncertain of their future capacity as such, there is a need for additional new approaches.
Previous Approaches - Everyone is born unable to care for themselves, and without the knowledge and skills to function as part of society. The general approach to solving this is care and education of the young by their parents, and some combination of others, including interacting with other children. Childhood education supplies the basic skills for self-care, language, and other areas that are assumed to be needed by everyone in society. More advanced education and training then supplies specialized skills. These enable trading work for income. Some people follow their interests rather than skills for maximum income. This is only possible in societies with enough surplus to support optional activities beyond those needed to live. Generally childhood care and education is provided by parents first, then by government programs funded by taxes. The more advanced education is provided in a variety of ways: by government programs, by private sources and institutions who have sufficient funds, and by students borrowing against their future income. Some retraining programs exist for people in later life who choose or are forced to change fields. The education system generally works, although there are some problems with funding, personal cost, and access.
For people who are disadvantaged in other ways besides being young, another general approach is wealth redistribution. This is mainly via taxes and social programs, with some voluntary contributions and organizations. Wealth normally flows upwards towards those who already have some. They profit from the work of those they employ or lend capital to, in addition to whatever work they do themselves. The profits are unlimited, unlike their own work, so their wealth can rapidly accumulate. Redistribution can then have two purposes. One is to avoid extreme accumulation by the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. The other is to obtain funding from those who are more able to give, for the general protection and improvement of society as a whole, or directed to the less fortunate or able.
Redistribution happens when the incidence of funding sources is different than the social distributions they provide. When a billionaire is taxed to fund a public school system, the net distribution is downwards. But this is not always true of taxes and government programs. For example, government contracts with companies that have highly paid workers and wealthy corporate owners may move funds higher on the wealth scale than the people taxed to pay for them. Social programs generally intend to help those who need it via redistribution. One such program to deal with job insecurity is unemployment insurance. Employers pay a tax to fund this program, which then temporarily pays people who can't find work. Another set are social insurance and medical programs funded by employers and the workers themselves. People eventually grow too old to work, and need more medical care. They can also become disabled or die when younger. The programs then provide income and medical coverage for former workers and their dependents. The redistribution effect comes from benefits being capped while funding has higher limits, and from minimum benefits being supplied even if lower income doesn't cover them. A third set of programs are aimed at re-education and retraining for people affected by economic changes.
In addition to voluntary and government programs, people are encouraged to save from their current wages, to cover adverse conditions like job loss or health problems, and for eventual retirement. They can also pursue self-training and education. People helping themselves is useful, but not always possible given their circumstances. If their income is low, there may not be enough surplus to save. Their work and family care may not leave enough time to gain new skills. Overall, the set of approaches used to deal with economic problems have worked well enough that people haven't yet demanded large changes to them.
Recent Proposals - The rapid development of smart tools has the potential to cause large-scale displacement of work, without creating enough new work in other areas to replace it. The concern is for the social and economic disruption this can cause in a system based on trading work for money. The most commonly proposed approach involves increased government redistribution from those who have, to those who now don't.
One version is called Basic Income, or sometimes Negative Income Tax. It is intended partly to replace other existing social programs with a simpler method, and also to address permanent work displacement. The concept is to provide payments to every adult, or in some versions every individual, regardless of need or income level. It would provide a minimum floor to living standards. People and businesses with sufficient wages and income would be taxed to fund this system, much as they do existing programs. An alternate version is to increase government employment and funded work programs, such as a Federal Job Guarantee This may be more acceptable than simply giving money to everyone, since the recipients are seen as working for what they get, and the work itself can be useful.
The problem with these approaches is they can't be sustained in the face of large-scale replacement of work. As we noted above in section 2.1, the systemic secondary effects of work displacement reduce many of the other sources for taxation. There would not be enough tax revenue left to make the payments from. Very high tax rates on the remaining sources encourage people and businesses to move elsewhere to avoid them. Unless the new taxes are applied everywhere at the same time, the incentives to move away will be strong. We see this already with corporations and the wealthy moving funds "offshore" - to another country or jurisdiction) to avoid taxes. The alternative of simply creating money to fund the payments would cause inflation, which has other undesirable side effects.
Agriculture is the part of technology concerned with purposely growing living things. That living things can grow and make copies of themselves from seeds or by giving birth was evident to people at least as long as agriculture has been used, which is about 12,000 years, and was probably known before that. Understanding the detailed mechanisms only began a few hundred years ago, including replication of DNA, division of cells, and all the supporting biochemical elements. Biological seeds usually contain the plant embryo, which does the actual growing, a supply of nutrients to support the initial growth, and a protective coating. But long before understanding the details of how they worked, people knew seeds grew into full sized plants, which in turn produced more seeds. This is known as the Biological Life Cycle.
Because each plant generally produces many seeds, their number can grow exponentially until they are limited by competition or available resources. So any natural landscape which can support them tends to be covered in plants. Total oceanic Primary Production approximately equals that on land, but is more thinly distributed because the water absorbs sunlight before it can be used. It also consists of more microscopic organisms on a relative basis due to lack of solid anchorage in deep waters. Once people learned to exploit the supply of nutrients, in particular plants and animals, and started raising them intentionally, the natural ability of living things to grow exponentially increased the human food supply dramatically. In turn, human population also grew exponentially. The inventiveness per person of modern humans has probably not changed much in the past 200,000 years. But with vastly more people today, and better ways to pass on knowledge, the accumulation of new knowledge and culture has also grown exponentially.
- Starter Sets
Starter sets have occurred throughout human history, especially when settling new areas. At first, these were a hand-carried set of tools to be used in a new location to hunt, chop, and grind. The need to carry them limited their total mass. Once more complex levels of technology had developed, colonizing a new location via ship or land travel included bringing along a larger starter set of plant seeds, animals, tools, and an inventory of finished items like nails, which could not be made immediately. Once they arrived, people set about clearing, planting, and building, eventually reaching the point they could make their own tools. Until then, they traded with their original location for items they could not yet make. The contents of a starter set has varied by era, but it was well understood that you needed one to survive and flourish in a new location. In the modern world, the idea of starting fresh at a new location has become less common. Improved transportation and cheap mass production are used instead to deliver finished items when needed. An idea can still be useful, though, even if it is not currently popular. We can update the basic idea of a starter set to incorporate 21st century equipment, and combine it with additional ideas and methods. This can make it a relevant choice again, especially in more difficult and remote locations.
Workshop builders are accustomed to upgrading the shop by building storage, workbenches, jigs, and other extensions using their starter set of tools and machines. Sometimes wood and metal shops will build complete new machines using the ones they already have. But such workshops typically do not produce all of their own parts. Normally they make the easier items, and buy parts like bearings and motors which are harder to make. So far as we know, no one has yet designed and operated a workshop or factory which intentionally uses a starter set, makes most or all of the items for its own expansion, and uses high levels of automation.
- Smart Tools
At first, all work was performed entirely by human muscle. Once work animals were domesticated we added their muscles to ours. Mechanization refers to the replacement of muscle power with machines using other power sources. Mechanization extends back to ancient times in particular cultures and for particular tasks, but only became widespread since the Industrial Revolution, starting around 1760. Where mechanization replaces muscles, Automation, Robotics, Software and Artificial Intelligence (AI), which we can collectively call Smart Tools, further replace the highly flexible arms, senses, and decision-making of people. They make possible mechanical, electrical, electronic, and information systems which can do tasks on their own. This reduces the need for constant human attention for work tasks. By the mid-20th century, electronics had developed to the point they could be programmed and used as sensors, and the field of Control Theory was well enough understood to design self-operating systems that used these electronic devices. Automation, robotics, and software started to be developed on a large scale from that time. AI took until the late 20th century to be well enough developed for practical applications, and is now being widely deployed.
Machines in general involve movement, but in the past the type of movement was fixed by design. Robots are machines which can perform movement under automated or remote control, where the specific movements are not predetermined. You can change the task a robot performs by changing the control inputs. Robotics has developed in parallel with more fixed types of automation. By now (2017) automation and robotics are extensively used in manufacturing, and are starting to be used in other environments. In the past, people have used tools and machines to make more tools and machines. The development of smart tools means the machines are becoming more able to do so on their own, without needing people to do much of the work.