Five years ago, as part of a project for the European Commission Horizon 2020 Research and Development program about future megatrends, I interviewed Tom, who was working at eBay on — among equally awesome projects — space currency. While I thought the topic was absolutely fascinating, I had to admit to myself, and to my client in Brussels, that it was a very niche interest. Space currency definitely did not make it to my final report.
Since then, a lot has changed in space travel. The average annual space passenger growth is forecast at 10% through 2021, the U.S. regulation on celestial body ownership was amended, and the prospect of planet colonization becomes more real with every successful SpaceX journey.
From money-free space to money-free societies
Still, no money is used in space today. That’s because everything astronauts and cosmonauts need — from oxygen to water to food — is provided. Think of it as an all-inclusive holiday or cruise. So a space hack, which reportedly happened earlier this year from the International Space Station, would target a bank account based on Earth.
As described in my previous article, in a future when robots take care of the jobs once carried out by humans, there might be no need for money here either. So, space money — or the lack of it — is a useful metaphor to envisage how societies on Earth may one day function without money.
Two trends are at play that could see the emergence of a moneyless world.
- First, when we humans don’t work anymore, we won’t get paid wages. As consumers, we therefore will have no labor-related income to buy the goods and services we’ll certainly continue to need.
- But — and this is our second trend — as robots and machines produce all the necessities humans consume, these can be offered at little or no cost, just as they are available to space travelers today.
To kick-start this future, some version of the universal basic incomes (UBI) discussed in the first article in this series may need to be paid, starting with those who are first to lose their jobs to machines (such as truck and taxi drivers). But this tangible payment could disappear over time.
Living an “all-inclusive” life
Already today, money is increasingly dematerialized. A majority of payments in Canada, Sweden and the UK were already cashless in 2017. In China, 56 percent of payment cards in circulation have contactless functionalities. A transaction today is often just a tap of a plastic card or a smartphone or a device (soon a chip embedded in our bodies?). At the other end, these transactions appear as a simple line of digital text on a screen, which happens today to be an online bank statement.
I’d argue that it is a small step from there to get us into an “all-inclusive” life, where a UBI “credit” appears in our e-wallet at the start of the month, or even when we are born. This credit is then exchanged for food, accommodations, travel, healthcare or whatever else we wish or need to consume.
Two immediate questions remain:
- Where do states find money to pay a UBI to their citizens (who can’t be taxed, as no one is working nor earning)?
- Since there will still be an input cost to make things, how will raw materials be sourced and paid for?
Assuming nations still exist in this future (in no way a given: only 19 countries on Earth have higher individual GDPs than the one-trillion-dollar market capitalizations achieved by Apple and Amazon in 2018), the answers to these two questions may be just one.
States could agree with corporations owning the robots, access to their national natural resources needed to make everything humans need in exchange for a corporate tax that funds the by-then invisible UBI payments. If states own the robot-owning corporations (as may be the case in China) or if large corporations have superseded nation states, such an arrangement would not even be necessary.
What if we run out of raw materials? Another source for these would clearly be other planets, by then discovered and exploited, eradicating the risk of shortages. In this scenario, scarcity, as an economic concept, disappears altogether.
Maybe that’s what Tom, now at Google, is working on?