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Mass as currency, virtual, and material persons


(Michael Hrenka) #1

How could the economy work, if we were in a future in which you could convert the mass of matter into energy and vice versa with extremely high efficiency (around 99%)? This question comes from my thoughts about my latest sci-fi world Canonical Coherence (formerly “Universally Advanced”), because in that world this kind of matter-energy conversion is actually possible.

Materials vs Virtuals

More specifically, this question arose from the comparison of virtuals, AIs / whole brain emulations run on a synthetic computational substrate, only interacting with the real world via avatars / surrogates and other tools, and materials, humans and other beings who use a material body with its own mind generating unit (aka brain). It shouldn’t be surprising that virtuals require way less matter to operate than materials. You could have a million virtuals for every material, or more. Similarly, the energy costs for sustaining a virtual would we way lower than those for a material, who needs to sustain their whole body and brain.

Obviously, virtuals have a huge comparative advantage: The low basic living costs. There would be a big economic incentive to switch to a virtual existence, in order to save on living costs. This could be countered by covering those with a basic income that covered living costs, depending on how big they are for the specific mode of existence. But that wouldn’t be a homogenous universal basic income. And it would be a pretty significant subvention for the materials, with the virtuals covering most of the costs (if we assume that they are responsible for most of the economic activity). Nevertheless, there might be good reasons for the virtuals to support such a basic income, especially if they want to keep the option to switch to a material body open for themselves, or if they are fond of “material culture”, in a fashion that is not too dissimilar from today’s people fondness of nature and natural wildlife.

Mass as universal currency

Using energy as universal currency has already been suggested, but that suggestion comes with the problem of different energy prices in different regions. But using matter as universal energy storage would solve that problem, if extremely efficient matter-energy-conversion technology was available ubiquitously. Matter would become the equivalent of gold coins that were accepted everywhere. The kilogram would be the universal currency unit that all other economic assets would be measured in. And it would hardly matter what kind of matter we were talking about, since compared to the mass energy of matter, chemical and even nuclear energy are comparatively negligible. A kg of platinum would be worth pretty much the same as a kg of fat.

Mass credits

Transporting matter itself to make financial transaction would be a little bit inconvenient. Therefore, people would very quickly abstract from pure matter and introduce a currency that is simply backed by the claim to get matter of a specified mass at certain locations. Let’s call those claims “mass credits”. There would of course a need to take measures aimed at preventing the forgery of mass credits. Similarly, a fractional reserve banking system with mass credits might not be desirable, since it would break the strict correspondence of mass credits to actually existing mass that someone could have always enforceable claims to.

Mass is energy

Since mass is convertible to energy, it would be equally justified to talk about energy credits. You could pay most of your energy bills by selling a few fractions of a gram of matter. The mass energy of a gram of matter roughly corresponds to the energy released by the “Litte Boy” atom bomb that was used to nuke Hiroshima during the WW2.

The sun’s energy output

Our sun has a power output of 3.8 x 10^26 W, or 3800 trillion trillion Joule per second. How much would that be in mass? That would be 4.2 billion kg per second. If we could collect all of that energy and grant every human being a corresponding income in mass credits, that income would be about 0.5 kg per second, or 500 Little Boy explosion equivalents per second.

Assuming we could increase out population by a factor of a trillion, everyone would could still get an income of 0.5 nanogram per second, or about 16 mg per year. That would be enough to cover even excessive energy bills, but you would have to save for millions of years in order to be able to afford a human physical body. Actually, that wouldn’t matter too much, since the mass of a trillion billion people is less than half of a billionth of the sun’s mass (2.0 x 10^30 kg). And the sun isn’t especially efficient at turning its mass into energy anyway. We would be better off, starlifting (see video below) the sun, and converting its matter into energy directly!

Actually it would be reasonable to starlift a fraction of the mass of our sun to make a Dyson cloud of desired and use the rest of its mass energy to keep it running for billions, trillions, or even quadrillions of years (the exact number would obviously a hot political issue).

But all of that is still a money based economy

Yes, to some it will certainly see absurd that we will still be using some kind of money in a world in which we have the technology for extremely efficient matter energy conversion (and probably also “replicator” technology). It is quite possible that money would be frowned upon, especially once much more sophisticated economic systems will have been developed. But you could see mass credits as fall-back layer, or underlying matter economics layer, that could be used where more sophisticated methods of dealing with economic issues seem inappropriate, for whatever reasons.


Self-miniaturization is an interesting idea :grin:. Whole citys could be downsized to say, table size. Autarky will be easy living under a blade of grass. But you ll need some superweapons against nasty bugs and pet dogs still searching for their miniaturized owners. On the other hand by then pets will have neuronal enhancements and have a civilized life of their own. And sooner or later they ll think about miniaturization.


In such an economy, you have basically reduced the type of goods on the market to one single type. You will no longer require money. You only need a system to track the ownership of material and a market for exchanging materials in different locations. The end result will be that the location will affect the value of the material in question. I won’t try to guess how large the differences would be. It depends on how small a space people feel the need to squeeze themselves into, collectively.

If there are still something other than material to trade with, in such a situation, then material itself will be the currency used. Fractional reserve banking is way too complex a beast to make any sense in the situation you describe. It’s probably too complex to make any sense even now.

(Michael Hrenka) #4

This is about what I imagined those “mass credits” to be. But it’s actually a bit more complicated than something like a gold-backed money system. In a “matter based economy”, the matter is the asset you use to back your money, but at the same time you would want to optimize the physical distribution of matter for your own purposes. You’d probably end up with a sophisticated grid of “matter banks” that simply store matter for future use. Alternatively, you could try to maket the best use of matter in every second, but then it gets nasty when someone is trying to “cash out” on matter. You’d have to destroy some nice arrangement of matter (mostly habitats) in order to enable those who cash out on it to do something else with that matter. That wouldn’t fit well with those who have claims on those “nice arrangements of matter”. Having dedicated matter banks would remove that potential source of conflict.

This is probably easiest understood, if you think of matter or energy as being money. The value of that money will depend on the relation of the amount of money to the amount of “other valuable stuff” being close to a specific location. I’d guess that in the future the prime value will lie in location. Having lots of people and information around you will be seen as quite valuable, because cultural richness emerges from proximity of people and information interacting with each other. Even though there will be lots of matter in “crowded” places, the cultural value will probably still be much higher in comparison to sparely populated places. Matter would have a high value there, just as land has a much higher value in city centers than in the countryside.

When relocating matter from one location to another, one might also need to take relativistic effects into account, caused by large relative motions, and time dilation caused by large gravity fields – which is interesting, because it would slightly decease the value of large collections of matter at one place, compared to a more even distribution.

I don’t think it would be too complex. The problem I see is rather what to do in the case that people want to “cash out” more matter than is currently available in matter banks. Such possible failure modes do make it seem much preferable to stick to full (matter) reserve banking. Long term stability of the economy and its material basis would probably be much more important than sheer short-term efficiency, especially once people live indefinitely.