The Technium

Future Scarcities

What kind of things might be scarce in a future world filled with advance AIs and advance science that could probably reverse engineer most things? It is hard to think of something we could not synthesize.

In the sci-fi story Dune, the empire revolves around melange spice, which can give users prophetic abilities. Use of the spice is the only way to navigate through the stars. Therefore the planet where the spice is mined becomes a battle ground because this spice is so valuable.

Why can’t this spice be synthesized? If a civilization could make inter-galatic travel possible, surely they could replicate this spice’s chemistry and physics. In any coherent plausible future, they would have. They would synthesize the substance near to where they needed it.

If it isn’t melange spice, is there anything, say in a thousand years from now, that would be worth traveling to another planet to retrieve? There are currently plans to mine asteroids. The idea is that the concentration of metals is so high in them that is it worth the cost of space construction and shipping to make it more economical than mining and refining on Earth. It is unclear if this will be true.

But what if you could hop around planets in our galaxy as easily as we hope around this planet?  Is it possible there could be anything on a planet that might make it valuable, like Dune? That is, the conditions on the planet might generate something that could not (easily) be generated in a lab somewhere else?

Perhaps there is something about a planet’s position in space that is scarce? Maybe a black hole nearby is needed to produce some form of natural Unobtainium, which is beyond most civilization’s skill set. So this material becomes an inter-galatic scarcity. Except to the more advanced civilizations, to whom it is trivial because they figured out how to mimic the conditions of a black hole. So if it is trivial, then why not manufacture it for cheap and make it widely available? If space hopping was easy, then this material would soon be in stores all over the galaxy.

Possible scarcities might be found in:

– Materials needing rare planetary forces to make. Star-level energies?

– Materials requiring super levels of intelligence /knowledge, and kept kind of secret

– Materials requiring vast collaborations of many minds to produce

– Living species that accomplish things like spinning silk that are not hard to synthesize but are rare and collectible.

– Materials requiring vast amounts of time to produce. Perhaps a natural substance needs a billion years to ripen, and this may be found in only a few places.

– Construction projects that need a long time to create, and so are hard to replicate. The chief hurdle in constructing a Dyson Sphere is not the energy or materials or even knowledge needed. It may be the very long time (millennia?) needed. A society can change their mind mid-way, or even forget why they are building it. I wonder if the galaxy is strewn not with the ruins of vanished civilization but with the ruins of abandoned grand projects — half a death star, half a Dyson sphere. A complete Dyson Sphere may be extremely valuable.

– Very odd physical circumstances might enable a service or a material — like say a wormhole — that could be controlled by a society. The planet happens to sit next to a wormhole, so anyone who wants to use this wormhole needs to stop at their planet first. This combination could be rare.

The most obvious answer to this question is that the holy grail may be the very conditions for higher life forms.  Perhaps goldilocks planets are rare in the universe. In other words, a planet with sufficient conditions that can breed intelligent life  — like the planet Earth — may be very rare. Life of some sort may be common in the universe, but highly developed intelligent life may be rare, because in turn, a planet with the right gravity, the right amount of water, the right distance from a star, the right orbit, the right magnetic field, etc etc maybe extremely rare.  In which case this goldilocks planet itself is the prize.

Beyond finding a whole Earth-like planet, there may not be much reason for space hauling. If no material is scarce then there won’t be much inter-stellar freight. It seems the main attraction will not be materials but either planets or minds. It is possible that habitable planets might produce beings, ideas and civilizations that are found no where else. in the universe. Therefore there could be all kinds of technologies found only on certain planets. So if there was space hopping, then sailing around the universe looking for new technologies might be a viable enterprise.

The thing about advanced technologies is that they may be hard to export; unless you export the system and maybe the cultural system that supports them. If your tech hunter found a planet with really cool inter-dimensional travel gear, you might need a whole colony of the beings to run it, and to explain it, and to maybe transfer it (or not).

Technological and cultural products may be the only scarcities in the galaxy. The only reason to hop around the galaxy is to search for some new bizarre technology that your own civilization may never dream of making, no matter how long it lived. It literally could not think it because of the very specific conditions that set of ideas needs are only present on that specific weird planet. Ideas are the only scarcities.


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