Monday, 13 June 2011

Guest post by Martin O'Dea: Economics for technological acceleration

Martin O'Dea lectures in Management and Human Resource Management at the Dublin Business School: The internet was a revolution that saw massive investment followed by the seemingly inevitable crash and the eventual rebalancing in monetary value of a central technology that can greatly benefit our lives, keeping us informed, connected and allowing us to see the world as our market.

The fact that technologies don’t forget what they learn or, indeed, don’t need anything other than the smallest amount of time to download what another piece of hardware has acquired, added to the fact that scientists in their lab coats keep finding ways to push the speed and efficiency of how they can compute to levels of unimaginable speed and accuracy mean that technology does not just grow its impact and potential; it accelerates.

What economic impact of 3D printing, cloud computing, nanotechnology and simulated realities? What impact of the fact that these developments may be surpassed within months of actualisation, what impact of the fact that that very process may speed up? Perhaps more relevant again, what impact of appropriately functioning robots in the workplaces? Robotics was like many arenas of technology, unrealistically thought to change the world in the 1980s – the vast complexity in the simple things that humans do and would need to be replicated (like sidestepping an opening door) were not accounted for; and many people assumed that robots were a thing that was not quite a thing of the past.

There are many companies in Japan and elsewhere that are over 30 years into development and would beg to differ, again it is important to bear in mind – if you teach one robot to do something, you, effectively and instantaneously, teach them all. Do you believe that when a point is reached (and all evidence now sees this as within reach inside a decade) that robots can carry out the work involved in a fast food restaurant that McDonalds will continue to pay people instead of buying robots? It is said that you can only approach the future with the psychology of the past; but should we add the economics of the past to that as well. Certainly this means unemployment to those currently employed in McDonalds, but, it is really missing the picture if we do not see the continuous societal benefit of developing technologies, and we cannot find economics that will stop us hurting from our progress.

There is a debate as to whether there will ever be a post-scarcity society. The idea of standing before a Star Trek ‘Replicator’ type device has often been the root of young jokes as teenagers imagined conjuring up cigarettes and alcohol from these manipulators of matter; however can I suggest that people look at 3D printing via the recent announcement to begin to grapple with the concept of a future of post-scarcity. I am inclined to align myself with the argument that the value will be acquired by the desirability in the future, and so like oxygen (abundant and free) there will be many things that are now monetised that will not be so soon – and this, of course will greatly help humanity; however, I feel that whether it is leisure/physical space/certain resources/information there will be future monetised objects and perhaps while we could all print some clothing only leading designers of 3D printed items will charge money for theirs etc.

I would like to pose a simple concept for economists' comment in light of the above. If there will be, and in many ways already are, essential and desirable and abundant free products could we not realign our monetisation system to represent that with more social benefit. Could we not use two separate currencies? One currency would be used for a wide range of product/services that are seen as necessities.

Every household would have access to a large purchasing power within these categories, including much of welfares payments etc. and have a large universal wage that would allow each person sufficient funds to be adequately supplied with these items. Those that earn more may take some of their payment in the second –non-essential – currency. Most likely the ‘luxury’ items will take a mixture of currencies as one could buy non-essential currency with the essential currency. However, certain products/services being made widely available while maintaining the competitive motivations of the market economy and competitive labour markets could be achieved in this model – while we ease towards a society where perhaps the house with the beach will remain sought after but very many things become universally available.

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