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Wednesday, 21 September 2011


Money is not evolutionarily stable.

By this, I mean that no living organism would ever evolve by natural selection that had a system of exchanging worthless, but hard-to-forge, tokens for items of value with other organisms (either of its own species, or of another).

Firstly, it is obvious that this has never happened.  No living thing has - or has ever had - a system equivalent to money.  This could be simply because the money mutation has never been chanced upon by natural selection.  But in fact it goes deeper than that.  Such a mutation would be less fit than its competitors and would die out, as I shall show.

But hang on, you say, people are naturally-evolved living organisms, and people use money.  Yes - but human money is a temporary aberration; our money is about to succumb to the forces that have prevented its evolving and surviving elsewhere in nature.  Indeed, we have just started to see the first signs of its mortality. 

Before we go on, note that there are plenty of bartering systems in nature.  Nectar is exchanged for pollination; sugary fruit is exchanged for the distribution of seeds.   But nectar and fruit have real value; they cost real energy to synthesise and their consumer gets some of that real energy back; they are like you obtaining your groceries by giving the shop 20 litres of petrol.

So why don't plants give bees a nectar token that the bees can cash in for a meal later, or maybe exchange with a house martin for a nest site?  The reason is the phrase "hard-to-forge" that I started with.  Such a scheme would put a selection pressure on the bees to forge the nectar tokens so they could get free nectar (or nest sites).  And they would succeed because, like all living things, they make everything atom by atom.

Nothing, and certainly no worthless token, is unforgeable if you construct everything atom by atom, and this is the reason that money is evolutionarily unstable. 

The picture above is of a forged keyboard on an ATM machine designed to clone credit cards.   The latest scam is to use 3D printing to make these.   Eventually 3D printers will be using atomic force microscope technology to build everything they make atom by atom.  Coins, bank notes, and credit cards will be among the simpler items to manufacture.

At that point money becomes valueless.  We will be left with just the encryption-based schemes like Bitcoin in its place.  Except that we won't, because one of the items that atom-by-atom 3D printing will probably give us is the quantum computer, which allows anyone to crack all the encryption schemes currently in use.  Maybe money will survive in the form of quantum encryption, but that seems far from certain.

If the ability to make anything kills money, how fortunate it will be that we will coincidentally have just aquired a universal technology that will allow people to make everything that they want for themselves without money...


Valdis said...

I agree with all except statement that money is hard-to-forge, because in electronic financial markets money is created literally out of nothing in huge amounts.
And I suspect _that_ is problem because global money supply is subject of speculations and has no any relation to real goods and services anymore.
Probably we need to switch to bitcoins as fast as possible to gain some more time before next financial collapse (when bitcoins will also be easy-to-forge).

Adrian Bowyer said...

Surely "in electronic financial markets money is created literally out of nothing in huge amounts" is exactly forgery :-)

Lars Ræder Clausen said...

I don't see how you can on one hand claim that 3D printing will bring us the quantum computer (especially since non-3D printing has not gotten even close yet), yes dismiss out of hand that money can survive using quantum encryption.

Fortunately for the economic system, 3D printing is still very, very far from being able to forge money. And I wouldn't be surprised to see some physical limits on how cheaply you can do atom-by-atom printing just by energy consumption. Having to place on the order of 10^23 atoms precisely takes a lot of information. There are much easier ways to "print money", see the other comments.

Any theoretical physicists around who can put a lower limit on the energy required to computationally place atoms?

tfelix said...

Well, I don't believe we'll be having 3D printers capable of building everything atom by atom any time soon.

If we do, then I agree that our notion of money will change radically. But for something we're already getting familiar with.

We as species evolved in the bartering systems we used from physical goods, to a representation of those goods in a hard-to-forge token to what we finnaly came to use which is basicly saved state information in a machine.

This last bit (pun intended) changed everything, because we left the cosy real world physics and thermodynamics and entered the digital world ones.

And here is where the problem lies, because in the digital world, that atom-by-atom manipulation already happens. In the digital world, we can easily clone a book, a car, a house or, ofcourse, a million dollars. Thats why encryption is used, to give value to things (encryption is just the analogy of thermodynamics in the digital world).

And that changes completly the perspective of value (we seeing the debates that are already happening already for things that migrated or are migrating to the digital world like music, books and movies).

So if we ever build 3D printers capable of replicating things atom by atom, in the physical world, by that time we've already evolved our notion of money.

Adrian Bowyer said...

On reflection, I think I was wrong to say that 3D printers will be using AFM technology to build things atom by atom. I agree that that's clearly very inefficient. You and I (like the bees) are built atom by atom, and that is done much more cleverly using self-replicating micro-machines. That is obviously the way to implement artificial building systems that work at that scale too. You do it with programmable controllable bacteria.

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