Whoever said 2012 was all we had to worry about? As a matter of fact, we have bigger problems on our hands. The world economy is floundering. We have thus far managed to avoid complete collapse, and given the efforts various world governments have been putting into preventing it, I don't see one happening any time soon. However, we are still just treading water. And the factors working against our economy are getting stronger day by day.
There are four recent and upcoming developments that I believe will eventually bring an end to the economy as we know it. They are the so called four horsemen my title refers to. The first is already here, and has already caused catastrophic economic upheaval. The second is rapidly approaching, and has instituted itself as a major factor in the current unemployment situation. The last two are still a ways off, but once they arrive, our existing economic system will no longer have a basis on which to function.
The first horseman is the internet. The internet has so far managed to make intellectual property laws unenforceable, changed human socialization to something that primarily happens with a mouse and keyboard, created an environment where people are willing to pay for virtual property which doesn't exist and can be taken away with no repercussions, and above all else eliminated the need for millions of jobs. It's hard to overstate just what a broad impact the internet has had on our economy. And that's just for starters. With stuff like Bitcoin on the horizon, we could see and end to money as we know it. The internet doesn't however, have the power to kill the economy completely. It still relies too much on human labor, and deals too much with real goods and scarcities. Those are problems that can, and will be solved.
The second horseman is robotics. Now I know what you're thinking, and no, I am not talking about manicial robots taking over the world and making us their slaves, thereby eliminating our petty economy. No, I'm talking about robots stealing away our jobs and eliminating our petty economy. This is more or less already happening. Of course most economists are still saying that this isn't such a big deal. The guiding hand of the economy solves everything right? Even if we replace all the blue collar jobs with robots, we'll still need people to build an maintain said robots, won't we? Well...
The third horseman is self-replication. This is kind of a broad category, and it's something that hasn't really developed yet, but let's look at an early example. The RepRap is a machine designed to replicate it's own parts. Right now it can only replicate a few of them, but steady progress is being made. It's only a matter of time until someone develops a robot than can achieve complete self-replication. And if it can replicate itself, it can replicate other things too.
I would like to take a moment now to ask you to imagine what the economy of the future looks like. We have machines that replicate themselves, and therefore don't need humans to build and maintain them. They can also replicate any other machines necessary to manufacture goods. They can of course also gather and process any raw resources required for self-replication and manufacturing. All of this is provably possible, because humans already do it. If humans can do it, a machine can do it too. It's just a matter of getting the design and programming right.
Luckily for us, there's still one thing left robots can't do. Think. Robots may be able to automate all the processes involved with producing goods, but what if you need something only a human brain can produce? Robots can't design new and better products, they can't write music or literature, for that matter they can't even handle a decent conversation on a customer service hotline. If we completely ignore the fact that we've already eliminated the need for 90% of jobs that currently exist, and the fact that technically nobody actually needs to work anymore since you can provide food, water, and shelter for free, surely we must be able to cobble together a functional economy with the remaining labor that requires humans?
The fourth horseman is the Singularity. So far the only way we have been able to maintain any semblance of a need for an economy is the requirement for intellectual labor. The work of the mind, so to speak. Except, as was stated earlier, it is provably true that if a human can do it, so can a machine. Sooner or later we will be able to build artificial intelligences that are as smart or smarter than humans. This is admittedly, still a ways off. A computer that can beat humans at Jeopardy does not a singularity make. A super-intelligent machine could however, conceivably fill all the roles currently occupied by human intellect, without asking for any sort of personal gain in return. Take that economy.
If we have automated processes that are capable of taking over every task of any value a human can accomplish, you no longer need an economy. It's just that simple. Actually, you don't really need humans anymore at all, do you? But that's a subject for another post. Now please excuse me while I go and laugh at the economists who are saying the unemployment numbers will be going down soon... if I can find any.