According to Aristotelian physics, rest is the natural state of bodies. Their motion requires constant force. This thesis was sustained for two thousand years, which is not surprising since this was the general direct experience. A stone that has rolled away stops and chariots are kept moving by the pulling force of horses.
However, Newton realised that the natural state of bodies is motion. If a moving body is not disrupted by anything then it will never stop. The problem on Earth is that friction and air resistance are present, and these forces make everything stop. But in space, in zero gravity, astronauts float from one place to another, without any effort. Today it is easy to imagine, since everybody has seen it on film.
Friction and maglev
Ever since Newton’s discovery, we have known that, if we could exclude those dissipative forces causing the loss of energy, it would be enough to push a train at Déli Station and it would run along the track without the need for any further propulsion. This is permitted by the laws of physics. One should only keep it in mind to make it stop at Siófok. Transport development has been starting out in this direction for a long time. Friction could be almost totally eliminated with magnetic levitation trains, maglev. This technology enables enormous speeds; the top speed of the maglev connecting Shanghai airport and the city centre is 430 km/h, but in a Japan a trial operation has already reached 600 km/h.
Air resistance and Hyperloop
The main barrier to improving the efficiency of magnetic trains further is air resistance, which becomes increasingly strong as speeds get higher. However, there are futuristic plans to resolve this issue. What is more, we are a step beyond the planning phase. At the request of the Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, the construction of a pilot track for Hyperloop has started in the Nevada desert. In essence, a special pipeline is laid and a magnetic levitation capsule is to be put inside it. The air will also be sucked out of the pipe and so the capsule will float in a vacuum and will be able to move practically without any resistance. According to the supporters of this idea, in a few years time we will travel in such capsules from Los Angeles to San Francisco, more quickly than by air.
If it ever comes true, Hyperloop will fulfil the above utopia. Capsules can be accelerated to 1100 km/h in 2 to 3 minutes, and they will rush through the track due to inertia alone. Approaching to the end station, the energy released during deceleration could be used to accelerate the next service. By eliminating all possible sources of energy loss, no further energy will be needed for operation, apart from the one-off initial push.
Without energy loss
In the 20th century, other experiments were performed that have parallels with Newton’s discovery. Friction and air resistance in mechanics correspond to electric resistance in electronics. Even wires have a tiny amount of electric resistance, i.e. a little current running through them is lost continuously. This is in the same way as a car coasting along the road will slow down if we do not push the accelerator or gas pedal.
Then it turned out that, at extremely low temperatures, a number of materials become superconductors i.e. they lose their resistance completely. In this state they conduct current perfectly, without any loss. And so the electric current will not be lost, just like bodies moving in space will not lose their momentum. The loss of energy can be eliminated.
A similarly interesting discovery took place in hydrodynamics, i.e. the science of the motion of liquids. Normally, friction is also created within liquids; it is called viscosity. For example, water will not run easily through a narrow pipe, e.g. an injection needle; it needs to be squeezed. Precisely because of viscosity. According to experiments, however, at extremely low temperatures the internal friction of liquid helium decreases to zero. It becomes superfluid and flows through a small pipe without deceleration. Loss of energy can again be eliminated.
From physics to economy
A rushing capsule, a liquid or electric current in eternal flow, without a continuous energy input. It is possible in physics. Is a similar phenomenon possible in the economy? Can it be in perpetual motion? Can we describe the laws of economics modelled on the Aristotelian or Newtonian principles? Can an economy operate without investing energy in physical terms?
The answer to the latter question is obviously no. Namely, in economic activity we create something orderly from the disorderly form of a material. We mine all kind of materials from the earth; we process them lengthily, separate them into raw materials and then finally we produce thoroughly designed articles from them; this is how sneakers, mobile phones and aircraft are born. The 2nd law of thermodynamics states that processes are subject to entropy, i.e. their arrow points in the direction of increasing disorder. The message of this thesis becomes easy to grasp if we think of any orderly form of material, such as a beautiful house. Without maintenance any house will decay and turn to dust in a couple of thousand years; the materials integrated will mix and scatter. At the same time, we will never see the opposite, i.e. scattered material never becomes a house on its own, never mind how long we wait. We need to invest energy in building a house and in any other economic activity.
However, all this will not discourage us. Namely, the economy is not driven directly by energy in physical terms. Let’s just think of the operation of a business. Initially, a first round of investment is needed, to buy the means of production. During operation, continuous costs will be incurred: we have to pay for labour, raw materials, electricity bills and amortization.
If we draw parallels between this model and mechanics, we can say that the initial investment corresponds to the initial jolt of energy needed to make our bodies move. The energy loss arising from friction corresponds to continuous operational expenses. If we want to operate our business, we continuously have to pay costs as they arise. If we want to keep our bodies moving, we constantly have to replenish the energy loss arising from friction.
Therefore, a self-propelled economy does not mean that it has to operate without using any energy. An economy can be considered self-propelled if, after being launched with an initial investment, it is able to operate later on without costs. Although we do have to provide energy for it, if it is free, together with other potential inputs, the self-propelled economy can be implemented. We launch it, it starts moving, and does not stop by itself. The same way as Hyperloop capsules are set in motion with an initial energy push, but later they will not stop without intervention.
If this were possible, the economy would be described correctly by Newton’s principles. Obviously we cannot experience this in the real world. There are no segments in the economy without recurring costs. Where lost “energy” does not need to be replenished. But is it a necessity?
The self-propelled economy may sound like a utopia, but no more than the idea of perpetuum mobile (a perpetual motion machine) must have seemed to the ancient Greeks. They did not believe in perpetuum mobile simply because they had never seen any, but they were wrong. Let’s not fall into the same trap! Instead, we should try to find out what a self-propelled economy would look like.
Free energy supply
Based on the above, we are positive that a free energy supply is needed. Is there an energy generation method that operates without costs once it is started? We are not too far from this, since the energy coming from the Sun is free and installed solar panels require very little care. What is more, the wind will not charge us for turning windmills and rivers propel the turbines in water power plants for free. However, this is not enough; currently these facilities cover only a small fraction of the world’s energy needs. It is no wonder that our economy is not self-propelled currently. But it will not change the essence: we see how, after an initial investment, it is possible to generate energy without costs later on. And this is not entirely true either, since the maintenance of equipment and replacing defective units incurs further costs. I will get back to this issue later on.
It is beyond doubt that the construction of a solar panel farm supplying the entire world economy is rather remote. In the meantime, inventions such as fusion power plants can accelerate cost-free generation of energy. With this method, huge amounts of energy can be generated from clear water, more precisely via the fusion of hydrogen atoms in the water molecule. Moreover, it is a lot safer than nuclear power plants and does not generate radioactive waste that degrades over a very long period of time. While their industrial implementation is not due in the near future for sure, the idea is far from being just fiction. In early February, Angela Merkel started the pilot fusion reactor at the German Max Planck Institute, in a festive event.
Who maintains the maintenance robot?
It is visible that, within a few decades, an infrastructure could be created that is able to supply the entire world with energy, after an initial investment, at a very low cost. Costs arise from the maintenance and replacement of worn assets. If we humans do not want to fiddle around with this, which otherwise would mean a constant cost for the operator, then obviously we need to manufacture robots for this task. This costs money but it is not unfeasible. However, maintenance robots occasionally need maintenance themselves; further robots can also be built for this task, but they would also need maintenance. Instead of going on infinitely, it is worth using a different approach. We would be better off with a general purpose robot. That should be able to supervise the system it is in charge of and be able to resolve problems and make decisions. Hence, it must be intelligent. In this way, it would be able to recognise and repair errors and manufacture the broken part, or have it manufactured. And, as an added bonus, they can maintain each other. We have no such robots so far; the bottleneck to their construction is intelligence.
However, research into artificial intelligence is progressing at great speed and we can perceive it in many fields. An illustrative example is an interesting recent development, where an app developed by Google defeated the world’s best Go player. Go is an ancient Chinese abstract strategic game; it is often compared to chess. However, there are a lot more move options in Go than in chess. When, in 1997, a computer beat the world’s leading chess player, Kasparov, for the first time, it succeeded with the use of brute force. To be specific, it was able to calculate more steps in advance than Kasparov. Using the same strategy in GO would not be effective, even nearly 20 years after the milestone victory in chess, since the number of move combinations are orders of magnitude higher in this game. To calculate all of these is impossible, even for today’s supercomputers. Go is therefore a more intuitive human game, in which a computer had no chance against a human. And this changed all of a sudden. It is not surprising that the strategy of the computer winning in the Go game was not based on brute force but on knowledge acquired by machine learning. Namely, this software is capable of learning; it was trained for months before the game. The computer was presented with many millions of steps from previous games by Go masters. The software very gradually started to “feel” which steps were correct.
An intelligent robot is no longer utopian
In recent years, rather shocking results have come about in machine learning. One could list many areas where machines are starting to simulate and outshine human thinking, from self-driving cars to medical diagnostic software. What is important for us is that the above general purpose smart robot is no longer a utopia. We can see the road leading to their creation very well. I discussed the social effects of this process in my article Towards an unemployment-based society, published on Fundblog.
Obviously these robots will be capable of producing all kinds of things and providing services for whatever we need. If our energy supply becomes free, that means the realisation of the self-propelled economy. It will operate without human intervention and labour or costs. It seems that there are no theoretical barriers to it. The laws of economics are described by Newton’s principles. Today we are unable to see it clearly because there are too many effects decelerating our efforts. We have not eliminated friction yet.
What is your future, human?
After the completion of the self-propelled economy, no humans will be needed on the production side. However, they will remain present on the consumer side. But without a job and salary, how can they pay for their consumption? If the means of production remain privately owned, albeit they produce goods at no cost while charging money for them, then providing benefits, financed from the taxes collected from businesses (for example through the introduction of a basic income), will be unavoidable. I discussed this option in my article titled Life in an unemployment-based society.
The other option is that the means of production will be in common ownership. The initial investments would be financed by the state. Since they maintain themselves, we do not have to worry that they will perish like under socialism. Potentially they could remain in private ownership but it would be irrelevant. They will produce at no cost and supply will also be free.
The world operates increasingly efficiently
Obviously this is only fiction today, musings about the future. Things might turn out completely differently. Still, it is important to contemplate the way forward, what we can expect and what challenges mankind has to face later on.
The increasingly efficient operation of the world is a visible trend. Many goods are produced more and more cheaply and all kinds of smart gadgets can be ordered for a couple of thousand forints via the Internet. Service prices are also on the decline; Airbnb and Uber push down prices in their own sectors. These are all examples of the elimination of forces decelerating economic activities. (Although Uber is just exiting Hungary, it is obvious that the Government will not be able to halt development for long.) The appearance of a self-driving car will lead to radical price decreases in cargo and passenger transport.
Thus, by increasing efficiency, we gradually eliminate friction forces that decelerate economic activities. In this paper I sought to draw attention to the fact that, due to its Newtonian nature, the economy certainly will be able to get into a self-propelled perpetuum mobile state, not decelerated by dissipative forces. Then mankind will have to overcome currently unknown issues. It is very important to recognize them in time.