If we want space colonies they need to be profitable
Day five of our Rethink the Future summit.
Welcome to the final day of Rethink the Future, a virtual launch summit we’ve been hosting March 6th-10th, 2023.
Today we’re speaking with, author of . We discuss the history of exploration, the capitalist ideals that have made it possible in the past and in the present, and how capitalism can be used as a force for space exploration in the future.
Click the above video to watch or read the complete transcript below.
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Just to give you a couple of examples: one of the most famous ones is the printing press. How the printing press changed the information landscape and with it created nation-states. The idea there is, before the printing press, you had mostly the church in Europe that was extremely powerful, they spoke in Latin, the people spoke with older versions of it, and they were not very connected to each other. Then comes the printing press. It’s going to print in the language of the biggest city around so that language is then going to spread because people want to read that content. German spread out of Nuremberg, French out of Paris, Spanish out of Madrid, and so on and so forth. The more of this content you have, the more people speak it and you have a network effect there. Once that happens, these people share the same knowledge, the same culture, and that creates the shared culture that creates nations.
We can use this and say ok, this happened with the printing press and is what happened with the internet, which is again changing the way we communicate. One of my big hypotheses is that the nation-state is going to disappear. So this is the type of thinking for me, and the way to think about space is a lot about transportation technologies. They also shaped a lot of where we are today. For example, the biggest driver of cities is transportation technologies. Usually, the biggest ones were on rivers, then roads were created to connect them, the more they're connected by rivers and roads, the more they become central markets. The more they connect, they get more roads, then bigger markets, more roads and so on and so forth. Another aspect to them is transportation costs. It is not a surprise that the United States, Germany, France, and the Netherlands are four of the richest countries in the world. They have the best navigable river systems. Why is it valuable? Because trade is extremely cheap on rivers. That means you can trade a lot, you can make a lot of money, you can accumulate wealth, you can build more and invest more.
This cost of trade is extremely important to explain wealth. What happens around the 1400s and 1500s is that Portugal didn't have much more to do. They were on the coast of the Atlantic and they were like, “what do we have left? It’s just the Atlantic.” So they started traveling down the coast of Africa as far as they could. They started discovering how the Atlantic works. Where you need to get the right winds and the right currents to move around. They invented the caravel, which otherwise you couldn't travel in oceans because you need to be able to catch winds from different angles and you couldn't do that with the boats from the Mediterranean. You have these new technologies that enable traveling faster, farther.
Here's the last point before we move into the analogy with space. The big reason why Portugal was doing all this exploration was money. What they wanted was money. They had been exploring the Atlantic for 150 years and then suddenly, Constantinople falls from the Ottomans in 1453. Within four decades, the Portuguese figured out a way to get through because the Ottomans did not allow Christians to participate in the Silk Road. So you want to participate in the Silk Road, you want to make a lot of money, you want to get to the Indies, you don't want to go anywhere else, what do you do? You try to find the way around it. And they found it and afterwards, you can see that Portugal never really had big colonies. Angola wasn't big. For most of the time, they just had little ports everywhere because they wanted to get to the Indies to trade and they made a lot of money. Brazil is a different topic. But the point is that we're going for money and there was so much money to be made that's what financed everything. First, with spices, then slaves, sugar, cash crops, things like this.
The Spaniards did the same. They saw the Portuguese getting into trade with the Indies. When they sailed to America, they didn't want to find America, they wanted to go to the Indies. In fact, America is called America and not Columbia because Columbus, until his death, never thought or wanted to accept that he had discovered a new continent. They just wanted money. For centuries, like the slave trade, all that stuff is about money. Why? Because these endeavors are expensive adventures. You're going to put a big ship with dozens of people, or hundreds sometimes, with cannons, they're going to be out for months, they can leave and you never know about them. Are they going to come back? Are they going to have an accident? Is it gonna be a storm? Are there going to be pirates? It is so expensive that you don't do it for the sake of it, you do it for money.
What does that mean for space? If you want to do space NASA-style, for discovery, that's cool. But there's not a lot of money in it. So people aren't going to spend and we're not going far away. This is why for four years, or whatever it is, we haven’t put somebody on the moon. The Holy Grail is when you can make money off of it. The key to make money is to reduce costs. That's what SpaceX has done. So the cost per kilogram of cargo going to low Earth orbit, depending on how you calculate it, is going to be something between $10,000-$20,000 and $1 million. So imagine $1 million per kilogram. You're not going to be able to put a lot of it in space and there are no other businesses that are viable with these types of costs. SpaceX has drawn those costs down to $1,000-$2,000 per kilogram, so it's already a 10x to 1,000x improvement. It's believed they can get it to $100 and potentially even $10 per kilogram. If you use this idea with trade as one of the biggest drivers of wealth of countries, then you realize how important it is. If we can send stuff at $100 per kilogram to low Earth orbit, suddenly there are a lot of things that we couldn't do before that we can do now.
So the first question is, how do we change completely our mindset of what we send to space? So instead of optimizing for shedding grams, now we're optimizing for creating value, now we can be a bit more flexible. Is there imagery we can get? For example, how cool would it be if every square inch of land on Earth had spectrometry that enables us to tell the humidity that it has, the bugs there—from an agricultural standpoint that could be huge. And there are a million things like that we can do. So the amount of value that we can suddenly get in space from low cost of trade is huge.
But that's for around Earth. If you still use this concept of the edge of discoveries, where the point of going so far away was to make a lot of money, then the question becomes if we want to go to the moon, if we're going to want to go to Mars and have colonies there, what is the money to be made? As far as I know, and a couple of people I've talked with know, there isn't any. We cannot find anything on Mars or the moon, so far, that would be valuable enough on Earth that we would be willing to pay for the trip there and back and the manufacturing locally.
To give you an example, gold is something like $20,000 per kilogram on Earth to mine it. If it costs $5,000 to go to Mars and back per kilogram, you need to be able to mine it for $25,000 per kilogram or less, which means that you should be able to mine it at a cost slightly cheaper than on Earth. That's only going to happen if you have a massive amount of gold that is very pure and costs you nothing to mine because it's very expensive to mine stuff on Mars. So far, we haven't found any element in the solar system that has enough concentration to make sense. Even if we did, that element might not be scarce enough on Earth. So if we brought it here, the cost would plummet. It wouldn't be as valuable. At a high level, all of this is to say transportation costs are changing. This change is dramatic. It is going to change everything around the Earth but for the hope of going to Mars, or the moon, there's no economic case to be made today. The funding to make it happen is going to be low, which is a problem because it's gonna be very expensive.
Elle: Are you saying it's more likely for us to develop more things in our orbit? For example, Starlink, because we can get internet everywhere and everybody pays for it, than it is to send something to Mars?
Tómas: Yeah, that is a perfect example. Starlink is a perfect example of the mindset that is wrong, very human but wrong, around space engineering. And I'm stealing the idea of Casey Hanmer, who's the CEO of TerraForm industries.
When you drop the cost from $20,000 per kilogram to $1,000 per kilogram, people who've been working in this industry for 20 years cannot make that mental change very easily. So SpaceX ends up with the ability to ship thousands of tons of cargo, which nobody could do before, at a fraction of the cost, and people in the industry just don’t know what to do with it. The answer for SpaceX is, “I have all this cargo space, I need to sell it, but probably people are not buying it because there's more supply than demand at this point. Demand hasn't caught up, I'm going to use my own supply for my own services.” They already mentally made the shift. So what is the biggest use case, the easiest use case? It’s going to be the internet. So they do it and suddenly bam, a billion-dollar, trillion-dollar industry.
If I were working in space, the question that I would ask myself is, what is the equivalent of Starlink? What is the next business that nobody's thinking of, that is possible now that was not possible before? What are the assumptions that I need to revise? That is going to develop, much more, the Earth's orbit. For Mars, either the cost goes dramatically down to travel there, in a way that we can explore it for fun before we find an economic version of it, or we need to be lucky and find some valuable element there. Or rely on philanthropy. And that's where the dream of colonizing Mars is so important, because if you don't have the dream, you don't have the money from philanthropy because you need it from economies that are not there.
Elle: I was wondering if the moon colonies scenario could be an economic driver if you can buy real estate?
Tómas: What is the value of that? Why would land be valuable there? Because you want to live there? Well, you wouldn't live there because everything is substantially more expensive because you need to carry everything from Earth. So probably nobody would want to live there. Also, migration is much slower. It might be fun for some time, maybe for tourism. I think Moon tourism is probably an industry that might happen. It's just three days to get there so I think that's a reasonable case. Still it’s going to be $10,000 to $100,000 per trip, so there’s probably not going be a lot of people who go, but I think it's a reasonable one. But for tourism like this, you don't need a lot of land so land is probably not it, at least in the next few decades.
What about a station to go to Mars? That's interesting because we saw a lot of that in the age of discoveries. For example, Puerto Rico and Cuba were important, not by themselves early on, but because they were the first place to land to get to America and the last place to leave to go back to Europe. The same thing for South Africa, the Netherlands didn't conquer anything in Africa except for South Africa because it was the best point to get to Indonesia. Is the moon equivalent? And if it was equivalent to go to Mars, maybe you would have a somewhat economic reason to go there.
Still, it depends on economic reasons on Mars so I don't know. Are the elements different on the moon? Probably not because the moon and the Earth at some point were together. Doing anything there like manufacturing or something like this is going to be more expensive because you need to take everything there and build it there, or install there and come back. I haven’t found anybody yet that can answer this question for me: what is the economic case of running a colony on the moon? My fear there is, if we don't find it, it's just going to be voluntary and the pockets of people like Bezos and Musk are deep but I don’t think deep enough to finance a moon colony.
Elle: I've been reading about the economics of Star Trek. The model in Star Trek is, “we're doing space exploration but we're not doing this for a living or for-profit. Our world is so economically prosperous that none of us have to work and so we're doing this for fun, for the benefit of humanity,” which is kind of a hard model to imagine now because our world is so run on capitalism. But there it's an interesting case because it predicts so far in the future that capitalism is essentially running itself.
Tómas: I'm a generalist. I am not expert in any of these areas, but I think there's value in going deep enough in a lot of these to see some of these patterns. And as a person who's also interested in the future of capitalism and AI, you're going to recognize these other big trends happening at the same time. If AI is able to knock out human task after human task, you eliminate one of the biggest scarcities on Earth, which is human skill. The capitalist system is clever and works well because the idea behind it is you get what you give. You contribute something, that's going to be your salary or your capital income, and that allows you to consume. Because you want to get a lot you want to give a lot and so everybody gives a lot. Well, if you cannot give more because AI is doing what you do, then you cannot consume more. So you end up having 8-10 billion people who can consume a lot but don’t, because they have nothing to offer, and then everything crashes down. That's the fear around automation.
I think this is relevant because when we're planning on things like going to Mars, we're planning in decades. We send something before the end of the 2020s, potentially humans in their thirties, then they start building up in their forties. But if you look at the AI timelines, the latest are anything between 7-30 years. We're talking about similar timelines here. If either singularity comes soon and you can have AI solving most of these problems, then it solves the human scarcity problem. It doesn't solve all the problems. It doesn't solve the energy scarcity problem. It doesn't solve the land problem. It doesn't solve the materials problem. But if you don't have an intelligence limit to go to Mars, because you have AI now suddenly it might be very cheap to go to Mars. At that point, it might be valuable to go to Mars to mine stuff because now it’s going to be easy to do. It's not going to cost thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars per kilogram because the limit there is intelligence.
How can we shape every atom on Mars to make it productive? An AI can figure this out. So if we can unleash an AI that figures these things out in the coming decades, it immediately would release this big constraint that we have on human skills. And by combining it with Mars could release some of the other scarcities.
Elle: So you essentially automate so much of the process that it's much cheaper to do and then it is economically prosperous. Is that what you're saying?
Tómas: Right. So Musk wants to put a million people there. What do you need to need to do this? You need to get a lot of stuff locally, it's going to be the stuff that is cheapest to get compared to what is the most expensive to get from Earth. And the cost of bringing stuff from Earth is going to be basically per kilogram. So the answer is what is cheapest to get per kilogram on Mars? We're going to start with water, CO2, methane, things like this. Then we're going to build stuff, stone for buildings, steel and things like this. Little by little, we got to go from the basic industrial stack up and up and up.
The limits in each one of these cases is intelligence. How can you make all of these things happen with very few humans running them? You need to solve problem after problem after problem to build that stack up. But if you have infinitely intelligent AI, you don't need humans to solve these problems. It's going to be a trivial problem for it. So we could be building all these stacks with minimum human intervention. You could have a colony on Mars that is automated and doesn't need a lot of humans to run it. There's a path where we get there before we get to Mars, we'll get the AI to do all this stuff before we get to Mars. I think that's crazy.
Elle: Ok, what about the doomerism response? I think that's a driver behind Elon Musk and a lot of science fiction as well: Earth's going to eventually die and to protect the human race we have to eventually move. In that case, do you think there’s still an economic driver?
Tómas: This is a very good question and there are a lot of dimensions to it. Elon Musk's stated a couple of reasons to go to Mars, one I think is valid and the other one is not valid. The one I think is valid is that it’s cool and makes people hope for something great. The other one is to diversify the risk of humans. That begs the question, what are the risks that humans face? There are very few existential risks for humans. Climate change is not one, you're not going to have 100% of humans die of climate change. Thousands of years ago we had ice down to France and I think maybe Italy and Spain. Humans survived. It would be bad, a lot of people would die, we would have a lot of economic suffering but humankind or even most animals would not disappear.
Nuclear bombs are very scary and they can kill a lot of people. But it's very hard to kill a big share of the population with nuclear bombs. Even if you unleash 100 bombs across the world, you kill a couple million people each, that's a lot of people but less than 200 million people and you have 7.8 billion left. It’s terrible but from a human survival perspective, it's not that bad. There are two things that would be really, really bad for humans. One of them is an asteroid and the other one is AI. What are the odds that an asteroid falls on earth that hasn't fallen in 65 million years and suddenly falls in the next few decades? The odds are extremely low, extremely low. If that happens we have a problem, but it's very unlikely to happen. However, we have AI coming in a matter of decades. We don't know how to align it and, it's unlikely, but it could decide to kill all humans. If that happens it doesn't matter that there are humans on Mars because AI can travel at the speed of light and it can find us there. For the risk of diversifying humanity, I think going to Mars pales in comparison with a singular risk.
Elle: But the risk of the sun becoming too hot and us not being able to live here, that will happen.
Tómas: I think we have enough billions of years to figure out that travel to Mars thing. But you bring up a good point about habitats. I think there is no question that Earth is by far the best habitat. I think we can terraform Mars in a way that is going to be very livable but it's going to take some time. And so in the meantime, it is Earth and Earth is perfect for us. We evolved on it. We should never think of giving it up. But even the concept of giving it up betrays one of the biggest issues that we have today in society, which is the growth mindset. We see resources as finite. It looks like we're fighting for them. We don't want more humans because we're going to have to spend the resources here and they’re being exhausted. And if we focus on going to Mars we're not going to focus on staying on Earth and taking care of it.
I think none of that makes any sense. There are 8 billion people. Everybody has their own things that they want to do. If somebody wants to go to Mars, that's fantastic for them. It doesn't prevent anybody else or even those people to fight for Earth. And then there's the mindset of splitting the pie rather than growing the pie. That is the source of the problem. I think there's room for 100 billion humans on Earth. I need to study the carrying capacity of Earth and there are all these arguments. “The carrying capacity of the Earth is maybe a billion people, maybe it's 5, 10, maybe 11.” My hypothesis is probably at least 100 billion. We just need to do it cleverly.
We cannot keep expanding our agricultural land. We cannot have more pastures. We will need to grow stuff in the lab. If you have energy thats too cheap to meter through photovoltaic or through fusion, then you can do it. At the end of the day, what are agriculture and pastures? You're catching the energy of the sun via chlorophyll. But you don't need to catch it this way. You can catch it much more efficiently through solar panels, they're actually more efficient than chlorophyll. You can do it in deserts and you can then use that energy and power in indoor farms for growing food for billions and billions of people. And then suddenly instead of having a problem of agricultural pastures that are taking maybe 70% of the livable land, you're freeing all that space. 100 billion people at the density of New York or Hong Kong would fit in Chad, right in the country of Chad, just one country. I think we can do this. I think this growing mindset is very important for going to Mars but more importantly, to make the earth thrive.
Elle: The United States is essentially just wide open space everywhere.
Tómas: That's it. That's the argument, right? Okay, 80 people per square kilometer in the United States. In France or Germany you have like 300 or 400 for the same. What state do you live in?
Elle: I live in Utah.
Tómas: Plenty of space.
Elle: We have one city and everything's just wide open space.
Tómas: And plenty of sun, plenty of energy. There's no scarcity there.
Elle: Exactly. And that's also a facet of Star Trek. The Replicator. Post-scarcity.
Tómas: If you go to the fundamentals of that thing, the replicator, the fundamental thing is you get to post-scarcity. Today what’s scarce is land, elements, energy, and humans. These four things, you mix them together, and you get everything else. And for the replicator, you need three of those. You don't need land but you need energy, elements, and human intelligence. With AI, you can eliminate the intelligence issue. With something like cheap photovoltaic and/or fusion, you can eliminate the energy issue. With something like space colonization, you can eliminate the element issue. The biggest limiting factor for that is intelligence and actually, out of the three is probably the first that we're going to figure out. Maybe in our lifetime we get to a world where that happens.
Elle: That's amazing. Thank you so much for talking with me about all of this.
Tómas: I'm excited. I think the world that's coming is very cool. And I don't think people realize it. Everybody is sad about the state of the world. But if AI really does solve the issue of intelligent scarcity, if we can harness it instead of having it kill us, that literally changes all of the other problems. Back to what we were saying at the start, the cost per kilogram is dropping so much and people haven't really incorporated this information properly. It’s the same as at the beginning of COVID, people were not incorporating this information fast enough. I think that's the case for intelligence if that's truly what AI brings. It’s going to solve every other problem. We just need to get to the other side in one piece and that means alignment. It means figuring out our economic system plus capitalism. These are the most important problems to solve. AI, alignment, and economic system in the future. Not “should we have babies” or “should we quibble on how to increase our spending on this or that program.”
Elle: I wrote down five more stories I want to write.
Tómas: Good! At the end of the day, I'm glad to hear that because great progress between studies and things like what you're doing and what all these other people are doing,and all these people, I feel like it's this small community today, it hasn't hit the mainstream yet, and the mainstream really needs us because there's no hope right now. There's just nobody selling hope. And we have it and it's here already. We don't even need to imagine it. It is here. We just need to tell the story and then go and chase it. The more of us who tell it, the better we're all going to be.
If we want space colonies they need to be profitable