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Future Tense: The Wealth of Planets

From the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, with boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what could be. Launch swarms of self-replicating robots to exploit the most lucrative of resources.
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The Wealth of Planets, illustration

Welcome, fellow wealth-makers, to our seminar on how to initiate and maintain exponential growth of our own wealth-generating technology system. The ballroom here at the Lunar Hotel Armani Mare Serenitatis is a fitting location, with its opulent furnishings, luxurious lunar accommodations, and spectacular view of Earth. But the wealth-generating system I am about to describe will make you remember this hotel as if it were a mud hovel when you look back on it from your future dream starship.

Now that we have a commercial lunar economy, the resources of the solar system await those prepared to boldly commit the seed investment in the next big growth opportunity. I know venture capital is still flowing into lunar development, but this seminar is about an opportunity orders of magnitude greater—the resources of planet Mercury. Located two-and-a-half times closer to the Sun than our Earth, it features six-and-a-half times as much solar energy for free, every day, 24/7 … or rather 1,400/ … whatever a week would be on Mercury. Anyway, there’s constant sunlight six times more powerful than the lunar photovoltaic systems will ever produce. And the opportunity to be first to utilize all that power is just the low-hanging fruit for wealth-makers like us to pick.

Our lunar complexes were built by commercially available robot fabricator cascades. You’ve all seen their work, powered by free solar energy, robots building robots building robots until the work force is large enough for construction projects. But what would happen if we installed such a robot army on Mercury? I know, it’s not a hospitable environment for hotels like this or for space tourism … Yet. But that makes it all the more attractive for this reason: A robot army can mine the planet without restrictions like the lunar zoning regulations that just passed here.

An ambitious investor, or consortium of investors, could use available robot-army technology to extract all fissionable minerals—uranium, thorium, even radioactive potassium—and obtain fuel for the greatest growth investment ever. There’s a total of 1016 kg of U and Th in the planet. Nuclear breeder reactions with that fuel would yield more than 2 × 1030 Joules of energy—astronomically serious production—and money—for any power utility.

But there’s an even greater opportunity in those numbers. How much energy would be required to actually blow apart a planet like Mercury? Simple physics shows the planet has a gravitational binding energy of just 2 × 1030 J. If that much energy is deposited into it, the planet will explode, like Alderaan in the original Star Wars movie.

Now I’m sure you’ll agree that mining a planet would probably take time, even with today’s best robotarmy cascade. But once we’ve extracted the ores the first time, I’m about to show you a method to initiate exponential growth in yields. Your robot army can use the tremendous energy of solar power to lift the ores with space elevators, up to where the robots can construct solar sails to carry it out of the inner solar system. When they reach icy bodies like Saturn’s moons, the robots can get hydrogen and deuterium there, and build fission-fusion-propelled rocket engines. With fusion, those engines will achieve a multiplier of 5 to 10 in available power. That’s a big gain factor, and the investment already yields a big payoff if you stop there.

But there’s a way to achieve even more from this seed investment. Suppose we send our swarm of robot fusion-fission-powered rockets to an exoplanet in another star system. By accelerating these rockets, the energy we obtain can be transferred into the kinetic energy in the swarm of rockets. When they arrive at the exoplanet, they can blow it up just by colliding with it.

Some of our robots can slow down, replicate near the exoplanet debris, and mine the fissionable ores that have been dispersed. And now the process can be started again for another iteration, and another, and another. Each would yield enough energy that we could split the swarm in two and target two more exoplanets in another round. At each iteration, we’ll be able to skim off a tiny fraction of the energy yield, return it to us back home, and enjoy wealth beyond previous human dreams.

Congratulations. You are now in the starship-construction industry. It will be enormously profitable to the investor who is patient, and continue into the indefinite future. Our robots can perform as "universal constructors," or self-replicating automata like those devised by the great Hungarian-American mathematician and physicist John von Neumann. He proved long ago that the most effective way to mine planets is to use the exponential growth of "von Neumann machines" in his masterpiece Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata.

The robots will have such numbers and power that their fabricators will be able to produce palatial starships for us all, with luxuries like this fabulous hotel.

Yes, young man in the front row, I agree it would be unethical to destroy inhabited planets. We can program the robot rocket swarm to survey its target region and bypass planets with biospheres. That’s one reason to choose baked, life-less targets like Mercury.

Yes, lady in the front row, the programming of these robot rocket swarms must be reliable and robust. I know cosmic rays perturb processor programs by changing bits in the memory systems when they penetrate. There’s nothing we can do but use sophisticated error-correcting encoding schemes like Reed-Solomon encoding, which prevents loss of information even if some of the data is erroneous. We wouldn’t want the swarm of robots to forget their safety instructions and target Earth or other solar system planets. There’s quite enough debris in our solar system without creating more asteroids that might cross Earth’s orbit.

Speaking of debris, we have observed debris rings encircling stars like Beta Pictoris, the second brightest star in the constellation Pictor, for decades. Usually they are interpreted as planet formation, but what if other, alien, investors have already started exploiting the wealth-generating exponential cascade of robot swarms? The resources are clearly there to exploit. Maybe we should send robot rockets to some of those debris rings to mine them. The opportunities are clearly there for the wise and patient investor. The robots will have such numbers and power that their fabricators will be able to produce palatial starships for us all, with luxuries like this fabulous hotel.

Yes, I know fusion-fission rockets would require decades to reach exoplanets. The time to full return on investment may be long, but we can take out some profits before the swarm leaves the solar system without compromising the overall plan. Still, the returns of an indefinite revenue stream are beyond measure.

Sir, far in the back, I understand your concern that releasing swarms of planet-destroying robots into the galaxy might threaten sentient life-forms or provoke a reaction if there are interstellar security forces. But after decades of SETI searches, no signals from intelligent beings have been detected, nor have signs of interstellar policing been observed. Until evidence of such things emerges, I count the potential profits of planet mining as far outweighing any ethical reservations.

I see smiling faces, so thank you for your attention. I have just one parting request. When you build the first pioneering swarm, take me along as a partner to report growth progress and track profits. I want to see the fireworks.

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