I’ve seen a fair amount of discussion about the financial wisdom of the Empire in Star Wars building the Death Star. What all the analysis seems to miss, though, is how incredibly cheap such a device would be to build for an advanced civilization. People often forget how radically technology will change our ideas of cost.

If you have great robotics, very good artificial intelligence and faster than light travel, all technology present in the Star Wars Universe, a Death Star should be nearly free to construct with enough time.

To understand this we need to examine what we currently think of as wealth. With current technology such a thing would be prohibitively expensive, because it would require a lot of material, a lot of energy  and a lot of labor. All three are costly now but would be extremely cheap for his fictional advance civilization.

  • Material - it costs a lot to find the right metals, pull them out of the ground and refine them on Earth. The resources are limited here on Earth. A civilization with faster than light travel, though, doesn’t have this problem. Over thousands of star systems it should be easy to find an asteroid that is the right size made of mostly pure metal.
  • Energy – Energy costs a lot based on our limited technology, but space is full of easy to get unlimited energy. Simply place some solar panels or solar sails near a star and you have a huge amount of energy to work it.
  • Labor – With good intelligent robots the whole thing could basically be constructed without any person needing to work on building it. If need be you can even start with just a few robots and have them build more robots until the labor force is an optimum. This is basically what the mathematician John von Neumann suggested.

The basic Death Star construction plan is simple. Find the large space rock, drop off some robots with the plans and a power source, and come back later when it is finished. It is more like you grow it from seed than actually construct it. Total cost is almost nothing.

I’m writing this not only because it is fun to be incredibly nerdy, but I think it highlights the important point that ideas of wealth and value will be impacted by future technological development. Only 150 years ago aluminum was much more valuable than gold. In 1850 a single aluminum chair would cost the equivalent of half a million dollars, but I can buy one for $50. Similarly a few generations ago fresh imported fruit was an unimaginable luxury, but now I can buy Mangos for $3.99 a pound.

Technological change can make what was once extremely costly nearly free. It can make the once incredibly rare a common place luxury or even a necessity. Technology’s ability to radically change things shouldn’t be forgotten. It will likely make any very long term budget projections based on currently spending patterns completely worthless.

The Economist Keynes once said, “in the long run, we are all dead.” I would like to add that in the long run, technology will radically change our society, our industries and costs in ways that are today unimaginable.