How easy would it be to trade with aliens?

by on March 6, 2008 at 2:10 pm in Economics | Permalink

Space aliens, that is:

Hickman believes that interplanetary trade could be one of the primary economic drivers for space exploration in the future. The potential problems are by no means minor, however. First of all, the vast distances between solar systems would probably prohibit the transportation of tangible goods. (Though, as Hickman points out, transatlantic trade probably seemed just as fanciful to traders in renaissance Europe.) There may however be potential for trade in non-tangible goods such digital entertainment, or scientific information with newly discovered alien species. But even this is not without dilemmas that would give Austan Goolsbee a migraine.

How will we enforce contracts or copyrights laws on a civiliation 20 light-years away? How will we set up a banking system or transferable currency without any tangible goods to trade? How will we protect ourselves from strange new ideas and ideologies that may destroy the fabric of our society? Worst of all, how will we trade with a species that may not even have a concept of trade?

It’s funny, but that last question is the least of my worries.  And reciprocal, tit-for-tat exchange would work just fine, provided that a) relativity did not slow down the exchange of information too much, and b) not too many Ohio voters watched that movie where the aliens send us their genetic information, embedded in an apparently innocuous transmission, and trick us into downloading those instructions and then cloning them en masse… 

In other words, we probably cannot trade with aliens.  Here is the full post.

PUAEmerson March 6, 2008 at 2:41 pm

Ah! But you assume space travel would be along a linear path – wormholes or other forms of space-bending technologies would essentially be required to make space trade/travel feasible.

But really, why discuss such things? Our ancestors are going to look back at us the same way we look back at the ’50s concept of the future.

M. Hodak March 6, 2008 at 2:44 pm

Why does everything assume that alien intelligences would treat us as equals? Too many 50′s SciFi flicks.

Practical answer to the posted question: If there were aliens capable of reaching us to trade, we would far more likely end up as their pets than their trading partners.

Alan March 6, 2008 at 2:52 pm

You left out the most important part — how can I use this study to help me sell a story to Escape Pod?

Will Wilkinson March 6, 2008 at 2:57 pm

It all depends if Hume’s “circumstances of justice” are satisfied. If they can just kill us all and take whatever is of value, maybe they will. Or if they are benevolent and discovered us first, there may be nothing we have to offer that would be of value, so perhaps we get astonishing gifts that cost them almost nothing, but are extremely valuable to us. Those are my guesses: utter destruction or massive beneficence. Relationships of reciprocity makes sense in a context of relative equality within which there remain small inequalities. The probability that we will be sufficiently equal to aliens strikes me as low.

Sameer Parekh March 6, 2008 at 3:38 pm

This concept is one of the things I really liked about Stargate SG-1. Not a particularly great show, but I just loved how their first reaction upon meeting a new civilization was that they sought to trade with them.

Bob Montgomery March 6, 2008 at 3:51 pm

pawnking has the right idea:

Will there be an incentive for a group of humans to embark on a 100 year trip to trade in luxury novelties under the assumption they will be instant billionaires upon their return (assume some sort of frozen transport/suspended animation will prevent their aging)?

Assuming no faster-than-light communication or travel, and a 20-light-year distant civilization is probably almost impossible to trade with – for earth. But independent traders probably could make a living going back and forth trading with both. Read Niven’s short story Flare Time for an example.

Doug Colkitt March 6, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Let’s not forget that trade is built on decidedly human notions of fairness and justice, which are directly derived from our evolutionary history. Alien species would most certainly have very different evolutionary histories.

8 March 6, 2008 at 4:40 pm
Noah Yetter March 6, 2008 at 5:32 pm

Ah, but what might relativity do to discount rates, and thus credit markets?

In the Ender’s Game books (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) a few individuals make themselves unfathomably rich by investing a small seed then taking a long relativity-speed flight. In their frame of reference only hours pass, but in their money’s frame decades pass, and compound interest does its magic.

How many people would be willing to teleport themselves 30 years into the future to make themselves millionaires? Would space travel providers attempt to capture this value?

Constant March 6, 2008 at 6:22 pm

“Earth’s history shows that anytime a more highly developed civilization encounters a lesser developed civilization, that the lesser developed civilization is destroyed…In short…we’re screwed”

If an advocate of French civilization complains that Americans movies are “destroying” French cinema, this probably means that the French are watching American movies in preference to French movies. It probably does not mean that the average French man-in-the-street is “screwed”. (I am not making a claim about whether American civilization is more “highly developed”, I am talking only about whether the destruction of a civilization necessarily is bad news for the individuals. It may instead mean that the individuals are abandoning one civilization and adopting another, e.g., hunter-gatherers moving out of the forests and into cities, Japanese and others being “Westernized” and so forth.

Elite Trading Co. March 6, 2008 at 6:24 pm

Of course, with my Cobra mk III and a 100 credits, I’ve already cornered the market in Arcturian Megaweed from Lave to Sol…

Randy Owens March 6, 2008 at 7:19 pm

And reciprocal, tit-for-tat exchange would work just fine, provided that a) relativity did not slow down the exchange of information too much….

Just to set the record straight for your readers, relativity has pretty much nothing to do with that. The apparent constancy of the speed of light was well known before Einstein’s Special Theory, and was in fact the main observed fact that it sought to explain. But, assuming we’re talking about some kind of electromagnetic transmission from A to B, relativity is not needed at all, just the fact of the speed of light. If you meant physically shipping data from A to B, then relativity might be very relevant indeed, if you could get high enough speeds. But it would be quite impractical compared to direct transmission.

doctorpat March 6, 2008 at 9:09 pm

“Earth’s history shows that anytime a more highly developed civilization encounters a lesser developed civilization, that the lesser developed civilization is destroyed…In short…we’re screwed”

Not every time.

Arab civilization was probably “more developed” when it met up against European civilization in the 800s.

Roman civilization was DEFINITELY more developed when it met up with the Goths and Vandals in the 300s.

Chinese civilization was arguably more developed when it met up with Arabs in the 700s, and with Europeans in the 1400s.

Chris M March 7, 2008 at 12:21 am

Earth’s history shows that anytime a more highly developed civilization encounters a lesser developed civilization, that the lesser developed civilization is destroyed…In short…we’re screwed”

In addition to doctorpat’s post can’t some argument be made towards a positive relationship between technology development and social equity and fairness? The causality can be debated at some other time, however, there are many recent examples (in contrast to fewer historical examples) of superior forces not eliminating indigenous populations.

the Allies and Germany
US and Japan
Arguably Israel and Egypt/Syria/Jordan
and the list goes on

Of course, was this out of a moral sense, resource efficiency, international pressure…?

Dan Maas March 7, 2008 at 3:37 am

The above spam post involving “cams” oddly has some relevance…

josh March 7, 2008 at 7:30 am

They’ll probably want plastic beads a “bedazzlers” from the QVC store.

Thelonious_Nick March 7, 2008 at 11:58 am

Nancy, I thought I had first encountered the idea in some Arthur C. Clarke book, but maybe it was Piers Anthony. Or maybe they both had a similar idea. Anyway, as I remember it, the idea was that there’s a galaxy-level information exchange (something like the Internet) that advanced civilizations download all their scientific knowledge to. Anybody has the ability to access it–you just have to be advanced enough to figure out how the information is broadcast.

Anonymous March 7, 2008 at 1:19 pm

The real question is who supports free trade with aliens more? Obama or Clinton? Has Goolsbee been meeting with little men from Mars to reassure them that it’s just rhetoric…

Dave March 8, 2008 at 12:12 am

Its practical questions like this that prove the usefullness of economists.

Bob Sigall March 9, 2008 at 8:27 pm

We’ve been broadcasting radio and TV signals for over 80 years and hundreds of star systems are within 80 light-years of us.

Aliens at our tech level or higher within 40 light-years could have listened and responded. We haven’t heard from any yet, so either there are none, or for some reason, they haven’t yet replied.

Maybe all the WWII movies and war TV footage has made them cautious.

Every now and then I toy with the idea that cautious aliens have set up shop at a safe distance – say in orbit around Triton – and are watching us.

They’re collecting our TV shows, movies, watching sports, downloading our music, and exploring everything we broadcast for the same reason we would listen to them: extreme curiosity.

And maybe they have standards for when to contact another civilization, and we don’t meet them yet.

Chris Durnell March 11, 2008 at 8:49 pm

When I mentioned a more advanced civilization meeting a lesser advanced one, I meant one more advanced in terms of magnitude rather than degrees. Sorry if I was not clear.

Rome was certainly more advanced than the barbarians, but the Goths and Vandals had improved their fighting capabilities to be equal to the Romans – a result of centuries of interaction. The Goths had closed the gap considerably in a way the Gauls had not. Remember that many of the barbarians that destroyed Rome were ones that served in Rome’s own armies and were part of the culture of the Roman world Plus both were essentially iron age cultures. Likewise, the Arabs were culturally more advanced (and politically united) than Dark Ages Europe, but they were very alike. Europe was momentarily weaker, but both had inherited Classical culture, monotheism, and technology. Same thing when Europeans met the Chinese and Japanese directly. Each civilization was “better” at doing certain things than the others, but they were very similar. Europe had windmills. China had wheelbarrows. But they were the same in many respects.

In contrast, when Renaissance Europe encountered the Americas, they had gunpowder, the printing press, and ocean crossing maritime technology. Although culturally advanced, much of the technology level of the Americas was still in the stone age. That was clearly a bigger gap than the others. Same thing when Europeans encountered the Australian aborigines. Or for that matter, when the iron using Bantu moved into the lands of the Khoisan. Or when the iron age using Japanese pushed out the Ainu aborigines of Japan. Their culture was obliterated and they were assimilated, or they were exirpated from their best lands and moved into much more marginal lands. This is what happens when one civilziation is higher in terms of magnitude. This is not the same as comparing Europe with windmills, but China with wheelbarrows.

Now imagine an alien civilization who is technologically advanced enough to master FTL travel and Earth. In this a case of comparing wheelbarrows and windmills, or is this a case where Earth is more like being in the stone age?

Lyrea June 14, 2008 at 4:50 pm

Forget about superior alien. If there is a superior alien race, then chances are there will be alien race that’s just ebenath our level of technology. My biggest question whenever I read people’s assumption was: “What if we human race meet aliens whose level of technology was equal to Human’s civillization in medieval era?”

I’m concerned by this. Because we all know how messy our old planet was by that time. Human show up their worst nature; wanting to conquer every single land for themself, war everywhere, slavery everywhere…..I wonder if this is why Alien civillization who was more developed than us shy away from the world. Maybe because they think we’re barbaric and “not ready for space age” for fear we will enslave other alien race that’s weaker than us?

Oh, I can imagine it already. Once we learn there is a planet with medieval era technology, we will show our greediness right away. Conquer their lands. In the name of trade, force them to use our money system. Warring against the nations and kingdom of the planet who go against us. And then finally, in the name of glory, we will rob rob rob them from their wealth and natural resources. Will this come true?

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