What if sleep was a commodity?

Dane emails me:

This is a speculative solve-for-the-equilibrium-type question that I’d love to get your thoughts on:

Imagine there was a technology that allowed essentially frictionless harvesting, selling, and buying of (non-perishable) human sleep. Essentially, anyone can strap in to a machine, be put to sleep, and their time/sleep would be harvested in a way that their time sleeping could be used by anyone else who would then get all the benefits of that sleep but instantaneously instead of sleeping themselves, maybe through a painless injection or a drink perhaps.

Imagine also that this technology was relatively non-capital-intensive, or at least, cheap enough that all humans were potential suppliers/buyers of sleep. Call them sleep-workers and sleep-consumers.

Additionally, there’s nothing “free” about the technology. Any sleep-worker’s or sleep-consumer’s lifespan would be unaffected in terms of calendar time. Instead, there would be a zero-sum transfer of waking hours between persons. Even an “around-the-clock” sleep-worker could only net 16 hours of saleable sleep per day. The other 8 hours would have to go to meeting their own sleep needs.

How would this market evolve? How would society evolve? What is the market price for an hour of sleep? How would norms around sleep-working and sleep-consuming evolve? How would the economic indicators evolve (GDP, productivity, inequality, etc)? Which jobs could or could not compete with non-consciousness? How would the welfare state then evolve? How much inter-temporal saving of sleep would there be? Should prisoners be allowed to sleep-harvest for their entire sentences? Would we allow them? Would it be ethical to farm never-conscious humans for the sole purpose of harvesting sleep? Etc…


As the parent of an infant, I would be online at 2 am selling the shit out of his sleep. "Give me $1 and he will sleep like a baby for you"

"I'm sleeping like a baby, too. Every two hours, I wake up, screaming."

Colin Powell upon hearing that President Bush was "sleeping like a baby" on the eve of war with Iraq.


I fall asleep just reading all this.

Turns out GWB was sleeping very poorly at the time, but what should he say? That he was nervous and anxious? What message would that sent to the Armed Forces? Or to the Republican Guard (who, we were assured, would be ferocious opponents)?

Those are a lot of questions. But I am pretty sure that it would lead to greater inequality, with many more people willing to supply sleep than highly productive people who could benefit from the extra hours. I also am pretty sure that it would raise the bar for advanced education and the amount of working time necessary to be on the intellectual frontiers.

But then, why only collect human sleep? Surely if you can't collect it from proverbial sheep, you could at least collect/produce sleep from monkeys/apes.

Given the broad benefits of buying sleep and the potential low cost of producing sleep, I imagine an equilibrium much like factory farming today. As long as those producing sleep are kept somewhere out of the public eye (which seems hard to avoid), a large number of people could be incentivized to earn near subsistence wages producing sleep around the clock. Prices might be bolstered by labor laws, distribution, brand recognition, and premium types of sleep, but otherwise the price of sleep under the specified conditions might be very low.

1. People in low productivity countries could sell their sleep labor to higher productivity countries.
2. Might have protectionist sleep policies.
3. Most sleep trade would be to parents of young children. Imagine the life cycle savings model applied to sleep.
4. Lots of trade in people topping off after burning the candle at both ends, but maybe that's not so irresponsible anymore.
5. Some people would never sleep. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos among them.
6. There would be projects of importance and that need to get done faster and companies would compensate your sleep time.
7. You might work 2 shifts to get around your family. 9-5, and 12-6. So you can spend time with your family on a normal schedule but work nearly 2x.

This could drastically transform the welfare state. Much less need for retirement programs, unemployment benefits, disability insurance, etc. if you can earn a living sleeping. No more zero marginal product workers.

Depending on the value of sleep, certain producers would be better off having been unconscious for 8 hours than having worked a shift at their previous job. At the same time inequality would surely rise. Would the usual suspects be pushing for bans and restrictions on the sleep trade because Inequality > poor people being richer?

Most poor people of the world now are simply not able to provide a service for the rich which is as valuable as sleeping on their behalf. This makes me think that once they became sleep workers, their incomes would rise. The sleep purchasers would see their income rise because they would work longer hours. The typical programmer would code 16 hours and have 8 hours of leisure time. Even if the extra earnings would be just enough to pay for third-world-sleep, it's rational to do it: By doubling your daily time spent on the task, you will gain experience much faster.

And that's the mechanism that would cause great divergence: The sleep buyers would be learning through the extra labor they do, but the sleep workers aren't getting any better at their job. They are the the ultimate exploitable laborers. In totalitarian countries, prisons would instantly be transformed into sleep harvesting facilities, and this would spread even to democracies. And suddenly, we would find all kinds of new reasons to put more people in prison. The sleepers would not just be a servile underclass, but an unconscious servile underclass. While that sounds on one level morally disgusting, it's not like they're suffering, and at least they're not causing trouble. If you want the picture to get more dystopian, imagine that through storage and transmission losses, 8 hours of captured sleep only cause 1 hour of sleep-like rejuvenation in the purchaser. We would need to make a bigger underclass!

The question is what if there was a frictionless market for something everyone would have for sale and everyone would have to buy.

What if there is no such thing. That there is in fact friction in every market, that there is no such thing as a commodity which has no individual characteristics, that there isn't anything that everyone can sell and everyone needs to buy.

And that getting to understand that the vast majority of transactions are not some stock bought and sold on an exchange.

A far more interesting question would be how does the economy actually work where there is limited knowledge, lots of friction.

I am a big fan of dogs, had dogs for years.
But I would sometimes be afflicted with sleep paralysis even while the dogs slept on my bed. Not fun!
Then I got a cat. I like dogs much more than I like cats (dogs qua dogs, and cats qua cats, of course: I love my specific humble stoic little cat as much as I loved my specific dogs, each of them were, as every innocent animal is, completely lovable).

Well, for some reason I can't explain, I have not had one of those awful episodes of sleep paralysis while the cat has been in the room at night while I sleep.

Sorry if that was off topic.

Several people mentioned parents buying sleep or selling their children’s sleep. The more interesting development would be purchasing sleep for your child.

Babies learn incredibly quickly. Imagine if your infant could learn for 24 hours a day instead of their current 8 waking hours. Imagine if your 10-year old could add violin lessons and Mandarin lessons and build a start up. The demand for sleep by today’s parents on behalf of their children would be astoundingly high.

See “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress for more implications of this.

Oh, yeah, have you ever had to look after an infant for even 8 hours straight?

Don’t get me wrong, it wouldn’t be great. But consider the people who spend their time shuttling their kids from activity to activity, in hopes of one day getting into a better college. Or the ones who work 70 hour weeks and hire nannies. They’ll surely work themselves ragged driving children around, or work 120-hour weeks to afford more nannies, if it means their kids would have a better chance.

Then everyone does it, and the rich get more skilled and productive and richer. And the status game is unchanged, except mobility is way down.

Let me assure you, Parental demand is for their own sleep, not the child's.


for babies, sleep for the one allows it for the other

Commodify my dick

Start with the idea that there are diminishing returns of happiness to having lots and lots of money. Better to have one million dollars instead of two, if you have twice as much waking time to enjoy the one million. For others it is better to have more money to enjoy during what waking hours remain rather than living more hours but all in poverty. Equilibrium might end up being associated to some degree with where various studies of incomes and happiness suggest more income has very little effect on happiness. Equilibrium at some amount of income-per-waking hour.

So we're talking about "super coffee" then? Well, currently, coffee is produced at very low cost by people who are paid very little. But to make it more palatable its price is usually jacked up by one or two orders of magnitude before it goes down US throats.

30 years ago the labor cost of a night's sleep might have been $1. But with the economic rise of China's and India's huge populations supply and demand would be forcing prices up. China would have harvested sleep from the hinterlands to feed economic development but would be looking to low cost foreign sources to meet their demand. China's massive prison population would only be able to meet a small fraction of their demand. There would of course be attempts to bribe politicians in poor nations to keep their people poor and asleep to keep prices low, but we could expect some cartelization by major produces of sleep. Ethiopia could become the Saudi Arabia of sleep.

What’s better for $12/hr? Driving an Uber or sleeping while a driverless car ferries people around?

What’s better for $2/hr? Indian citizens working in a call center or sleeping?

You don’t gain any skills while sleeping, so it’s not an investment into your own future productivity, but for sufficient pay it is an attractive trade (“sleep arbitrage”).

I imagine it would be delivered as an energy drink. A literal Five Hour Energy.

Also I hope Dane is writing a sci-fi short story about this hypothetical world. Or at least an episode of Black Mirror

What if Androids also dream of electric sheep?

We get zero marginal product workers again.

You're talking about the trade of human consciousness.

The equilibrium would be similar to the sex trade market - illegal in most places, decriminalization advocacy from libertarians, and abuse at the fringe.

And shockingly, to most offensively, cheap.

I'm assuming North Korea would just hook most of its population up in Sleep Labour Camps.

Assuming that we could actually transfer all of the benefits of sleep (physical and psychological), the market would at first be robust. Yes, the sale of sleep might lead to more inequality by increasing the returns to both cognitive ability and hard work, but at least the people who sold sleep would be paid. (I suspect ethicists of various stripes would line up on this issue the same way they line up on selling bodily organs.)

But this would be only a transitional state. The understanding of the physiology of sleep that would be necessary to develop the technology of sleep transfer would eventually (swiftly?) enable entrepreneurs to develop some sort of artificial substance -- call it Sleepaway -- that would transmit the benefits of sleep. At first Sleepaway might be a luxury item, but over time, given competition and improvements in production, the price would fall. Eventually Sleepaway might be cheaper than "natural" sleep. Now the well-off would be able to purchase sleep's benefits, as would many in the middle class, but fewer of the poor would be paid for sleeping.

True, Sleepaway or a generic equivalent might eventually become so cheap that nobody had to sleep (especially if purchases by the poor were subsidized). Then we would have a world where everyone was awake all the time. Would this lead to more leisure consumption ... or fewer jobs (as workers, always refreshed and alert, worked double shifts)?

I think Sleepaway wouldn’t lead to fewer jobs - more waking hours would lead to more consumer demand. Every store would be open 24/7, so more service jobs would exist. Indoor jobs could go all the time, though outdoor work like construction and farming wouldn’t be able to make use of the extra time.

The effects on infrastructure would be massive. 24-hour workdays mean no rush hours but instead continuous utilization of roads and trains. Electric demand would skyrocket and nighttime prices would exceed daytime. Global warming would increase, though so would the pace of scientific research as all scientists became 2-3x as productive, so it could go either way.

I’m any event, very cool extension of the original question.

You would need another drug to supply the well-established (I think) benefits of being in total darkness part of the day.

The other aspect of learning is that people would figure out how to exploit the sleep commodity better, which potentially has some major applications. Most are assuming sleep is a thing you put up with for 6-8 hours a day so the max demand is around 8 hours per day, but it’s potentially way more than that.

Sleep is super important for healing after exercise. Every time an NFL player gets back to the sidelines he’s going to drink some Gatorade and take 8 hours of sleep. After getting surgery, would you be able to purchase a month of sleep to let your body heal? Memory formation depends heavily on sleep. High end private schools or tutors could drill their students for an hour and then have them sleep for a few hours to really solidify the memory. Many people working on a tough problem find that going to sleep helps them figure out a solution - now you can do that throughout the workday. “Okay, everyone. Let’s take a break and sleep on it. We’ll meet back here in 20 minutes.” There will be sleep addicts who buy naps all day long. Depending on how it works, sleep consumption would follow the same power distribution that most consumption does.

Assume sleep production is like oil production. It is a physical good, cheap though not free to extract, durable, and needs transportation. There would be a global price for it, with regional variations within the bounds of transportation arbitrage.

Bankers and lawyers will pay up to (conservatively) $100/hr for extra waking hours. There are *many* people who would gladly sleep for that wage instead of working. The market clearing price could be quite high.

The rich already pay the poor for their time. Many unskilled jobs (day care, maid/janitor, Uber/Instacart/the whole sharing economy) are boring things that more skilled workers could do if they had more time. Instead these jobs are literally relatively richer people buying additional time. Sleepsharing is just an extension of the current situation.

I would predict some Puritanical hand-wringing, along with a vigorous supply and a high price. It will displace many low marginal value jobs as workers in poor countries sleep all day and use their income to buy goods from high-productivity workers. It would be like any other menial job, but less physically taxing and less soul sucking. Inequality will increase and be more persistent, as the rich invest even more heavily in their children, buying them extra hours to get a leg up on their competition. At first it is a boon as people start to have more free then. As everyone adapts, the workweek grows to 80 hours for all high-status workers and then people are just as miserable as today, just much more productive.

According to a Pew study I found 70% of the world lives on $6/hr, but jobs tend to have a marginal wage that slopes upwards thanks to specialization and cost to organization size.

10% of the planet buying 12 hours of sleep a day (you’re awake 50% longer), while a quarter (both LFP reasons and there are other jobs to do) of the 70% living sub $10/day population providing sleep about matches. But that would raise the wages of so many people on the planet, that it would have to increase the costs more, maybe around $10/hour if it’s a global economy altering event? Sleeping doesn’t build skills, but it’s much easier and more reliable work than most jobs, although a lot of people wouldn’t want to miss that much consciousness.

But would all of the wealthy countries buy that much? 12 hours * 365 * $6 = $26,280. So could a family of 4 drop 100k a year on eliminating sleep? That’s a lot, even though incomes are much higher in this scenario. If your kids are up you need to pay for childcare. I’d think mom and dad would stay up and work overnight, maybe they’d give their teenagers sleep so they could study more, or an hour or two at breakfast (Honey Nut Cheerios, now fortified with sleep!), but most kids would sleep normally. Current retirees probably wouldn’t have the budgets to pay for large sleep purchases, but future ones would with their higher current incomes. So maybe half the country ends up purchasing significant amounts of sleep. That probably keeps cost of sleep from rising too much above $6.

I think the economic gains would simply be too good for the pesky moral issues not to be rationalized away beyond buying Fair Sleep Certified TM. If 500 million people participate, with 40 hour work weeks, at a $20/hr time value differential, that’s 20 trillion dollars a year of economic value created. And these look like conservative assumptions to me.

Ugh, that first paragraph was messed up. Should read:

According to a Pew study I found 70% of the world lives on $6/hr, but jobs tend to have a marginal wage that slopes upwards thanks to specialization and cost to organization size.

Oh well, guess it’s just broken.

Interesting analysis, thanks.

I like your point about needing 12 hours a day not 8, because you’re awake 50% longer.

I wonder if people will spend their extra 8 hours on work or on leisure. It seems work is the most likely answer and also the saddest. But I suspect you’re right that the economic gains will be too large to pass up. And those people willing to make that sacrifice and work 22 hours per day will drive up the cost of positional goods, exacerbating current levels of price inequality for things like housing and education.

Under this market model

Short sleep

Has different meanings.

Long on rest.

Obviously, the military would be the most enthusiastic consumer of this product, probably exclusively. In fact, they've been engaged in it for some time with drugs. Sleep augmentation would be much better.

This is the dumbest thought experiment of all time.

The issue here is that the caveats thrown into the thought experiment pretty much destroy its usefulness. If there is zero effect on the buyer or seller of this commodity, other than the money changing hands, you've rendered any discussion of the idea moot.

You're talking about the unproductive people providing value to productive people -- essentially being hired for an agreed-upon price -- but today's world considers such arrangements to be oppressive and too disruptive to existing rent-seeking setups.

Why isn't there a program today so that all unemployed people can get paid minimum wage picking up roadside trash or shoveling snow or similar tasks for the common good? Because the government prefers to pay union folks $40/hour to do these things in exchange for their loyalty, while "humanely" saying that having others do it would be dangerous and undignified and oppressive and classist/racist/sexist. Better to just cut the idle folks a taxpayer-funded welfare check and keep the system intact.

The same would happen here, but there would need to be some kind of downside to sleep-selling that the government could cling to -- which your caveats currently deny. They would need to be able to get a loyal NYT-type economist to plausibly fake an article saying that this technology can kill the sleep-seller, especially if they are female or non-white, etc. Then they could prevent Joe Average from selling sleep -- you'd need a license and a union job, with adequate price controls and appropriate kickbacks to the government.

I'd use it just to allow me to plan my time better. Sleep in on weekends so I can consume it getting up earlier during the work week, or go to bed early every weekday night so I can party all weekend.

Same with all the discussion about babies. How about they now sleep 10 hrs straight with another planned nap mid day?

I would do about anything to rid myself from insomnia!

This internet does plenty to induce somnambulism and insomnia both, brief waking reflections suggest. (Does Dr. Caligari envy Cesare more than Cesare envies Caligari? --according to whose narration?)

The best solution method for this type of problem is also the most lucrative:

Write a novel, please. Show your work.

What if child-rearing and homemaking were commodities?

"How would this market evolve? How would society evolve? What is the market price for an hour of"....domesticity? "How would norms around"...child-rearing and homemaking..."evolve? How would the economic indicators evolve (GDP, productivity, inequality, etc)? Which jobs could or could not compete with"...housewives? How would the welfare state then evolve? How much"...domestic innovation..."would there be?.......... Etc…"

What if sleep *were* a commodity.

It wouldn't take too long before cruelty free soy-sleep started showing up in the hippie section of the grocery stores.

To me the key is that you've identified a job that literally anyone anywhere can do with identical productivity. Either the price of sleep would plummet to almost nothing (more people prepared to sell than people who want to buy), or it would mean we have no need for a welfare system or minimum wage (there's a floor under income that nobody will ever drop below). But the phrase "sleeping my life away" would take on new meaning.

In Seattle, you would get at least $15/hour for sleeping.
In France, you would be limited to 35 hours of extra sleep each week, and you would have to take eight weeks off in the summer when you didn't get to sell your extra sleep.

One of the unstated benefits of this technology is "the ability to go to sleep instantly". This alone would have profound impacts on my life, since I have terrible insomnia (and when I fall asleep quickly, it still takes a half hour or more). Merely getting to sleep when I want would net me 6 to 10 extra hours of sleep a week. Further, I could easily take naps to net myself some extra time.

So, to add to the thought experiment:
1) Does quality of sleep matter? Can someone with chronic pain or bad dreams provide the same value of sleep to a comfortable person on a comfortable mattress?
2) Is sleep quality known a priori? If I bought 8 hours, would I feel refreshed, or could I feel exhausted as if I'd tossed and turned all night?
3) What is the quality of the driven sleep? If it were better, can you sleep for yourself to save on insomnia time, and self transfer?
4) What are the health costs of sleeping more? You generally burn fewer calories while asleep. Is this true under the machine? Does sleeping for someone else put mental and physical loads equivalent to a full day's work? I don't see how it could, but if it weren't the case, sleeping for someone else has benefits that are at least passable similar to sleep.

It will indeed have to be quite expensive, but probably a pretty would be a decently paid job.

Prices for one night’s sleep will start out around what one would otherwise would pay for a hotel room, which is the closest currently available substitute of which I’m aware.

Rather than selling sleep (to which that are sharply diminishing returns beyond 10hours/day) one could imagine taking this to the next logical extreme and selling *time*.

People's capacity to consume time is pretty much limitless, so I would predict that the most productive and richest people would buy up huge amounts of time from the third world and become functionally immortal (in subjective time, if not in calendar time).

Indeed, this was something like the premise for the 2011 Justin-Timberlake movie "In Time", now at 36% on rotten tomatoes.

Babies would become very wealthy as they sleep so much. The money could go on a savings account and by the time they are 18 much of their college is paid already.

Sounds like a better set-up for "The Matrix" than its Human Batteries idea.

I believe the original Matrix proposition was that human brains were being used as computers - but they thought it was too complex for the audience to get. It makes more sense though - why you can break the laws in the matrix if you're actually part of calculating the matrix in the first place.

There would be de-facto sleep slavery, and it might not even be that morally bad, because the slaves wouldn't suffer. I imagine that it would begin with sleepworking women agreeing to gestate surrogate babies, 'cause hey, they'll sleep through the pregnancy anyway. Those babies would just disappear into the sleep mines, possibly generating a bit of income for their surrogates. The female ones could also eventually serve as surrogates. And really, what would be so repugnant about vast wards of comfortable, sleeping people who would otherwise not have existed?

A related thought experiment was examined by Karl Marx's son-in-law Paul Lefargue in a short story, "The Sale of an Appetite," in which a wealthy man who is obsessed with food and drink purchases the appetite of a poor man. The rich man then can gorge himself, while the poor man suffers the indigestion and worse. Here's a bit of the rich man's pitch to the poor fellow: "Man's stomach is limited, wretchedly limited, and to cap the climax of our miseries, we have eyes larger than our belly. But if my stomach shares the weaknesses of humanity, I can at least extend and reinforce its power by buying the appetite of another, just as my brother capitalists buy the virtue and the conscience of their fellow men. I propose, then, that you sell me your digestive power, as my laborers sell me their muscular powers, my engineers their intellectual powers, my cashiers their honesty and the nurses who care for my children their milk and their maternal cares."

This economic idea is pregnant with a new and amazing dystopian movie script!

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