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It is my assumption that the development of Star-Trek style replicators would cause enormous problems for paper or other physical money/currency or any form of physical object of assigned value. In short, replication would be the ultimate form of counterfeiting.

Question: How would a post office preserve profit-based package delivery in a world with replicators? Asked another way: how would the post office avoid counterfeit stamps?

  • Technology is near-future (no later than 2050).
  • Delivery for profit is required.
  • Circumventing any solution to avoid paying the post office its due is a violation of written law.
  • Pointing out that Aunt Lou's famously "charming" hand-knitted sweater could be replicated and its electronic pattern emailed to the recipient is considered a game foul and cause for mental stress and dire unhappiness on the part of the OP. Although it might be the basis of an interesting question along the lines of, "in a world with replicators, can McDonald's still make a profit?" it's out of bounds here. In other words, package delivery is still required for items that cannot or should not1 be replicated.

Having created one new tag, I didn't want to create two. So, rather than create a "post office" tag, I'm using "government." If you feel there is a better tag, or that an existing tag could be usefully applied, you are welcome to do so. Thanks!


1Like McDonald's Big-Mac, which in some social strata is considered bio-hazardous and capable of inflicting virus-style problems on the Internet if ever converted to digital code and emailed to someone else. It would simply be the most dangerous "don't click this or you'll get a virus" link ever created in the dark heart of man.2

2I like Big-Macs, so I know what I'm talking about.

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  • $\begingroup$ In the near future everything is digital. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jun 7 '18 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ Smart Postboxes: You identify yourself to the machine, your parcel gets measured and your account gets charged by the machine, no stamp needed anymore. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jun 7 '18 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH gentle pushback - Smart Postbox meets all of your criteria: Near-future, Postal Service gets paid, physical delivery. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jun 7 '18 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ No more classic post stamps, all mail is metered. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 7 '18 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ I'm surprised people even still use stamps today, let alone in a future with replicators. A world with replicators would have a radically different economy - hard to imagine anything resembling modern capitalism. Such a world might be wealthy enough to provide free postage as a public service. $\endgroup$ – Pink Sweetener Jun 7 '18 at 18:57

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Each stamp has a unique ID embedded in its molecules. Once a specific code is used, it can never be reused. If you tried to replicate a stamp, it would also copy that ID, and render the copy useless.

You can't guess IDs for the same reason you can't enter a random gift card code, only a fraction of available combinations are actually active.

Also, isn't currency not a thing anymore in Star Trek?

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    $\begingroup$ I was just about to give this reply. Why do the IDs need to be "embedded in it's molecules" though? A simple barcode seems sufficient. $\endgroup$ – Pink Sweetener Jun 7 '18 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ Problem here: at least in the USA, we can take (some) pride in the fact that (with extremely few exceptions) every piece of currency (coin, paper money) made since 1793 can still be freely spent (at face value) and every non-cancelled postage stamp printed since 1847 can still be pasted to an envelope and dropped in a post box. Those laws aren't likely to change any time soon. The issue, at least at first, will be the replication of entirely valid but older postage stamps for use as free postage. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Jun 7 '18 at 23:48
  • $\begingroup$ "Those laws aren't likely to change any time soon" ... unless replicators are invented! $\endgroup$ – colmde Jun 8 '18 at 10:24
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I have 2 suggestions:

  1. Just ditch the stamps. The post office doesn't need stamps to get paid. Stamps are a convenience that allows us to put mail out for pickup in our mailboxes instead of having to meet the mailman to pay him and keep appropriate records to verify that the mailman doesn't just pocket the money. Most businesses don't have stamps - instead they have locked cash registers and accounting processes at the end of the business day to ensure that product was not given out (or taken in, in this case) without payment. If there's a large enough or consistent enough discrepancy, someone gets fired. If mail goes this way, I'd say mailboxes and mailmen should probably go away, and people will just have to take their mail directly to the post office and pay there.

  2. Serial numbers. Paper currency already has this. The numbers alone are not enough, though, since identifying duplicates won't tell you which is the original. The numbers will have to be registered. So stamps get printed on demand, with a serial number right on them, at the time of purchase. The buyer's information is registered to the stamp's number, and once the stamp is used, that number is invalidated for further use. The stamp's number cannot be used by anyone other than the purchaser. The print-on-demand thing and the registration system will drive up the price of stamps somewhat. I couldn't say how much.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ditching stamps and having to go to the post office is not a realistic step to take. Its far more likely that you will either use an app to arrange a pickup for a shipment, or use pre-paid and printed shipping labels like your option 2. Alternatively you could simply have a postal account set up with an active balance that is automatically charged when you want to ship something. Ideally you would have some user verification so someone couldn't just shove a package in a neighbors mailbox and make them ship it. $\endgroup$ – abestrange Jun 7 '18 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ I suggest splitting this into two separate answers as they are very different from $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Jun 8 '18 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ The vast majority of mail sent today is done by taking it to the post office and paying there (or rather charging an account), albeit it comes in by the truckload. This is what happens for "permit mail", all of the bills and ads that don't have a stamp or meter. And actually, some US stamps and all meter imprints today have barcoded serial numbers. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Jun 8 '18 at 5:04
  • $\begingroup$ Also, you don't need to pre-register for serialized stamps. Postal services have had a "postage due" system since the beginning. A detected duplicate stamp could be returned to sender or the recipient could be forced to pay for it under the same processes we use for underpaid mail today. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Jun 8 '18 at 5:14
  • $\begingroup$ @user71659 I suggest registering not to help with under-paying, but to help with postage theft. For example, if you buy $100 worth of stamps and I'm able to replicate them, I can use them before you do and it will invalidate yours, unless the numbers are registered to you, preventing me from using them at all. $\endgroup$ – Josh Jun 8 '18 at 13:18
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The stamp is marked with a serial number linked to the purchaser. Whenever a letter or parcel goes through the first sorting center, the purchaser is billed for the service and the serial number gets obliterated.

The customer is expected to replicate the stamp at his convenience. No problem as long as nobody else does so, and that's kind-of-assured with the obliteration before the stamp gets to the recipient.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 - so there'd be warnings not to give others access to your stamps (similarly to how they currently warn you not to share your PIN/password) $\endgroup$ – colmde Jun 8 '18 at 10:25
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We already have the answer right now--look at the Click and Ship option on the post office website. Enter your address, their address, the package weight (or flat rate envelope) and a few other things and they send you an image. Print it and stick it to your package.

There's no security against reprinting (I've reprinted it more than once when I goofed up loading the label into my printer), it's just there's a unique ID in there that can only be used once.

(And if you're mailing the occasional package this is well worth looking into. No need to stand in line to mail something over 13oz, you get a machine-printed label so there's no chance of a misread address. It's also sometimes a bit cheaper.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Also worth noting that FedEx and UPS operate in the exact same manner. You can also cancel and refund an unsent label. And, if you use a label twice, or use too big of a box, or give the wrong weight, they'll bill you $\endgroup$ – user71659 Jun 8 '18 at 4:56
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There are not and will not be replicators by 2050 or ever for large nucleus elements because the power required and the radiation emitted pushing large number of protons together would require large facilities and shielding. Doing this to make a large number of atoms (1.2x10^18 in a grain of salt) is absurd.
So even with suspended disbelief about the whole replicator thing, putting a microdot of iridium on a stamp ought to do you. Any radioactive substance would have a detectable age by decay rate. Use a known unique source for such a substance in the microdots and replication would be massively difficult.

Come to think of it, that is addressed in Star Trek, decay rate betraying whether something was a genuine antique or not. And there are limits to what can be replicated otherwise they wouldn't have been chasing around to find dilithium crystals. I think on DS9 there was even mention of "replicator rations" based on power and computer requirements for replicating denser, more complicated substances; Nogg or Jake saved up his rations to replicate something for a special gift and was asked "what have you been eating then?" In ST Discovery they use a handheld device to measure the cosmic background radiation of an item and can tell which universe it came from.

   So.... get a piece of iridium from the Mirror Universe and put a microdot of it on your stamps. Forgery by any means would massively outweigh the cost benefit of purchasing a stamp.

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    $\begingroup$ Please note that whether or not we can have replication by 2050 is irrelevant. It's simply one of the conditions of my question. Looking past the improbabilities of an OP's question is a necessary skill on this site. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jun 7 '18 at 23:10
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In STTNG, it was established early on that replicators have their limitations. The first-season episode "Code of Honor" centered on a vaccine which, when replicated, became unstable and broke down.

Add to this the implicit evidence that resources like dilithium (essential to the operation of warp drives) and latinum (a precious metal used as a semi-universal medium of exchange) are not replicable either -- otherwise there'd be no need for dilithium mining, and no basis for using latinum as money.

So in that you have a solution: make the stamps out of something that doesn't replicate. Say, "latinum foil."

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, but what stops the sender from replicating a box with the postage mark/stamp/code on it? I'm pretty sure replicators could replicate objects with labels. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jun 7 '18 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH - I believe the point would be that the parcel must have the stamp on it and the stamp is made of the unreplicable material, so even if you replicated the entire parcel, the stamp would be missing (or distorted or something) $\endgroup$ – colmde Jun 8 '18 at 10:28
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Stamps? Those antiquated things? We retired stamps years ago, just a decade or two after smartphones took over. These days, the post office requires you to register a bank account or debit card to an app. Whenever your postal carrier picks up your outgoing mail, she counts up your envelopes, weighs any large or heavy packages, and then charges you via your app.

EDIT: You don't even necessarily have to mail from your home address. USPS already has a system in place to scan your mail and send you alerts for anything addressed to you; they can simply pick up your address from the return address to know who to bill. No return address? No mail service for you.

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The replicator would make every single producer bankrupt unless there was some large changes to the way you implies it works. Firstly, you're going to move beyond a paper currency and into a digital currency. This would be something like crypto currency which is tied to you, like a social security number or maybe a more permanent version of a passport.

A post office would simply subtract money from the person's account, no need for a stamp to show that you paid. Instead there will be barcode of some sort that uniquely identifies your transaction. What if someone makes a fake barcode? well there is no recorded transaction so you just chuck it out.

As for printing anything? Let's say you want to replicate a Big Mac. Well firstly someone needs to upload the code to replicate the Big Mac. I would assume that all replica code are from a central repository that all replicators use. If someone other than Mcdonalds uploads the code, they sue and press criminal charges. When Mcdonalds uploads the code, they force you to pay for it each time you print it. That way you get your Big Mac, they get their money and everything is fine.

*I assume that replicator technology is extremely well guarded and a well kept secret. Tampering with a replicator is death sentence to everyone. The central repository is actually distributed, but appears as centralized to everyone who access it to protect it from viruses, hackers and other criminals.

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One possibility (and given that you're asking about the Government! a very likely possibility) is that they will simply try to maintain a status quo of keeping one (small) step ahead of the peons.

For example, your average dollar coin is a relatively simple object. It is not technically difficult to make a reasonably good looking counterfeit set of dies; it's not that difficult to obtain or make brass discs in the appropriate diameter and thickness. Fake dollar coins are a thing (and, of all places, they typically come out of Ecuador and other South American countries that use the US dollar as their currency). But Uncle Sam is generally a step ahead: what makes a dollar coin difficult to counterfeit is the cladding technique: a layer of copper smashed between two layers of brass. A government coin will have an obvious layer of copper in the middle. That's not easy to counterfeit, so fake dollar coins are actually pretty easy to spot.

All the Government will have to do in order to keep a step ahead of the would-be stamp replicators is determine by law a series of chemicals that the replicators can not replicate. A concoction of one or more of these chemicals will be added to the ink that real stamps are printed with. If you try to replicate a stamp, the resulting product will not look or work right.

Also, as with modern copiers & scanners trying to copy paper currency, another law might simply trigger the replicator to log the replicand image data along with a date & time stamp and send that right along to the office of the Postmaster General, who will contact local law enforcement who will pay you a visit and ask you questions like "So you're the one trying to replicate postage stamps. Why are you trying to replicate postage stamps? I'll bet you'd like to come downtown with us a while and chat while our friends here help tidy up your place?"

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Considering the Question: How would a post office preserve profit-based package delivery in a world with replicators? Asked another way: how would the post office avoid counterfeit stamps?

They probably don't have to, because the cost of replicator technology would be prohibitive. Even the cost of making a counterfeit stamp by a replicator would be much more than the cost of a stamp.

The costs involved would be the cost of replicator technology itself, and the cost of the replicator process itself. It will take many generations of replicator technology for the costs to come down to something where replicating stamps would be profitable for counterfeiters.The

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Upon receipt of a package at a post office, the package is first weighed and assessed for sufficient postage by an authorised post officer. Damaged or otherwise defaced stamps are rejected and removed from the package at this time. If postage is sufficient, the stamps affixed to the package are fingerprinted by a standard replication scanner and compared to a database of known stamps.

Packages affixed with stamps sufficiently identical to an already-used stamp, printed on neither authentic paper nor matching a known post-replication era stamp, embodying unreasonable quantities of antique stamps, or containing significant traces of regulation red postal ink* are flagged as void, the package is rejected, and, where fraud is suspected, details of the package and sender are forwarded to the appropriate authorities.

Otherwise, the fingerprint of all stamps on the package are saved to the official database of used stamps and the post officer employs a regulation self-inking postal stamp to mark the package, taking care to ensure all affixed stamps are visibly marked by ink. The officer may ink the package multiple times if needed.

Finally, the package is accepted and delivered to the recipient in 2-4 weeks or just after the nearest recognised public holiday, whichever is longer.

*A preparation of red ink in a glycerol-water mixture. Customers are advised to avoid the use of red ink on packages intended to be sent by mail in order to minimise the risk of life-changing misunderstandings. Trust only stamps issued by an authorised post officer, conveniently stationed between the hours of 9 and 5 excepting lunchtimes at a post office near you.

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