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TLDR:

The worlds richest man has secretly got the ability to make anything at near-zero cost, humanity is technically post-scarcity. But he sells us things anyway, cheaply, and becomes a monopoly, all governments collapse, and then gives us all charity to purchase things back from him.

He gives a lot of charity, people live very comfortably, but they are being lied to. How long could such a scam last, and what reveals it? After people discover it, what happens to the near-utopia that they enjoyed?

Background

A genius in his garage

A tech genius tinkering in his garage has succeeded in creating the ultimate 3D printer, using nanobots to assemble individual molecules from a stockpile of raw materials into whatever is desired. You can't print gold bars without the same weight of gold raw materials, but you can print perfect counterfeit money by having nanobots assemble the polymers. You can print food using stocks of cellouse and carbohydrates and proteins and arranging them. You can 3D print complex machine parts, computer chips, full computer systems, medicine, anything.

Can't print anything living, cause it moves while printing. But you can 3D print a new 3D printer, even a larger one (if done in peices), and more nanobots for it so it can print faster. The process can't split or merge atom internals however, so no refining plutonium or turning lead into gold.

Rather than announce it, he kept it secret. He wasn't a rich person, and he wanted to profit from it somehow to repay his crippling debts, and pull himself and his family out of poverty.

At first he started an online store selling non-branded electronics. You bought an item, it 3D printed it in it's packaging, applies a shipping label, and a courier collects it. To supply raw materials, and money, he bids for contracts with the city for E-waste disposal. His nanobots dismantle all the cities E-waste down to bland cubes of individual raw materials, suitable for 3D printing new electronics.

His first billion

He then grows to selling everything, basically an Amazon clone. He overtakes Amazon, his company can slightly undercut everyone because the cost is only shipping, and he gets great shipping rates. His food delivery service undercuts UberEats and the like. Many stores worldwide start wholesaling from him because he's cheaper. His garbage disposable business handles the bulk of the western worlds garbage disposal needs. Eventually "Cred" or "Credits at the online store" become a semi-official currency.

He becomes the richest man on the planet, he's basically taken over capitalism and taken over lots of the worlds manufacturing jobs with his secret nanobots. Taxation revenues fall for governments (cause his company is registered in some tax haven and does the same book cooking most big companies do) but he remembers his crippling poor origin, and is filled with guilt. He starts some philanthropy to make himself feel better.

Things heat up

Meanwhile the Earths climate is not looking good. We've totally failed at reducing CO2 and it's getting hotter. A tipping point occurs, stronger and sooner than anyone predicted. Mass methane escapes from the melting Arctic tundra and the planet warms unfathomable amounts in only a few months. Governments totally fail to get organised to do anything. Sea levels rise meters per month. Temperature records are broken weekly.

Our tech genius, senses he can make amends, uses his garbage-disposing nano bots to carve out massive underground civilisation (giving huge amounts of raw material), and his 3D printing nano-bots to fill these massive underground structures with comfortable amenities. They create massive fusion power plants to power everything. They print smart robots to tend to all the needs of people, to maintain things, and he still has his "I can deliver anything to you immediately" service running. People still have access to their Cred accounts, they can still order anything they want from his service, but all banks and governments have collapsed. Our billionare, realising the banking system has collapsed, decides to give everyone a gift of 1000 Cred a day, so that they can continue to live.

(It's very generous - 1000 cred will buy a decent laptop. 5 cred will buy a cheap take-away meal. 100 cred is weekly rent on a nice 2 bedroom apartment. 800 cred is weekly rent on a small mansion. 2000 cred will buy a robot butler that can do all your household tasks for you).

He can't come clean however, so lies on top of his existing lie, and says we're really lucky, cause his robotic manufacturing lines (which people had questioned where his facilities were in the past) are located below ground, so we have access to all the existing supply chains. We can still make computers and couches and hamburgers and sushi and milkshakes. We have all the food we need being grown by robots, and you can still get it and anything else delivered to your door.

Living in luxery

As people settle in, robots are improving the place - growing large parks with fake sunlamps, preparing fake beaches, opening shopping malls staffed by robots, opening nice restaurants and bars staffed by robots, and painting wonderful scenery art so you look out your budget apartment window and see a wonderful view.

Medicine is practised by robots and AI; pills are made with secret nanobots inside it. The AI doctor prescribes you a medication, that medication is 3D printed nanobots. You take it, the nanobots fix you. They do a better job than any surviving doctors can do, they're not getting paid extra so most stop practising, but those that do follow "do no harm", which implies don't do anything because the AI doctor saves more lives than you can.

Engineers are free to create - they can upload a design and have it 3D printed, circuit printed, IC stamped out, etc for a small fee. Many build things which are great, and they want to share them, so they can submit into the online store. GitHub or something similar has survived, and most engineer types are contributing to open source knowledge.

As time passes, people who want to explore are free to do so. Soon people can travel in protective craft up to the surface, and a space program is created. Our billionaire wants to make it to Mars in his lifetime, and plant a new colony for humanity there before he passes. Within a few years of losing the Earth, robots are on the moon and Mars preparing for a colony of humans to arrive, and setting up "The supply chain" to make sure that the colonists will enjoy the same luxuries they're used to.

But it's all a lie

We now have a benevolent dictator, and a post-scarcity world. Lots of energy. Lots of resources. Lots of space for everyone to be themselves. Everyone is living in luxury. Anything they want they can have rock up at their door in an hour. Robots do all the work. No-one has any need to work, they can sit at a computer and create anything they want, or just watch the trillions of hours of video content that was salvaged from the bittorrent network before all the surface datacentres overheated.

People are thankful of the tech billionaire, and every day they get (what they think is) a large chunk of his wealth to spend on themselves, and their lives are bliss. He's peoples hero, and he literally saved the human race.

He doesn't seek praise or fame, no one really sees him the flesh. The billionaire has appointed a trusted successor to take over running his business when he dies - wife, then child. They don't know the secret that we're post scarcity, they believe the lie that there's robotic assembly lines located somewhere else in the massive underground civilisation that are building all the things people want. Most of his day to day work is done by an AI, listing to citizen feedback and changing details or adding options to keep people happy. Approving expansions to the civilisation, adding a new shop to the mall, adding things to the online store, repairing anything which breaks, etc, all done by AI, or AI controlled robots.

No-one realises that he's not actually giving them anything - numbers go up and then down again in their account every day, their rubbish is dismantled, rearranged, and given back to them in a cardboard box with an Amazon-like smiling tick on it.

The lie he told years ago has had lies piled on top of it and has become humanities biggest secret.

How long could this secret last, and what could make it be revealed?

And when it's revealed, what happens to the benevolent dictator and the human race?

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    $\begingroup$ "You can print food by forming cellouse and carbohydrates and proteins and arranging them:" Oh no, you cannot without a massive lot of energy consumption. All that sunlight that plants soak up to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates? Some of it is wasted, true; some of it is used to power the process, true; but a lot of it actually goes into the carbohydrate molecules. To make anything which burns from stuff which doesn't you need to supply the energy which would be released by the fire. At this point he is competing with the Sun, and the Sun's light is free. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 11:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash: That's not how things work. The glucose molecule actually, for real, contains a lot of energy. To make glucose from carbon dioxide and water that energy must be supplied. His process may be super-efficient and the additional energy requirements may be vanishingly small, but the basic difference in the energy content of glucose and the energy content of carbon dioxide and water has to come from somewhere. Otherwise what he has is a perpetuum mobile of the first kind, and this means that his "technology" is absolutely boring magic. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ The secret won't last long. To sell, distribute, gather resources, pack and store goods will require a large organization and lots of people. That makes it extremely hard to hide. It will be blown long before he becomes a benevolent dictator. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ VTC:Opinion-Based. I'm delighted to see both a concise "here's my question" section and plenty of background details - but you're asking us to write the history of multiple parallel universes. "What can go wrong?" Anything. The help center states, "To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where every answer is equally valid." Without detailed insight into how you'll judge the best answer, every answer to this is no better than the rest. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ It looks like you've already built your world and are asking how events in your world will play out. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 17:48

2 Answers 2

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So I'm going to skip ahead to the end, because you don't seem too concerned about the odds of him actually setting up his Great Utopic Scam, but rather on how long such a scam would last. My answer is Almost Instantly Seen Through.

Firstly, unless he's Benevolent Dictator of the World, any first-world government would notice he's up to SOMETHING. He's creating goods essentially out of whole cloth, with no human workers, or only a fraction of the workers one would assume he'd have to need. Law Enforcement would be all over him. Even if he's technically not committing a crime, it LOOKS like he is. "You have 500 billion in profits and only claim 20 employees? BS." "That ONE building handles all your manufacturing and you don't in any way have any additional properties to turn e-waste into new goods? BS." They'll think he's tax dodging or doing some sort of white collar crime. Then the CBI or IRS or MI-5 or The People's Internal Security Service or whoever opens an investigation and figures out what he's up to. once the Government knows his game is up. They'll seize his tech under a pretense of some sort, and because most democratic governments (despite what conspiracy theorists want you to believe) are REAL bad at keeping secrets the world would know soon after. Even someplace like China or Russia would be more likely to announce their sudden tech superiority to the world as a show of superiority than attempt to keep it under wraps.

If he starts in some 3rd world country with less robust policing (and even many of them would be on to him for the reasons outlined above, the poorer you are the angrier you get about people not paying you after all!) he might avoid law enforcement scrutiny. But then he'd have to deal with every major spy service in the world trying to figure out how some dude on a south pacific island is turning garbage into trillions of dollars of products. Overseas spy services generally having fewer rules than domestic ones (what the CIA can do overseas regarding non-US persons is WILDLY less restrictive than what the FBI can do domestically, for example) the jig would be up pretty quick there too.

So let's assume your man managed to dodge the World Governments somehow. Maybe he bribed them all, maybe the lizard men running the world hand it over to him because of his technological and organizational brilliance, whatever. He's literally Benevolent Dictator of the World. He's still hosed. Because unless he turns his wealth and nanobots into creating some sort of amazingly robust internal security service SOMEBODY will leak it to the press. Or sneak into a facility for a couple minutes fame on Tik-tok and discover the truth. Imagine every conspiracy theorist on earth suddenly only having ONE target, and that one target actually having a world-shattering secret. Sure you might get 99.9% of the people to ignore the weird inconsistency of getting a stipend from a guy that you use to buy stuff from the same guy, but that's still 7 million people who think it's too good to be true. That's too many people to keep anything a secret for long.

So What Happens Now?

If governments get ahold of it you have an instant and massive gap between the Nanotech nations and those without. Doesn't matter who gets it, once they have it they're a top-tier nation. In a few years it doesn't matter who HASN'T got it, they're a bottom tier nation. A country like the US or China could fake being 1st world for a while after such a device was created elsewhere, but unless they can get their hands on it they will eventually (I think quite rapidly) fall behind. There will probably be crazy spy games and maybe a war or three as countries without the nanotech try to beg/borrow/steal it from those who have it, but once the have-nanotech countries are a few years along they'll be effectively unbeatable. Then you'll get a post-scarcity version of colonialism (where Nanotech Countries effectively control the governments or populations of non-nanotech countries by dint of overwhelming economic/military power) or, if you're feeling generous about the human condition, everyone eventually gains the benefits and life proceeds as it did before The Scam was discovered.

If he's Benevolent Dictator of the World I think things go much worse. Mass revolution, rebellions, former nation-states and ethnic groups going at each other, the whole deal. I don't think it'll be a collective shrug and move on because nobody likes being fooled. Check out Richard Nixon. The man won the presidency convincingly, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who's happy they voted for him after his resignation one step ahead of impeachment. In this case it's not just some political game he lied about, but literally the foundation of the world he set up. Nobody Likes That. Then with him gone, the old centers of power will attempt to reassert themselves in the usual bloody-minded ways empires fall, until eventually it settles out into something like I described above.

I'd also point out that if this tech gets to the level of "every home has a nano-replicator" and you can DIY designs then the world is pretty much F*****. 'Cause then all it takes is one guy with a Grey Goo fever dream and moderate talent to destroy the whole planet.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree with almost every aspect of this, except for the Grey Goo conclusion. As Grey Goo becomes a viable weapon, so does Anti-Grey Goo. As long as military grade nanites are of a higher quality than civilian ones, then national defense systems would be able beat out those puny script kiddie level grey goos. You might see someone goo a neighborhood, but their attack would be contained and destroyed by what the real pros could roll out. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ That's fair enough, provided it's caught early. But there are plenty of grey goo scenarios where you can set the "spread" function before the "attack" function. Or instead of grey goo have little bio/chem bots that spread then build insert toxin of choice Sure the Good Guys could maybe send out anti-goo nanobots, but you'd need a world-covering density of THOSE and the Chinese wouldn't love America for spreading their supposed anti-goo bots to Beijing or vice-versa . Plus you only have to be different/better than the "good goo" for about 8 hours before it's game over if you plan right. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ Different jurisdictions (US/China/etc) would generally help in preventing an extinction level goo. If you build your grey goo to hard counter American Goo for example, when it reaches another country like Canada, then Canadian Goo might work under a different set of principles that the malicious goo does not know how to exploit. There may be a small window of time where an extinction level goo would be possible, but Anti-goo would likely very much resemble anti-virus software whereby it could identify and terminate potentially harmful heuristic behaviors, not just known threats. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 19:16
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Yeah, no. This is going to fail hard, and early, assuming he lives in a relatively modern country that isn't entirely corrupt, and for one main reason: inspections.

He's selling food? Regular government inspections of the food supply and processing to ensure it meets public health standards. Disposal of waste? Inspections to ensure he's following environmental regulations in waste disposal. Workplace safety inspections. Inspections for any permits or licenses he's needed to set up the business. And, most terrifying of all, audits. If he's running a legit business, he's got to be buying products from somewhere, and the costs of those products have to be accounted for. Someone is going to smell fish very quickly when there's a stream of revenue coming in and no expenses going out.

Sure, he could try bribing inspectors and auditors but he only needs one to have a moral backbone for the whole scheme to be exposed.

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