I am writing a transhumanist science fiction story that employs a system called "utility vouchers". A utility voucher is a redeemable unit of value that humans are allotted on an egalitarian basis and can redeem to obtain "utility", or some kind of positive effect or state of affairs. The goal is to avoid wireheading scenarios. I anticipate the utility voucher system will be managed by superintelligent AIs, although human management offers more possibilities in regards to how things might go terribly wrong in a story.

For example, let's say I want to have big muscles. I can either get them the hard way by working out in the gym, or I can redeem some utility vouchers to get them much more quickly with nanorobotic enhancement. The same is true for luxury goods, where they function like money. A powerful sportscar is energy-intensive to build, so it will cost me more vouchers than scented candles will.

Utility vouchers also account for externalities, so anything you do that creates an externality is going to be factored into the cost of the voucher.

The result is that if someone wants pleasure by directly stimulating their brain, they have to "pay the fee". In the case of wireheading, you would eventually run out of vouchers and become unable to continue the high, maybe even experiencing a withdrawal.

Utility vouchers are not used for everything. For example, they aren't used up by simple or spontaneous things like laughing when your friend randomly tells you a joke. They also don't apply for necessities like food, water or shelter.

Utility vouchers are awarded on a regular basis. This could be daily and as a fraction of the energy available to consume by a civilization. Their value could be determined by the energy cost to redeem them, how close they come to wireheading the participants or plateauing them into a constant state of pleasure, or a mix of both.

Does this idea make sense? Do you think it would work?

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    $\begingroup$ Is the cost determined by production cost + externalities or some nebulous moral value? because if purely "cost+externalities" determine the price, wireheading would be insanely cheap to the point where price is (almost) irrelevant $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ General comment because you want to avoid wirehead scenarios: compared to all the other fun things humans like to do wireheading is dirt cheap. If the price in utility is primarily the energy cost then going wirehead is much better, easier and cheaper then doing the real thing whatever the real thing might be. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ Utility vouchers read to me as equivalent to guaranteed minimum income. All the pros, cons of that would apply. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ Frame challenge: why should wireheading be avoided? If the AI's goal is to maximise happiness of the humans it oversees (which makes a lot of sense for something you've allowed to rule over you) then wireheading would appear to satisfy that goal. Sure, wireheaders will die because they're too busy zapping themselves to eat - but they will die happy! $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ Frame challenge #2: superintelligent AIs (which to me implies sapience) should be able to fix society to a point where the vast majority aren't interested in the kind of escapism that drug use (which wireheading is just another form of) brings. It's no surprise that drug use has increased alongside inequality, as end-stage capitalism driven by the richest chews up and spits out everyone else. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 21:34

9 Answers 9


Problem #1: Human history

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a govenment-controlled solution to (or, perhaps more accurately, an external force controlling) addiction. Even when incarcerated, people find ways to gain access to drugs (and wireheading is just another drug from that perspective). You're far enough into the future that the fundamental technology to wirehead is trivially available. Frankly, unless there's an imposed fine against the vouchers for the purpose of restricting wireheading, the cost of wireheading would be closer to the cost of the candle than the cost of the luxury car. My point? Addicts are remarkably clever at finding ways around legal and cultural restrictions and tend to gravitate to underground, black market solutions that are not believably possible to stop.

Problem #2: Fiat currency by any other name is still fiat currency

You're treating your vouchers as if they are materially different from "money." They're not. They're just another medium of exchange not backed by an arbitrary and theoretically valuable resource. AKA, fiat currency. Worse, it's likely a digital fiat currency, which means the system can be hacked. Your option is to declare your managing AI overlord to be godlike in that no mere human can figure out a way to modify or circumvent either the software or the hardware. Godlike plot constructs are boring. My point is that money is money and whatever you call it, that means every problem money has is a problem you'll experience. And that includes what addicts will do if they run out of vouchers. Can your vouchers be transferred between individuals? Then your AI just lost control over the situation entirely.

Problem #3: Transhumanisim pretty much guarantees addiction if someone wants to be an addict

You don't explain what you mean by "transhumanist," so I assume one of the many definitions:

Transhumanism, philosophical and scientific movement that advocates the use of current and emerging technologies—such as genetic engineering, cryonics, artificial intelligence (AI), and nanotechnology—to augment human capabilities and improve the human condition.

Transhumanism may seek the betterment of the human condition, but what does that really mean? Freedom from disease? That's good. Faster thinking or easier access to information. Social media and the Internet have already proven that to be a two-edged sword. Dove/Unilever currently has an advertising campaign against social media on behalf of juvenile health. Freedom to act without constraint? That's always bad. All of which is a fancy way of saying that transhumanism will act both in favor of an addiction-free humanity, and against it. Transhumanism, despite its goals, is a tool of culture, not a culture. Why? Because, almost by definition, transhumanism espouses freedom, not by law (which is good because it's not anarchistic), but by science (which is bad, because science has no restraints, being only a tool).

Encouragement #1: Comprehensive technology is whomping hard to cheat

Why is it dramatic when we hear of someone hacking the user accounts of a major corporation? Because it's actually really, really, really hard to do that. With every attack against "law and order" humanity learns better how to defend its interests. By the time of your future, that such a compromise could be insanely rare if not impossible becomes, to a degree believable. So, by weight of the goals of transhumanism, it's plausible to create the world you propose. (Ignoring the fact that godlike things are literarily boring.)

Encouragement #2: If the timing is right, time is on your side

Let's assume that the "happiness vouchers" came to exist reasonably long before wireheading. People will have grown accustomed to how it works. They'll have even come to culturally trust the voucher system. So when wireheading comes to be, the voucher system can believably manage the experience so that people don't become desperate. But this isn't just the vouchers themselves, this must be considered part of the transhumanist experience. People are free to experience the high of wireheading, but comprehend going in that their exposure to it will be managed by the AI so that they never become pariah to the culture. (This, of course, opens the door to a very dark exploration of just how effectively people can seek what is not best for them.)

Encouragement #3: Narrative Necessity

Finally, people often dismiss the assertion that "it's your story, it'll work if you declare it to be true." The simple truth here is that we're not gods. We can't foresee every possible truth, every possible consequence, or every possible reality. When you ask, "can this work?" we can obviously point out reasons why it won't, but it's impossible to explain with any certainty why it will. Honestly, it's not even reasonable to ask, because the only rational answer is "it does if your narrative necessity requires it to." Even asking if it makes sense, or is believable... if you think about it... really isn't the point, because if you write a good story people will believe anything and if you don't it won't matter how well something like this could work.

So, if you like this idea, run with it! Use the information you've learned here to create a fun story, but don't let anything here dissuade you from your idea.

One more thing...

I get what you mean by "externalities..." but by definition if your system is capable of dealing with the cost of all "externalities" then you don't have any.

  • $\begingroup$ It's actually not a fiat currency. If it's backed by the civilization's power budget, it is as tangible as being backed by gold or silver. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ Hi Nosajimiki - yeah that's impossible / doesn't parse. The word "externalities" literally just means "my opinion of ..." A technocrat is someone who humorously and accidentally thinks his opinion is "correct". $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki While one or two dictionaries define fiat money as a currency created by a government by decree (backed by nothing at all), investors specifically define fiat money as not backed by a physical commodity. "A fraction of the energy available to consume by a civilization" is not a physical commodity. If we wish to insist that such backing still doesn't define the vouchers as fiat money, then they're nothing more than economic dividends... which is worse. However, please don't miss my point - the OP thinks he/she has made something new and different. That isn't true. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 4:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie Externalities [Economics] "a side effect or consequence of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without this being reflected in the cost of the goods or services involved, such as the pollination of surrounding crops by bees kept for honey." $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 5:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie Externalities are factored into the price of goods, not the value of the money. So, if it takes 10kwh to produce a product, but 15kwh to clean up any resulting pollution, communal prerequisites, and handle its eventual disposal, then its cost is 25kwh. It is not fiat, because being backed by a unit of power is the same as being backed by gold or silver. The government can not just declare an extra 50gwh this year because it needs the extra capitol. It must physically increase its power production to increase its annual budget, that makes it a backed currency. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 15:21

You're basically describing contemporary money and benefits.

The differences are that

  • everyone gets these benefits, no matter their background or current state.
    This exists (already), and is known as Universal Basic Income.
  • all necessities—food, water, shelter (upkeep, electricity?)—are free.

Will this work?
I hope so, but the problem with people is that they will always want more, especially power and 'stuff', and some will find and go through loopholes to get what they desire, inadvertently or deliberately upsetting the status quo.

Thus, such a concept will require a lot of monitoring, which could be done by your AIs, and perhaps an egalitarian, anarchical oligarchy, who are willingly exposing themselves and all their communication and activity to the AI or a randomized group of individuals.

Concerning the wireheading: if I'm interpreting you correctly, this is a problem you're facing and want to avoid?
As with drugs, banning it will lead to uncontrollable scenarios. You'll probably want to legalize it under very specific conditions: a regulated environment and professional medical personnel, or a "therapeutic team", that audits the clients (similar to current-day psychedelic therapy).
It can come with a hefty price tag, to discourage and contain users.

  • $\begingroup$ If the "wireheading" does not have any major negative medical implications we would go through the usual cycle of tech adoption: initially, most people would find it weird and somewhat perverse, over time more and more people would learn that getting simulated joy is just much easier than getting the real deal, and within a generation or two everybody is a "wirehead" and doing the normal thing would be seen as old-fashioned and quaint. My only question would be why the mega-AI even cares or sees this as something that needs to be avoided. $\endgroup$
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ @xLeitix Because this AI is controlled by the OP, who mentions: "the goal is to avoid wireheading scenarios" :) $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ " but the problem with people is that they will always want more, especially power and 'stuff'" I know that this is a pretty universal talking point in a capitalist-raised world but that's just some (comparatively few) people in the grand scheme of thinks. Most people are quite content living a decent life $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 13:44

Comparing Future Apples to Space Oranges

Boiling down all the sci-fi concepts, other users are right: What you have is an economy and monetary system. You have more complicated ways of figuring out the price for goods or services and differing ways of earning the currency, but it is currency nonetheless. Wireheading is high-tech addiction, additional wrinkles notwithstanding. So the question you are really asking becomes...

How Does Monetary Policy Prevent Addiction?

Short answer: it doesn't. You are comparing apples and oranges here, or trying to perform surgery with a ballpoint pen. This is not the right tool for the job (though other tools might be). Additional caution: Any simple solution is begging to be smacked by the Law of Unintended Consequences. To eliminate addiction, you also need to eliminate poverty, cure most mental health conditions, and permanently fulfill all psychological and relational needs for every person in your society. Your world is now very boring.

Frame Challenge: Not Transhumanism

At least not in the philosophical sense. Your people have new ways to get what they want that would be unfathomable to our century, like hopping in a metal tube and flying to the other side of the globe in 12 hours was to people of 1900. But airplanes didn't change human nature- we just got new toys to use in the same business, leisure, and warfare that has existed for all of human history. As long as your humans are human, addiction will be a reality.

Frame Challenge 2, The Sequel: Lean Into It

Wireheads are simply a part of your society, just like crackheads are to ours. This is relatable for readers- some never touch drugs, some users are semi-functional, and some addicts are utterly destroyed by them. Some former addicts have escaped their chains, and some people dedicate their lives to fighting societal evils like addiction. Frankly, this is a lot more interesting than having a paragraph that handwaves away addiction. If you absolutely need to handwave it away, make the solution both complex and vague: "Centuries of experience with legislation, addiction recovery methods, economics, sociology, and law enforcement culminated in the near-elimination of substance abuse."


It works

I hate to break it to you, but we kind-of already have these. It’s called food stamps, and we can use them to get all sorts of essential things.

Basically, run it like money, where certain tasks earn you more “luxury stamps” than others, and some cost, and some don’t do anything. Then, make a “luxury center” where said stamps are redeemable. Finally, allow citizens to do it, and maybe have a basic monthly stipend to allow anyone to be able to do it.

Now the only thing left to do is make sure there aren’t any counterfeit rings that are gaming the system…

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    $\begingroup$ ...and also make sure that no one sells goods legitimately purchased with stamps for a fraction of the equivalent value in a different currency $\endgroup$
    – automaton
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 15:35

Probably not

Let us assume that wireheading involves two elements. The first is getting the hardware to allow current to be used to stimulate the brain - depending on the available technology this could require an implant with a plug in the head that a power/control unit is plugged into or it could be a completely external headset that does not require any implants. Regardless, it is probably a moderately expensive upfront cost (in utility vouchers), though it could potentially be constructed for a reduced cost by people with a moderate amount of knowledge from general purpose electronic (and medical?) components. In the latter case, the AIs cannot set the price too high without making it ridiculously expensive for people to play with hobby radios or IT equipment.

The second element is an electrical power supply, which could be a battery or a connection to mains power. The problem is that this is a really tiny amount of required power - lots of power is generally called "electrocution" rather than "stimulation". It is certainly less power than is required to, say, illuminate the room that a person is sitting in, let alone power their personal computing and communication device/s. Which means that electricity has to either be so expensive that everyone lives in the dark and will definitely never be able to afford a cooked meal, or powering their wirehead device will be such a trivial cost that they can easily spend their entire life under direct brain stimulation (which may be quite short if they neglect drinking, eating and excreting).

The only means I can think of is that they maintain a monopoly on possession of the hardware and only allow people to briefly use it in premises that the AIs control. Given that the technology to allow "wireheading" by humans is probably not especially complicated - the concept arises from experiments conducted many, many years ago today - this requires that the AIs restrict access to the knowledge required and/or pretty much every electronics component imaginable. In turn, this requires a unified front by fairly godlike AIs running a very restrictive society in which no one is allowed to tinker with electronics and/or learn fairly basic neurology.

In short, no, the AIs cannot control wireheading by strictly economic means. They must directly control the components and/or knowledge required to produce the hardware.


Economics by any other name

You have fungible assets tradable for goods and services. You need to concentrate on the sources and sinks. As such, you need to go into some detail what those sources and sinks are. For sources, you have to recognize whatever it is you are incentivizing. In the US, we incentivize hard work, knowledgeability, and ruthless dishonesty.

Then you have to compare and contrast that with actual human needs, and you'd want to think about how your system could be gamed. Who are your welfare queens, cobra farmers, and white collar bandits going to be?

Is the financial fund infinite, based on effort, or does your income based on how you out-compete other?


It will work, but you may need more

As others have mentioned, your 'utility vouchers' are basically Universal Basic Income. I'd also say that wireheading is basically drugs, especially similar to something like heroin.

I understand there's been some research that suggests that direct brain stimulation may not produce the same kind of physical withdrawal effects as drugs, but you're still going to have psychological effects, like increased apathy towards career, relationships, family and anything that doesn't give the same direct pleasure as the drug.

Now, humans are complex animals and don't necessarily always look for things that give them the maximum pleasure. I'd say most people in the first world at least have no interest in potent drugs like heroin, not just because of fear of being punished by the criminal system but because they see no need for it. People will usually put self-actualisation, working on things they conside important and fulfilling over pure pleasure-seeking.

When people do end up having substance abuse problems, it's often because they have no opportunities for self-actualisation. There is a lot of research linking poverty and substance abuse. When people feel miserable because they are stuggling with basic necessities and have no hope that this will ever change, nothing to look forward to, they will often turn to drugs as the only thing that will make them feel better.

Now, if your not-UBI provides enough for everyone to be financially comfortable, that will do a lot to prevent wireheading. But if your society can also help people find their interests and passions and help them pursure them, this will work a lot better. In this case, being able to do things like buy instant big muscles can be couterproductive. Changing your body in ways like that can be a long-term goal that you're working towards, can connect you with people who have the same interest, can give you a sense of fulfilment from overcoming difficulties in achieving your goal. The road can be as important as the destination.


Wireheading is possible... but so rare its practically not a thing

Even if the AI prevents you from making Wireheading hardware, it can't really prevent you from ordering up all the prerequisites for making wire heading hardware. At some point, the things needed to make wireheading hardware will overlap with legitimate needs, and people will figure out how to use A to get to B.

That said, wireheading hardware will probably not be abused in a population where a person's psychological and physical needs are being properly met. There was a study once where rats were allowed to have unlimited supplies of drugs and food, and all the rats OD'd on the drugs or starved themselves to death living on a constant high. The experiment was then repeated where each cage had toys and a small number of other rats, and they typically chose the food over the drugs. The moral of the story is that changing yourself artificially to be happy only appeals to you if you are already unhappy.

In a Transhumanist Society, you don't just have your physical needs met, you have your psychological needs meet too. The AIs don't just make sure that you have a fair or unlimited ration; they check in on you to make sure you are doing well. They help you talk through life's problems when you have no one else to talk to. They mediate unhealthy relationships and pair you with people who will make you feel good about yourself. An android will come to sit with you in the hospital while you recover, or hug you when you are sad, or play golf with you when your friend has to cancel last minute.

Yes, wireheading can be done, and it will make you feel perfectly happy, but just like most people can do a recreational drug, feel good, and then move on with their lives it will for most people just be a special occasional activity you do now and then like going to the park, because as long as your life is already good, there is actually not a lot of motivation to linger on partaking in something to alter that reality.

Addressing Utility Vouchers

Since other answers have poked at the economics of your utility voucher system as just another fiat currency, I would like to point out the ways that it's actually not a fiat currency at all, and how to make that fact work with the idea of maintaining a Transhumanist Socialist society.

First of all, it is not fiat. As long as "money" is tied to a measurable and scarce resource, it is a backed currency. Since it is tied to power production, your "money" has a fixed value. A utility voucher could be expressed in terms of KWH, GGE, or BTUs and require a given amount of fuel reserves, or at least projectable power output, in order to be issued. A dollar is a thing a government can create ad hoc to suit its needs, but power output must be met in the physical world in order to offer a promissory note attached to that power output. If the government tries to "over-print money" by even a little bit, it will result in blackouts and other issues that will immediately be felt; so, your can't do things like have a rolling 20 year debt like you can in a fiat system.

Secondly, utility vouchers should be treated as a use-it-or-loose it currency. Power is easy to make but hard to store. This means that a kwh set aside for you last month, will probably not still be there for you this month. This makes person-to-person transactions with them grossly impractical. If I have a utility vouchers for March, 2053. Then by April, 2053, that voucher no longer is valid. So it does not have a lot of value to barter or trade with other humans.

But, your economy is based on robot labor, not human labor anyway. 98% of the buying you need to do will be forced through this utility voucher system which gives you a lot of wealth each pay period, but makes stockpiling wealth rather difficult. This is good for a socialist economy because it makes it harder for a Capitolist Aristocracy from rising up to challenge your system by accumulating massive amounts of wealth over a long period of time. If you want something that costs more than a month's utility voucher budget, you can perhaps request it in advance, and the government leverages against your income over time using its fuel reserves, but the dept the government can issue, and that which you can hold is limited.

The only way to stockpile wealth to circumvent the system is to request a product from the system each month with your excess vouchers that you can try to barter later if you need to, but even this is problematic since anything you can produce using utility vouchers to trade can be produced by anyone else just as easily; so, finding buyers will be difficult.

In most cases, person-to-person transactions will be quite limited. I might help you file some paperwork in exchange for a home cooked meal. Or I might mow my neighbors grass in exchange for him hosting game-night this week. But what I cant do is start up a billion dollar corporation with thousands of employees because no one wants to work like that any more and because even if I could get a billion dollars, they'd all be gone next month anyway.

  • $\begingroup$ not just drugs a literal wireheaded rat study was also done, which is why we know they will starve (well die of dehydration first). $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 23:50

Take care for the "mystery unsurmountable technical problem" issue!

A really common "sci-fi tech problem" when batting around sci-fi ideas is that you unrealistically add a "mystery! difficulty!"- and the difficulty is just implausible.

Your basic premise is that

  1. We have such astounding, amazing, incredible understanding of human brain/mind functions and the required nanotechnology, that, we can trivially make a device that perfectly manipulates human emotions.

  2. However! We can't make people want to eat food!

So, headwires are an astounding hand-waving ultra-technology but, for some reason (why? how?) it's not possible to add a line of code to "make people eat". When people use the astonishing technology of headwires - they forget to eat.

As you can see, it just doesn't work.

It would be like saying "Cars can now drive in perfect safety at 500 mph at all times - but, oh no, it's impossible to make the indicators work at that speed! My God! The problem arising is that cars now have no indicators!"

This is a completely common thing in sci-fi. Sometimes you can get away with it.

  • in the Star Wars universe, incredibly we have the power sources, physics and engineering to move through space between stars in seconds ... BUT ... it takes "a long time" to "do the calculations". It works because it's charming and it's Star Wars, but it makes no sense

  • in Terminator, you can send mechanical things back through time but only if they're sort of coated in meat and hand-wavey hand-wavey you can't send bombs or weapons.

But if you don't get away with it, it becomes just dumb.


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