Our own attempts to design centrally planned economies yielded only brittle, crushingly totalitarian states, Stalinist nightmares of fiat rule, corruption, and dehumanization. Yet the dream persists: a planned, smoothly-functioning world, responding rationally to evolving conditions, shepherding resources for the benefit of humanity.
Can engineers do better? As it turns out, we can – and almost did, 40 years ago.
The Foundation and the Culture
Many science fiction fans advance Star Trek as an example of such a planned, internally harmonious society. While Trek is many things, it’s not the best example of a cashless utopia – money, graft, and greed rear their heads the moment our crew leaves the ship.
Star Trek Utopia
Star Trek’s crew was not quite a Cybernetic Society.
Better representations can be found in the works of Isaac Asimov and Iain Banks. In Asimov’s Foundation and Robot stories, we see rational, thoughtful rule through the application of advanced mathematical models and carefully engineered management.
The Robot stories – by which I mean the nine tales comprising I, Robot and the two novels, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn – portray the evolution of robots and AI mainframes into the guiding instruments of human society. Particularly, in the final tale of the I, Robot collection (“The Evitable Conflict”), we see Asimov’s AI management platforms quietly transition into leadership roles through generalization of his First Law of Robotics – the AI have concluded that not taking control of human society, alleviating suffering and corruption, would be tantamount to allowing humanity to come to harm by inaction.