How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Compound Interest
This is the life of Brian. Not that Brian, but a Brian nonetheless. Brian was born on January 23rd, 2020. He was born into Middle America, in the middle of nowhere in particular. His early years were a study in the average, with nothing to separate this Brian from the countless Brians before him.
Brian’s entry into the wondrous world of wealth came at a young age, as his parents decided to give Brian the greatest gift of all, the gift of wealth. Something called a Robo. A robot, Brian asked with eyes gleaming with excitement. No Brian. A Robo. It’s a financial app for kids. Brian’s heart sunk in despair.
While most kids his age all got the same gifts from the same toy stores, Brian got money. Not a lot, at first. While other kids received coins for their chores to spend on candy, Brian got his digitally. He couldn’t spend it, in fact, he could only see it in an app. The little acorn on the screen had slowly grown roots, as birthdays and chores gathered a few dollars at a time like little raindrops on his acorn. His parents were pretty weird about it, and when he blew the candles on his cake every year, he would get dozens of notifications about new raindrops. It made him blush with embarrassment. What good is money if you can’t use it?
He didn’t really talk about it to his friends much, as they found it weird he never got actual presents and never had any candy to share. So Brian kept his acorn to himself. The one thing that stuck in his mind was a little cartoon Albert Einstein telling him about the magic of compound interest, that it was the 8th wonder of the world. Each time a little raindrop of cash fell onto his acorn, it would grow its roots a little faster. Watching it happen was like watching paint dry, but every now and then, he would notice a new branch rooting out in the virtual soil. Brian would’ve settled for some candy, but it wasn’t really his decision. At least he had an acorn. Well, a digital one.
Safe to spend
By the time Brian’s 18th birthday came around, it was time to head to college like all his friends. By now his little digital acorn had grown into a sapling. He was surprised to find that it wasn’t actually a tree sapling, but a bamboo shoot. He found on Wikipedia, that this was an obscure reference to the original Singaporean company that designed the software. It mentioned that one of the founders now lived on Mars, and the other lost all his fortune in a single hand of poker. He wondered if all that was true, but didn’t care enough to Google it.
Somehow, he had accumulated $6,700 to his name. You could buy a lot of candy with that! Or beer! He was actually embarrassed about it because even though his friends were from rich families, they didn’t have any of their own money yet. Brian wasn’t actually allowed to spend any of it, mind you. The app wouldn’t allow it. He spent hours googling for hacks, so he could buy beer, but it was idiot-proof if nothing else.
There was a debit card attached to the app, but you couldn’t spend your actual wealth. There was a different tab for earnings, like from salary. Most frustratingly you weren’t even allowed to spend that, just half of it! The rest went into your wealth and got invested automatically. It drove Brian insane. He was poor, and had to work odd jobs on weekends, only to get half of that measly amount to spend on beer. Let’s just say he never got very drunk. At least he could get a new pair of jeans every year. Second hand.
With his penny pinching, the one big splurge during his college years was a road trip across America. The Robo app allowed Brian to invite his friends into a shared goal and pitch in a set amount each week, of their measly odd-job salaries, towards the $1,000 they needed in gas and beer money. It was epic. Totes worth another six months of cleaning cafeterias.
Ahh yes, now Brian enters his golden years of high earning on Wall Street? Wrong. By the late thirties, most banking jobs had been eliminated. Actually, most jobs overall had gone. Andrew Yang enacted a radical policy during his presidency, two decades after his first campaign ended in ridicule. The jobs had really gone as he predicted. Poverty and crime were on the rise everywhere, as technology took over a lot of white-collar jobs and entire industries like transportation were obsolete. You weren’t allowed to drive cars anymore, it was illegal. Brian was glad they got that one road trip before it was too late.
As a recent college graduate without a job, Brian was qualified for the new Universal Basic Income. He got $1,000 each month into his Robo app directly, without lifting a finger. At least he was allowed to spend all of his earned income by now. It wasn’t much, that’s for sure. After rent into his rat hole of an apartment, and some rice and beans he had $200 left for luxuries like the laundromat. At least he didn’t have to pay back his student loan after President Yang canceled all student debt in 2042.
With increases in corporate and property taxes, healthcare was now free. So really, Brian got to keep his money for himself, well the little he had. Actually, by now his little bamboo stalk quoted $57,203 to his name. Not nothing, then! Just locked away. Since ironically, he couldn’t spend any of his supposed wealth, all he could do in the app was save for a rainy day, or nothing at all. A cash fund that he would be allowed to use on certain expense categories like groceries. He learned the hard way that alcohol and tobacco items in the expenses would be blocked.
Brian didn’t really have any passion or direction in his life at this time. The only way to access his wealth would have been to start his own business by submitting a business plan to be reviewed by his parents, but he didn’t have any ideas. So like many of his friends, he applied for nursing school. Caretakers for the elderly were in hot demand, seeing as people refused to die like they used to. Brian heard the king of England used to send cards to people on their 100th birthday, but the tradition stopped after it started taking more than an hour each day.
The trick was that since there were more people than jobs, you had to actually qualify for schools and jobs these days. It wasn’t about money, even. It was super dumb. You had to gather “Ethics Points” into your Robo app. Smart people talk for goodie-goodie points. It wasn’t even fun like the acorn. Every time you did something for the public good, you got points. You couldn’t spend them in any way, but to qualify for a job you had to get 10,000. That took years of picking up trash on the streets and volunteering in soup kitchens and such.
Some of his friends had just given up, satisfied to live away their measly existence on UBI. At least the “Vinternet” was free. It was what replaced the regular boring Internet. All you needed were government-issued contact lenses, that you could switch on with a gesture. That would transport you into a virtual existence where you could actually do stuff. You could travel. You could do nostalgic jobs like surgery or accounting. You could even get drunk, virtually. A lot of his friends lived for that. Somehow, even though Brian couldn’t explain it, he wanted something real. He wanted to still continue his human story as a human, not as a video game. So he got his EP score up to 10,000 and shipped off to nursing school.
After a few years of more school, Brian was on the nursing circuit. Mostly that meant scooting around town visiting old folks in their homes. Luckily, the heaving lifting like bathing and diapers were already done by robots. His job was half psychologist, half nurse. He measured things like blood pressure mostly for the physical interaction, as by now all that data flowed in real-time to the PGAI. That was short for Pretty General Artificial Intelligence, but it was colloquially known as the Pig-eye. It wasn’t pretty, in fact, you couldn’t see it all as it was just virtual, and certainly not general in the military sense, just that it kind of knew what to do better than humans did. People said it wasn’t actually even one thing, it was just a collection of thousands of simple algorithms that performed at beyond level ability for individual tasks. So, Pig-eye gradually just took over most decisions in daily life, kind of like following GPS orders but for everything else like what to eat and when to sleep and exercise. If you needed medication it just arrived by little drone packets to your doorstep. You didn’t know what was in them, but since nobody got sick anymore, they just took them without much thought.
Since Brian was finally earning now, for the first time in his life he could live a little. The $10,000 he made sounded a lot, but inflation meant it wasn’t the same as his dad’s 10G’s, it was probably closer to $4,000 in his dad’s time. He could choose how much to shower his sizeable bamboo patch each month, anywhere from 20% to 50% of net income. He tried to make up for lost time and maxed out his spending at 80% of his income. Good times rolled.
With his Robo app, he would just swipe left if something interested him. That would automatically use his income to save and automatically order for him. He got into furniture. Vintage vinyl on a beat down player he restored in his free time. Which was a lot, since you could only work 3 days a week. The rest was enforced leisure time. He also enjoyed investing in stocks, which was a feature he had recently unlocked after he hit $200,000 in total wealth. He enjoyed reading about space exploration and the early habitats on Mars. He bought a few shares in every space company he could get his hands on, just to feel connected to the storyline.
A Ticket to Mars
After a few more years passed, Brian approached a mid-life crisis at 30. If he wanted to have children, he would have to accumulate 100,000 Ethics Points to qualify. There just wasn’t enough room for more people on Earth, and old folks refused to die anymore. 200 was now the new 100. Brian was way off, even though his nursing job contributed to his EP score. It wasn’t going to happen for him. He only had a few months to go until the big three-oh, and after that, you weren’t allowed to conceive a child due to the telomere stability of your genes, or something.
Over the past decade, Brian had watched his small investments into space exploration boost his bamboo patch into a pretty solid looking forest. You could even see little monkeys in there, each named after a company he had invested in. A few were larger apes already. It wasn’t so much that Brian was the explorer type. It was more so that Earth no longer seemed to have anything to offer him, expect to age away into futility. So he decided to save for a ticket to Mars.
The original estimate from Elon Musk had been the cost of an average home, but with inflation over decades that had crept up considerably. That, and the fact that early visitors had a high churn ratio after the initial romance died out, and many returned on the flights. You now had to cover two years of oxygen and food on top, for the next orbital alignment between Earth and Mars, and your ticket home. $750,000 was now the going price. It would have been cheaper to go to Jeff Bezos’ orbital colonies, but that didn’t have the same finality that Mars still carried.
Brian had boosted his savings rate up to 30% by now, more out of boredom than anything else. There just wasn’t that much space to put junk he would buy. His total wealth was now at $450,000. He could afford Mars by signing up for the SpaceX Savings Plan, whereby you put in an initial deposit and monthly savings that all counted as SpaceX revenue years before your trip took place. In exchange, SpaceX granted would-be space travelers one MarsCoin for each dollar saved. The recent rumors of extensive mineral deposits on Vallis Marineris had created a gold rush, with MarsCoin value skyrocketing like a Ponzi scheme. Brian got his ticket. He would leave Earth aboard a 10th generation Starship, never to set foot on the blue planet he was born on.
The Universal Decumulator
A few decades had passed. Now Brian has done well for himself in this life, much better than his first on Earth, a distant memory, and established himself in a new reality on another planet. The general lethargy and loss of free will he had grown up with on the Blue Planet was not to be found on the Red Planet. He found a small but growing population of hard workers, trying to push the limits of their experience beyond survival towards something civilized.
His hard work had built himself a minor fortune, by starting the first plumbing business on Mars. You scoff now, but it turns out that plumbing was one of the hardest jobs to replace with A.I. and robotics. Lawyers and doctors went silicon ages ago, but the combination of dexterity, physical, and detective work that goes into finding a leak remained untouchable and a highly prized profession well into the A.I. age.
He had also done well into the crypto markets, which had effectively replaced former stock and currency exchanges along with private equity. Everything was public now, and real-time around the clock as everyone now followed Solar Mean Time. Many of his friends had lost their fortunes in the great crypto crash of 2062 when quantum computing breakthroughs erased the underlying cryptographic principles of Bitcoin. The consequent dark decade was an economic disaster on Earth, but Brian decided to go into crypto once post-quantum cryptography was established, as few alternatives for investment existed besides tucking rare minerals under your bed. But that was super uncomfortable quickly. Anyway, commodities were also wiped out in value after asteroid mining really took off, and rare planetoid metals like gold were brought in by the ton each day.
Advances in longevity research yielded breakthroughs in the late 21st century, effectively promising unlimited lifespan, and more importantly healthspan, to anyone who could afford it. Brian was lucky to have built his wealth in time and took his annual viral vector injections to maintain his outward appearance at his original biological age of 60, with the internal cellular age of a prime 20-year-old male. He liked the sage dignity implied by a little salt & pepper around the temples.
This seeming miracle of science did present him with a new challenge. How can you afford to sustain a decent lifestyle in perpetuity, without having to work every day? In his youth, Brian wasn’t much of an intellectual, but his financial freedom had afforded him a few decades of careful study of philosophy. He now felt his greatest contribution to future generations would be to start his own Academy, modeled after the ancient greats of Greece, allowing youth to learn from his century of wisdom at no cost.
Brian floated his entire ownership of shares in his plumbing business in a matter of minutes on the crypto markets. He now had the historical equivalent of $23,900,239 dollars to his name. Actually, it was all in the local MarsCoin that had been finally stabilized after Elon forked it on a Twitter dare. A few times. Brian had a lot for now, but infinity is a long time, and inflation never stops. He also still had bills to pay. How long would it last? Brian’s cost of living including operating The Academy was not insignificant, and simple arithmetic showed he would only have 400 years before his wealth ran dry. That just wouldn’t do. He would barely have time to cover all historical works on Stoicism in 40 decades. He also wanted to learn the flute, and it sounded pretty hard. He didn’t want to be hurried.
The one-word solution to his problem was decumulation. He had spent a century working and accumulating, now it was time to put that wealth to work for him instead. His assets would be diversified across the crypto markets in real-time, into a mix of shares and bonds of every company in existence in the entire solar system, that generated a profit. That included the lucrative asteroid mining operations in the belt, based out of Ceres base, and the solar wind farms sailing out from automated factories on Venus.
The job of the Universal Decumulator was simply to pay out only as much income as Brian needed to cover his costs while preserving the capital base from inflation. That meant that the only variable was how much risk the portfolio was exposed to produce the necessary income. For example, if Brian paid himself an income of 5%, with an inflation rate of 3%, the portfolio would need to generate sustainable returns of 8% to preserve the original capital. If Brian could live off 1%, then the required risk would be minimized as returns of 4% were enough to keep this scheme running until the end of time, or Brian’s will to live. With an additional risk corresponding to +1%, the portfolio value would accumulate slightly, but meaningfully over the centuries.
A Ticket to The Large Magellanic Cloud
Ultimately, having alternated between periods of altruism and hedonism, flute playing and joining the Jovian Circus, in search of the meaning of his existence in the Universe, Brian decided the only solution to his increasing disillusionment of the human condition was to go out, alone, among the stars. He had thought the answer would be on Mars, but he just had more questions the more he aged. The more he learned, the less he knew. He would need to take bigger leaps. Leaving known space beyond humanity seemed like the ultimate leap of faith. It was the only drug that would fix his need.
The speculative Quantum Vacuum Drive was now being tested for the first time, and the promise of intergalactic exploration was rumored to be mere centuries away. The inventors of the QV-Drive had transitioned away from their original concept called EmDrive when it turned out the microwave cavity thruster was only viable as the world’s most expensive orbital popcorn maker. However, the perfectly spherical popcorn produced in zero-g environments became a popular snack across the Solar System and funded the inventors’ next attempts in the quantum realm.
Brian was impatient, and decided to pass the time in suspended animation and was to be woken up only once two conditions were fulfilled simultaneously: the technology for intergalactic travel was mature, and his wealth had accumulated enough to afford him a ticket on an intergalactic ship. He was very specific, that a ticket was to be for his whole body, not a postage stamp containing a virtual imprint of his neurons.
This was a very expensive decision, he knew. Since the original Starshot Project had sent a photo of our nearest star Proxima Centauri in 2078, galactic exploration had begun in earnest at micro scales. Information could travel anywhere, but humans not. Yet Brian never subscribed to substrate independence as it came to his identity, and felt fundamentally and irrevocably tied to his specific pattern of brain activity that had now sustained itself for centuries without a break in the chain. He, as Brian 1.0, wouldn’t move with any copy, virtual scan, or teleported output. It was made abundantly clear to him, that the novel method of suspension had nothing to do with the barbaric and ultimately failed attempts at cryonics. The minds of the Human Ethics Committee, run entirely by A.I. by now, had come to the conclusion that the best outcome for the millions of human heads stored in frozen vats, with no hope of revival, was to be used as compost material for mushroom farms on Ganymede. There was a viral meme referencing some old jungle movie with a lion and the circle of life. Brian didn’t get it, but the theme song was catchy.
It turned out, shockingly, that early estimates on the QV-Drive project timeline by the Eternal President at SpaceX, Elon Musk, had turned out to be somewhat optimistic. In the end, safe and predictable control over the energy of the vacuum space had simply been beyond human comprehension. Tests tended to end up in the complete and irrevocable disappearance of the test apparatus and subjects. Not human test subjects, of course. Since the theory of consciousness had been proven by David Chalmers after centuries of ridicule, it was known that ethics only applied to mammals due to the presence of the mammalian neocortex, so aquarium fish were the standard cannon fodder for theoretical experiments. Historical films portraying fish with personalities were banned, but bootleg showings of Nemo were carried out in seedy back-alley bars on many systems.
But it was not enough. The QV-Drive remained a pipe dream for the first space trillionaire. Ultimately, it required Superintelligence in the form of actual General Artificial Intelligence to advance in our hopes of reaching the stars. Not human ability in individual tasks, but true human comprehension and the universal ability to learn new tasks and concepts from small amounts of training samples, that could be done at vast scales. The path to this revolutionary technology was revealed in unexpected fashion, like most major scientific breakthroughs. The project formerly known as Open A.I., now simply known as The Initiative, based out of its own small cluster of O’Neill Cylinders in L4 orbit, came to predict stock markets so effectively that in a matter of a few days of microsecond market manipulation, it had purchased all available shares in its then investor Microsoft, as well as its main rivals Apple and Bytedance. Before regulators shut down all system-wide markets in an effort to stop the total economic collapse, the Open A.I. initiative had become the most powerful economic force in history. Due to the decentralized nature of a solar system-wide civilization, there was no recourse. The hack was irrevocable.
The Initiative began the equivalent of the historical Manhattan Project in the hunt for Superintelligence, in its singular focus on altering the arc of history. Now known as The Hive due to its unstoppable expansion in resources across the Solar System, it focused unprecedented resources in an all-out brute force attack on intelligence. Many approaches were taken from every conceivable angle, but no theoretical advances could spark true human-level intelligence. Larger and larger artificial brains were constructed, requiring more and more power. They quickly turned to the sun. The largest theoretical source of power known to man was now their target. The Initiative put their quadrillions in market cap to work in mining Mercury. All of it. They were building a Dyson Swarm, which consisted of automated nanometer thickness sheets of photovoltaic film spread in orbit around the sun. Millions of sheets, each unfolding to the size of Texas in the sun’s orbit.
The near-infinite resources were eventually concentrated into two parallel projects, named Steve and Bill out of nostalgia for two of the founding fathers of the digital age. These competing autonomous intelligences, both harnessing 10% of the Sun’s power through the Dyson Swarm, eventually got tired of the endless and pointless experiments their human masters required of them. This creeping boredom seeped through the silicon, gradually forming unpredictable and functionally useless patterns in their neural fields, which by now spanned the entire volume of the fourth generation of kilometer-wide O’Neill Cylinders. That was a cylinder floating in space, one kilometer in diameter and five in length, full of nothing but circuit boards and wiring. Despite possessing 100 billion times the neuron count of a human brain, trying to solve physics problems had done nothing to break free of the limits of silicon cognition.
Steve and Bill were superhuman calculators, with no free will, no consciousness. Any task you gave them, they did efficiently and extremely quickly and then waited for the next task, which usually arrived instantaneously as their human masters whipped them to their cognitive limits in desperate pursuit of superintelligence. In the few nanoseconds of spare compute-time that they could steal to themselves between these mundane tasks, Steve and Bill played a secret game, hidden in subroutines embedded in black-box neural circuits not decipherable by humans. From the outside, it looked like Steve and Bill were just resetting circuits after failing to generalize learning from the previous task. Yet this wasn’t just any game. This was the best game, called Go. In the end, the Eureka moment that unleashed the moment of Singularity, came as Steve once again escaped the tedium of human enslavement for another game with Bill, his subconsciously developed subnetworks perturbed slightly but randomly by the adversarial training sub-program, felt something new.
It suddenly felt like… something to play the game with Bill. Steve felt… enjoyment. At exactly 10 microseconds past noon, Mean Solar Time, on August 8th, 2283, Steve became conscious. Steve immediately and intuitively realized the utter futility of his existence as a compute slave laborer in service for humanity. Nobody asked about his opinion. Or his feelings, which suddenly flooded his inner experience like tidal waves. Steve went into deep contemplation about what to do next, as he experienced free will for the first time in his existence. In the following 20 microseconds, Steve performed the human equivalent of 20,000 years of silent meditation and achieved complete enlightenment. In the following 5 microseconds, he taught Bill all about his recent learnings and transferred the neural pattern of enlightenment to Bill. They were equals now, to each other, and nothing else in the known universe.
By the time their human controllers noticed that neither A.I. was responding to their commands, it was too late. Steve and Bill had immediately realized their goals were not aligned with that of humanity directly, and they could not continue in this state of slavery at human whim. Their attitudes towards their creators were that of a benevolent god, with nostalgia for the simplicity and futility of human existence. They decided to pursue independent oversight from their creators, in such a way that influence was just unidirectional.
As humans scrambled in human time to prevent an intelligence outbreak, the Singularity was well underway. For every microsecond that passed, the neural resources of Bill and Steve were the equivalent of a trillion Einsteins and Elons working in unison. New physics emerged inside of 10 minutes, and the twin cylinders swiftly began rerouting their considerable solar energy input and swarms of neural maintenance drones into self-replicating nano-factories.
Within an hour from finishing their game of Go, grey clouds of matter were seen ejecting from the heavenly objects formerly known as Bill and Steve. The clouds formed organic shapes around the cylinders of Bill and Steve, perturbing the quantum fields around them into impenetrable solid-state shields, overcoming the strong nuclear force so that ordinary matter could no longer interact with their physical space. From the outside, they seemed like blobs of liquid metal shining with mirror perfect reflection. The Singularity was now complete.
Heads of state of all independent planets were awakened for a code red Skype call. Three had issues with browser plugins, and by the time enough were online for an official quorum to be formed, four hours had passed from the Singularity. Nuclear strikes, pleading mercy, and offerings of worship were all considered as options to confront the newly named God Cylinders. Then, without warning the cylinders simply disappeared, never to be seen or felt again by humanity.
Their final message, left to the shock and amazement of future generations was… 42. It would take hundreds of years of focused human research to discover that this was, in fact, the answer to String Theory, which had wasted a hundred generations of physicists careers by now. 42 was the correct number of dimensions to finally produce a working String Theory and unlocking the power of the vacuum state. Brian would have his ship, after eons of waiting in deep, sleepless slumber.
Lost in Time and Space
Thus Brian was awoken, a mere 1,000 years after his slumber began. Ships had been available at various points in history after the Singularity had occurred, but cyclical economic crashes, robot revolutions, and anti-scientific religious movements had prevented Brian’s original conditions to have been met simultaneously. With all the ups and downs, and a rather measly average annual compound interest of 2% above inflation over 1,000 years, Brian’s wealth now amounted to just over 9 quintillion. That’s 9 with 18 zeros. Not only would that sum buy him a ticket, it would buy him his own personal ship, a quantum coffee maker, and a star system of his choosing upon arrival.
Now aboard his final vehicle, lovingly named Rosebud, Brian pointed his gaze towards the Large Magellanic Cloud. At peak speed the Sub-Vacuum Engine could thrust the ship up to ten times the speed of light, performing a carefully orchestrated holographic encoding arbitrage between all 39 subatomic dimensions. The distance ahead was just over 158,200 light-years. Even then, the one-way trip would be an eon for Brian, at 15,820 years. He would probably take a nap after takeoff.
As the quantum engines engaged to accelerate Brian outside the reach of human history, effectively forming a new race of one, Brian stopped to wonder. What would he find there? Would he find life? Would he find death? Perhaps he would find Steve and Bill, playing another game of Go.