In pre-mechanized economies, human beings were born with innate capital for producing economically valuable goods—their bodies. When technology lowered the value of mechanical labor, the economic value of bodies declined but the intrinsic capital value of human brains increased. If brains go the way of bodies, what inherent value will human beings have? Intriguingly, a new inherent human capital has arisen—personal preferences.
Internet companies that had their start producing computer tools like search, email, maps and others have monetized the personal preferences about their users gathered by the tools themselves—which are typically given away “for free.” The gathered information is then sold to advertisers who use it to target individuals most likely to purchase specific goods. The business of these companies is fundamentally the arbitrage of personal preference information. Many people today don’t realize the value of their personal preferences, although the substantial profits of the companies that gather and sell such information makes clear its value.
In a future robotic economy, various characteristics of bodies and brains may have much less economic value, but the inherently human value of personal preferences will remain. Were individuals not to surrender personal information so easily, one could imagine Internet companies playing a significant role in wealth distribution by regularly compensating individuals for the value of the information they provide about themselves.