Do you know what you’d do with a trillion dollars? Would you buy a fleet of private jets or dune buggies or maybe dine on gold-plated chicken wings? Or would you just withdraw a huge pile of cash and burn it for fun?
Some sums of money are so large, they defy imagination: a trillion dollars is just shy of Mexico’s gross domestic product. So, for some perspective: to accrue a billion dollars on the median US household income of just under $60,000 would take more than 16,000 years, assuming you spent none of it. To make a trillion would take you over 16 million years.
Apple recently became the first US-listed company with a market value of $1 trillion. So how long will it be before an individual passes the same milestone, and what will they have to do to get so filthy rich?
Been there, done that: maybe we’ve already had the first trillionaire
Hyperinflation produced plenty of trillionaires in Zimbabwe 10 years ago, but in a currency so worthless that a Z$100 billion note would cover just one trip on a public bus it’s probably fair to say they don’t count.
Rampant hyperinflation led Zimbabwe to introduce a Z$100 trillion note in 2009, which at the time was worth about US$30 (Credit: Alamy)
There’s a better case, however, for ancient kings, financiers and kleptocrats. Estimating their wealth is very tricky, but a few consistently make the list. Malian king Mansa Musa possessed so much gold that his wealth was simply beyond comprehension.
Other rulers, both in the middle ages and in antiquity had enormous wealth, but it’s tough to gauge exactly how much. Stanford historian Ian Morris estimated Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar’s fortune at about $4.6 trillion, although he admits these estimates need to be taken with a fistful of salt.
“Today even people like you and me can watch TV, use the Internet or wander into Boots or Walgreens and buy drugs like Viagra or Prozac that Roman emperors would have given their hind teeth for. In a way, we're richer than Augustus, and yet in other ways he was rich on a scale that makes Donald Trump look like he's on minimum wage,” he says.
Mansa Musa is said to have gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 with an entourage of 60,000 people (Credit: Getty Images)
Putting people out of work with machines
Many futurists think the first trillionaire will make their fortune from innovations that make today’s technology seem a little ancient. Artificial intelligence (AI) has progressed in leaps and bounds in recent years, and its potential applications could touch almost every corner of our lives. Businesses are investing heavily, and at least one billionaire think it’s a solid bet.
"I am telling you, the world's first trillionaires are going to come from somebody who masters AI and all its derivatives and applies it in ways we never thought of," businessman and Shark Tank host Mark Cuban told the SXSW Conference last year.
Imagine a new AI-engineered drug that can significantly prolong human lifespan or cure Alzheimer's... that would surely result in massive wealth – Martin Ford
But how exactly will AI create tycoons? There are many possibilities. “Machine learning is already being used for drug discovery and design. Imagine a new AI-engineered drug that can significantly prolong human lifespan or cure Alzheimer's... that would surely result in massive wealth,” says futurist Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.
The danger, though, is that there’s a trillion-dollar fortune in killing off jobs. Why hire a human if a machine can do the same work without demanding pay, holidays or health insurance? A smaller workforce doing the same work could mean that even more money floats to the top. The consultancy McKinsey estimates that AI could eliminate as many as 800 million jobs.
These fears and challenges have certain parallels in the 19th Century. Like today’s era of digital transformation, the industrial revolution fuelled a massive shift in the economy and made some people enormously rich. Cornelius Vanderbilt made a fortune from railway and shipping, while John D Rockefeller made his fortune in oil and was possibly America's first billionaire (although this is disputed) while car maker Henry Ford was the second. Adjusting for inflation, all were arguably wealthier than Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos is today (but again, comparisons need to be treated with caution).
Someone who harnesses the power of AI could transform the global economy and become very wealthy, but such change isn’t without its risks (Credit: Getty Images)
Exactly how this century’s potentially wrenching economic transformation will play out is up for debate. Some believe that it will simply shift the focus of work (much like the industrial revolution before it) and we’ll simply end up doing different types of jobs. Others feel the shift might be more fundamental, and it might leave some workers permanently jobless as AI improves and takes over an increasing number of roles. And it’s difficult to predict how quickly things will change.
“That is definitely a strong possibility if the AI is leveraged for job automation (something that seems inevitable),” says Martin Ford. “On the other hand, if the wealth generation results primarily from leveraging AI in financial markets or in biotechnology, then the impact on labour markets might be less immediate – but probably still inevitable once the technology scales across other industries.”
The crypto world is full of bloviating evangelists and pump-and-dump scammers. But it has made a diverse group of people rich in a very short time. Forbes compiled a list in early February, which suggested there were at least a few potential billionaires, including the Winklevoss twins and the founder of Ripple (XRP), Chris Larsen – who, at the peak of the crypto craze, briefly became one of the world’s richest men, according to the New York Times and other US media.
“There’s a lot of creative people figuring out how to monetise this, in lots of ways we never anticipated in the past,” says Thomas Frey, a futurist who has written extensively about the industries that will create the first trillionaire. “There’s so much activity in that space right now. And there’s so many people involved, that there’s potential for it to scale quickly.”
Bitcoin made the most headlines, with growth of 1,318% during 2017, but it wasn't even near the top of the list when it comes to rapid growth. Other well-known cryptocurrencies like Litecoin and Ethereum grew faster, while Ripple (XRP) grew 36,018% in the same period meaning $100 invested in Ripple in January 2017 would have grown to over $36,000 by the start of 2018. With such strong returns, it's easy to see how investors could get rich very quickly if they cashed out.
Many who jumped on the crypto bandwagon made mind-boggling gains in 2017 – and came back down to earth with a bump this year (Credit: Getty Images)
Any victory could be fleeting though. Cryptocurrencies have been shown to be exceptionally volatile. When Forbes created its list earlier this year, it was out of date before it went to print, with many of the wealthiest (like the Winklevosses) slipping below the billion-dollar line before publication.
So, the first trillionaire could be a rich and reckless tycoon making a huge casino-style bet on a cryptocurrency and getting lucky. But Thomas Frey says anyone who reaches the twelve-figures threshold this way might only stay in the stratosphere for a day or two before gravity teaches them a lesson.
Moon rock tycoons
The world has limited natural resources such as oil or diamonds but our appetite for them seems to be ever-increasing. That’s particularly true for some metals that are found in electronic components. And if we can’t find what we need on earth, maybe someone could make a fortune finding them elsewhere.
The most valuable asteroids could hide deposits worth more than $100 trillion
According to website Asterank, which estimates the mineral and profit potential of known asteroids, there are many fortunes to be won out in space. The most valuable asteroids could hide deposits worth more than $100 trillion.
“The space resources market is an untapped market and it will certainly be a lucrative one, so a large opportunity exists, especially for early investors," according to Takeshi Hakamada, the founder and CEO of ispace, a company that hopes to settle on the moon and eventually profit from it too.
The problem, of course, is that it’s extremely expensive to recover these riches. Plenty of companies have gone broke digging for gold here on earth, so the financial risk of trying the same in space is clear. But Hakamada says there’s a longer game. Resource extraction is just the first step in creating an entire economy in space.
Companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are racing to unlock the economic potential of the final frontier (Credit: Getty Images)
"Resource utilisation will just be the starting point to open up other market opportunities in space. Once resources are identified – enabling people to live and work on the Moon – industries will be able to consider the Moon as an extension of their business on Earth,” he says.
The fountain of youth
Immortality has long been a human dream, and it has been the subject of any number of experiments, both mainstream and eccentric. A few people have had themselves cryogenically frozen, in case medical science catches up with whatever killed them.
Big players are already looking into other solutions. Google has funded a billion-dollar research group called Calico, which studies the ageing process and focuses on “moonshot” life-extending solutions.
The demand is fairly obvious, and Thomas Frey says it’s easy to see how a cost-effective solution that offers immortality would scale-up in a very short time. Frey points out that if everyone on earth spent $10 a day on a pill to keep them alive, and continuing to take the pill was effectively a life-or-death decision, whoever made the pill would become astonishingly rich.
But the science is so new, and so untested that it’s difficult to figure out which techniques show promise and which ones don’t.
“It’s really hard to sort through all the junk out there, so to speak,” he says.
We’ve met the first trillionaire, but they’re not there yet
Let’s just say it: there’s a good chance the first trillionaire will be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He has a fortune of more than $150bn, which means he has a $50bn head start over the next richest man, Bill Gates, who’s too busy giving away his money to catch up.
With $156bn, Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person – taking the top spot from Bill Gates in October last year (Credit: Getty Images)
The business world is always fickle, and a bad week on the stock exchange could wipe out a lot of that money overnight. But at the moment, Amazon seems to be getting stronger. Entire sectors now tremble when Amazon announces it might move in on their turf. And its profits, for a long time far more modest than its colossal revenues, are improving.
One estimate suggests that Jeff Bezos would have to spend $28 million a day in order to avoid accumulating more wealth
Also, nothing is as effective at creating wealth as wealth itself. And one estimate suggests that Jeff Bezos would have to spend $28 million a day in order to avoid accumulating more wealth. Research by Oxfam has found that the wealth held by the super-rich since 2009 has increased by an average of 11% per year. If billionaires continue to secure these returns, we could see the world’s first trillionaire in 25 years. Not everyone buys this estimate, but the world’s wealthiest person would have to be a contender regardless.
Should we have trillionaires?
The argument in favour of massive wealth is that it’s a reward for innovators who fundamentally change the way we live, and usually for the better. A trillion-dollar fortune might come on the back of a large, efficient company that creates jobs and provides essential products and services. But will it really happen that way?
“Sure, wealth rewards to a certain extent talent and hard work. But to a large extent it doesn’t,” says Ana Caistor Arendar, the head of Oxfam’s inequality campaign.
Not every fortune is won off the back of innovation. Some of the rich inherit their wealth while others at least inherit a head-start. They have the means to avoid taxes more easily than the rest of us. Their companies sometimes pay low wages to people in developing countries. In short, she argues a trillion-dollar fortune could come at the expense of everyone else.
But it’s tricky to rein in massive wealth. In the middle of last century, the top marginal tax bracket reached 90% in the US, but in practice very few paid it because it focused on income rather than investments. And the rich hire good accountants who help them clutch onto as much of their money as they legally can.
Few governments have shown any real recent interest in revisiting these policies. Then again, the tremendous disparities of wealth of the gilded age spurred governments into action. Maybe governments will feel compelled to act as the super-rich claim an ever-larger share of the pie.
But if they don’t, then the first trillionaire might only be a matter of time.
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