Monday, January 20, 2020

Man or Makhidkarun? The Costs of Artificial Persons

Now that we have looked into salary costs for a human starship Engineer across editions, let’s consider the artificial person options: robots, clones, and synthetics.


First, given the disparity between Engineer salaries across editions, I wanted to double check costs in general. Here are some common commodities:

Purchase Prices Across Editions (Cr)
Reflec Armor1,5001,5001,500100
Vacc Suit10,0007,00011,00010,000
Free Trader37,080,00036,915,00045,342,00061,100,000
SourceThe Traveller BookImperial EncyclopediaCore Rulebookv5.10

There is a reasonable correspondence across editions, with a couple of anomalies in Traveller5. (I really wonder if the air/raft cost is potentially a typo.) Each of the editions also have some baseline cost of living figures that we can compare to the expected salaries of regular ship engineers. In MT, MGT, and Traveller5 these costs are associated with the SOC characteristic:

Monthly Living Costs Across Editions (Cr)
Regular Engineer4,4001,2004,000500
Poor Lifestyle300500400200
Average Lifestyle4001,7501,200700
Rich Lifestyle9003,0005,0001,200
SourceTraveller Book 109Player’s Handbook 30Core Rulebook 92Traveller5 Book 1, 44

While the monthly cost of living values are consistent within the editions, they vary greatly across editions, particularly at the higher end of the scale. And what’s more, the relationships between an engineer’s salary and standards of living vary widely. In MT and Traveller5, the monthly salary of the engineer is below the average cost of living. In MGT, the salary nearly supports a rich standard of living. But in CT, the lucky engineer’s salary supports a lifestyle almost 5x that of a rich citizen!

I think an engineer’s salary should be better than average but less than rich: a starship engineer is a critical position that requires technical training and involves long hours in occasionally dangerous conditions. To me, the CT costs of living seem much too low compared to an engineer’s salary; in MT and Traveller5, the salary seems much too low.

The MGT number falls in the right place, but still looks a bit high—until you consider that few engineers are probably spending 52 weeks a year in space. A long term megacorp contract probably provides at least a month a year unpaid leave, and maybe closer to two. And most independent engineers might spend a few months in space, take a month living high on the hog, and then wait months before landing their next assignment.

Here I am influenced by John McPhee’s great nonfiction book about merchant marines, Looking for a Ship. There the pay was good but the opportunities limited: sailors might spend months every year stuck in port, waiting for their next chance to go to sea. A typical starship engineer only employed 6–9 months a year at the MGT salary can still afford a better than average standard of living, but not exorbitant.

I think the takeaway is that costs are generally within an order of magnitude across these four editions, with a few weird exceptions. You could use a T5 number in MT or a MGT number in CT and generally be in the zone. Just don’t expect a perfect correspondence.


A TL14 synthetic meets a TL13 heavy construction robot.

As I have already noted, while robots have always been in Traveller in one form or another, there’s no single benchmark model that spans all editions. The closest we can get is the TL12 Tukera 232-BHR-7 model starport mechanic, which first appeared in the DGP 101 Robots supplement (18), written for CT. As it happens, this model can substitute for the Engineer position so it’s the perfect place to start. The 232-BHR-7 was converted to MT as the “Starship Maintenance Robot” in MegaTraveller Robots (5). Both versions are fairly similar in capabilities and costs: Cr101,000 in CT and Cr103,972 in MT.

The 232-BHR-7 reappears in the TNE supplement Vampire Fleets (81), but the cost jumps an order of magnitude to a whopping Cr1,839,130! I am much less familiar with TNE than other editions of Traveller, so I am not sure if this cost reflects the new design system, the post-Virus setting, or some combination of the two.

The very same price is cited for the Tukera SM-232 mechanic robot in Traveller Hero Book 2 (52). But that said, the costs of the robots in the Traveller Hero Special Supplement 1: Robots of Charted Space appear to be generally lower than the costs for CT robots of similar capabilities. For example, the Sharurshid Astrotech IV, “a fine example of a mechanic/technician robot encountered in shipyards and garages across the 11,000 Worlds of the Imperium,” is only priced at Cr73,750. Given this, I’m strongly inclined to just set aside the TNE pricing.

As far as I know, the 232-BHR-7 has not yet been converted to either Mongoose Traveller (1e or 2e) or Traveller5. MGT 2e uses a fairly abstract system for detailing robots that most closely resembles the system used for animals. I find this approach works very well as a game mechanic, but when combined with the relative lack of examples it’s hard to cost out a MGT 2e version of the 232-BHR-7. Traveller5 also lacks for example robots—but in contrast to MGT, has a design system so detailed and complex I honestly can’t be bothered to puzzle it out.

My gut feel, based on looking at the examples in MGT’s 2e Central Supply Catalog and the first two issues of the T5 Xboat zine, is that robots generally seem to be more expensive than in CT or MT: perhaps something like 2 to 3 times more expensive. Since neither system has a very close comp for the 232-BHR-7, I’ll simply analyze two different robot price points for our comparison: Cr100,000 and Cr300,000.

Both CT and MT have required annual maintenance for robots equal to 1% of the purchase price. There is no similar cost in either MGT or Traveller5. This is a little surprising for T5 since there is an entire section on robot “disease and illness.” While I think adding maintenance costs makes sense, the overall effect is pretty negligible, so I haven’t included this in the analysis.

Both CT and MT allow robots to be financed, just like starships, to make them more affordable to the average Traveller. The MT book assumes that robots can be financed for a term of up to one half the robot lifespan, which varies by TL. A TL12 robot has an expected lifespan of 40 years, so can be financed for a term of up to 20 years. To calculate finance costs, assume 20% down payment. Then take 80% of the purchase price and divide by six times the term in years to get the monthly payment price.

So let’s see how 5 and 10 cumulative years of human Engineer salary compares to the purchase price of a KCr100 and KCr300 robot:

Robot v. Human Costs over Time (KCr)
Category5 Years10 Years
Robot Purchase Price100–300100–300
CT Human Salary264528
MT Human Salary72144
MGT Human Salary240480
T5 Human Salary3060

Over a 5 year period, the KCr100 robot is cheaper than a human Engineer in CT and MGT, and more expensive in MT and Traveller5. Meanwhile the KCr300 robot is more expensive than a human in all systems. Over a 10 period, the KCr100 robot is cheaper in CT, MGT, and MT but the KCr300 robot is only cheaper in CT and MGT. So over a 5 and 10 year period, robots are usually cheaper than humans in CT and MT, always more expensive in T5, and a toss-up in MT.

Beyond cost, there are other considerations when comparing humans to robots. Below TL16, robots might be intelligent but they are not sentient and lack true initiative. So in the Imperium circa 1105, robots are considered property and not citizens because they are “non-living.”

Robots can be bought, sold, or scrapped with impunity. Robots are reliable, untiring, and never lose focus, but are relatively inflexible and limited in scope. A robot will not complain about its berth, duties, or having to take a dog watch. A robot will not demand higher wages, pick fights with other robots, or run off with a starport vending machine. But a robot will also not take it upon itself to tune the maneuver drive, or question the passenger who keeps skulking around the cargo bay. A robot will be hard-pressed to work on the electronics system if it has not been programmed with that skill. And many worlds in the Imperium have strong cultural prohibitions and prejudices against robots.

Robots, at least at the lower end of the price scale, are a reasonable alternative to humans for small, independent ships in CT, MT, and MGT—but much less so in Traveller5. With nearly unlimited cash and an ability to plan long-term, megacorporations probably make extensive use of robots on their starships due to their longevity and reliability.


While clones are described in virtually all editions of Traveller, Traveller5 is the first to provide detailed game mechanics. And here we are talking specifically about guest clones, which are clones “produced to provide cheap labor” (Traveller5 Book 1, 116). In terms of role, they resemble the “fabricants” from Cloud Atlas.

“A guest is a skilled duplicate of the pattern, lacking only the memories of the original… Guests have force-grown organic bodies, cloned brains, and edited implanted personalities (an edited recording of the original personality). Guests are typically sterilized when created.” (Traveller5 Book 1, 116).

These rules are complemented by Marc Miller’s novel Agent of the Imperium, which provides useful color:

The best [astrogator] candidate was Legend’s strange woman with a strange name that told me more: Florine Ten. A clone by the name, and now I understood the tattoos: status identifiers applied by her creator.

* * * * *

I told Legend’s captain I needed his astrogator for Xyneid. He objected; she was his property; he could not let her go without compensation… She was indeed property; technically not a slave, but certainly not free. And yet, the record showed her factory-option skillset made her a capable astrogator and a tolerable pilot; I suppose her owner saved money using her instead of paid crew.

* * * * *

[Her] clone batch owed a joint debt to the factory that created her and her sisters. If she defaulted, her sibs would bear its burden.


A guest clone takes 19 weeks to create at a cost of Cr182,000. There is no price difference between cloning a raw recruit or an experienced veteran, so presumably most guest clones are created from highly experienced and skilled patterns.

Clone v. Human Costs over Time (KCr)
Category5 Years10 Years
Guest Purchase Price182182
CT Human Salary264528
MT Human Salary72144
MGT Human Salary240480
T5 Human Salary3060

A look at the long term costs of a guest contract compared to engineer salary shows that, contrary to Traveller5’s claim, guests are clearly not a cheaper option in that system, even over 10 years. In contrast, in CT and MGT guest clones are significantly cheaper than naturally born humans, even over just 5 years.

A guest clone is a sophont and subject to all the rights and privileges afforded any other citizen. That said, as shown in Agent of the Imperium, guests are considered property by their owners and are clearly subject to exploitation. I assume that guest clones avoid the Imperium’s strict prohibition against chattel slavery by being treated as indentured servants with contracts of limited term, perhaps no more than 4 or 8 years in length. (A guest clone of a human is force-grown to age 18, and begins aging at 26, so a maximum 8 year contract seems appropriate.) Agent implies that runaway clones might be subject to capture and return by bounty hunters.

There is some natural variability in the physical characteristics of guest clones, but their mental characteristics and skill levels are consistent. A guest clone’s personality is edited in order to encourage a contented and happy worker. So all of these factors, plus the strength of the factory contract, make a guest clone a more reliable option than a “natural” human.


Synthetics are biologically based artificial creatures: essentially, Blade Runner replicants or the hosts of the rebooted Westworld TV series. “Synthetic” is a generic term for any such creature, while “android” is specifically used to describe a synthetic human. Synthetics fall somewhere between clones and robots in terms of capabilities, and in some ways are superior to both. A synthetic has the consistency of a robot, as all iterations have the same characteristics. They also have behavioral control codes that keep them more reliable than clones, but synthetics also have more flexibility than robots.

Synthetics are described in Marc Miller’s “Ref’s Notes: Robots” from the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society 2 (1979):

Android: A biologically-based being created to a set of specifications for some purpose or duty. Androids exhibit life, in that they are biologically living; their distinction is that they were created, rather than having evolved. Androids generally are incapable of reproduction, and can be identified by close inspection. Some suggestions concerning androids in science fiction include permanent identifying marks such as tattoos or a blue dyed skin


Roger Moore took up this idea and created a nice set of mechanics in “Androids in Traveller” from White Dwarf 30 (Apr/May 1982). Unfortunately, the whole concept drops out of the game until Traveller5. (Although several “vatgrown” NPCs in the Mongoose Traveller adventure Pirates of Drinax might qualify as synthetics.)

Synthetics are detailed in Traveller5 Book 1, which even provides an example synthetic engineer, but this “premium” model has extra skills and a monstrous cost of Cr8,600,000! A batch synthetic engineer, in contrast, with SDEI 6666 comes with 9 skill points and “only” costs Cr1,296,000. Let’s say it has the following T5 skills: Engineer-6, Jump-1, Small-Craft-1, Pilot-1.

But at this price point, the synthetic engineer is far more expensive than any of the options we have considered:

Synthetic v. Human Costs over Time (KCr)
Category5 Years10 Years40 Years100 Years
Synthetic Purchase Price1,2961,2961,2961,296
CT Human Salary2645282,1125,280
MT Human Salary721445761,440
MGT Human Salary2404801,9204,800
T5 Human Salary3060240600

A synthetic is only more economical than humans over a 40 year period in CT and MGT and is still not cheaper at 100 years in Traveller5. There is no discussion of synthetic aging, but considering that clones have only an 8 year window before they begin aging checks, synthetics probably don’t have extraordinarily long lifespans and so long term financing is probably not available. This suggests androids would only be viable to high nobility, governments, and megacorporations.

But if economics are not a motivator, why create synthetics? As Roger Moore suggested,

Android populations are typically created and maintained by human societies requiring their services in occupations involving much physical labour, repetitive tasks, and considerable to extreme hazard. The tasks do not usually require above-average intelligence or planning to carry out, as well. The human population in charge of the androids is generally unwilling to perform these tasks themselves and cannot or will not use robotic assistance. Problems often arise due to the androids’ similarities to humanity; androids may be equated with slaves and suppression of their rights to proper care may occur, or well-intentioned humans may believe them equal to humanity and develop expectations of them that the androids cannot meet. Androids are often seen as expendable and given little control over their fates.

“Androids in Traveller,” White Dwarf 30, 10.

It’s not clear to me whether synthetics would be afforded the same protections given to sophonts in the Third Imperium. I am inclined to think that they probably are not, which has rather dark implications: synthetics are probably vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous entities, much as in Blade Runner or Westworld.


After reviewing the costs of different options for filling a starship engineer position, humans, low-end robots, and guest clones are all reasonable choices for even smaller ships in every edition except Traveller5, where humans are always the lowest cost solution. On a cost basis, synthetics are never a better option than humans in all editions.

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