Self-Replicating Factories: Macro to Nano
Written by Christopher Thomas. Last updated on Wed Nov 8 01:27:14 EST 2000
Table of Contents
- 1 - Introduction
- 2 - Effects of our Current Industrial Complex
- 3 - Effects of Complete Automation
- 4 - A replicator the size of a factory?
- 5 - A replicator the size of your garage?
- 6 - Stove, Fridge, Replicator - The Effects of Microtechnology
- 7 - The Effects of Nanotechnology
- 8 - Conclusion
- 9 - Timeline
- 10 - Revisions History
1 - Introduction
A common theme in science fiction is the "replicator"; a device that can
build anything on demand. An extension of this idea is the
self-replicating factory, that grows in size geometrically to produce
goods or to terraform hostile environments. It turns out that both of
these miraculous devices are closer than they seem - in fact, to some
extent they're already here.
2 - Effects of our Current Industrial Complex
A self-replicating, self-sufficient industrial complex already exists - it
is manifested in every industrialized nation. Humans build factories to
build machines to build factories, and to manufacture all of the tools and
goods required to sustain the humans who build. The key insight is to
consider the humans and their industries as one entity.
The entity having been defined, we can now examine its properties. Three
resources seem to govern its operation - materials (including power),
human labour, and land area. All of these influence the quantity of
goods that can be produced by the complex and the rate at which the
complex can grow.
Materials are bound by the scarcity of their raw components and the effort
required to purify or synthesize them. Some materials are valued by
humans or can be made into objects humans value; these may be used to buy
human labour instead of directly expanding the complex. Other materials
are used directly to keep the complex running. Supply and demand interact
to impose limits to the ease with which the complex may produce any given
item, and hence determine its cost in terms of effort to the complex.
Human labour is a resource that must be bought, and its cost varies
depending on human whim. A substantial fraction of the complex's
production - arguably the majority of it - is devoted to keeping the
humans happy with their work so that they may perform the services that
keep the complex running. As humans are a vital part of the operation,
and are the decision-making component of it as well, complex operations
are optimized for human benefit.
Land is a resource, but it is a resource that humans value highly. Be it
for their own use or for preservation of nature, humans tend to preserve
it, and the complex expands into it slowly and at great expense.
As for economics, the complex exists on such a vast scale and devotes so
much of its production to human needs that expansions to the complex are a
major undertaking. New products must be in strong demand to be produced,
and old products must be in strong demand to have production
increased. Individual humans have almost no ability to influence the
complex's production; it is governed on a cultural scale.
3 - Effects of Complete Automation
The science-fiction dream of a factory that runs itself is unlikely to
become real overnight; a gradual shift is more plausible, as
easily-automated industrial functions are automated and techniques are
slowly developed to automate more complicated functions. This process
started decades ago, and continues in its slow, determined pace. As
complete automation becomes more pervasive, its social and economic
effects become more noticeable.
The most immediate effect of the removal of humans from the complex is
that the complex no longer has to pay for human labour. This frees up
resources that would otherwise be devoted to humans; the alternatives are
certainly cheaper, or the humans wouldn't have been replaced. The cost in
effort of both goods and factory expansions/upgrades drops
accordingly. The complex expands itself until production matches the
demand for the goods at their new, reduced cost, and reaches stability
The complex must still sell goods to humans, as it cannot expand without
access to land and to raw resource sites. Humans also impose an indirect
tax on its operations by requiring that it meet environmental standards
that keep the world comfortable for humans. Environmental cleanliness may
actually rise, as more resources will be available to build clean
Lastly, the human economy ends a shift that began with the industrial
revolution. Factory work no longer exists. The focus of human endeavor
shifts to service industries, the arts, research, and engineering (as the
complex itself can't design new products - yet). This change is gradual
enough that, predictions of doom aside, it doesn't cause a major
Ownership of land and of raw material resources becomes more important, as
these are the primary items sold to the complex by the humans. Ownership
of the complexes themselves gets hazy. Eventually, artificial intelligence
makes them entities in their own right; before the AI revolution, they are
run by a handful of the financial elite. In either case, the details are
moot, as the complexes still act as sapient entities with strong
self-interest and little emotion.
4 - A replicator the size of a factory?
Technology presses ever onwards - eventually, a self-maintaining universal
factory will be the size of a large building. This has a number of
Factories are split into two types - those that are self-sufficient, and
those that cooperate with other factories to achieve higher
A self-sufficient factory must gain all of its raw materials from one
site. This substantially limits the range of goods that it can produce
cheaply, even for very rich sites. A single factory could still produce
most goods, but they would be substantially more expensive than those
produced by a complex or by cooperating factories.
Standalone factories still find two niches. Firstly, developing nations
finally start industrializing in earnest. After the initial investment in
building the first factory, the industrial infrastructure starts building
itself. Trade is altered drastically over the course of a few decades as
old inequities are rebalanced.
The second niche is in the space program. Lifting a factory to the moon
would take a government's resources, but would establish a permanent lunar
industry. This makes many other space projects much easier. Proposals for
a lunar factory are bandied about, but may or may not be acted
upon. Proposals for automated industrialization and terraforming of the
moon and Mars are made, but tabled for future study.
The more common type of factory would accept raw or partly-finished
materials from elsewhere. While it wouldn't be completely self-sufficient,
it would produce goods almost as cheaply as the larger complexes. The bar
to entry is lowered enough that medium-sized companies start building
their own manufacturing complexes as far-flung networks of small
Small-time manufacturing plants start to spring up. Small-run prototyping
for research and development gets easier as public and private R&D
facilities buy factories and stock raw materials.
Production of contraband becomes more difficult to regulate, as smaller
companies and poorer countries gain universal manufacturing
5 - A replicator the size of your garage?
As universal factories shrink to the size of a garage, major changes
take place in society, the economy, and the environment.
Survivalist individuals can now be self-sufficient, for a price comparable
to the cost of a house.
Manufacturing contraband becomes almost impossible to prevent, due to the
huge number of potential fabrication/synthesis sites. The legal
implications of this are wrestled with for years.
Replicators are small enough to be easily launched into space. Large-scale
space construction starts, with lunar industrial complexes supplying most
of the material (the most convenient location).
The bar to entry for universal manufacturing drops low enough that new
uses spring up en masse. Most of these revolutionary uses will be things
that wouldn't have even occurred to anyone a few decades before.
The manufacturing industry begins to collapse, as people start fabricating
their own goods. The emphasis of the economy shifts to supplying refined
materials and power to consumers. Stores have fabricator rooms instead of
Automated, self-replicating mining equipment becomes common. Ecological
regulations are put in place after a few small areas are ravaged
Someone tries to terraform Earth to suit their ideals. They are promptly
City infrastructure expansion and maintenance become fully
automated. Arcologies and the like become cheap enough to be
6 - Stove, Fridge, Replicator - The Effects of Microtechnology
Microtechnology is the ability to easily build constructs with features on
the micron scale. It already exists in limited forms today, but its
potential only becomes clear when microscale replicators become
Replicators the size of household appliances start appearing. A large one
in the basement handles clothing and furniture; desktop models produce
toys, trinkets, and other small, useful items. Large replicators still
exist, to handle items too big to build efficiently with a smaller device,
but small replicators become truly ubiquitous. There's one in every
home, and a bank of them in the mall, next to the big storefront
"Robo-critters" - small robots with microscale parts - start
appearing. Some of these are worker drones that extend the abilities of
replicators; others attend to a myriad of chores around the house and the
office. Day to day life undergoes a revolution of large proportions, with
very strange but generally pleasant results.
Houses and larger buildings gain the ability to self-repair. Cars have
emergency replicators in the trunk, and dispatch robo-critters to perform
repairs when the car pulls off the road.
Machine wildlife exists. Replicators are turned loose for many reasons by
many people, and survive occasional attempts to eliminate them. The
ecology begins a large but reasonably gradual shift to incorporate both
animal and machine life.
7 - The Effects of Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is the ability to build constructs with control of features
on an atomic scale. The last word in manufacturing, it will finally be
developed and integrated into the industrial complex.
Large and medium-sized replicators will still exist, but will be augmented
with nanotechnology to provide nanoscale finishing to objects
produced. Smaller replicators will be boxes filled with cell-sized
fabrication plants and all manner of tools, ranging in size from macro to
Most machines become self-repairing, with integrated nano-plants
New materials with wondrous properties replace most exisitng
Various nanoreplicators are released into the environment, causing another
ecological shift. Many plants are displaced by nanolife performing similar
functions (occasionally replacing lichens, moulds, and perhaps a few more
complex plants). Like their biological counterparts, they are limited by
the raw material and energy available to them.
The bar to entry for manufacturing no longer exists. All humans have
access to universal manufacturing, and given materials and power, any
desired goods. High-purity materials and abundant power speed
manufacturing but aren't required - the raw elements found everywhere work
All remaining poor nations rise to the nanotech standard of living as
nanoscale manufacturing capability is acquired (by various means).
Hunger is eliminated through atom-scale production of food where food is
needed. As manufacturing efficiency rises, this becomes the dominant
method of food production.
Information propagates freely through a myriad of networks created by many
groups for many purposes. Several will be open to everyone, allowing free
access to any desired information. A corollary: Privacy no longer
exists. Anyone can see you, anywhere, any time, and you can see them. This
ends up being a mixed blessing.
Illegal drus are legalized through necessity. Anyone can manufacture them,
within their own body if desired.
The transistion to a nanotech society begins. Medicine advances greatly
due to the ability to observe and manipulate the body on an atomic
scale. A myriad of groups of humans alter themselves in a myriad of ways,
eventually transforming the human race into a vast array of sapients
varying greatly in form and nature. Final results could be anything - or
everything at once.
New creatures, sapient and otherwise, are created en masse. The
distinction between humans, animals, and machines blurs into a
continuum. The world is remade by many people in many different ways, and
becomes unrecognizable to pre-nanotech humankind. For the most part, the
effects are good.
8 - Conclusion
In conclusion, there is a fairly natural progression from current
universal fabrication with humans to automated fabrication with
microscale manufacturing. Movement towards this end is already underway,
and should show interesting results in coming decades. Nanotechnology is a
bigger jump, but will be made easier by experience with more conventional
fabrication technology, and will reshape the world.
9 - Timeline
A summary of some of the changes caused by replication technology is as
follows, in roughly chronological order:
- Factory jobs mostly vanish.
- Control of raw material resources becomes more important.
- The bar to entry for self-replicators/universal fabricators drops
enough for the Third World to afford them. The ascent out of poverty
- The first large-scale operations on the moon commence.
- First malls and then stores start to use fabricators instead of stock
- Manufacture of contraband becomes progressively harder to prevent.
- Large-scale space construction becomes easy.
- Expansion and maintenance of cities is fully automated.
- Terraforming becomes practical. Regulations limiting the modification
of Earth start to appear.
- Home and later desktop fabricators start to appear, eventually
- Household robo-critters revolutionize humans' lifestyle by automating
- Buildings and vehicles gain the ability to self-repair via fabricators
- Machine wildlife starts appearing. The ecology shifts to incorporate
both machines and animals.
- Nanotechnology introduces a myriad of revolutionary materials.
- Nanoscale fabricators and products revolutionize home life again.
- Humans cease to exist as a single species, modifying themselves into a
myriad of forms.
- Nanotech constructs and replicators integrate themselves into the
ecology, causing another shift. New and old forms of life coexist in a
strange and wondrous environment.
10 - Revisions History
1.0.0 07 Nov 2000 Christopher Thomas
First electronic version of this document.
0.0.0 08 Oct 2000 Christopher Thomas
Paper outline of this document.
Written by Christopher Thomas. Last updated on Wed Nov 8 01:27:14 EST 2000