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Self-Replicating Factories: Macro to Nano

By Christopher Thomas in Technology
Wed Nov 08, 2000 at 08:29:30 AM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)
Science

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.


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 again.

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 facilities.

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 upset.

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 interesting effects.

Factories are split into two types - those that are self-sufficient, and those that cooperate with other factories to achieve higher efficiency.

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 factories.

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 capability.



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 stockrooms.

Automated, self-replicating mining equipment becomes common. Ecological regulations are put in place after a few small areas are ravaged ecologically.

Someone tries to terraform Earth to suit their ideals. They are promptly stomped on.

City infrastructure expansion and maintenance become fully automated. Arcologies and the like become cheap enough to be practical.



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 common.

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 replicators.

"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 nano.

Most machines become self-repairing, with integrated nano-plants throughout.

New materials with wondrous properties replace most exisitng materials.

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 adequately.

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 begins.
  • The first large-scale operations on the moon commence.
  • First malls and then stores start to use fabricators instead of stock rooms.
  • 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 becoming ubiquitous.
  • Household robo-critters revolutionize humans' lifestyle by automating many tasks.
  • Buildings and vehicles gain the ability to self-repair via fabricators and robo-critters.
  • 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 .

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Self-Replicating Factories: Macro to Nano | 19 comments (16 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
Beautiful (2.25 / 4) (#4)
by da_unicorn on Wed Nov 08, 2000 at 08:22:29 AM EST

I really liked the story. well thought out and compelling. Real food for thought. A bit spooky, also.

I want one of the 'fridge size ones now!

Danka

Da_Unicorn

Suggested Reading (3.20 / 5) (#5)
by retinaburn on Wed Nov 08, 2000 at 09:45:15 AM EST

If you liked this there a couple of books I can recommend.

Neal Stephenson'ss "The Diamond Age" is a great book on where nanotechnology can take us. Review of the "Diamond Age" here.

Another book on the changing of Humankind by means of technology is Charles Sheffield's "Proteus Combined".

Now for a comment on the article...

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 upset.

I cannot see this happening gradually enough. People in general lack the talents to become artists (music, painting, etc), also people in general do not have the interest to become researchers or scientisits.

Right now a large percentage of our work force is dedicated to production of finished goods, and raw materials.

If the change was sudden these people would be out of a job and left to starve. Most would lack the skills to change jobs to that of artists/science, and system would not be able to absorb so many people. One solution would be to have nursemaids/servants and the like.

If the change was very gradual young people may be able to be conditioned to focus on the arts/science track. More likely there would be new niches like that of "personal assitants" to the wealthy that these people could fill.

"The Diamond Age" touches on all these ideas.


I think that we are a young species that often fucks with things we don't know how to unfuck. -- Tycho


The transition is already happening (4.00 / 1) (#17)
by esonik on Thu Nov 09, 2000 at 02:00:34 PM EST

I cannot see this happening gradually enough. People in general lack the talents to become artists (music, painting, etc), also people in general do not have the interest to become researchers or scientisits.

The service sector does include much more than artists and scientists: traffic sector, IT + banking + insurance + media sector, consultants, lawyers, administration. The transition from the manufacturing to the service sector is not easy, esp. if the person has identified itself with the work. What is important, is that people a made aware of the fact that they will have to aquire new skills and that they will have to constantly learn new things.

Right now a large percentage of our work force is dedicated to production of finished goods, and raw materials.

The percentages of work force (USA, 1999) in the main sectors are roughly [CIA World Factbook]: managerial and professional 30.3%, technical, sales and administrative support 29.2%, services 13.4%, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and crafts 24.5%, farming, forestry, and fishing 2.6% (1999). Other industrial countries have similar numbers and the last two numbers have been falling for decades.

If the change was sudden these people would be out of a job and left to starve. Most would lack the skills to change jobs to that of artists/science, and system would not be able to absorb so many people. One solution would be to have nursemaids/servants and the like.

The change is already happening/has happened as shown by the above numbers and is leading to something that is AFAIK called "structural unemployment": Manufacturing industry is setting workers on the streets or relocating to countries with cheaper work force, while industry in the service sector is desperatly looking for skilled personnel (and not finding it). Also, the service sector itself is constantly changing: e.g. with the introduction of online banking there will be/is more need for IT/hotline personnel and less demand for clerks. The reduction of bank clerks is quite apparent in my region compared to five years ago. It would be interesting to see whether the widespread use of computers in offices has reduced the number of secretaries.

If the change was very gradual young people may be able to be conditioned to focus on the arts/science track. More likely there would be new niches like that of "personal assitants" to the wealthy that these people could fill.

The hope that changes will be more gradual in future is not justified. It will be even faster than now, because innovation cycles are still getting shorter. I don't think that "personal assistants" are an significant market, because the cost of labour is increasing - everbody is trying to cut down the number of employees. I don't see how workers could be trained to personal assistants - this job requires exceptional communication skills and other special skills (unless you talk about housekeeping only). The niche will be more like "web-developer" or "linux-administrator" *g* <insert current hype here>



[ Parent ]
technology will not save us (4.83 / 6) (#6)
by r0cket on Wed Nov 08, 2000 at 10:19:05 AM EST

As this future becomes closer I think our vision of it will become clearer. I do take issue with one of your assertions: "Hunger is eliminated through atom-scale production of food where food is needed." This is a common theme throughout articulations of this future nanotech world, but I believe it is a flawed assertion. The disparities that exist among nations are not caused by natural forces which, once conquered will lead to parity for all. Disparities in food supply, raw materials for industry, and resources for technology development exist because access to and use of these resources is governed by many things (profit potential, internal and external politics, nationalism, etc.). These resources are not governed by distribution models based on need, conscience, or rationality. Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998, has demonstrated that events such as famines are not caused by a lack of food production, but are caused by interruptions to or restrictions on the distribution network. Knowledge (the most important component of technological development) is no different.

When these technologies are developed and deployed they will meet the same fate as all technological innovation (unless we act to make a difference): Their distribution will be based on profit potential, politics, nationalism, etc. These technologies will not be distributed to the developing world, unless the developing world can suddenly afford to pay for them. And don't think AI will be able to solve any of these problems either. Since the root causes of our human misery (famine, poverty, disease, ignorance) are caused by us, an advanced AI will have as much trouble dealing with them as we do.

We know how to treat water so it does not transmit disease. We produce more than enough food to feed the people in the world. Medicines are available to prevent or treat the diseases that ravage many thrid-world countries. These problems (disease, hunger, ignorance) all have solutions that have been proven to work; so why do these situations continue to exist? They exist because we allow them to exist, they exist because our system of distributing these technologies has not kept pace with the technologies themselves.

In order for technology's greatest benefits to make an impact on the overall human condidtion we have to change the way our civilization operates. Unless we change our thinking, all the technology in the world will not save us.

On solving hunger through nanotech. (3.00 / 1) (#11)
by Christopher Thomas on Thu Nov 09, 2000 at 01:39:36 AM EST

"Hunger is eliminated through atom-scale production of food where food is needed." This is a common theme throughout articulations of this future nanotech world, but I believe it is a flawed assertion. The disparities that exist among nations are not caused by natural forces which, once conquered will lead to parity for all. Disparities in food supply, raw materials for industry, and resources for technology development exist because access to and use of these resources is governed by many things (profit potential, internal and external politics, nationalism, etc.). These resources are not governed by distribution models based on need, conscience, or rationality.

DISCLAIMER: This whole thread is an aside. The main points of the article have nothing to do with nanotech.

While you raise valid points about the distribution of resources, I don't think that the affect the above claim. When nanotechnology exists, the barrier to entry for using it will be nonexistant - all it would take is one altruist unleasing a self-replicating fabrication tool to make it available to everyone. The powers that be would have a lot of trouble stopping it if they wanted to.

Secondly, nanotechnology reduces vastly the resource cost of food production, allowing individuals to become self-sufficient. While there may be enough food grown today to feed the world, you'd still have to distribute it, and this distribution can be controlled. If it can be produced on-site by any hungry person... you'd have trouble stopping hungry people from feeding themselves.

Justification for the efficiency claim: Assume that producing food from thin air (CO2, nitrogen, and water vapour) is about as energy-expensive as producing gasoline from thin air. The energy required per kilogram of food is therefore equal to the energy gained from burning one kilogram of gasoline, or about 70 MJ (about 20 kW/hr).

If sunlight powers your food factories, then you'd need a collector only 20 metres square to produce enough food to feed one person well or a family frugally - with 1% system efficiency. Increase the efficiency or convert existing biomass into food, and it gets a lot smaller/cheaper.

How could anyone starve if food is produced from thin air on their doorstep? You'd need to have an active campaign to eradicate food producers to get starvation.

In summary, I think that when/if nanotechnology arrives, it would indeed solve world hunger by making it impractical to cause starvation.

[ Parent ]
Re: On solving hunger through nanotech (4.00 / 1) (#16)
by esonik on Thu Nov 09, 2000 at 11:52:26 AM EST

Justification for the efficiency claim: Assume that producing food from thin air (CO2, nitrogen, and water vapour) is about as energy-expensive as producing gasoline from thin air. The energy required per kilogram of food is therefore equal to the energy gained from burning one kilogram of gasoline, or about 70 MJ (about 20 kW/hr).

You are neglecting the nitrogen here a little bit. It is not at all easy to split the N2 molecule. Nowadays it is done using the so called Haber-Bosch - Synthesis, which produces ammonia (N2 + 3H2 + 46 kJ/mol -> 2NH3). This reaction needs large amounts of energy and takes place at 200 bar and 900 K using Fe-catalysts. The NH3 is then used to produce fertilizer. (It's pure coincidence, but the world's first NH3 systensis plant was built only 10 miles away from my place.) Anyway, to produce N in small scales it is probably better to mimic biological nitrogen fixation because high temperatures are problematic for nano-machinery.

Apart from C,N,O,H you also need several other (trace) elements, like Fe,P, and some alkalis. You also need to synthesize some very complex molecules (e.g. some vitamines) that are essential for humans and usually produced by plant.

If sunlight powers your food factories, then you'd need a collector only 20 metres square to produce enough food to feed one person well or a family frugally - with 1% system efficiency. Increase the efficiency or convert existing biomass into food, and it gets a lot smaller/cheaper.

And this huge monster should be able to replicate and still cost only $1000 ? (wondering what an elephant costs today).



[ Parent ]
Energy and other food-producing concerns. (4.00 / 1) (#18)
by Christopher Thomas on Thu Nov 09, 2000 at 02:05:08 PM EST

You are neglecting the nitrogen here a little bit. It is not at all easy to split the N2 molecule. Nowadays it is done using the so called Haber-Bosch - Synthesis, which produces ammonia (N2 + 3H2 + 46 kJ/mol -> 2NH3)

While this is significant, it's still much smaller than the other energies I was dealing with (assumed about 1000 kJ/mol as an estimate for converting H2O + CO2 to CH2 + 3/2 O2 (CH2 is a nice approximation for long hydrocarbons)). Summary: not a problem.

Apart from C,N,O,H you also need several other (trace) elements, like Fe,P, and some alkalis.

I am assuming that these are abundant enough in the ambient environment to produce. If nothing else, most of these can be reclaimed from sewage and other wastes.

You also need to synthesize some very complex molecules (e.g. some vitamines) that are essential for humans

The complexity of the nano-factory is far greater than the complexity of any vitamin. If it can manufacture copies of itself, then manufacturing vitamins shouldn't be a problem. It's a facility capable of manufacturing collections of atoms with arbitrary structure.

And this huge monster should be able to replicate and still cost only $1000 ?

No-o, this is part of the nanotechnology thread, not the original fabricator thread. The first nanotech fabricator will cost a fair bit to build. The rest build themselves. Either our hypothetical altruist would have designed the public fabricators to spread across the land like weeds, or would just design them to produce seeds that can be "planted" and that grow into fabricators.

Nanotech facilities resemble biological plants in a surprising number of ways, when you think about the properties that they'd have. They're just optimized for different things.

[ Parent ]
Large Leap of Faith embedded here. (4.20 / 5) (#7)
by markk on Wed Nov 08, 2000 at 11:07:00 AM EST

Ok, I'll be a naysayer here.
I agree that the closest we have come to "self-replication" is human activities, but then comes the following line:

"Technology presses ever onwards - eventually, a self-maintaining universal factory will be the size of a large building. This has a number of interesting effects."

I see no reason given that this is true. The "automated" part of the "Human replication system" is close to zero as a percentage of complexity of the system. We can go from 0.01 to 0.1% automation (number pulled from air) but I don't see us anytime soon getting to "universal factories". I am a firm believer in Jaron Lanier's thesis that the singularity idea is running up against the fact that geometric increase in capability is running up against geometric increase in problem difficulty.
(See "One Half of a Manifesto" by Lanier.)

Actually the only way I see us learning to create anything close to "self-replicating" systems would be in space, where whole ecosystems would need to be created and maintained with relatively small inputs. This along with the fact that self-contained systems would create the first true "environmentalists" is actually a powerful reason for space development... but that is a different issue.

I think that humans will be part of the loop -- by necessity -- for a long time. I like the point made of looking at larger systems, and having automation assist us. I think that is the way to go. I just feel people are misreading where we are.





Good point, though my opinion differs. (2.50 / 2) (#13)
by Christopher Thomas on Thu Nov 09, 2000 at 01:51:33 AM EST

I see no reason given that this is true. The "automated" part of the "Human replication system" is close to zero as a percentage of complexity of the system. We can go from 0.01 to 0.1% automation (number pulled from air) but I don't see us anytime soon getting to "universal factories".

This is a fascinating take on the replicator problem that I hadn't considered.

However, I don't think it will be a problem - IMO, most of the complexity in the "human" part of the system is unnecessary (for the goal of building a replicator, at least).

As a ballpark for the minimum complexity for a replicator, I'd look to bacteria, as the smallest standalone replicators that exist in nature (I think; viruses don't count, but "delta agents" might).

[ Parent ]
Raplicator != Universal Factory (4.00 / 2) (#15)
by markk on Thu Nov 09, 2000 at 10:47:47 AM EST

Well - I don't think we even know what it takes to create a "Universal Factory". Thus I don't see how you can say that most of the complexity of the human part is not necessary. A bacteria is not a universal factory. In fact, it is not a super good self-replicator (thank goodness) since its blueprints change over time. Also I think the apparent difference in complexity of tasks between the micro and the macro-world is one of the reasons molecular engineering seems attractive.

There is a difference between being able to duplicate something simple, and being able to duplicate many things, reliably, and cheaply, from one small unit. Actually, the more I think about it - in terms of effect on society, I think there are two separate issues - self-replication, and >cheap< replication of more and more complex items - regardless of whether the "replicator" can replicate itself. It is this second part that leads to huge societal upheaval.




[ Parent ]
Bacteria. (4.00 / 1) (#19)
by Christopher Thomas on Thu Nov 09, 2000 at 02:13:37 PM EST

A bacteria is not a universal factory. In fact, it is not a super good self-replicator (thank goodness) since its blueprints change over time.

Um, actually, they're not super-efficient because they aren't large/complex enough to have different parts specialize doing different things. How blueprints change or don't change over time doesn't affect this much, unless you're just trying for an existance proof for a more efficient design.

In point of fact, bacteria _are_ universal fabricators for anything composed of proteins. They have internal facilities to build any kind of protein at all; to get them to produce something new, you just splice in additional DNA coding for the desired amino acid patterns. This is widely used in the medical industry (coding proteins that themselves manufacture drug compounds that would be difficult to produce in the laboratory).

Thus, I argue that they are indeed a good model for a universal fabricator.

[ Parent ]
Utopic (4.80 / 5) (#8)
by Dr Fau5tus on Wed Nov 08, 2000 at 11:37:11 AM EST

I think I've been pre-empted by some of the above comments (I go away to write something and somebody comes along and..) but anyway:

I appreciate the effort that's gone in here but it's entirely too utopic. It's ultimate conclusions are based on a prognostication which is rather questionable, to wit:

That automation will set us free.

The result of automation in the past has almost invariably been privation for the workers 'liberated from the burden of manual labour' and whilst people have to sell their labour to get what they need from those who own the factories and resources that will continue to be so.
The only people who benefit are the companies who run the factories. These will presumably be the same groups that will 'sell' the land to the industrial complexes posited here. How many centuries of misery do we have to undergo while we are waiting for techno-heaven to arrive and how much do the "...handful of the financial elite." get to screw us for more privilege and power? They always have in the past and seemingly will be even better equipped to do so in this scenario. And eventually, "..(a)ll humans have access to universal manufacturing." Why should the balance of power automatically shift in this fashion? Why will people tolerate these abuses of power?
And the technology which will facilitate this change? Nanotechnology. Well, at least we've moved on from nuclear power which was used to sell us similar pipe dreams forty odd years ago.
I'm sorry to sound like a curmudgeon, Chris, but in a number of respects this is an old joke that wasn't very funny the first time. You can't assume that technological reforms will inevitably result in social reforms or that it will deliver us from our current problems. They haven't so far, why should they in the future?
_________________________________________________ I'm not censoring you, I'm censuring you. Stop complaining.

One counterargument, and one misreading corrected. (2.50 / 2) (#12)
by Christopher Thomas on Thu Nov 09, 2000 at 01:45:41 AM EST

And eventually, "..(a)ll humans have access to universal manufacturing." Why should the balance of power automatically shift in this fashion?

Simple - because you'd have a hard time preventing it if it only cost $1000 to buy a fabricator or build your own.

Where exactly the switchover to everyone having access to universal fabrication occurs depends on how many altruists you assume are in society, but it eventually happens, as the effort required to build a fabricator continues to drop.

And the technology which will facilitate this change? Nanotechnology.

Um, no. Nanotechnology was pretty much a frivolous addition to the document. Substantial social effects happen long before that, as clearly stated and justified in the article.

[ Parent ]
Limiting Factors (3.33 / 3) (#9)
by Greyfish on Wed Nov 08, 2000 at 02:27:12 PM EST

I'm becoming more convinced that humanity is moving away from being capital limited, to being limited my the available numbers of educated smart people, (i'll agree that thats a very geek centric view, tho).

So although we may end up with cheap enough technology to bootstrap africa out of the pit it seem to be in at the moment, it won't actually happen beacuse they won't know how to use the tech to help them solve their problems...

i.e. education takes time, and it's hard to do deep education without basic infrastructure (universitys etc).


Fish *are* nice
the focus of the Nanotech age (2.66 / 3) (#10)
by interiot on Wed Nov 08, 2000 at 06:19:14 PM EST

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 stockrooms.

I'd have to disagree there. If nearly everyone can replicate things, there'd be no reason for stores. Even if replicators were too big/costly to be in every home, ARMs (automated replicating machine) could be placed similarly to ATMs. At most, stores would be online FTP sites where you could buy the design to various goods. Except that information will be free, so stores won't be any good unless they continuously pump out new designs and charge money for the creation of new designs.

So the main focus of the economy will be information, because without information, you're just like the next guy. Matter and energy will be inportant as well, but not as important because information grows exponentially, so you have to work hard to keep up with the curve. And if we can figure out how to efficiently turn matter into energy, or visa versa, we'll only need one of them.

Wars will primarily be fought inside computers, attempting to get access to someone else's information or just take over their CPU cycles. If wars are fought in meatspace, it will be over matter or energy. But in meatspace, the winner won't be determined by how much matter you have (other than the extent to which you can turn it into CPU cycles), but by how many secret plans to weapons you have, and by how much CPU you have to design and implement a defense to the other guy's new offense before he can use it on you, or design a new offense to get around his defense that works against all known offenses.

Something scary about the future! (1.00 / 1) (#14)
by pallex on Thu Nov 09, 2000 at 08:45:00 AM EST

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy_pr.html

is a link (admittedly not in HTML format, as i dont go in for all that) to an essay by Bill Joy (from SUN) about the possible Bad Things that could happen as a result of Nano-technology.



Self-Replicating Factories: Macro to Nano | 19 comments (16 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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