There has always been enough for everyone. Although at some point there may have been production and supply problems, these are now long gone and provided we all act with restraint, which we will if we are emotionally healthy, the planet will provide, and in fact already has.
This post could be about two different things. One is the political issue of always having enough and the manufacture of artificial scarcity. The other is the “technical fix” side of the issue. I’m actually going to concentrate on the latter, but I want to cover a bit of the former, just briefly.
There used to be a lot of concern about the population explosion. In fact this is not cause for concern within certain limits, which we haven’t yet reached. Each of us has a footprint on Earth, and those of us in the richest parts of the planet often have one so big that she just can’t cope and will take steps to rid herself of us. As Mahatma Gandhi once said:
The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.
For once, mirabile dictu, this quote attributed popularly to a famous figure was really uttered by that person!
The Powers That Be, which are not in fact powerful but that’s a conversation for another time, would have us believe that our resources are limited in a real sense, in the sense, that is, that we can’t provide everyone with an adequate standard of living. Well in fact we can, there is also no population problem and the real problem is lifestyle and to some extent how production works. If we just took three steps, we’d be pretty close to solving the problem: go vegan, don’t use aircraft and don’t drive. Of course there are structural problems built in to this, such as the difficulty of living near paid workplaces, but essentially those would sort most of the problem, and it could be taken further, for instance by subsisting largely on tanks of algae and yeast plus a bit of permaculture, and this kind of measure is applicable over most or all of the inhabited planet.
As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s been claimed that by the mid-1970s, enough matter and the right elements had all been obtained and were recoverable from, for example, landfill given the right techniques. Whereas today’s technology uses many elements rarely or never used four decades ago, such as lithium, indium and tantalum, often because of properties hard to obtain otherwise, this is likely to be substantially the result of the appropriate technology not being developed in the meantime. There is a more-firmly based thermodynamic problem in the fact that our waste products constitute an increase in entropy which some kind of net energy input would be needed to reverse, but there’s an almost limitless fusion reactor sitting on our doorstep in the form of the Sun and also the energy input provided by the hot interior of our planet and Cynthia’s pull on Gaia, so that energy is available. The fact that it seems to require currently non-existent technology is due to the fact that the political will is not there. There is in a sense no technological fix because the problem itself is not technological but social, and it always has been.
Nonetheless, this isn’t really what I want to talk about right now, important though it is, and whereas you might not agree with my politics or my views regarding this issue, I hope you can look past this to consider what the technical problems actually are and how close humanity is to solving them.
Perhaps the first thing to consider is all the junk, also known as resources, currently floating around in the oceans or stuffed inside the stomachs of endangered species. Although this isn’t my main focus, I’d like to point out that nanotech and biotech are potential answers to this issue, and since I’m vegan the former appeals to me more than the latter. Considering also that we all do need to go vegan, the biotech issue can be addressed, for example to produce fuels and raw material for plastic or substitutes, but certain measures such as genetic engineering are ruled out by ethics, though probably not by the likes of safety or environmental considerations. It remains true, however, that you can’t have both capitalism and ethical biotechnology, so that’s going to have to change. Nanotech brings its own problems, but that’s once again beyond the scope of this post.
This brings me to replicators. In case you haven’t seen ‘Star Trek’, a replicator is a device which can produce any object perfectly, such as a rose, a pair of headphones, a cup of hot Earl Grey tea or a bar of chocolate. Given that it can produce anything, presumably it would also be able to produce a living human of any kind, which raises a number of questions. Clearly if you coupled this with a distant device which could internally and externally scan an object and transmit the information, you have either a cloning device or a teleport, depending on how okay you feel about murdering people. It may of course turn out that such a scanning process inevitably destroys the scanned object or that it takes thirty years to transmit the necessary information or something, and an identity problem arises if you decide to use the matter of the object itself to transmit the information in the form of subatomic particles, because you’d then have an identical human at the other end made of the same stuff, but I’m not really interested in exploring this angle right now, which is in any case pretty hackneyed. I am, however, interested in the idea of a device with patterns of various objects on file which can then constitute them from matter stored in a very general form, a bit like the alchemical materia prima.
Materia prima is the Greco-Roman natural philosophical idea of the original universal matter from which the Universe is composed. It’s a very old idea, and in a sense it did exist, assuming you believe in the Big Bang theory, in the form of the various inchoate phases through which the Cosmos passed before the formation of atoms, stars and planets. George Gamow, in an early version of the Big Bang theory, referred to this stuff as “ylem”, claiming that it was an ancient Hebrew word but in fact it seems to be a form of the Greek hylē or “substance”. Before atomic theory was readopted, matter was considered to be continuous “stuff”, infinitely divisible without change to its general properties, and in a sense atomic theory is a detour which has led us to imagine that “stuff” consists of particles when quantum theory tells us it isn’t.
During the Quark Epoch, which took place roughly between the end of the first picosecond of time and the end of the first microsecond, if, that is, you believe in the Big Bang theory (I probably should talk about my concerns there at some point on here but not yet), matter is thought to have consisted of a quark-gluon plasma. This is in a sense materia prima, the fundamental “stuff” everything is made from. It consists of quarks, which are the particles making up protons and neutrons, and gluons, which are the carriers of the strong nuclear force which bind them together into atomic nuclei. You may have noticed that electrons seem to be missing from this picture, and I understand their origin to be rather mysterious but possibly the result of the breakdown of neutrons about a quarter of an hour later.
Assuming you could store matter as, or actually convert it to, quark-gluon plasma as a kind of materia prima usable for the creation of most familiar types of matter, there may be a risk of strange matter production. This is a stable form of matter, technically a liquid consisting of bond up, down and strangeness quarks rather than atomic nuclei and electrons. There is no chemistry in strange matter and therefore no “life as we know it”, and it could also be infectious, converting nearby atomic matter into more of itself, if it turns out that it’s more stable. Thus until the risks have been investigated, it probably wouldn’t be good to store or produce strange matter, and in any case strangeness is not needed to make atoms, which consist of protons, neutrons, electrons and their binding mesons known as pions. Protons and neutrons are triplets of up and down quarks. In any case, quark-gluon plasma contains no electrons as such and it would probably be necessary to wait for a few minutes for them to be generated by free neutrons formed from up and down quarks as the matter decompresses.
It would be more sensible to start with somewhat more formed matter in the form of protons, neutrons and electrons, or perhaps a plasma of a mix of various atomic nuclei with electrons. In this respect, the easiest matter to get hold of in this form is probably alpha particles, which are helium 4 nuclei, beta particles, or electrons, and protons. Given this raw material it would be possible to make hydrogen, helium and helium hydride, and I suspect TIPUET (This Is Possible Using Existing Technology). Of these three substances, helium hydride is the most powerful possible acid, as it will effectively attack any other atom or molecule with which it comes into contact, and this is a useful if terrifying property. Helium is clearly also useful, as is hydrogen, although not as an energy source as the energy required to make free protons and beta particles is much larger. At best it would be a very inefficient way of storing energy. It would also be possible to make beryllium-8, which has a half-life of a few attoseconds and is therefore practically useless. However, it would be possible to make molecular hydrogen, and presumably to construct solid objects out of that via 3-D printing, which would however boil at around -253°C (I’m guessing there). Nonetheless it seems feasible that this could be done, although I have no idea what the physical properties of frozen hydrogen would be.
Hence we get onto the subject of 3-D printing. This is within the reach of many domestic budgets now, and is beginning to become routine. It can be literally a replicator, to a limited degree, because the devices can copy photographed objects and I would expect that some would be able to scan things in 3-D. A variety of filaments are available such as wood effect and conductive ones with graphene, so we’re at least some way towards being able to replicate. With an MRI scan, it would even be possible to replicate an object including its interior, at least with certain kinds of object where the precise composition wasn’t important. That means, for example, that anatomically accurate mannequins could exist.
This is of course nowhere near being able to place individual atoms or molecules of your choice in specific places, which is what a true replicator would need to do. This would have to be done in an inert atmosphere or a vacuum in order to prevent reactions, and considering the enormous number of atoms present in even a speck of dust, it would have to be done very fast indeed. There are short cuts of course. For instance, reactions to synthesise or produce certain compounds wouldn’t have to happen inside the actual replicator – they could be made off-site or in other parts of the machine. That said, it’s hard to imagine a “total synthesiser” as it were, that is, a device which can make any substance.
If individual elements can be stored in gaseous form, perhaps like the interstellar medium, it becomes relatively simple to synthesise many liquids and gases. The interstellar medium, that is, the very, very rarefied gas between the stars, which has maybe ten molecules a litre in it, is known to contain a minimum of somewhere between one hundred and two hundred different substances. Some of them are incompatible with others, for instance hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen chloride would both become extremely corrosive acids if combined with water and would in any case react with many of the other molecules. Nonetheless, they’ve formed spontaneously in surroundings which are usually fairly quiet in many ways. It’s notable also that many of these compounds are organic, which brings up the issue of the Miller-Urey Experiment.
This attempted to reproduce the Earth’s primordial conditions, and consisted of water sealed in a sterile flask which also contained ammonia, hydrogen and methane, through which electrical sparks were driven. It was found that eleven amino acids could be produced easily and quickly by this means, and also cyanide, formaldehyde and various other simple organic compounds. Many organic molecules have left- and right-handed versions which in solution refract light in opposite directions, but the preference only exists in living things. This, not being a living system, produced what’s known as a “racemic mixture” of amino acids: a mixture of left- and right-handed forms in about equal amounts. This also happens in drug synthesis, and in that situation both forms are usually left together unless one turns out to be toxic, but there is a way of sorting them, although I don’t know if that’s generalisable or different techniques need to be developed for each type of molecule. Because there’s no sulphur in the substances involved, the crucial sulphur-containing amino acids such as methionine and cysteine, which create bridges between the components of proteins and allow them to take more organised forms, are absent, so any attempt to make something like meat or enzymes from this mixture would be a non-starter. Also, the poisons would have to be removed.
We’re surrounded by raw materials to some extent in various forms, namely argon, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and water vapour. These contain every element found in the Miller-Urey experiment plus argon, which being a noble gas isn’t particularly useful as a structural element, although it is in other ways. It’s all too easy to make nitrogen oxides, and these pollutants raise another aspect of replication: the cradle-to-grave analysis of the activity, which right now applies mainly to 3-D printing.
I’ve already mentioned the extraction of cyanide and formaldehyde from the mix of amino acids from which proteins might be produced, and something like that would have to be either converted, used or disposed of safely in order not to become a pollutant. The production of strange matter would be the ultimate environmental hazard, as it could convert the entire planet into a different, lifeless, form of matter. Whereas an apparently easy solution to the neutralisation of hazardous substances is to use plasma gasification, that is, the use of superheated pressurised gases, actually plasmas, such as argon to break up the molecules, this is likely to be very energy-hungry, which is another possible problem with a replicator, and in monetary terms one of the costs associated with it. Applying this to 3-D printing, the problem of raw materials arises. There are various options, notably PLA, or poly-lactic acid, which is biodegradable and found in nature – for instance it can be extracted from algal blooms, which seems to be a win-win situation environmentally – but PLA is not suitable for everything and another option, the plastic ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), may be hazardous if particles are inhaled during the printing process and is not safe in a fire because it will release toxins. I’m afraid this is a work in progress and I don’t know much more.
It seems to me to be feasible, and maybe here comes Dunning-Kruger again, to make 3-D printer filament from waste plastic, particularly polypropylene and high-density polyethylene, but I don’t know enough and I’m somewhat concerned that it may use virgin plastic. Translating this into replicators, since the first law of thermodynamics states that energy, and therefore matter, can neither be created nor destroyed, there will always have to be raw materials, and this is where replication comes up against capitalism.
When you replicate something, you do it from raw materials without buying a physical product. This has the environmental benefit of avoiding packaging and to some extent transport, since only the raw materials need to reach the replicator, which for all we know right now could be the air itself or recycled waste. However, this is a disincentive for capitalism because it means the raw material could be placed at a premium, since ready-manufactured objects no longer have any intrinsic value. Makers of conventional printers have of course pursued their outrageous gouging of selling printer ink and cartridges at extortionate prices and disabling their printers and multi-function devices in various ingenious ways. In theory there could be a flatbed printer which deposits a variety of pigments onto a wide range of flat surfaces without creating an unnecessary need for printer ink, but the capitalist system prevents this from being successfully produced. A similar problem with a true replicator would be the difficulty of turning a profit on it. Arthur C Clarke said of the replicator that the first one would cost £1 000 000 000 000 but the second would be free because it could be made by the first. This would end capitalism taken by itself, but there may be ways round this. One is the production of a raw material which would be rejected unless it was in some way “signed” by the manufacturer, another is to make the energy source extremely expensive and a third is intellectual property. If the designs of objects, i.e. their forms, are patented and a charge is made for each object produced, or perhaps to licence the design for private production, profits can still be made and the poor can be kept poor and so forth, so it could be business as usual during alterations. Right now, that might look outrageous, but this is because the necessary brainwashing which keeps the system running hasn’t kicked in yet.
Assuming that the beneficial side-effect of destroying capitalism can’t be overcome, there is still a potential problem. Right now I have quite a few ebooks languishing because they are so easy to obtain for very little, and the same would apply to some extent to “fast fashion”. We don’t want to get into the situation where it gets so easy to make stuff that it just lies around never being used. Hence we need to prepare ourselves psychologically for replicators, and right now this very household needs to prepare itself for the advent of 3-D printing. Very often, the problem with making things easier through technology is that its value-neutral nature, to the extent that it is, because as I’ve said, this is potentially highly iconoclastic to a system based on greed and overconsumption, throws us back on our own neuroses and hang-ups, leading us, for example, to engage in retail therapy or hoarding, and as such the replicator can’t cure us of that. Then again, the printing press did wonders for the education and entertainment of the general public and ultimately contributed to near-universal literacy, meaning that although individual tomes may now be less valuable, and ebooks even less in terms of the material they’re composed of, more people treasure them. The same applies to music, although it does perhaps mean we’re less focussed in the moment. Some kind of similar or perhaps unanticipated social effect could supervene on the replicator.
Replicators, and in fact even 3-D printers to some extent, can circumvent built-in obsolescence and vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in is the practice of ensuring that, for example, only Gillette razor blades can be used with Gillette razors by making the way they slot into the handle unique and not allowing other manufacturers to make blades using that system. It is of course evil. Another way this is done is by giving screws unusual heads which need a specific rare type of screwdriver to unscrew them. A 3-D printer or replicator could get round this by making the requisite parts in the right form, and similarly, where a particular component fails, leading to an entire machine being disposed of, it could simply be replaced. All of this, of course, depends on the vendor lock-in not being applied to those parts.
Ultimately, the question raised by the replicator is this: would it push us inevitably into indolence and ennui or is that just a vicious myth created by a scarcity-based society?