Imagine a pizza factory that just gives away free pizza, because it’s meant to do so. Imagine if this was a sort of free franchise, a business model that can prescriptively be replicated, forked, and improved upon, and given away much as open-source software is. Then imagine if it had to do so on the Moon, an environment sterile and lacking most input resources, save for water and some minerals in regolith, and even then, those come at high cost and are in short supply. Then, imagine the value of such a system if it would be done the same way on Earth, without creating any net waste, only compensating for thermodynamic losses, thus becoming completely sustainable. Finally, by automating the labor of creating the pizza, it becomes inexpensive enough to produce that it was essentially free. Nutritious, healthy, sustainable pizza that, in essence, is too cheap to sell.
The only stipulation being that, in order to be free, it must also be sustainable, meaning, anything it produces that becomes waste then becomes the things it needs to produce that product initially. In manufacturing electronics, imagine if e-waste could be recycled into new electronics. Incredibly difficult to do. Which is why we’re starting with pizza. And ultimately, you’re starting with waste of another kind.
Hydroponics and aeroponics provide for methods of using less water in closed-loop systems where the only water exiting the system is the water in the produce itself. They still require nutrients, however. Nutrients must be created in a closed-loop manner, perhaps from treated, UV-sterilized biosolids, from a wastewater treatment plant, rich in the macro- and micro-nutrients required to grow plants. This is in contrast to industrial processes for producing nitrogen fertilizer, such as the Haber process, which generally requires lots of energy and fossil fuels.
This is what it is meant by “closing the loop”: Tying together processes that lead from one to another than can be distributed, publicly-owned, simple enough for volunteers to operate and maintain, making inexpensive and scalable, sustainable, have managed waste streams and use few external resources, as well as being easy to automate. These are incredibly difficult constraints, and not all need be satisfied at the same time, but the more loops that can be closed for each step, for both the machines that make the machines, as well as for the products of the machines themselves.
A critical step is to develop systems to help meet these goals: to be able to track every piece of equipment and every commodity within this system. This system should be modeled, with inputs and outputs at every step, as it is improved and every opportunity for improvement and reduction of bottlenecks within the system must be identified before it can be solved. Material quantities should be given objective metrics of how much of it can be produced on-premises. This knowledge can provide a percentage rating of all materials used to create sustainable distributed closed-loop factories, and further, metrics for all materials used to create its products.
One concern with a such a highly closed system, however, will be concentration of trace chemicals in our waste, such as hormones, antibiotics, and other medications, toxic metals, microplastics– all these will have to be tested and monitored for in such an incredibly closed-loop system, in order to prevent the gradual concentration of these harmful substances within our diets, much as they do in the diets of apex predators. Ideally, such concentration would happen to a much lesser degree in a largely plant-based diet.
There are a few constraints desired of the factory. One is that it is distributed. It can be set up by anyone anywhere, with few resources and scalable as desired. This requires simplification of certain processes; for example, it would be incredibly wasteful to keep cows on-site for production of cheese. Casein-based cheeses are often considered acceptable cheese substitutes, as casein is a protein found in dairy products such as milk and cheese. Instead of dealing with the inefficiencies of cow’s digestive tract, it could be produced with a bioreactor, much like “clean meat” is produced. However, if an acceptable entirely plant-based substitute could be found, this would be even better, as it doesn’t have the energy losses incurred by being first produced by something sustainable, such as an autotroph– an organism that produces its own food, i.e., plants– over a heterotroph, i.e., animals or animal cells such as bacteria or yeast.
Further optimization would necessitate the substitution of low-yield crops (per acre-year) for crops that can be produced in bulk, such as hydroponic tomatoes and starchy substances such as potatoes that could be used as a substitute for wheat. Ideally these would be engineered in such a way that would make it easy for a machine to automate the production of this produce.
Ultimately, the product is the starting point. A recipe for pizza would need to be developed. There are a few considerations, however, before finding just any pizza recipe on the internet. One is that wheat would be a difficult thing to grow since it has low yields. Instead, in the pursuit of a post-scarcity industry, compromises will have to be made in order to create closed-loop systems of various scales. In very small-scale systems, recipes that are both vegan and gluten-free would be used to reduce process complexity, the amount of equipment and land needed, etc, for the simple and pragmatic reason that wheat is not a high-yield crop per acre-year or per gallon of water, and neither is dairy. This will have the general positive effect of improving our diets. Yes, the post-scarcity economy will be both vegan and gluten-free. This will be without corporate welfare for “big ag”.
It may become useful to genetically modify the produce required to increase yield, decrease water or nutrient input, improve taste or nutrition, or make the process easier to automate. Those optimizations are incredibly involved on a level that industrial process improvements aren’t, however, and so they may come much later after we have better science (and state of intellectual property) in that field.
Software will be the underpinning of the modern economy in ways that will make it the only job that will actually be needed for us to sustain ourselves. In the past, we needed farmers to feed ourselves and live together as a civilization, specializing and producing progressively more elaborate means of producing food, reducing the labor required for such, freeing up labor for developing social constructs that occupy our time, justified by duty to a monarch or nation-state, to a god or religion, or for the sake of commerce and capital.
Energy would ideally be generated with a closed-loop. This may require more land for renewable energy, and elaborate mechanisms for energy storage, such as lithium-ion batteries. However, systems built using non-scarce materials will be easier to close the loop, both in manufacturing, as well as
Let’s face it: Automation is scary. For one, it’s incredibly powerful; we have robots that can make cars, replace jobs, and even kill people. However, automation is simply a tool, much as we’ve seen in the early industrialization efforts leading to the two world wars and the rapid growth of the human population, fantastic new technologies such as space travel and the internet. Right now, automation primary purpose within industry is to reduce the amount of physical labor that was once required to create things, to many fewer jobs, and one day, to no jobs required at all. This has resulted in a massive wealth concentration mechanism, as the cost of living has generally increased in most places, even as there are fewer people working well-paying jobs. This soaks up the buying power of most individuals, rather than demonetizing the fruits of automated labor.
The answer to this is to create a recipe, a sort of open-source franchise for replicating many distributed instances of these factories, with no IP encumbrances such as franchise fees. The capital outlays for creating the plant should be minimal and scale naturally as the business grows, or seeking grants or donations. The franchise community provides input on how to best handle various scenarios in the development of the business. Nobody should own such a factory; instead, with its near-complete automation, its low operation costs, with minimal revenue and profit-generation, it will essentially operate in such a way that can not only be taxed very minimally by governments, it can simply be a public utility providing nutritious food to satisfy a basic human right.
Machines will need maintenance, and they will have to be tended to by someone. Further, regulatory compliance in food safety laws, cleaning, and handling of things difficult to automate complicate this endeavor. This will not immediately be a fully-automated luxury space factory. However, the more things that can be produced via closed-loops, without the need for centralized industry, will ultimately reduce the need for this labor, and cost of producing the equipment. The machines (or processes) that make these machines will be especially critical to develop. They will have to be developed with care; as anyone with a 3D printer knows, every part produced can become waste, and such equipment will need industrial waste reclamation strategies, much as with any closed-loop system.
Folks often get caught up in the intricacies of governance, human behavior, social consequences, and politics in general. These are incredibly important factors, and certainly not to be diminished, but an additional factor is often ignored: What is scientifically feasible? It’s a complex question to ask, but it’s about as complex as the social problems of organizational structures, such as how to structure a corporation, how to reduce worker exploitation and negative externalities on the environment, how to engage the regulatory infrastructure in various jurisdictions, etc.
If you’re inspired by this essay, contact me on Twitter, @cryptoquick, and let’s come up with ways to help each other be a part of creating the post-scarcity economy of the future.