Dreaming of the Future Wasn’t Enough…
I have always been something of a dreamer, as a teen I read all the classic Sci-Fi: Asimov, Clark, Heinlein, Bradbury, Herbert, Niven…
Through these works, I was able to live on worlds as diverse as the Capital planet of Trantor, (Foundation) Explore a space artifact on its way through the solar system (Rendezvous with Rama) Colonize a Jovian moon (Farmer in the sky) Meet the Martians (The Martian Chronicles) live with the Fremen of Arrakis (Dune) and explore the Ringworld all before the age of 13!
These adventures convinced me I lived in a very primitive and backward time (I frequently feel that this is still true) and when contrasted against the daily reality in rural Montana, it seemed more true than not.
For while I was growing up, we had electricity, but there was no running water.
Which meant carrying water from the creek in buckets, (easy in summer, a struggle in winter) an out-house, wood heat in a thin walled, un-insulated cabin (I have record of it reaching -40 F in the back bedroom one winter(!)) which took nearly 10 cords of wood to keep the cabin from becoming uninhabitably cold during the long winters.
From a technology and comforts perspective, I grew up in about the 1930’s even though chronologically speaking, it was the mid 1970’s…
There was no TV, the mountains blocked reception, telephone service ended 13 miles away. no running water, no central heat. Not so unlike the lives of my Welsh mining ancestors.
But, despite all that, I lived in the future most of the time, plying the space ways or transcending my humanity by becoming a cyborg, or uploading my personality, or some other techno escapism.
But now, after 3 or 4 additional decades, the first glimmerings of those many futures are contemporary news, it is sometimes disappointing that I can’t share the tech presses excitement, since many of these “new” innovations feel old and late to me. As often as not, some breakthrough inspires the reaction “about damn time” instead of a sense of wonder.
On the other hand, we ARE starting to “get there”, in terms of life extension, human machine interfacing, robotics and space, among many other areas of advancement.
But lacking patience, I couldn’t wait for some parts of the future to happen, so I started building it myself.
Anyone familiar with the Star Trek Replicator may also know Arthur C Clarke’s third law “Any sufficiently advanced technology, is indistinguishable from magic.”
The fictional replicator is a great prop, it materializes anything you want from thin air! Provided of course that something hasn’t screwed up the dilithium crystals, forcing the shutdown of the warp core and turning the lights off… ;-)
But what if…
The 3D printing craze has frequently referenced Star Trek’s replicator as a similar goal to “fabricate anything on demand” and high end 3D printers are certainly evolving rapidly toward capabilities well beyond traditional fabrication techniques.
But, these high end capabilities still come at a high cost, and while 3D printers prices are falling rapidly, and capabilities are quickly expanding there are still conventional methods that do some kinds of processes much better, faster and cheaper.
why limit yourself?
Everything available today is largely made “somewhere else” and has enormous travel cost associated with it, there is a good reason why out of the $77 Trillion (USD) annual world economy, over $17 Trillion is in shipping while manufacturing is around $12 Trillion.
Shipping produces million of tons of atmospheric pollution, but most of this is “off the books” since its produced beyond national borders under 3rd country flags.
Most goods flow through a long linear process
Harvest/Extract/Mine → Ship
Refine/Process → Ship
Manufacture Stock → Ship
Form/Fabricate/Package → Ship
Manufacture Parts/Goods → Ship
Sell Wholesale or Package for Retail → Ship
Distribute for Retail → Ship
Sell → Customers take it home or it goes to Final Retail (moving either way)
Discard → Ship to Landfill/Furnace/Recycle/litter
And that, to a significant degree, is the source of most of the problems we have as a society!
If that sounds like a too sweeping conclusion, consider that another major societal problem is the uneven distribution of the benefits of civilization (tangible wealth/well being) but much of it brought on by a monetary system that formalizes the imbalance and incentives bad solutions, so long as they “make money.”
Specifically, this wasteful, inefficient way of handling the production of all the basic goods needed everywhere is both primitive and counterproductive!
Localized, modular, flexible manufacturing resources distributed around the globe could greatly reduce the need for shipping, ramp up recycling and design for recycling (iterative improvement). Help distribute appropriate alternative energy systems, incentivize innovation by lowering the cost of goods, allow for fractional ownership in distributed production and greatly reduce shipping anything except the digital templates for goods, rather than the goods themselves.
If this process were approached differently and you cut out a significant portion of all that shipping that generates most of the pollution, most of the solid waste problem and a huge portion of the cost.
All the tools to do this are readily available, today!
A carefully considered solution. (or, a ”Modest Proposal”)
Of course, I think this is a worthwhile pursuit, so I am biased in favor of getting a system of modular manufacturing machines together, and have in fact done so to a limited, but improving degree.
In time, adhering to a common framework will help make the exchange of ideas and incremental design improvements easier to accomplish — these machines are small to make the process more approachable for people with less than corporate level R&D capabilities. But a pathway to scale to larger and smaller systems is inherent in the design.
The first level of design is done, (get it to work!) I am still building out the prototypes but it is much more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if’ — getting this to this stage has taken much longer than I thought it would, (close to 10 years) but documentation, software integration and promotion are the main focus now that the hardware is largely built or designed.
I feel this could truly change the way the world works, so I will continue building it for the foreseeable future.
That, and I am excited by the possibilities: once a group of machines are making needed things from digital templates out of recycled materials with locally generated power:
Then many opportunities open for more exotic projects to extend the capability and autonomy of the system as a whole, things like:
VR interfaces to allow for the remote human supervision of a process for all the reasons: to accumulate process data for AI agents running machines. Also, to provide a consistent interface to the machines independent of scale, or distance.
further, to allow smaller and smaller machines to be built for the purpose of “tunneling” to nano-scale by building infrastructure to handle molecule level events.
crypto-currency interactions: where machines maintain their own balances to buy services from other systems and where the larger system maintains balance to pay for engineering or reward popular or widely adopted designs.
This idea also would work to pay for independent human agents who broker production, or design products or extension to the core system.
Needless to say; an all consuming vision…
If this sounds like your kind of project, reach out! I can be contacted at CubeSpawn at gmail