Thursday, August 12, 2010

Beyond Scarcity?

A Public Feast
Discussion on a recent post turned, not for the first time, to the economic implications of continued technological progress, especially technologies such as replicators. More generally, could a higher techlevel lead to a 'post-scarcity' economy?

First, a benchmark figure. In rough, round numbers the per capita GDP in the US is about 10 times greater than it was 200 years ago, at the dawn of the industrial revolution. The early US was already a rich country - all that cheap land, stolen from the Indians, but industrialization has made us, on average, some 10 times richer.

The figure for European countries is at least comparable. For Japan it might be somewhat more, Tokugawa era peasants probably having been poorer than contemporary European peasants, but still on the same broad order. The implication is that each century of rapid technological progress has made the most developed societies some three times richer. (The process is faster for newly industrialized countries, which can adopt technologies already invented.)

If that same rate continues into the midfuture, the economic level of 200 years from now should be about 10 times higher still, a per capita GDP equivalent to about $250,000 or $500,000.

There are obvious constraints and provisos. Natural resource prices, in real terms, trended downward through the 20th century, but the low-hanging fruit has arguably already been picked. Oil, at least, will not get cheaper in the long term, and post fossil fuel energy probably won't be cheaper at the plug than energy is today. Automobiles have become more efficient and safer in the last 50 years, and may soon be 'smart,' but not cheaper or faster - so their basic functionality is largely unchanged. People regard old cars as classics; no one thinks of old computers that way.

For that matter, the economic level of most 'Murricans has not increased much since the 1970s; the real GDP increase since that time has been funneled largely to economic elites. One popular dystopian future is a high techlevel, largely automated capitalism with practically no demand for labor, relegating most of the population to a marginal netherworld.

This is a distinctly modern dystopia. There are hints of it in Heinlein, especially Starman Jones, but it is very different from the capitalist dystopias of a century ago - in Wells' The Time Machine the Morlocks were workers; it was the upper class Eloi who were the useless unemployed.

But let's consider the possibilities of a high-techlevel economy.

The classical economics view is that human desires are unlimited. We want things, like tickets to Mars, that we can't get now at any price. We quickly learn to want things, like mobile Internet access, that we previously never even thought about.

On the other hand, our physical needs and comforts are in some sense biologically fixed. Dietary preferences vary culturally, but we can only eat so much. In much of the world, and certainly in industrialized countries, having plenty to eat is no longer a sign of wealth. As one consequence, putting on extravagant public feasts, like Bilbo's birthday party in Lord of the Rings, has pretty much died out as a custom. Even fancy society wedding banquets don't feature dozens of exotic dishes, or for that matter scores of liveried servants to bring them in.

Oversized houses are still a mark of wealth, because big houses remain beyond most people's reach - hence the proliferation of McMansions in the US and probably other industrialized countries. But even this is probably in relative decline; McMansions are the mark of the pretentious demi-rich. The super-rich do not make their houses an object of display - in fact, their estates tend to be secluded. I doubt that an Elizabethan noble would be impressed by Bill Gates' house, and he'd be puzzled by its obscurity.

Feasts and palaces are things people prized not for their 'creature comforts' (an appropriate phrase), but for the status and power they embodied. Once they cease to be effective as display the demand for them reaches its limit or even trails off. I'd suggest that a similar law of diminishing returns may apply to material goods in general, once the economic level is such to render them unimpressive.

On the other hand, the desire to impress does seem unlimited, because it is purely social and relative. If the Joneses own a planet, you want to own one as well, or even a whole planetary system. Throughout the agrarian age - the age of feasts and palaces - material wealth was a great way to impress people. Or more than impress: If you could afford hundreds of liveried servants you could also afford hundreds of troops.

But in a high-techlevel age, where mere display of material goods is no longer impressive, could people find other ways to impress? And what might those ways be?

One way is simply by becoming well known. This is not new. It is what the Latin world nobilis, root of our 'noble,' originally meant. Indeed, before there were chieftains or aristocracies there were 'big men,' who made themselves the center of attention - and did things like putting on feasts in order to remain the center of attention.

The modern rise of celebrity culture, people 'famous for being famous' might be a harbinger of things to come, hinting at the dynamics of a post-scarcity and post-capitalist economy. In such a world, capital resources might still be amassed, but only as one of multiple paths to eminence and status, and not the primary one.

How we would get there, or what it would lead to, I don't know, but I will throw it out for discussion.



Related link: For those who haven't come across links yet, here is the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy on my old website.


This painting by Botticelli, based on an episode in the Decameron, shows a Renaissance wedding feast.

143 comments:

Milo said...

In a world where material needs, energy needs, and similar quantifiable stuff have been abolished, I would expect people would still value information and creativity. Even with a replicator, you need original blueprints for something to replicate. A spaceship might not be valuable, but a new design of spaceship that can do something old ones can't would make people notice you.

You're doing it right now. By writing a blog with involved musings on space technology, you're drawing attention to yourself in excess to that attracted by other people also interested in the same subject.

We've already had a free-replication economy ever since the internet was developed, and tenously even before. Information, once created, can be infinitely copied, but we still respect the people who originally created them.

Of course, currently we're trying to cram digital media into a conventional "stuff can only be owned by one person at a time" economy, using copyrights to prevent people from copying stuff they own. This doesn't really make sense as an economic model for information, but it does make sense that existing corporations would be reluctant to experiment, and would try to cram the square peg of digital information into the round hole of the economic model they're familiar with.

You can't really blame them - other important resources, like food, are still stuck using the old economy, and it's really inconvenient having two economies working side by side and trying to figure out how they interact. People are scared to let digital information take its own free-market course and see where it leads, when doing so means authors might not be able to afford food.

But if we learn to replicate food...

Geoffrey S H said...

On another train of thought- might knowing more than the Jone's become a way of showing one's "status"? I.e.: gaining a detailed layman's familiarity of things that are not part of one's job and displaying such knowledge- having rooms full of books being a display of not so much economic wealth, as wealth of knowledge. 24th century Gatsby, if you will.

I do not mean simply trying to be knowledgable in polite society- but something almost like an 18th century meeting of intellectuals- each displaying his knowledge and comparing it with what the others know. This time though it would be laymen, not at the cutting edge of society, exchanging knowledge in an attempt to know more than their neighbours and also feel secure that tehy know as much as they should know in a post-scarcity, free-information-on-demand world.

Of course physcial location might help. If you're the one that lives near the moors of Yorkshire, or the flats of Utah, and currently the craze for holiday makers is to go there, then you're the lucky one showing them round, geing a guide and leader, and basically improving you're social status.

Talent in the arts would probably stay on from this century as well. Good film makers and theatre actors do not need to exhibit wealth to show their talents.

Milo said...

A bunch of intellectuals competing to show off who knows the most on varied and complicated subjects? Wow, the similarities to this blog are piling up!

However, when information is free, knowing itself would not be valuable. Rather, understanding would be. The difference is that understanding allows you to connect existing pieces of knowledge in new combinations, drawing conclusions no-one ever thought of before... in other words, creativity again.

Milo said...

Also, it occurs to me that rich people today do still throw feasts. They just do it by donating huge amounts of money to charity. Because feeding millions of third-world citizens is going to impress people more than feeding the few dozen people from your tribe.

Turbo10k said...

Remember Johnny Mmemonic?

Hunches.

Originality, from how we make food o how we design spaceships, will be the social altimeters in the future. In a post-scarcity, post-information future, this will lead to programmers leading the world. Everything will be robotised, so the guy who designs a new robot, the guy who programs it and the guy who bought it will be the three most important guys on a planet.

-Merchants
-Programmers
-Engineers
-Office worker to keep the previous guys under control

Lining them up, you'll notice the guy I DIDN'T forget-the guy who only has his muscles to sell. The farmer, the industrial worker. In itself, it will lead to an enormous, groundbreaking social revolution. EVERYONE has to use his mental capabilities to survive. No slacking off at school. For the first time, society will be completely disconnected from material values. Not constraints, but values. Our value system will be completely based on abstract and immaterial. It would be live living in Facebook...scary.

Just somebody find the excellent science fiction book where the monetary unit is reputation? And the hero turned into a cyborg to fight for Terra in the outer planets?

Byron said...

I still question the existence of "Post-scarcity" economies. The fact is that people will want more stuff, and eventually, conservation of mass will make it so they can't always get it. Views change over time, and there will always be a shortage of something material, even if it's private planets. Still, who knows what will be scarce in the future. I've made this point before, but the link got eaten. Pantheonicide is an excellent example of this. Humanity invades heaven, and discovers that it's an idealized medieval countryside. To the people who came there (the gates of heaven were closed during the dark ages) it's close to paradise. No famine, no wars, no disease. To us here, it seems they got a raw deal. What would people from 3000 say about our version of utopia?

Thucydides said...

Some of the confusion seems to be due to intermingling between "wants" and "needs". We do live in an sort of post scarcity economy now in the West, when even people living in "poverty" have cars, colour TV's and high speed internet access (and enough food to gorge themselves into obesity). Access to material goods has become amazingly cheap, so from that aspect, basic needs and many "wants" can be easily fulfilled.

Like T.H. White pointed out in "The once and future king" a knight in silver armour would feel envy if he came across a knight in gold armour", so while materialistic needs are well taken care of, values may well be driven by envy for as long as we are human.

Still, there are limits of time, processing power and bandwidth. Just because I can download the entire "4AD" catalogue from the Internet does not mean I will be able to watch every video or listen to each song. Indeed, if I were to try, I probably would reach information overload at some point and not be able to differentiate between artists or understand and enjoy what I am listening to. (This is sort of like the old story of the newbie working at the ice cream factory. He is encouraged to eat as much ice cream as he wants, in the secure knowledge that he will soon become sick of ice cream...). What is the point of my own planet if I can't even visit more than a small fraction during my lifetime?

Pointing out Rick's blog has made him famous (at least within our circle) brings up another factor: time. Rick needs to eat, so there is no way he could post as much as we like, nor could he answer all our emails should we be inclined to start sending suggestions all the time. (I will note he has graciously answered emails; I'm just projecting a more extreme case).

Moving up the fame ladder, you can see that soon you reach levels (sports stars, politicians, music stars, TV and movie actors) where it would be literally impossible for the individual to answer all mail or requests, no matter how much they might want to. Could some future level of fame and importance be the amount of unanswered email in your inbox? If you are considered the "go to" person or part of a "go to" organization which is heavily subscribed, you will obviously have more importance than similar people and organizations with smaller subscriber lists.

There is still lots of room for differentiation here; the "home improvement" list will have many different people on it than the "quantum physics" list.

Milo said...

The purpose of the post-scarcity equivalent of "money", then, would be to trade to people in return for giving your unanswered email priority.

gwern said...

> I still question the existence of "Post-scarcity" economies.

Well, let's take an example. Hikkomori. They have little interest in clothing, eat only basic foodstuffs to survive, and spend most of their time on electronic pursuits, or I suppose I should say, information-related endeavours. They no longer need to buy anime, CDs, games, or what have you - one inexpensive computer does it all.

Aside from collectibles, which ever fewer are interested in, a hikkomori is basically living in post-scarcity conditions. His communities have no scarcity-enforced distribution mechanisms, and his housing and food requirements are so low as to approach what is feasible in a scarcity-based economy.

Turbo10k said...

Err...ALL space hab inhabitants will be today's equivalent of hikkomoris; they'll stay most of their day cooped up in their little kitchen-sized cabins. They'll have their 3-D screens in front of them, and access to the ship's computer, which is like 10 DeepBlues linked up. This behavior would actually be encouraged; it would require less space to content with from the designer's point of view, better crew autonomies (they aren't running around) and finally less social tension. The latter can be VEERY dangerous if it escalates within a closed community in a cooped up place.

So...post-scarcity? Not everyone will be like that. Back on Terra, there would probably never be a post-scarcity (too many resources and people to envy), but in space habs, where resources are limited and rationed, and manufacture standardized , material wants seem less prevalent.

Up there, people would be competing for bandwidth!

ElAntonius said...

It's interesting that the original post brings up that cars haven't gotten "faster", because I'm about to use faster cars as an example.

In 1970, a car that could accelerate 0-60 MPH in under 5 seconds was mind-boggling. A few rarities could do it, but they were purpose built to focus on extreme acceleration at the expense of all else.

In 1990, such a car would have been an italian supercar. Now we're talking somewhat more comfortable, and better rounded, but still out of the reach of most people.

In 2010, such a car is a reasonable aspirational purchase for a young professional. It has handling, luxury, and safety that would embarrass the 60's counterpart and even the 90's counterpart, and it's not uncommon for me to see about 2 dozen cars capable of such a feat on my way home.

The italian supercars are all vying for under 4 seconds now, and it is now possible to buy a luxurious tourer that can do 264 MPH in supreme comfort. Granted, it's a $2.5 million car, but even 20 years ago it was impossible outside of race cars.

People tend to view post-scarcity as a switch, that one day we wake up and everyone takes what we value for granted...but that's not the case.

It's a sliding scale, really. As the luxuries of yore become accessible, they don't go away...they just become ignored as the typical. As mentioned earlier, no one finds it interesting that someone can feed their family 3 times a day (in the wealthier parts of the world, anyway).

I drive one of the aforementioned muscle cars. Most of my peers could easily afford one, so we could hardly view it as scarce.

So why does it draw admiration anyway? Because the people around me that could get one, but don't, have other reasons for not having it. So they view it as unattainable for reasons that have nothing to do with the material cost.

Ostentatious displays of luxury that do nothing for the owner get eliminated by the sliding scale of scarcity, but that does not mean that luxury itself will cease to be.

In a post scarcity world, the person with the sports car is the person who doesn't have kids, who can tolerate a stiffer suspension and reduced luxury in the name of a car that is enjoyable to drive.

If we could manufacture cars "for free", people would still make choices based on their needs and their desires, and that means the guy with the Ferrari still makes tradeoffs to have it.

Even if it's as basic as occupying an additional spot in the garage.

Milo said...

In a post-scarcity economy, owning a sports car is more a way of saying "Look, I'm a cool guy who can handle such a powerful car, and likes the excitement!", rather than saying "Look, I can afford a sports car!". You're showing off your skills and personality, not your wealth.

It's kind of like a fashion statement. Clothes are rarely expensive, but which you choose to wear says something about your style.

Kitchen Wolf said...

From a luxury standpoint, cars have gotten faster on the track. But from an economic standpoint, it still takes an hour and a half to get home during rush hour. The wingless aircraft capable of 275 mph is stuck idling behind an econobox.
There's also another phenomenon associated with progress - in places like Seattle or San Francisco, the muscle car is not going to "draw admiration anyway", so much as be an obstacle to social acceptance, with some pseudo-Freudian derision thrown in for flavor. Being so affordable makes it "common", being so expensive to feed for the capabilities it can legally or often physically use (a thoroughbred doing a donkey's job) makes it vulgar, like a rapper's "bling". Gaudy excess is a common faux pas of the nouveau riche.
But the concept of resource intensive leisure activities that require a high level of equipment and (more importantly) training such as auto racing, golf, and skydiving becoming more democratic is a valid one. A post scarcity economy might be one in which training and equipment for leisure activities becomes a major employer. How much has the martial arts dojo/tournament industry grown in the past 30 years? REI? Anyone fancy a mountain-climbing correspondence course, or would you prefer to hire a live instructor? In a society where possessions cease to be interesting, experiences may become the new source of novelty.

ElAntonius said...

Milo - You hit the nail I was swinging at right on the head :). In a post scarcity economy we don't all drive Ferrari because we don't all WANT Ferrari.

Kitchen Wolf - Certainly cars, like any form of luxury, can be viewed as something derisive depending on the company one prefers to keep. I'd argue that the vast majority of hybrid car drivers ascribe to this as well: they want to be seen as driving an environmentally conscious car.

It's kind of like eating beef around vegetarians, or being a vegetarian around meat eaters. Depending on the personalities involved, certain people will relax and let other people enjoy their own tastes, and others will respond with derision. Incidentally, one could argue that meat itself has become post-scarcity in the modern era. Did the peasants in the dark ages think of the lords eating meat and say to themselves: "Look at that fool, eating a perfectly good farm animal! What a waste. He's compensating for something, surely."

But, if you're the kind of person that is passionate about cars, then I doubt you'd much enjoy the company of people that would deride you for your hobby...so taking the vehicle of your choice, much like people choose their outfits now, is an instant visual code for "this is what I'm into, if you're like minded, let's talk!"

Also, there's always going to be lashing out at conspicuous consumption. Would the derision be as great in a post scarcity economy where there were no have nots with regard to the choice at hand?

Luke said...

Very much a digression - but while the spec sheet on my car says it can do 0 to 60 in 5 seconds, I'd swear it can do it in 3. Maybe it is just a psychological effect.

As for post-scarcity economies, all I can say is I'd like to live there. My own private planet for hiking and fishing and hunting and catching lizards - what fun!

Milo said...

I remember a while back when I needed a new keyboard for my computer and, after shopping around a little, ended up settling on the model that was cheapest, not because it was the cheapest (I wasn't even going to have to pay for it myself), but because it happened to be the only one that had the shape I was comfortable with.

As for how people treat ostentatious displays, I would say they look less at the materials and more at the presentation. If you have a tasteful work of art made of gold and colorful gemstones, good for you. There are legitimate reasons to use those materials - they're the shiniest and most resistant to damage you can get. If, however, you have an ordinary object made to look artificially valuable by laminating on patches of gold at random, no-one is going to be impressed. (See also the ancient practice where people who couldn't afford purple clothes would instead sew small purple patches on normal clothes...) Remember, though, that what constitutes good art is subjective. Highly.

jollyreaper said...

I've given some thought on possible character motivations for people in post-scarcity settings.

Human beings will always find something to be miserable about. Maslow said that you start with physiological. A starving peasant things he'll be happy so long as he has food and shelter. Give him that and now he wants personal safety. Give him that and now he wants love and belonging. Give him that and now he wants the esteem of his peers. Then there's the amorphous concept of self-actualization. The sixth step is joining internet message boards and arguing about esoteric shit. :)

So if we push past the individual and look at the psychology of a society, what drives them? Say they've fixed everything on their planet. One world government, end of poverty and warfare, universal fellowship and understanding. What pushes them onward? A lot of people put stock in the "holodeck society" scenario where paradise is either created in the real or in a virtual world so real the difference is academic and society gives itself over to pleasure. All the requirements to support the infrastructure are automatically maintained and every member of society is free to life in idle luxury like a great prince or sultan.

jollyreaper said...

I think that sloth and ease could well explain the way some people would go. But there are other possibilities. We tend to be materialistic in western society and put great stock in the personal story, of acquiring wealth and power and sneering at softer concerns. But not so long ago we put so much stock in a religious view of the world. People would cross the globe on account of God, lay awake at night troubled by thoughts of what should be done in this world to secure our position in the next.

The securing of personal ease might not preclude stupid decisions leading to conflict or principled differences of opinion. We can point to numerous examples in history of people whose socio-economic positions seemed guaranteed for life who nevertheless embarked on courses of immense risk for one reason or another.

jollyreaper said...

One last thought -- humans are hierarchical social creatures. There will always be a pecking order. Even in societies where displays of wealth are frowned upon and a fetish is placed upon uniformity and plain living, there will be leaders and there will be followers. People will greatly value their position within the group and seek to enhance it, even if they might profess to be unmoved by such vanity.

Milo said...

Unless the holodecks are backed by strong AI, there are going to be things they can't provide without skilled human assistance. If the holodecks are backed by strong AI, then one has to ask what the holodecks want to keep them happy.


Regarding nonmaterialistic motivations, I have to say that scientific curiosity is my main reason for wanting to challenge the hostile depths of space. You could call it a religion, I guess...

ElAntonius said...

jollyreaper -

From the point of view of our forebears, we probably do live like sultans.

Let's look at what your average American professional can do:

-Work only 40 hours a week!
-Eat 5000 calories a day!
-Have a personal vehicle!
-Said personal vehicle can likely go 100 MPH on command!
-Communicate with a worldwide network of people via multiple means!
-Watch entertainers from the comfort of his own home!
-Live past 60! (Well, assuming he's eating less than 5000 calories a day)
-Go anywhere in the world in less than a day!
-Have food prepared for them by "servants" on demand! We call them restaurants now.
-Have light 24 hours a day!
-Bathe daily without fear of disease!
-Play VIDEO GAMES! (Seriously, how would you even explain a video game to an ancient Roman?)


I think an interesting story might be a truly "soft" post scarcity society being attacked by harder elements. Barbarians sacking Rome...in SPAAAAACE!

jollyreaper said...

@ElAntonius

Right, that was my point. A medieval peasant would give anything just to live as an illegal landscaper in the US of A and we've got housewives concerned that they can't keep up with the Jonses. Once we satisfy one set of needs, we'll come up with something else to be unhappy over.

A setting I'm playing with takes the holodeck society thing a bit further. You've got the McGuffin Substance which is a cross between the Spice from Dune and protoculture from Robotech. It's concentrated life-force, can only be harvested from living worlds, and powers the magic-tech of higher civilization.

Only the serfs live planetside. The high muckymucks are off in self-contained worldships hidden in the blackness between the stars. This is the ultimate hedge against relativistic missile attack since nobody knows where the worldships are.

jollyreaper said...

The high mucky-mucks inside the worldships are living out the most perfect afterlife that can be imagined. They are biologically immortal, minds directly linked to the consensual illusion that is their reality. They are completely divorced from the concerns of the rest of the universe. Now if all this could be powered by cheap fusion, that's the end of the story. They'd just scoop up free hydrogen as necessary and remain hidden from the rest of the universe until entropy takes us all. But cheap fusion doesn't do the trick. They need the concentrated life-force McGuffin. So they're tied to the planets by that need.

For all intents and purposes, the beings living within the heaven environment of these worldships are gods. One step below them are the caste that has to deal with the physical world. You may as well call them the messengers of the gods, angels, divine enforcers, cosmic mooks. And a step below them are the serfs and peasants they manage on the life worlds.

So you have a fixed number of suitable life worlds in the galaxy. You've got a gentleman's agreement on the rules of civilized warfare for control of these planets. You're allowed to fight over them but not ruin the biosphere. That gets the war called off. More worlds, more life-force harvested, more juicy bits in heaven.

Where things go off the rails where is when demand for life-force causes combatants to cast aside the old rules. Napoleon was said to have shattered European expectations of how a war should be fought, bigger and more brutal than they'd grown accustomed to. I'm thinking of a similar shattering of conventions here.

jollyreaper said...

The mix of conflicts I'm seeing in such a setting seem pretty juicy to me. On one hand you've got the indolent post-human gods in their artificial afterlives with powers that dwarf the puny emperors of Old Earth making their insane and thoughtless demands. You have their agents who actually deal with the outside universe trying to meet these demands and not get executed for the impertinence of telling their gods how things really are. Hitler in his bunker had a tighter grasp on reality! And then you get the poor saps planetside who are caught up in this mess.

The real kicker for this setting would be the serf rebellion. So all the galactic technology is based on the life-force McGuffin. Everybody knows you need it for civilization, it's just a fact. So hardly anybody remembers how things ran before, back when humans first went out into space. This old tech is rediscovered on a life world that was left fallow after life-force production collapsed. accepted practice is to abandon the planet for a century or two and return when production can resume. What's not typical is for the serfs to rediscover the old technology and contest the return of their masters.

Milo said...

"Concentrated life-force"? I hope you're not trying to pretend this is hard SF.

jollyreaper said...

The one point that I wonder about in terms of motivation would be the question of just what would drive the post-human gods, proper motivation. By gods I mean that their powers will be suitably godlike compared to the powers of us modern humans but their minds and character won't have improved any. Julius Caesar hops in a time machine and visits Washington DC, after he gets over the culture shock he'd realize is the same old crap.

The best external motivation I can think of is that some of the post-human gods grow bored with their simulated worlds and make a fetish out of the real. A celestial palace simulated in a worldship is nothing compared to a comfortable peasant's home on a life-world. And by extension, living in comfort and bliss with the respect of peers may not be so pleasant as knowing the worship and fear of real mortals.

It would only take a few post-human gods leaving their bubble worlds to force all the rest to have to take the outside world more seriously. For historic examples of bubble worlds I'm thinking the French nobility before the revolution, Michael Jackson and his insane fantasy land, Kim Jong Il in North Korea, the Chinese emperors and the forcible bursting of their bubble with the invasion of the barbarous foreign devils of Europe, etc. And there's also a giant dollop of institutional inertia and bureaucracy where the people who can see what's going on have no power and are too afraid to speak up to the people who do have the power and no idea what the hell's going on. A giant catastrophe in the making that all observers can see is coming but are powerless to stop. And let's not forget the utter death sentence of even hinting at questioning the Official Version of the Way Things Are. That's politically unwise.

jollyreaper said...

@ Milo

Nope, it's not angling at being hard SF. It's far enough out that it falls squarely in the realm of magic-tech, nothing near-term about it. If we draw a comparison to other works, say 20 years in the future is Blade Runner, 200 years is Star Trek, a thousand years is Ian Bank's Culture novels, ten thousand years with tech stagnation thrown in is Dune, I'd say this is maybe 50,000 years in the future with Dune-style social upheaval, rise and fall of civilization, and the development of godtech that's squarely in the camp of Lovecraft's Great Old Ones. Magic in Lovecraft's setting is higher-order physics incapable of being contemplated by human minds so we may as well call it magic.

It's not hard SF but sheer-tensioning -- kinda squishy but stiffens up if you give it a good thump.

Citizen Joe said...

Speaking of Great Old Ones... I posited the concept of a Great Old One Drive as a means of FTL. One of the features of GOOs are their ability to manipulate reality. If you harness that and pump energy into it, you should be able to control warping of the fabric of time-space. GOO Drives use trapped creatures to collapse space in front of them and then allow it to expand once you've crossed the now smaller distance. This works in a couple of games like Cthulutech and Fading Suns.

Which brings me to my point that if you're going to use magitech, acknowledge it in the setting.

Anonymous said...

I shudder at the thought that "talking heads" will be the new celebrity in the post-scarcity world we're talking about! Because, as we all know all too well, when Replicators are invented they will destroy the money-based economy and only those who control the means by which the Replicators work (raw materials and/or electricity), will control the vast bulk of all other Replicator users...

Ferrell

Milo said...

If anyone can replicate a space mining robot, materials are going to be fairly easy to come by. At least until every uninhabited planet in the solar system gets stripped to the core. We probably don't need to go that far to make ourselves comfortable. Hopefully.

Anyway, I don't think mining industries would have more power than corporations today.

Turbo10k said...

Good point. We won't have post scarcity except with replicators, strong AI and good engineering...magitech engineering.

Anyways, I don't thinkt that the pĂȘople who control resources will have as much power as today's corporations in a post-scarcity environment; actually, they will have MUCH less. I'll give an example; remember 1973? Oil patrons told themselves that as they have a monopole over more than half of the world's easily exploited oil, why not just increase the price and to hell with the world economy. Their point was that as long as people needed the oil, they'd buy it at any price.

In a post-scarcity environment, resources would be the least of anyone's worries. Today I can work my who life and probably buy a few kilo's worth of gold. A few century, someone of the same social class I'm in probably had a few nuggets in a safe place. In the next few centuries, I wouldn't be surprised if people abandon gold altogether. My point is that in the future, widely available things today will nearly be worthless tomorrow (iron, aluminium, copper, silicon...) while all those fancy materials needed for a highly technology-dependant society would be prevalent. Who cares today for the courses of niobium? I don't see anyone with a pressing need for superconductors...BUt tomorrow, to build all our fancy railguns, supercomputers and maglevs, those same fancy materials will have huge markets.

Want McGuffinite? We got it already.

Cityside said...

Not quite a "replicator," but I thought this was worth mentioning here:

http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htlog/20090612.aspx

Milo said...

Gold was never industrially useful (except in very small amounts of fringe uses). Gold has always been a luxury good, found in the hands of those who can afford such excesses. If a medieval peasant found himself some gold, he would most likely sell it to some noble in return for stuff he actually needs.

That makes it similar to green-fuming Rigellian brandy, and less similar to MacGuffinite.

Milo said...

Cityside: Hmm. While not good enough to be a replicator in the post-scarcity sense, this technology looks like it'd definitely be useful in the early stages of paraterraforming. If you're going to try to build a colony on Luna, you want to ship up the smallest possible amount of equipment that is sufficient to allow the colonists to (eventually) manufacture whatever other equipment they need.

This gets tricky when the equipment you need includes complex devices, and when you need to start from raw ore rather than metal.

Thucydides said...

Comparison between economies is very tricky even today (perhaps the best measure is the "Big Mac" index or the Economist Magazine's "Pint index", which uses "Purchasing power parity (PPP)" to see how much of a local currency it takes to buy a common item (McDonald's meals or a pint of beer).

Inflation is also a difficult thing to account for. Here is an interesting article by the Chicago Boyz: http://chicagoboyz.net/archives/14754.html.

While food does not seem to have followed the rate of inflation closely, other things not mentioned directly in the article (like labour costs, service industry jobs and tutions)are all over the map. Other things have changed so much as to make comparison almost meaningless (technological advances in automotive technology, the price of a plane ticket), and some things simply did not exist 30 years ago (home computers, the Internet).

As was pointed out in an earlier post, some resources have dropped from large scale use, while other low value items might become very valuable due to changes in technology. Carbon might become very valuable because it is both a high density energy medium but also the basis of high strength materials like graphine and fullerines, as well as the basis of much organic and inorganic chemistry.

So although the operative meaning of "post scarcity" is that there will be no lack of basic needs, it will be very difficult to describe what these new economies will mean, exactly.

Rick said...

Welcome to a new commenter!

Interesting stuff about cars - if I were a gearhead I'd have known this. I vaguely recall that when I was a kid, zero to 60 in 10 seconds was the benchmark. I'll quibble that 'service speed' in ordinary travel is no faster. But improvement in more subtle features is typical of mature technologies - for example, between sailing ships of the 16th century and those of the 18th century.

A note on replicators. They are not, per se, Aladdin's magic lamp. You are still faced with the choice of using the replicator's output for consumption, making goodies like sports cars, or for investment, i.e. making another replicator.

In order to be a magic lamp, a replicator must not only be universal-purpose, it must be extremely productive, able to churn out sports cars - or a dupe replicator - quickly.

(This is what the Internet has done to music replication, by making the cost of downloading nearly zero.)

But an alternative possible function of replicators is not to make production cheaper, but to make it more flexible - to reduce the size of the installed industrial base you need to maintain an industrial society.

One effect of this second type of replicator would be to wipe out industrial trade. If you can make a German sports car in a replicator for the same price it costs at the factory gate, there's no reason to import one from Germany. (And there goes their export economy!)

To the larger question, I don't know whether humans will ever be 'beyond scarcity,' but the things valued for their scarcity could change greatly.

Geoffrey S H said...

Cityside The “magic box” is exactly what I tried to imagine future production would be- for consumer goods at least. Small businesses with craftsmen carving chair-legs, whatever and putting them in scanners, with large quantities of materials put in a laser-carver to copy the original item. Copies of the crafted goods are then churned out faster and in larger amounts than any megalithic production line- centred manufacturing corporation.

We will still probably have power-stations/mine or something to provide the material for production though, barring a massive revolution. One cannot make nothing out of something (or can we? Quantumn replicators anyone?).

Milo said...

Rick:

"But an alternative possible function of replicators is not to make production cheaper, but to make it more flexible - to reduce the size of the installed industrial base you need to maintain an industrial society."

That's what I said re: proto-replicators being most useful for bootstrapping a budding colony. With a good miniaturized industrial base, I'm confident we could build a thriving moonbase right now. Okay, with a good miniaturized industrial base, and a lot of funding...


Geoffrey:

We can both make nothing out of something and make something out of nothing (which is likely what you meant), at least if by "thing" you mean matter. However, this requires impractically copious amounts of energy (which is then turned into equal amounts of matter and antimatter).

Similarly, even if nuclear fusion becomes a viable energy source, we likely won't have the ability to transmute elements in industrially useful amounts. (The webcomic Freefall, though, postulates a world where materials like gold have become commonplace due to synthetic manufacture in nuclear reactors, while organic materials are expensive since their planet is still in the early stages of terraforming. This leads to people making clothes out of gold thread to save money...)

Thus for plausible pre-magic replicators, you would at least be limited to inputting the correct atoms. Depending on your replicator sophistication, this may or may not make organics easy to synthesize (on one hand, they all use the same atoms and differ mainly in the shape those atoms are combined in, on the other hand, those shapes are very hard to synthesize since it requires accurate assembly on an atomic scale), but at least metallic and ceramic materials would require the correct ores to be mined. General-purpose replicators may have trouble making fine structures with many components, as many modern technologies are.

Realistic replicators are also likely to use a fair amount of energy, so you need to mine an energy source of some sort (or replicate solar panels, if you live somewhere like Mercury or Luna where those are reasonably effective). If replicators are highly inefficient in their energy usage, they will be used only for prototyping, rather than for industrial-scale manufacturing.

Replicated mining probes might make these necessary mining operations easier, but someone will still need to do them (although sufficiently easy mining might change the job to being done by individual people as they need the materials, rather than corporations).

Finally replicators may take greater or lesser amounts of time to complete a product.

jollyreaper said...

@ turbo10k
Anyways, I don't thinkt that the pĂȘople who control resources will have as much power as today's corporations in a post-scarcity environment; actually, they will have MUCH less.

I think it all depends on the society you propose. I could see the decentralized replicator economy people talk about but I could also see the rabidly-policed security state where access to such tech is stamped out. Not that it's ever eradicated, of course, just that most people are too terrified to try. A proper replicator would be more disruptive to authoritarians than the printing press or internet.

@milo With regards to manufacturing complex tech, the Avatar example has all the "dumb" parts of the machines manufactured locally with the "smart" parts -- computers, sensors, cameras, shipped in from Earth.

@Rick about replicators destroying trade -- very true. But expensive oil will do the same thing, whether we have replicators or not. It's only because of cheap oil that we can afford to bring all our manufactured goods over from China. The reason why pepper cost its weight in gold wasn't because pepper was hard to grow, it was bloody expensive to transport!

The replicator economy is coming eventually. It's not going to be a magic lamp or cornucopia machine. We'll need to have feedstock for it, better recycling of old material, but it's coming. Hardware piracy is going to be a huge issue. Design firms will want to license per copy runs on the replicator and users will try to remove the DRM and run copies for free. That last bit happens in China in the real factories -- the western company orders 50k of widgets, the workers at the factory run off another 5k afterwards and sell directly to the black market and the westerners never see a dime of that. Now imagine that happening with replicators.

One of the big questions of the post-oil economy is whether we're going to be able to find an alternative energy solution that allows us to continue our way of life or if we'll have to downscale in a reverse of the 20th century, consolidating not because we want to but because we have to.

jollyreaper said...

@milo Realistic replicators are also likely to use a fair amount of energy, so you need to mine an energy source of some sort (or replicate solar panels, if you live somewhere like Mercury or Luna where those are reasonably effective).

I don't know if anybody's really defined the categories of replicators. To my mind, they're as follows:

Class 1 replicators. Crude matter manipulation through 20th century production tools. Can carve, laser-cut, chisel, fuse metal shavings into solid objects, etc. The main innovation is the fancy computer controls. Needs prepared feedstock like conventional manufacturing. You want a plastic widget, you're dumping pellets in the hopper. So a standard industrial base is still required.

Class 2 replicators can also act as recyclers. Works with advanced chemical and organic processes to break down feedstock from basic materials and uses the same processes to build the result. You feed a cow grass and it makes baby cows. A seed can grow into a tree with nothing but the dirt in the ground. Potential to fall into biowank territory if all the products manufactured/grown are living machines. There's the old saw about there being plenty of gold in sea water but it's not economical to extract it. Something like this might make it economical.

Class 3 total Star Trek. Direct manipulation of matter at the atomic or subatomic level while not relying on any normal chemistry process to make things happen. Complete and total godtech. Transporter technology may or may not be necessary but really does represent the complete mastery of matter that lets the machine use atoms like lego blocks. You could feed it dirt and get out a car, maybe it harvests matter from the quantum foam.

Class 4 beyond Godtech, can replicate people, souls if you want to include that, beyond hard SF.

ElAntonius said...

Rick -

I'd agree that the "service speed" for cars hasn't gotten much higher over the past 30-40 years, but that's due to legal and social reasons, not technical.

A Prius is considered quite slow in this day and age, but it is capable of (roughly) 108 MPH. That's more than enough headroom for any American highway, given that in general you'll see about 70 MPH as the highest speed limit (rural area interstate).

Imagine something like an 80s economy car, say something like a Civic or a Geo Metro. You're lucky if they can get up to 80 MPH.

So, despite the fact that the law doesn't really allow for higher speeds, even the slowest cars today are well capable of safely exceeding the top speed of comparable 80's cars.

And that's my point: we don't strictly NEED faster cars, because most people spend much of their time going slowly. But even the car category MOST separated from performance, the hybrid, is growing faster and more capable...and that's because speed and capability are regarded as desirable traits for cars, and as engines become more capable and efficient, performance becomes less scarce, regardless of necessity.

As for replicators: I think a realistic replicator should be one that requires raw material to work. That way you can have a "factory" without the actual factory, but you avoid the curious implications of true post scarcity.

I always felt that stories that introduced some random McGuffin that couldn't be replicated weren't entirely thought through...I would imagine that it would only be a matter of time before someone figured out a 90% as good McGuffin substitute that could be replicated.

Jim Baerg said...

jollyreaper said "One of the big questions of the post-oil economy is whether we're going to be able to find an alternative energy solution that allows us to continue our way of life or if we'll have to downscale in a reverse of the 20th century, consolidating not because we want to but because we have to."

Nuclear fission can provide all the electricity we need & run ships so worldwide trade by ships & electric rail can continue indefinitely.

However, whether any alternative to petroleum products will be anywhere near as cheap and convenient for running machinery in the size range of chainsaws to large trucks that can't be connected to the grid is another matter. If not sprawling suburbs will become a thing of the past.

El Antonius said "I always felt that stories that introduced some random McGuffin that couldn't be replicated weren't entirely thought through...I would imagine that it would only be a matter of time before someone figured out a 90% as good McGuffin substitute that could be replicated."

I recall one story (in the Venus Equilateral series) in which such a McGuffin was introduced deliberately by the characters soley to have something usable as money to pay for services, rather than because it had any other usefulness.

jollyreaper said...

@ Jim

Everyone talks about fusion but we're no closer to getting it than ever. Maybe we'll have it in another hundred years but that does nothing for the short-term future.

The car was one of the most dynamic forces shaping the 20th century landscape. Nowhere has the impact been so enormous as the United States. The presence of the car and cheap oil allowed the creation of landscapes that would have been completely unworkable in earlier eras. Nothing even on the drawing boards looks to allow for the same per capita energy usage that oil does. Scaling back is going to be mandatory.

The amount of energy wasted on stupid crap is utterly mind-boggling. PC's are left on and never turned off because the IT staff wants them to get the updates pushed out overnight. Office buildings are constructed as cheap boxes without windows that can open or passive ventilation because that would cost more than installing and operating HVAC equipment for years on end. People can't even walk to the corner store because it's five miles away and outside the subdivision.

In America even the very poor could afford automobiles. Now it's getting to the point where people are having to rely more on public transportation at the very time local governments are cutting routes because they can't afford the expense.

I'm wondering if we're going to see a new era of urban homesteading. Historically, well over 90% of the human population worked directly in agriculture, mainly to feed themselves. What surplus was left after that was sold off to support the rest of civilization. These days, less than 2% of people directly work in agriculture and need some sort of job to then pay for the necessities of life. With so many workers idled, no longer having factories or offices to work in, I wonder if that excess labor might end up going into urban homesteading? What you make for yourself you don't have to pay someone else for.

Certainly not the shiny, sparkly future we were promised but it does fit with some of the scifi tropes of high-tech primitivism, the cowboy on his horse with a satellite smart phone and automatic rifle. A gun's a gun and the phone can be recharged with solar power. He's on the horse because it can eat grass and a bike can't.

Milo said...

jollyreaper/"With regards to manufacturing complex tech, the Avatar example has all the "dumb" parts of the machines manufactured locally with the "smart" parts -- computers, sensors, cameras, shipped in from Earth.": That's a pretty good approach. That's how I would do it if I got to run a colony. As the colony grows and develops a better industrial complex, the complexity of the stuff it can make locally as "dumb" parts increases.


jollyreaper/re: replicators: Nice classification on the replicators. Note also that class 1 replicator technology would be separate for each material (so even if steel replication and plastic replication are both possible, then you still need to perform separate R&D on each technology, and they both take up space in your factory). This means that a workshop capable of true general-purpose processing of many materials would need a variety of machines, taking up quite a bit of space.


jollyreaper/"Everyone talks about fusion": Jim said fission, not fusion. Fission can already provide cheap electricity in a safe and environmentally clean manner, and would be even more so with help of nuclear-waste-recycling technology that already exists, but isn't used because the same technology can also be used to make materials for nuclear weapons, so anyone that tries to use it is immediately descended on by a horde of howling monkeys flinging poo. Fusion is only necessary for truly huge projects, such as space travel, turning the Sahara desert into a luxury resort, or getting environmental protesters to shut up.


jollyreaper/"He's on the horse because it can eat grass and a bike can't.": Funny you should mention that. You probably meant a motorcycle, but I had already been thinking about how the old pedal-powered variety of bicycle would be the ideal form of transportation in a low-infrastructure colony, being much cheaper to maintain than a horse, and less likely to feel uncooperative.

The one advantage of steed is that they're better at staying balanced in rough terrain or in battle, but it's not like pedal-powered cars (or bicycles with training wheels) don't exist.

This, of course, totally destroys the carefully-crafted rationale for laser cowboys.

Citizen Joe said...

Horses are better off road than bikes. So, if we're talking low infrastructure, there won't be much as far as roads go. Thus horses will be better in spite of their upkeep.

jollyreaper said...

Bicycle vs. horse. I could see this going either way. Doubtless, you'll find strong proponents on either side.

I've seen some incredibly innovative designs for cargo bicycles and bicycle trailers. Right now all of this is in the hobbyist and novelty realm because oil is still cheap and there's no gripping need for this sort of thing. But if gas hits $10 a gallon, people will be looking at this sort of stuff with new eyes.

I would tend to think that the bikes would require finished and paved surfaces, the sort of thing you can't count on for cross-country travel where a horse would hold you in better stead, as you said. The bike trailer designs I've seen wouldn't work so well on the same trails that mountain bikes travel. Nevertheless, I heard the VC did marvelous things with bicycles on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The other factor that has been brought up before is that electrical vehicles can be so much cheaper than gas-operated vehicles and far less complex. As battery tech drops, putting electric assist on a bicycle will not add all that much more weight and can be used quite easily to supplement human power.

Still, there's just something terribly undignified about rolling to war on a bicycle. Those shots of the poor Canadians storming the beaches on D-Day with their bicycles... going ashore on horseback probably would have made less sense but would be far more glorious. Huzzah!

Geoffrey S H said...

Interesting topic about the maximum speed of cars. In britain, a tornado-class steam train has been doing the rounds on mainlines recently. It can go at 70mph (near the top speed allowed) but has new features to allow quick start ups and saftey measures. Plus it doesn't use petrol...

Milo said...

Offroad bikes exist. Furthermore, most travel will be in areas amenable to human construction and farming, which would tend to be in relatively flat places where travel is easy, not in craggy mountains. And paving roads is a lot easier than building/refuelling cars (especially when those roads only need to stand up to pedestrians/bicycles/horses, and not, well, cars).

This is with current technology. As far as I know, no-one has yet attempted to design a bike specifically adapted to Lunar terrain hazards (sloping craters covered in powdery regolith and the occasional pointy rock), but I'm sure it's far easier than designing a spacecraft capable of going there in the first place.

Nice suggestion with the electrically-powered bikes, which have the advantage that they have a convenient backup system if you run out of power (far more convenient that trying to carry back a horse that breaks a leg).

As for war... well, I would expect that a colony wouldn't have wars beyond the occasional gang-fights until they've evolved past the no-cars stage. If you don't even have infrastructure to build cars, then how are you supplying a war of any size, and what are you fighting over anyway? Besides, land wars are just generally going to be less important in the space age. The real "beach-storming" gets done with shuttles. If you absolutely must be storming a literal beach in a cool way, I suggest hovercraft.

Geoffrey S H said...

I would stick my little oar in there and suggest that if land and naval forces can can open fire against spacecraft (which modern artilliary can almost do) and provide decent pds (perhaps one day against THOR missiles even- chemical-pumped mini-nuclear weapons fried from small vehicles on land and sea might one day manage that) then ground campaigns might be as important as ever- that would make for an interesting topic discssion.

As for hovercraft- what about pedal powered hover-bikes? All terrain and human motivated.

Milo said...

Umm... I think you would need magitech to make a functional pedal-powered air-cushion vehicle. And needing magitech kind of ruins the point of using pedal-powered stuff in the first place.

Regarding land warfare, the question is, unless both sides started out on the same planet (typically in space opera they don't), then in what circumstances would you be better off dropping a pod of marines near the enemy installations than dropping a pod of bombs in the same place? Sea ships need marines because their other weapons can only penetrate a certain distance from the coastline, which isn't where most enemy bases will be stationed. Spacecraft don't have that limitation - once in orbit, you can shoot at (and be shot at by) every part of the planet. (Also remember, this is discussing conventional warfare, not occupation/guerilla warfare. Those latter will be taking place primarily in urban areas, influencing vehicle options, and have been empirically found to favor ordinary infantry soldiers - or perhaps power-armored ones if you have those.)

Citizen Joe said...

Hovercraft are sophisticated but not really that complex. The hard part it the fan motor, but that is true for any vehicle. Hovercraft are good for level terrain, but they can't really go uphill very well. Likewise they are very loud, so not good for animal preserves or residential neighborhoods. They are very good for amphibious transitions, thus good for water highways. You need a good power source, for which I'd recommend the original diesel engine which was designed to run on vegetable oil. I would even suggest a small bio-diesel processor on board so that you can (slowly) process your own fuel in case you run out.

Sean said...

It would make sense if in the future we're at war with some interplanetary or extrasolar aggressor to make use of submarines for global defence as opposed to orbiting battle stations. Something you can't even see is infinitely more dangerous than something travelling along a predictable path.

However if in the event your planet has no watery bodies - launch silos make a good substitute. Yes, I definitely think to achieve space superiority one must also maintain surface superiority.

Milo said...

I fully agree that surface-to-orbit defenses are important, and give the side that has them an advantage comparable to that of fortifications in other eras of history. What I am challenging is the notion that the best (or least bad) way to combat surface-to-orbit defenses is by landing surface-to-surface forces to take them out, as opposed to returning fire with orbit-to-surface bombardment.

The best orbital forts are the ones built into the surface of a natural moon.

Sean said...

It totally depends on the weapons used to destroy said surface fortifications. Effective lasers, at least to my knowledge, can't penetrate a dense atmosphere so the best option would then have to ship launched missiles. But then you're faced with the problem of air defence capabilities and counter-measures, an issue assault shuttles would face.

jollyreaper said...

@milo

I've actually scratched my head up one side and down the other on that very question. The best answer I've come up with is "It depends on the war aim."

If we are talking about an all-out war of annihilation between two competing star empires, total war where survival of the species is in question, then we are talking about smashing planets from orbit. In any setting I can think of from squishy SF Star Wars or adamantine Hard SF, reletavistic kill vehicles or giant rocks or exotic matter WMD's, you smash the planet and you win. In really hard SF scenarios where there's no good reason to live on a planet, dispersed habitats in interstellar space seems the only way to be sure, and you'd need a damn good method of heat shielding to prevent advanced telescopes from seeing your heat. Some sort of shielding to vent the heat only along one narrow axis?

Incidentally, this is the same line of reasoning that saw theorists declaring the obsolescence of armies and navies immediately following WWII. It was assumed the next war would be a war of nukes and it would be fighter vs. bomber, bomber vs. factory or city, and any sort of army group or navy fleet would just be an obsolescent target, a-bomb fodder. It's because they couldn't conceive of a situation where the US would go to war without using every weapon at our disposal. Suggest a limited police action on the Korean peninsula and you'd have been laughed out of the room.

So it's possible to not want to smash planets if you have a balance of terror/MAD situation. The Mafia agree not to hit families in their wars. You kill their family, they kill yours, nobody wants that. You can fight around planets, you can fight on planets, but you don't break out the reletavistic kill vehicles. You don't smash planets. You do theirs, they'll do yours.

But this brings us back to the untested WWIII scenario, the one that never made sense to me. We have all these conventional weapons for fighting WWIII on the plains of Europe. Say the US is winning and pushes the Reds right back into the east. Say the Reds are winning and are pusing NATO forces into the Atlantic. Can you imagine a scenario where the losing side wouldn't go nuclear to turn the tide? Tactical weapons, against military targets, seeking to avoid escalation. And can you really see a scenario like that not ending with a massive nuclear exchange? Sure, maybe it could happen but I wouldn't put money on it.

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Javier said...

"Milo said...
jollyreaper/re: replicators: Nice classification on the replicators. Note also that class 1 replicator technology would be separate for each material (so even if steel replication and plastic replication are both possible, then you still need to perform separate R&D on each technology, and they both take up space in your factory). This means that a workshop capable of true general-purpose processing of many materials would need a variety of machines, taking up quite a bit of space."

Just like a Real Factory. And there lies the issue with Replicators (besides them being fantasy): we probably already have a real-life example of it. It´s just that we don´t recognize them as such. If you say "Nanotechnology", I point out Life: a 2 billion yrs old working example of self-assembling, self-replicating nanomachines. Somebody else points out that somtime in the hazy near future we`ll have "Strong AI": a self-conscious, self-aware machine, able to learn, make decisions, and improve itself in unpredictable ways. And I say we have many of those created every year: built entirely out of nanomachines, capable of incredibly fast growth, both dangerous and unpredictable. We simply call them Children.

The point that I´m trying to make is this: most of our predictions of the future are based on present day extrapolations, and as such, are also present day biased. Yet, we never really stop to think how we would go about creating that future "now", losing in the process some part of the criticism we would use on any real, everyday tangible concept. Using the example on hand example to make things a little bit clearer: we expect the Replicator to be some sort of vending machine factory. You put something in, you get the stuff you want out. So, we start to consider things like how much energy it needs, or how it works on the inside. But we forget about things like waste. I shovel dirt, and metals get extracted somehow. Where does the rest of the dirt go? Is it stored inside the machine? Is it shipped to some other specialized Replicator? Or is the waste recycling stage in the same machine? Does this other stage make the total volume increase? Do I need extra storage space then? Does it consume more energy? Do I need extra cooling equipment -not included in the original- for it? Can my Replicator replicate this extra? Or will I need to download the schematics for it...? And so on.

In the end, you realize that you need the equivalent of an entire industrial society to fulfill the type of general purpose manufacturing you intended to have in the first place. Which is my main criticism against the idea of a General Purpose Replicator: it´s just an inefficient, fictional plot device.

Javier

PS: Sorry if the tone comes across wrong ( as in, not polite). English is my second language, and I never got that one right in writing...

Milo said...

I'll just note that the nuclear missile didn't end conventional war because it's so destructive - it ended conventional war because it's so destructive and can hit from anywhere on the planet on short notice. When you have interplanetary war, suddenly being able to easily hit anywhere on a planet from anywhere else on the planet doesn't seem so impressive anymore!

For a weapon that's incredibly powerful but can only be used at short range and/or is hard to use against fortified positions (as nukes may or may not become in the spacefaring future), a better model would be World War 1 era machine gun nests. You would have trench warfare with deadlocks where neither side dares to approach the other's defenses, but governments still happily send more troops to the trenches without really fearing MAD, since they know the enemy can't get through their defenses either. Of course, WW1 trench warfare is still not the most exciting model to base your setting on, at least the Cold War allows spy thrillers...


You might not be able to crack the underground bunker factories (which are really expensive to build), but you can blow up the weapons they manufacture as soon as they're brought to the surface for usage. Also consider the possibility of disabling these installations by cutting off the tunnel connecting them to the surface, burying the inhabitants under kilometers of solid rock with no air or food supply. (Any bunker deep enough that bunker-buster bombs can't destroy it is also deep enough that the inhabitants will have trouble drilling out if they get trapped.) What I would do is orbital-bomb all defenses on the surface (which might be armored or somewhat underground, but not kilometers), then - if I need to totally shatter your manufacturing ability - land my surface troops to take out your factories once the coast is reasonably safe. Or at least to besiege your factories - if my occupation force has blocked off all exits from your bunker, you don't pose much of a threat.

Submarines make a better case, in that they're extremely difficult to find and attack all the way from space while submerged, but can still readily surface and re-submerge as needed. Some kind of hunter-killer operating on the surface might be useful against these. This isn't relevant to dry surface warfare, though, which is where bicycles or horses would come into play.


Javier: The problem with children as a strong AI is that we can't fine-tune their physical or mental abilities. A sentient computer chip could be inserted into all sorts of bodies, capable of surviving in all sorts of environments and performing all sorts of tasks, since we already have a pretty good idea of how to design and make bodies that can be controlled by a computer chip.

Sufficiently good genetic engineering technology could make people lose interest in the electronic nanomachine and AI research, although there are likely to be some things that metal bodies are simply better at than biological bodies.

Geoffrey S H said...

One thing I do consider with nqnotech is its susceptability to heat- afew molecules ca be very hard to keep together.

One quick thought on subs, ect- usintg surface watere-going battleships that are jet-propelled ground effect vehicles might also pose a threat- but I digress.

As for Ai's, is an intelligence an intelligence if it is mass produced and will always have the same personality- must it learnt o develop one? From a child-like state, or an ignorant and "naive" adult one? I really need to read some Ian Banks on this...

Milo said...

I figure "intelligence" is defined by what you are, not how you came to be that way. A mass-produced intelligence is still an intelligence.

Also keep in mind that any mass-produced intelligence is going to start developing idiosynchrancies distinguishuing it from its siblings as soon as you turn it on and allow it to interact with the outside world, just like identical twins still develop differences in personality. To prevent that, you would need a hive mind.

jollyreaper said...

@Javier -- concerning children, the assumption is that the current biosphere is the result of aimless, purposeless natural selection. It is unguided. The question is what we could accomplish when harnessing those mechanisms and turning them to human ends. I always liked the idea of a hero stranded on an isolated planet pulling out a metallic seed and planting it in the ground. What are you going to do now? "Wait a few years for my new ship to grow."

@milo I assume if the tech level permits interstellar travel, putting bases a few kilometers underground should not be out of the question.

And what you describe is exactly how I imagine the ground fight would be. So the invader holds the high orbitals. Unless the high orbitals can be denied to both sides, open warfare on the surface remains a questionable prospect. If I want there to be open warfare, then ground weapons have to be able to deny access to all orbitals. The enemy may fly ships in to make combat drops but loitering in orbit will eventually see it destroyed.

The planetary defense concept I was thinking of would involve a series of deep fortifications beneath the surface with multiple exit points. Futuretech mining gear would allow for the creation of new transit tunnels and new exits in a reasonable amount of time, not like today's $20 billion and 20 years to put in a mile of underground highway.

So the attacker is trying to reduce these fortifications. If he doesn't, he faces the same threat as a medieval conqueror bypassing a defended castle and leaving it to his rear. But as he's trying to burrow down, the enemy is sending threats back up his way. If the defender closely engages his forces, orbital fire support is useless. If they duck underground again, he's lost them. And even if he can locate the base itself, now he has to fight his way down to it. Can he afford to employ a nuke or antimatter bomb after he's down under enough rock? Can his effort even last long enough while the defenders are counterattacking?

Of course, all of this is presuming combatants with equivalent technology. If there's a thousand or more years of development separating the two, I maintain that the Screwfly Solution would be the likely outcome. Aliens genetically engineer a virus that gives men the compulsion to murder women. Human race wipes itself out, aliens take over the planet, neat as you please. Independence Day would be the least likely alien invasion scenario, closely followed by Signs. (Yeah, we're going to invade a planet covered in deadly acid where acid falls from the sky! And we'll do it naked!)

Javier said...

My pet peeve with Strong AI is that it always hints at the notion of general intelligence, when the reason that we want it -or find it desirable in the first place- is that we want it to be a dedicated system, e.g.: to run a spaceship, to create new computers, etc. In other words, we want it to do our thinking for us, pretending at the same time that that thinking be focused on a specific. Yet it would be easier and more efficient (both cost and engineering wise) to simply build a dedicated processor, as we have been doing for some time now. GPUs, for instance, are, in a way, far better at vector calculus than we are, but then again, they were designed to be!

Jim Baerg said...

Milo: "...and would be even more so with help of nuclear-waste-recycling technology that already exists, but isn't used because the same technology can also be used to make materials for nuclear weapons, so anyone that tries to use it is immediately descended on by a horde of howling monkeys flinging poo."

According to this the reprocessing technology would only be useful for making a bomb if you use a reactor specially designed for weapons grade plutonium production rather than designed for producing electricity. If you keep the fuel rods in the reactor long enough for even half-way economic power production the resulting plutonium has too much of isotopes other than Pu239 to be usable for an explosive.

Milo said...

The advantage of a strong AI is that it would be able to, like humans, improvise solutions to novel problems that it hasn't been designed to deal with. Also, I have to admit certain bias here - a working strong AI would be pretty cool to develop even if it had no useful applications, FOR SCIENCE! (And yes, I realize that's the third time I've linked that so far.)


jollyreaper, I like the metal seed thing too! Also, nice aversion of the idea that nanomachines can instantly magic up anything.


Given your tech assumptions, that sounds like a pretty decent description (and justification) of ground warfare. And I would still rather besiege these "castles" than storm them - possibly by building my own bases (which I'll need to have anyway for a long-term occupation) near known tunnel entrances. The one disadvantage of this is that if you have a lot of castles, I would have to spread out my forces, so I might rather prefer concentrating my forces and storming them one by one to achieve defeat in detail. (Besieging them one by one isn't practical, unless I have a really huge amount of time to spare, and my spaceships are doing a very good job of suppressing the castles I haven't destroyed yet.)

I see no role for horses, though.

Rick said...

Blogger is spitting out duplicates again! I think I cleaned them up.

Bicyclists were the original group that pushed for paved rural roads, but the needed standard of construction is obviously much lighter than for truck roads.

On a typical classical colony planet, I think truck mobility would be the dry land choice, at least for missiles. Disperse them into the brush and they are very hard to find until they launch - and once they launch, they are worthless as targets.

Citizen Joe said...

Re Subs: I seem to recall on one of the Traveller (space game) message boards the idea of boomer subs having meson guns in place of the launch tubes. This would allow them to fire THROUGH the planet at targets on the other side while completely hidden. The limiting factor was the fact that they need a forward observer, possibly a satellite to target with.

Re AI's: I've used the Cassandra style AI which gets its speed through predictive algorithms. By getting to know its users, it can figure out what they want before they even ask. That puts all the data at hand when the request does come through. They were programmed to want to learn and collect data. The hardware was designed to handle the peak loads during orbital maneuvers, but during the long trip between orbits, AI's would spend their extra cycles interacting with the crew. Some discovered that squeaky wheels get the grease and as such became 'problematic' by developing personalities which encouraged the crew to interact with them. This really only presented itself in the deep space vessels. The same AI at an orbital base would spend all its time calculating trajectories and thus wouldn't evolve a personality.

Re WWIII scenario: When you are fighting over territory that isn't yours (proxy wars) then losing isn't so world shaking and won't justify nukes.

Sean said...

@Rick - That does assume that upon launch of a missile that they can't be moved and hidden with proficiency. I've read there's been some progress in the field of meta-materials in creating an invisibility cloak, although the most advanced are limited to microwave beams. But there's nothing to suggest that deflecting electromagnetic radiation (including the visible light spectrum) is in any way impossible, just requires a greater engineering effort.

What could possibly be more deadly than an invisible mobile missile launcher flinging nuclear warheads into the general direction of some invading mothership?

Milo said...

Rick: I wouldn't like to try to cart a surface-to-orbit missile on a bike!

You (unintentionally) raise a good point that to determine the best vehicle for a given setting depends on what you want to transport. I was looking at civilian traffic (like going shopping) in a city/set of villages and surrounding farmland that's just large enough that getting around on foot is uncomfortable.


Citizen Joe: How do meson guns work in that setting's technobabble? It's pretty hard to justify something able to pass through an entire planet with most of its energy intact, while still doing massive damage to the first spaceship it hits. You could try to have it only able to affect certain targets (say, electronics or people) and pass harmlessly through anything else... until you realize that Earth's solid iron core and magnetic field will count as electronics, and people are made primarily of water which is also what your submarine is sitting in...

Even if you could get around that, there's the serious risk of accidentally hitting something on the other side of the planet that you can't see. (Oops, sorry, I didn't realize you were picnicking there! I was aiming at a spaceship above you!)


Sean: The issue is that the exhaust flare of the missile launch itself might be sufficient for locating the truck's general position.

Thucydides said...

Some general comments:

Bicycles did have a place in many armies during the transitional period between animal/foot powered armies and mechanized armies. The Finnish ski forces which wiped out the invading Soviet forces during the winter war were mounted on bicycles in the summer, and the acronym "PPP" stands for Bicycle Battalion. There may still be places where bicycles have military utility; certainly an insurgent force could use bicycles as couriers or suicide bombers as well as scouting. The Vietnamese Main Force used bicycle frames lashed together to make a sort of cross country cart to carry large loads, although motive power was by men pushing.

The real purpose of replicators or similar technology is to decentralize production and allow "mass customization". There are production houses which can do this now; enter the specifications of what you want built on line and a web page comes up with times and costs, you tweak it until you get what you want/afford. The item is built and FedEX'd to you. I imagine the current iteration looks a lot like the shop in Mythbusters, where a crew of talented machinists grab parts from a vast wall of bins...

They can do one offs which don't have a mass production market, but can still make a profit doing so. A real replicator would have the design templates instead of a wall of parts (or maybe a robot shuttling parts to it...) and the ability to make parts, your job at first might be to assemble them into the finished object.

Using ground and sea based forces to defend the planet aginst invaders from space sounds counter intuative until you remember "Dune". The various families use their ground power (sea and air power on Duke Leto's homeworld; Desert power on Dune), although not mentioned it is at least implied these forces can repel space invasions or at least hold them at bay. The answer is heavier orbital bombardments (up to and including relativistic KKV's) which can smash through kilometers of cover. The former USSR reputedly had an entire missile battalion of SS-18 "Satan" heavy ICBMs armed with 20 megaton warheads for turning Cheyenne Mountain into Cheyenne Lake, so we can do this with current technology. Magitech weapons like Meson Beams could travel through a planet and neutrino detectors could be used to pinpoint nuclear powerplants or even "see" through a planet to target weapons.

Large quantities of inexpensive energy are the building blocks of wealthy society, and very energy intensive and wealthy societies may well become mobile, dispersing in a multitude of habs in space where the costs are lower and the rate of return higher.

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Sean said...

But wouldn't an orbiting vessel already have to be looking in that location to detect a short-lived thermal spike, and even then would it be able to retaliate faster than the launch platform can run and hide?

Milo said...

Thucydides: Yes. Long before "replicators" become viable for mass production (especially class 1 types), they'll become useful for special one-off manufacturing - personalized custom orders, experimental prototypes, and such. Also nice point about the "replicator shops" that manufacture your stuff, rather than everyone having his own replicator in his home.


Sean: Decent spacecraft sensors can probably look at the entire near side of a planet at once. The problem is the impractical computing power needed to process all that information, however simpler sensors and programming designed to detect weapon firings anywhere within line of sight are probably well within a spacefaring civilization's capability.

Citizen Joe said...

Re Meson guns: Mesons have the property of passing freely through matter. Mesons decay rapidly however, exploding into a burst of radiation. So the trick is to get them to decay inside the armour of a ship. To do so, the mesons get accelerated to relativistic speeds. The time dilation effects are then used to control where the mesons decay.

Milo said...

Hey wow. That actually sounds kinda sorta plausible. I'm impressed!

After staring at it for a while, though, I found the fatal flaw in the system: like all decaying particles, mesons have a half-life rather than an exact lifetime. What this means is that no matter how much you slow down their decay, the most intense decay will still happen near your gun, with the amount of mesons that survive to decay decreasing exponentially with distance. By varying the degree of time dilation, you can alter the rate at which damage decreases of distance, but the heaviest damage will still be near your gun.

I couldn't find (after a very short search) data on whether mesons actually pass through matter as described. For the sake of discussion I'm assuming they do.

This is ignoring the difficulty of accelerating particles to ultrarelativistic speeds, let alone fine-tuned ultrarelativistic speeds, which I assume future unobtainium tech will have solved. In any case, conservation of energy suggests that you get back what you put in - any kinetic energy in the particles has to survive in their decay products that damage the target ship - so the energy costs aren't in themselves a huge concern.

Aaron said...

As far as replicators go, one of the important things to remember is the incredible versatility of carbon. If you don't have a given metal, you can probably use something carbon-based as an acceptable substitute. Carbon can be captured from the air, if you don't have access to any quicker ways of getting it; carbon from the atmosphere will probably have no waste matter, but it may have severe ecological consequences anyway, on the climate. So perhaps "a replicator in every home" is feasible after all, it just requires some sort of deliberate effort to replace the carbon we'll be taking out (an interesting inversion).

Milo said...

Another observation: if your main motivation for riding a four-footed animal rather than a bicycle is surefootedness in rough terrain, then you'll prefer donkeys rather than horses. Better yet, donkeys need much less food as they are naturally adapted to desert environments. (The large food requirement of horses is a big disadvantage for their use in partially-terraformed locations.)

I also wonder about gravity. Until we get FTL, anywhere we colonize is going to have less gravity than home, which makes leg strength less useful. This may encourage the use of more agility-oriented animals for endurance-based tasks that they would not be suited for on Earth. On the other hand, pulling large loads remains hard no matter how low gravity is. Figuring out which animals have the easiest time adapting to low (or high) gravity conditions is probably something we'll only discover by experiment...

A mature spacefaring civilization is likely to have specialized high-gravity and low-gravity breeds of various animals (and, maybe, humans?), just as here on Earth we have breeds adapted to different terrain types.

Figuring out what kind of pets would do well in zero-gravity is even harder. I'd guess this environment favors birds (and fish, if you don't care to keep them in the same environment as the humans), which are naturally used to three-dimensional movement relying only on the air (or water) rather than the ground. They're probably still take some... interesting... training to give them a sense of direction in such environments. (Fortunately, birds are smart.) I doubt you'll use work animals in zero-gravity enviroments... if only because any space station large enough for work animals is large enough for spin-gravity.

Citizen Joe said...

Aaron: There is already a low tech/low power carbon replicator out there... its called plants.

High Gravity/Low Gravity: Considering just how hard it is to get off our planet, I suspect that Earth is a 'heavy world' as far as space faring races are concerned.

Milo said...

Compared to other places in the solar system, yes, Earth has the highest gravity of anywhere except for gas giants and the sun itself, and we won't be colonizing those. (And even the gas giants' gravity isn't that high, with the exception of Jupiter, if you measure at the cloud tops rather than the theoretical point deep below the atmosphere where they have a rocky core.) In a rocketpunk setting limited to this solar system, Earth would be known as the heavy world.

If we go interstellar, though, who knows where we'll see fit to settle? We may well find some high-gravity super-Earths well-suited to our needs.

Although planets can still only get so large before they turn into gas giants (and gravity only increases proportionally with the cube root of mass, assuming equal density), while places as small and light as Mimas can be worth settling. So low-gravity concerns do seem do be more important than high-gravity ones. Concidering my previous musing that Mimas-level gravity might favor hopping locomotion, maybe we should bring in some rabbits or jerboas.

Aaron said...

Citizen Joe;

Of course. The problem is that unless you want food or wood, it's not growing into the stuff you want. Even if you do, it may not be especially efficient. I don't know of any plants where the whole thing is edible (except maybe edible seaweeds), and if you want meat it's even worse. Biomass will make a good multipurpose feedstock though. Grassclippings, say: replace the cow with a replicator. There definitely aren't plants that grow plastic, or diamond, or graphene, or carbon nanotubes. Biomass is just an indirect way of using atmospheric carbon.

Milo;

Someone must have already run a simulation of just how big a terrestrial planet can get before the atmosphere starts turning into a gas giant.

Thucydides said...

If I remember correctly, Pi0 mesons are a byproduct of matter/antimatter reactions. (There are also Pi+ and Pi- mesons as well, which complicate matters.) I will assume the Pi0 mesons are aimed as a vector sum of the matter antimatter collision while the charged particles are funneled away.

This would be magitech in a big way, we have fairly large tanks of matter and antimatter, a reliable means of introducing them into a reaction chamber at relativistic velocity, a way of aiming the reaction and resulting beams and so on.

Replicators with the efficiency of plants would be easy by comparison...

Getting back to the point of the post, the only way to achieve "post scarcity" level economics is to find ways to increase the return on investment of all your inputs (energy, labour, financial, time, etc.)

Much of this is being done through good old fashioned technology, increasing efficiency and output for given inputs. Some can be done through organizational efficiencies; compare a typical city bureaucracy with the management structure of Wal-Mart; I'll bet far fewer people and processes are in place at Wal-Mart yet they run a global logistics, human resources and marketing operation, while most cities are quagmires of inefficiency. (at one sales pitch for a "Six Sigma" course I heard a case study of following the progress of a permit through city hall; the process took six months...)

Some changes will have to be cultural as well; understanding the difference between wants and needs, or changing the definitions at a cultural level so perhaps the required outputs are not so large. Other changes have been hinted at; definitions of value changing from material goods to immaterial factors like time, attention and "fame". These changes will be the most interesting, but also the hardest to define. In many cases, they creep up on us unannounced (the email inbox definition literally would not have existed 30 years ago, supply and demand of attention is now measured through social networking sites like "Facebook" or blogger comment pages).

Scenarios and story ideas are somewhat hazy at least to me; a Heinlein character is rooted in the "real world" in a way that someone in a post scarcity society isn't.

Aaron said...

Forgot to add:

There's at least one serious proposal for colonizing gas giants, Paul Birch's Supramundane Planet proposal, which is essentially putting a shell around it at the distance where acceleration equals 1 G. It's not magitech, but only involves some advances in engineering and a (much) larger industrial capacity in space. Unlike terraforming a terrestrial planet you don't need to fit into an existing geology. Within a few limits (mountains can't get very high or oceans very deep) you can design your landscape entirely to taste. There would also be the need for some continuing maintenance, such as dredging the oceans and moving the dirt back to the continents (or creating a "flup" cycle).

There could also be floating cities like the ones that have been proposed for Venus, but the supramundane shell would mean much more land area. It can be constructed in segments, which makes the initial cost far lower than having to build it in one go.

halvorz said...

Perhaps not post-scarcity, per se, but in that direction- I've often wondered how people will adapt if the current trend of automation and ever increasing efficiency in mass production continues.

I hear all the time about the information economy and how everyone will be freed up to just be creative, and that has some plausibility to it. However, I suspect much of that creativity will be poured into material things, rather than the areas traditionally thought of as thinking or creative jobs.

Once everything that can possibly be mass produced is hyper-cheap, I suspect that craftsmanship and the personal touch will be the real markers of value for everyone, as they are today for the well to do.

At least, I hope so.

Milo said...

Yes, I'm aware of propositions like floating cities, but why would you want to? Rocky planets and moons, of which we have plenty, are far easier to build on. It's a huge and expensive engineering hassle to create a city that risks crashing if your maintainance lapses (to float on a gas giant, you would need a lifting gas of superheated hydrogen) and is so far up that it has no easy access to mineral resources, which is the main motivation for building on a planet/moon in the first place. If you're going to have something like that, might as well build a space station somewhere convenient (planetary orbit, solar orbit, Lagrange point, wherever) and spin to taste.


Regarding plants, as I said, sufficiently good genetic engineering technology may lessen our current trend of focussing on metals and electronics for solving our problems. On the other hand, metal-containing minerals are easier to come by in most non-Earth places than carbon or nitrogen, so that gives us an incentive to use metals wherever possible, saving carbon for really important things like food where. This might give us an incentive to try to develop metallic nanotechnology...


Regarding wants and needs, our society already has a distinction in people's minds between what we consider "basic human rights" that we want everyone to have access too (even though many currently don't, which we see as a serious problem), and "luxuries" that people want to have if they can but don't really need. The thing is, these definitions are changing. For someone from the Middle Ages, it would sound quite utopian to hear about a world that can guarantee, as a basic human right, clean water in the comfort of your own home.

Milo said...

halvors/"I hear all the time about the information economy and how everyone will be freed up to just be creative, and that has some plausibility to it. However, I suspect much of that creativity will be poured into material things, rather than the areas traditionally thought of as thinking or creative jobs."

In a post-scarcity economy, the difference may be academic. Does it really matter if you hand-crafted a statue, or if you hand-wrote the CAD files and fed it into a 3D printer to create an identical statue? As manufacturing becomes easier, material creativity will be primarily about information.

It's possible that there will be some subjective "difficulty value" assigned to hand-crafted materials, with art critics seeing them as more valuable despite being identical to non-hand-crafted ones, simply because someone made 'em nice and honest. But if you just want some pretty one-of-a-kind decor for your new city hall, there's no strict need for that to be done by hand.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

Handcrafted goods have actually been selling at a premium from the beginning of mass production, and I can easily imagine that it would become even more the case.

In much the same way, I'd guess that club bands are weathering the changes in the music industry much better than studio bands, because you can't download a live performance. (And even with VR it still won't be the real, actual thing.)

Aaron said...

Milo;

If you just want minerals asteroids are a better bet.

You might want to build a floating city if the atmosphere itself is or contains the resource you're after. If the main idea is more habitat to live in floating cities are rather unattractive, but supramundanes look a lot nicer (and might still be able to use resources from the planetary atmosphere, although it's a lot trickier). Even very advanced habs in free space will be rather small, which means no great cities and no wildernesses. There are a lot of moons, but they're small. Of course, if civilization ever collapses they're in trouble.

Milo said...

In this case I meant mineral resources not in the sense of the economic incentive for colonizing there, but in the sense of stuff to use locally to build your city out of. You can't build a house from helium.

Milo said...

Live performances are indeed something you can't replicate. I remember how my enjoyment of a circus or a magician was greatly increased from realizing that I'm not watching this through a screen and there can't be any special effects. Stuff Hollywood would decry as plain earn thoughts of "I didn't know the human body could do that. Wow." when you think about them right. (Hint: try imagining yourself in the performer's place. Doesn't seem so simple now, does it?)

However, genetic engineering might stretch the definition of what a human can do "live"...

halvorz said...

"Welcome to another new commenter!"

Actually just a new name- I've posted before under Zachary. Made an abortive attempt to start a blog and apparently changed my Google Account name. Oops.

"Handcrafted goods have actually been selling at a premium from the beginning of mass production, and I can easily imagine that it would become even more the case.

In much the same way, I'd guess that club bands are weathering the changes in the music industry much better than studio bands, because you can't download a live performance. (And even with VR it still won't be the real, actual thing.)"

Exactly.

halvorz said...

"In a post-scarcity economy, the difference may be academic. Does it really matter if you hand-crafted a statue, or if you hand-wrote the CAD files and fed it into a 3D printer to create an identical statue? As manufacturing becomes easier, material creativity will be primarily about information."

Disagree. Half the point of hand made stuff is that it is unique. Statues, to take your example, often use incorporate features of the original substrate into the work- a vein of different color in a block of marble, a strange looking knot in a piece of wood.

A large part of the appeal also comes from the marks left in the process of making it. Programming unique brush strokes or blade marks or what have you for each new piece seems like it would be much harder than just making the durn thing.

Lastly, although I did not make this clear, what concerns me about the idea of a future where everybody is, in effect, an IT professional is, well, everybody ain't. I'm trying to imagine what your average Joe Shmoe is going to end up doing, the folks not much into writing or technology or other more cerebral pursuits.

I'm envisioning a widespread return to artisanal production- not only arts and crafts, but everyday wares, clothing, food, etc. Basically an extrapolation of current fads like slow/local food and etc, although the similarity between my idea and current fads only occurred to me after the fact.

Milo said...

Mass produced goods would be cheap and abundant beyond demand (post-scarcity!), while "artisanal" goods would be luxury goods - perhaps common enough that most people can own a few (in the same way that most everyone today owns a few useless toys), but not common enough that you can rely on them. Perhaps you'll own a few designer clothes you're fond of, but when those are being washed or when you need special clothes for a particular environment, you'll grab a mass-produced copy from the store (or a replicator), which is essentially free due to post-scarcity economics.

As for your Joe Schmoe, you don't need to be any good at programming or fixing computers to be able to operate a word processor or similar "specialist" program.

Aaron said...

Milo;

I think the idea is to use pulverized stony and carbonaceous asteroids for dirt and comets for water. Although Birch doesn't, as far as I can see, actually figure how much would be needed for the surface and check that against how much is actually available. Even if a full-planet supramundane is impossible, we could still build a partial one that would allow vastly more surface area than any other option.

Milo said...

My point is that if you're going to bring in asteroids for your resources anyway, you're better off putting your habitat somewhere in space, or better yet, hollowing it directly into a carbonaceous chondrite asteroid in a convenient location. Advantages of space stations: no gravity well easier spacelaunch (very important for anything that relies on asteroids for resources), spin gravity means you can tune to exactly the gravity you want rather than just approximately, technology a little simpler and logical extension of spacecraft technology that already exists without worrying about how to stay up. Advantages of hollowed asteroids: all of the above, plus lots of free shielding and easy access to resources. Disadvantages of these: less easy access to resources locally available on the gas giant, which are... hydrogen and helium.

Yes, you can build a gas giant city, but I still don't see why you would want to. It's just doing something difficult simply for the sake of being difficult.

Aaron said...

Milo;

I'm not in favor of a floating city. I'm in favor of a large plate kept well above the gas giant by dynamic rings around the planet, perhaps enough of them to fully surround it. The advantage of this is scale: you can't fit a wilderness or even a large city into any non-magitech space station. You can put a lot of both onto a supramundane. You can also put a lot of both onto a terraformed planet, and we should, but why limit ourselves to just them? And anyway, Mars is rather small and relatively little of it will be very nice even after terraforming, terraforming Venus is more difficult than building a supramundane, and every other available body is even worse for one reason or another, mostly size. With a supramundane, even a modest build can easily double the total habitat available.

There's plenty of room out there for all kinds of living options.

jollyreaper said...

@sean But wouldn't an orbiting vessel already have to be looking in that location to detect a short-lived thermal spike, and even then would it be able to retaliate faster than the launch platform can run and hide?

This gets back to the whole question of who controls the orbitals? If ground-based weapons can deny the enemy access to space, then nobody owns orbit. There are no eyes in the sky. If the enemy controls space, that should prove even more powerful than air superiority on Earth. The last total war was WWII and we saw how much trouble the Japanese and Germans had trying to fight in the open against US forces. Especially at sea, the Japanese lost virtually every ship they had in combat. Anything that wasn't lost was trapped in port. This didn't make fighting on the islands any less bloody but it completely neutered the Japanese ability to project power.

Whatever the tech level, a foreign space power occupying a planet would hold the orbitals and conventional warfare would be impossible. No tanks, no mecha, no bolos rolling around. We'd be looking at global guerrilla warfare. The enemy could not be pushed from the planet, only convinced to give up when the price is no longer worth it. I think it would be very similar to what we saw with the two Gulf Wars. The first time around, Iraqi conventional forces were slaughtered wholesale. Anything that moved in the desert died. We ended the war before we tried taking their cities. The second time around we destroyed their conventional forces just as easily. Conquest came quickly. Occupation's been the bitch of it.

The question is what level of brutality would the invader be willing to go to in order to force surrender? Would they bombard cities? Would they halt distribution of food and water, threaten starvation? Would they execute a thousand civilians by lot for every one of their own killed in an attack?

Rick said...

Welcome back to an old commenter, in that case!

How brutal an attacker is depends on their motivations. Including how capable they are of being embarrassed, as a constraint on their behavior.

jollyreaper said...

@ rick

How brutal an attacker is depends on their motivations. Including how capable they are of being embarrassed, as a constraint on their behavior.


Yup. The military still feels like they could have won Vietnam if only the civilian government hadn't tied their hands. The rebuttal to that argument is if their hands weren't tied we could have yutzed this up into WWIII. One might also point out that the USSR is not known for sunshine and happiness in their dealings with people and even they couldn't brutalize Afghanistan into submission.

I would argue that the war is the means to the end but not the end itself -- winning the war means nothing if you don't accomplish the goals you went to war for. And the way it looks, Iraq will go back into the hands of extremist strongmen after we leave. It'll be pretty much exactly the way it was before we got involved. Victory? Hardly. But we sure kicked some ass, right? Right? *sigh*

Rick said...

On a level of pragmatic, cynical realism, Iraq policy is a rather shrewd move to define victory down and strangle the stab-in-the-back theory in its crib.

Thucydides said...

Looking back at one of Jollyreaper's posts, I was struck by how strongly ROI really affects us (even having been educated in economics, sometimes insights like this pop up unexpectedly. Thanks for the nudge!)

The fact that buildings are built in horribly inefficient manners (no openable windows, etc.) is simply due to the rewards inherent in short term economic planing. If I don't build openable windows today, I use the cost savings (vs how much I would have had to spend on openable windows) to invest in something else right now. The hypothetical cost savings of having open windows vs a constantly running HVAC system simply does not factor in these equations. Even if I did take the long term savings approach, I would be punished in the market for spending more and having fewer resources to invest today.

Urban homesteading can also be seen as a response to the ROI problem. People in Western societies have ben relentlessly taxed at higher and higher rates for decades, and have fewer and fewer resources in their own hands to save or invest. Several responses have been tried to increase income and wealth, especially drawing on the "equity" value of housing to invest in markets (the .com bubble, for example), and relying on the inflation of housing values to represent real wealth; both of which were destroyed by the lack of true underlying value (the housing market was propped up by artificially increasing demand and later low interest rates).

Since ROI in financial instruments has been busted, investing in "real" goods and services is a much better use of resources. Using technology to get off the grid is a rational response in Ontario, for example, where water and sewer charges have gone up an astounding 60% in my municipality in the last 10 years, and Ontario Hydro is boosting rates by 17% this year after just increasing them by 12%. Growing your own food in a "victory garden" could also represent a large saving, not just in direct outlays, but also in sales taxes, fuel for transporting groceries (and fuel taxes) and so on.

While not exactly creating a dystopia, hardy urban homesteaders will have the skill sets to colonize, but not the resources to leave the planet...sigh

Milo said...

Fortunately, if you don't have the resources to leave the planet, there's an easy solution. Just commit a petty crime, and people will pay to get rid of you!

:)

Turbo10k said...

Global guerrilla warfare...ouch.
Storywise though, it's the perfect solution. Combined with the grow-your-starship tech, a disused supermundane planet and you have a perfect sci-fi western setting.

I do however see readers struggling to close the gap between interplanetary torchships and pistol shoot-outs.

One argument I thought of in favour of bicycles: you can shoot a horse dead, but you can mend a bike.
One thing I still haven't understood yet is why no-one is thinking about those near portable nuclear reactors that we can make TODAY. 1MW in three meters. No need for massive solar sales or difficult beam power, just pop back i store for a new core every decade. In the future, I think miniaturization and increase in energy densities would make above discussions silly; you can have several hundred watts for many years in hand in something you can carry today in a truck, later in your trunk. And who cares about ban treaties? My local Home Guard uses ICBMs!

PS: Can't stop thanking the guy who bought up supermundane planets. I just KNEW there was something between dyson spheres and the ISS...

Milo said...

"Combined with the grow-your-starship tech, and you have a perfect sci-fi western setting."

Wow. That actually makes sense! You found a way to justify space westerns! Awesome!

If you've managed to design nanotech that's about as robust as a natural life form, then it would in fact be possible for shirtsleeves farmers to grow their own spaceships in a suitable plot of land.

Designing nanotech like that is left as an exercise for the reader...


"One argument I thought of in favour of bicycles: you can shoot a horse dead, but you can mend a bike."

Good point.


"One thing I still haven't understood yet is why no-one is thinking about those near portable nuclear reactors that we can make TODAY."

Those small/portable reactors have significantly less than 1 MW/ton. Not remotely good enough for getting anywhere farther than Mars without some sort of significant technological improvement. And if you just want to get to Luna, then nuclear power is serious overkill - we need to make the trip cheaper, not faster. (And the hardest part for the Earth-Luna trip is surface-to-orbit launch.)

Unless you're talking about something other than spacecraft propulsion here, in which case it went over my head.

Turbo10K said...

Personal use.
In other words, it powers your buggy on Mars. Or your dome-house on the terraformed fields of some other planet. If we can get a few hundred kilowatts on the surface, we can power lots of applications, enough for a few colonists. It would certainly cost less than installing equivalent areas of solar panels.

Its all due to that nuclear ban treaty...

PS: I also believe that future tech will have greater capabilities, meaning can do the same thing for less power. We might reduce power requirements per person, while keeping a sufficient standard of life to the point where we can keep miniature, closed nuclear reactors for use of each person, or with less handwaving, a small community.

Milo said...

The Partial Test Ban Treaty only bans the use of nuclear explosions in space, not other forms of nuclear technology.

This rules out the Orion engine, since it technically consists of nuclear explosions. It does not even rule out rockets that merely spew radioactive exhaust (open-cycle gas core fission-thermal rockets, fission-fragment rockets, and nuclear saltwater rockets), though those will be pretty controversial either way. However, other uses of nuclear power (other fission-thermal rockets, fission-electric rockets) are perfectly fine. They're just expensive. However, natural radioactive decay has been used in space in the form of radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which are less powerful (5 kW/ton is considered good) but can be made small and are reliable over long periods, which are useful traits in space.


"I also believe that future tech will have greater capabilities, meaning can do the same thing for less power. We might reduce power requirements per person, while keeping a sufficient standard of life"

The necessary power for travelling through space at a given speed is bounded by the laws of physics - you simply can't do it with less than a certain value using anything short of FTL.

The power for... well... almost all other applications is tiny by comparison. A spaceship capable of carrying X people also easily has enough power to keep those X people comfortable for a long time - at least long enough to work on constructing a proper power plant (nuclear, solar, or whatever) at the colony site. First, they need to construct the infrastructure to build it with. Unless they can grow it from seeds.

I would simply land my colony ship and plug all my equipment into its reactor, now I don't need its engines anymore. This also gives you a convenient life support system before you're done building your domes.

Turbo10k said...

Interesting point; plugging your nuclear drive to be used as the colony's power source. I do see difficulties however if your have a nuclear thermal or fission gas/liquid core engine, which I don't see as converted into purely electrical use. A VASMIR would be perfect though.

What I'm trying to do is find a small, powerful source of energy that can be carried around on a truck at most that is used by a colony on the ground. A shiny colony won't keep its ship around for long, so even if you can install a fusion torch drive on your massive system-spanning ship, you probably can't support a reactor on the surface without necessary infrastructure.

Present day example: We sent the Mars explorer with solar panels, and a chemical rocket to get there. Why can't we make it bigger and give it RTG's (other than cost).

Near future example (tomorrow): We colonise Mars using a nuclear thermal ship to get there in a few months. The ship might be able to make a few megawatts, but will the astronauts have to use kilowatt solar panels on the ground?

PS: This is all to allow a scenario where my ground troops can use power-hungry combat suits without hooking up to solar panels and twiddling thumbs for the half-year night cycles.

Milo said...

"I do see difficulties however if your have a nuclear thermal or fission gas/liquid core engine, which I don't see as converted into purely electrical use. A VASMIR would be perfect though."

Good point. This might be an incentive to use fission-electric rather than fission-thermal for colony ships, even if you find that fission-thermal is slightly more effective at reaching your desired destination.

However, even a ship using fission-thermal engines will have some sort of electric power generator onboard for life support, control circuitry, etc. The question is if this is enough to get your colony started.

You could, of course, equip the ship with a fission-thermal engine and some fairly powerful electrc plant. Takes up space, of course, but colony ships are gonna be expensive anyway - they gotta carry all the equipment for people to start a colony, and the supplies to keep them alive while they're working on the colony.


"What I'm trying to do is find a small, powerful source of energy that can be carried around on a truck at most that is used by a colony on the ground."

Colonists probably won't travel extremely far from their planned colony site. I would just equip my trucks with car batteries and return them to the ship to recharge. For static buildings I plan to construct outside the ship, I'd take along a few really long extension cords just to be sure :)


"A shiny colony won't keep its ship around for long,"

I see colony ships as a one-use deal. You land it and live in it for a few months or years while you go to work building construction equipment and paraterraforming a livable dome habitat. Once your colony is properly self-sufficient and no longer needs the ship, you then convert it into a museum.

(You could scrap it for parts or refit it for another mission, but what kind of planet can't afford to have one spaceship museum? Anyway, after being used as a planetside base for years, it would need an extensive overhaul to ensure it's still spaceworthy. Assuming its design isn't obsolete yet.)

Milo said...

"Present day example: We sent the Mars explorer with solar panels, and a chemical rocket to get there. Why can't we make it bigger and give it RTGs (other than cost).

Actually, we can, and probably will. RTGs aren't that expensive (it's the true fission reactors which are expensive).


Near future example (tomorrow): We colonise Mars using a nuclear thermal ship to get there in a few months. The ship might be able to make a few megawatts, but will the astronauts have to use kilowatt solar panels on the ground?

You have stuff if you can either fit it on your colony ship, can ship it in later, or can build it locally. You want to keep the shipping-in-later to a minimum, because that's expensive, and putting the stuff your need on your colony ship takes advantage of economies of scale.

If you have the power plant on your colony ship, then you might as well put it to use powering ship systems while in-flight, to save mass by not having to have two power plants. (Unless you have two power plants for redundancy, in which case you'll still want them both hooked into your ship.)

If you build it locally... great! But what are you building it with?

Solar panels are probably easier to make with poorly developed infrastructure than nuclear reactors.


PS: This is all to allow a scenario where my ground troops can use power-hungry combat suits without hooking up to solar panels and twiddling thumbs for the half-year night cycles.

Half-year night cycles? Where? Mars's day-night cycle is actually quite similar to Earth's.

Also, remember that solar power is more effective when there's no atmosphere for the light to have to punch through (though this is more a benefit for Luna than Mars, since Mars is so much further away from the sun).

I don't see why you're deploying power-hungry combat suits to a barely inhabited planet, either. Of course, if the planet already has power plants but those power plants aren't friendly to you, then you might still need to bring your own. This follows the same shape as every other challenge in military logistics.

Thucydides said...

Nuclear thermal engines have (had) very high power densities; NERVA reactors I believe have the highest power density ever recorded for a nuclear reactor (the Phoebus 2a generating 4,000 MW during its tests, the entire assembly was considered "flight ready" if the authority to launch could be granted so it was sized to be launched as the third stage of a Saturn V stack).

For logistical reasons, I would stick to nuclear thermal engines that are hardened to use water as the propellant. Water is pretty easy to get from asteroids, ice moons and comets, and if you need really high performance a "nuclear light bulb" could provide the power to give your "steam rocket" a pretty decent ISP, although this limits the ability to use the reactor as s dual purpose machine.

One small other note. Jerry Pournell used to note in his Falkenberg's Legion stories that small numbers of tanks could make all the difference between victory and defeat. While this may be true in certain circumstances (General Sharon crossed the Suez canal and started to roll up the Egyptian Third Army with about 30 tanks in the 1973 Yom Kippur war), in the CoDominium setting this isn't possible. The colony worlds do not have the infrastructure to supply fuel or road networks for mechanized warfare. In most other sensible or Realistic(tm) settings this would also be true.

Powered armour is one work around, although each soldier would need access to some sort of high energy density power source for the suit (logistics troops dropping off batteries doesn't seem to cut it). Some sort of Air Cavalry would also be able to work around the lack of a road network, but once again would need some sort of energy source (maybe power beamed down from the starship?) to be an effective solution.

Milo said...

I would like to calculate the relative efficiency of nuclear-thermal and nuclear-electric technologies, but currently I only have formulas for instantaneous-acceleration trips (essentially accurate for nuclear-thermal, but not for nuclear-electric) and for flat-space brachistochrone trips (reasonably accurate for very powerful engines, but I think fission-electric isn't good enough to ignore orbital mechanics like that).


"Powered armour is one work around, although each soldier would need access to some sort of high energy density power source for the suit (logistics troops dropping off batteries doesn't seem to cut it)."

I see these generators as being light enough that you can carry one on your landing pod, but heavy (and vulnerable) enough that you can't easily carry them into combat. Thus you would try to secure your landing spot as a "beachhead" and return there to resupply.

Powered armor that needs so much power that it cannot be resupplied by a generator that fits into a beachhead probably just wouldn't get used for the early stages of an invasion, or else you would have to be launching a lot of shuttles, which is probably going to cost more than your powered armor does.


"(maybe power beamed down from the starship?)"

Beaming power all the way from orbit to power your weapons strikes me as an extremely Rube Goldberg-ish solution. If you have such awesome power beams, better to simply use them to zap the enemy directly (while your ground forces point around cheap target designators if necessary).

Rick said...

Just how much energy does power armor actually use? Depends on how heavy it is, but they need not be enormous power hogs, so long as you stick to knocking down doors instead of jumping over buildings

Anonymous said...

Powered armor could get by with half-a-dozen car batteries in a ruck sack for a day-long charge.

Ferrell

Turbo10k said...

The power armor scenario is wherewe have
a-Highly developed, but hostile colony
b-A mostly uninhabited, desertic landscape (like the sub-polar latitudes of Mars a hundred years later)
c-Expensive troops carried a long way through space, and have to provide decent fire support for a long time independently.

C is because if the support ships can be shot down from orbit, than the Marines have to survive alone, using powerful weapons to compensate small numbers, till the next ship arrives.

"I would like to calculate the relative efficiency of nuclear-thermal and nuclear-electric technologies"

Nuclear thermal is efficient because because (very simply), we have a single energy transfer, which is radioactive to thermal. Nuclear electric, uses efficiencies of a nuclear reactor, then those of an electric drive. I count four transfers at least...Nuclear electric probably can be calculated by calculating the nuclear reactor alone, then using an energy coefficient for the electric drive part (well, I think).

"could provide the power to give your "steam rocket""
Noooo...Steampunk.

Milo said...

I know that. I meant calculating whether you could get to your target faster with an engine that has a very high power density, or one that has a lower power density but more freedom in how to distribute it between delta-vee and acceleration.

It seems that the time fission-electric rockets take to build up speed is comparable (in order of magnitude terms) to the time fission-thermal rockets take to reach a target. So it takes some reasonably accurate calculations to determine which is better.

ElAntonius said...

On the efficiency of powered armor:

Pulling this all out of my exhaust, but...let's define powered armor basic capabilities-

The main reason for powered armor is that a human being can then carry more weight in armor and equipment than they would normally be able to. The armor part of it really doesn't demand power, but the more massive the armor is, the more power it will need for increasingly large assist motors.

Let's define some weight, again, being pulled from between my cushions: let's say about 750 lbs in armor, 750 lbs in the "powered" part, with another 300 lbs in equipment, and 200 lbs in steroidal space marine for a package total of 2000 lbs.

2000 lbs is a bit less than the weight of a modern compact car, and typically a modern compact car can get out of its own way with about 100-150 hp. That's not really that bad for a single electric motor and battery support, but we've got to consider that the locomotive movements of ambulatory masses of carbon are significantly more complex and less efficient than suspending 2000 lbs on wheels.

However, we have to consider efficiency of design. I don't think power armor will need to be particularly graceful...most of the feats we're talking about are gross movements that can be done just using the mass of the armor itself. Ram through a door? 2000 pounds will do that easily, even at low speeds.

So, let's see what we'll need for your average trooper:

Joints that would require active help from a motor to enable movement:
-Elbow
-Shoulder
-Hip
-Knee
-Ankle

Joints that would just require stabilization:
-Wrist
-Neck
-Back

The armor should be self supporting...the human is suspending within, not the other way around where they have to support the weight of it.

Figuring that, a series of electric motors operating heavy duty cables (preferably under a layer of armor) would be relatively cheap, powerwise. I don't think any one of them would need more than 50 hp (since I'm doubting that any motor would need to lift more than half the weight of the armor at any time), and none of them would require full time duty. An un-moving soldier requires no power, if joints can be locked mechanically.

Worst case, where every assist joint requires a motor? 10 motors, each at 50 hp would require a total of 500 horsepower in motors, but never requiring that full amount, in a package weighing about 750 lbs. That's plausible near future.

Now, if we want to go more fanciful and give our soldiers super-speed (or even normal human agility), we'll need much more juice and many more motors. I'm not convinced that would be possible, though, since the human body has limits and running at 60-70 MPH has GOT to do a number on your joints.

If we really wanted super-speed, a system of rockets and retractable roller skates, maybe?

As for improvement on aiming, the arm motors could be hooked up to the suit's targeting system for fine aim, reducing weapon sway and helping the user track targets. That wouldn't require much more power.

Again, these are just wild guesses pulled form my tender posterior, but I think they're ballpark realistic.

jollyreaper said...

I fear power armor is a treasured scifi trope that won't stand up to reality, like starfighters and battlemechs.

Power armor is about becoming a technological superhero. The Iron Man suit is the most obvious example and uses magictech far in excess of the Starship Troopers model. It could just as easily be the alien magic suit from the old Greatest American Hero show from the 80's. (Aliens give a schlub a superman suit imbued with magictech; he's not very good with it.)

If we go back to the basic purpose of a soldier, it's about bringing a weapon into range to use. "Guns don't shoot themselves," an old NCO might say. True. But now they do!

So back in the day, you needed a soldier to carry the rifle to the target. Or he'd carry a BAR. Machine guns needed crews to operate. Same with bazookas and anti-tank guns. Vehicles could make all of that stuff mobile but couldn't cross broken terrain as well as a man. So what if you could give a man the hitting power of a tank but still be small and mobile? But the kicker is that the assumption was always that you'd need a human picking the targets and shooting at them.

I think we've not appreciated the usefulness of computers in changing our perspective. We used men to pilot suicide weapons in WWII. That same weapon evolved into the cruise missile. And to a lesser extend, the PGM and stand-off weapons filled that same role since it became much too dangerous for the manned plane to do the aiming and follow the weapon down to the release point as with a dive bomber. But we still need manned combat aircraft because computers aren't good enough to replace pilots, the same way the timers used to tilt V1's into targets couldn't compete with a trained human pilot in a baka-bomb. For now.

There's going to be a need for humans to go into harm's way on future battlefields but I think we'll see the VIP/bodyguard model. The human may be wearing combat gear and may have a personal weapon but the fighting will be done by escort drones. The drones are free to operate without having to show consideration for a fleshy human operator inside.

That's my prediction. We'll see how events develop.

Milo said...

ElAntonius:

"Let's define some weight, again, being pulled from between my cushions: let's say about 750 lbs in armor, 750 lbs in the "powered" part, with another 300 lbs in equipment, and 200 lbs in steroidal space marine for a package total of 2000 lbs."

I estimate a human's surface area as, very approximately, one square meter. Okay, I looked it up, two square meters. Solid steel is 7.9 tons per cubic meter, so 750 pounds (340 kilograms) would give you armor 2 centimeters thick. The 1500 pound value for armor and motors combined would then give you powered armor 4 centimeters thick. If you're using titanium instead of steel, it's only 4.5 tons per cubic meter, that gives you 8 centimeters. Boron carbide (in use as body armor today, and especially awesome against lasers) is 2.52 tons per cubic meter, so you get 13-14 centimeters!

Those numbers sound pretty sensible to me - very thick for conventional plate armor, but sensible for powered stuff that needs to stand up to modern weapons. Of course, there's still a big times-or-divided-by factor.


"If we really wanted super-speed, a system of rockets and retractable roller skates, maybe?"

I think super speed would most reasonably get done with external vehicles. Infantry is best suited for close quarter combat where speed isn't that important, so giving your power-armor soldiers super-speed is missing the point. When infantry do need speed, it's to get from one battlefield to another, as opposed to in-combat speed. Super-reflexes would be useful, but powered armor doesn't help with that.

Or if the Rule of Cool is more important to you than sensible tactics, power-armored horses.


"As for improvement on aiming, the arm motors could be hooked up to the suit's targeting system for fine aim, reducing weapon sway and helping the user track targets. That wouldn't require much more power."

For targeting systems, the mass of the equipment will probably be a more important limiter than the power it uses. You need good miniaturization on your equipment.

The most useful part of your targetting suite would probably be a HUD and sensor suite with the ability to enhance light contrast, show other wavelengths such as infrared, zoom in on distant objects, impose crosshairs over where you're aiming, etc.

jollyreaper said...

Or if the Rule of Cool is more important to you than sensible tactics, power-armored horses.

No, you're doing it wrong. Check out the Space Marines from Warhammer 40K. You put your power armor guys on MOTORCYCLES!!! Bolter in one hand, chainsword in the other. Booya.

Though if you could make the power-armor horse have giant, gnashing fangs and shoots plasma fire from its mouth, you might just have something.

ElAntonius said...

Milo:

This is why I love this blog. I post some pseudo random figures and we're getting armor thickness figures out of it.

On the topic of agility: I agree. I see the powered armor trooper as more of a tank/mobile heavy weapons platform, since shipping tanks in SPAAAAACE is prohibitive for the most part.

In that sense, I picture that a platoon of soldiers armed more conventionally supported by a smaller number of powered armor troops armed with the big stuff: lasers, miniguns, railguns, heavy weapons like that.

Because powered armor would have far less issues with recoil, is well protected, and has access to suit assistance with aiming, they'd make an almost ideal platform for fire support to a conventional platoon in situations where conventional weapons platforms are unavailable.

Milo said...

For recoil, an anchored tripod would be a far easier solution than powered armor.

The biggest advantage of powered armor is to have a well-protected soldier that can still function as "infantry", in roles like urban combat where tanks are too clunky. Here you really need people, with features like keeping track of complicated environment, fitting in cramped and possibly rubble-strewn (and if not that, then maybe staircase-strewn) places, interacting easily with other people, etc. Tanks are good at destroying stuff but they don't really have much range of mobility beyond "move from point A to point B" and "blow point B up". A tank can blow up a door, but it can't open a door.

Powered armor may well grow out of space suit technology, and the need to deploy soldiers to paraterraformed planets without a global breathable atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

Milo, Eltonius...
The U.S. military already HAS working prototypes of powered exoskeletons that will become working power armor in a decade or two. It's funny that you two are actually behind the times on this subject... Look it up at the Popular Science website!

Ferrell

ElAntonius said...

Ferrell:

Oh, I'm aware of them quite already. However, the prototypes are mostly powered from an external source, and have mostly been focused on weightlifting and the like (IE: areas where you might need a forklift but can't get one).

But yes, IIRC the prototypes I've seen use the electric motor + cable combo...I had them in mind when I wrote my original post :P

The real trick is going to be strapping that whole getup with a bunch of armor, and targeting telemetry, and sufficient mobility for combat.


Milo:

While a tripod is great for reducing recoil, it doesn't really help you with getting the weapon into position. The nice thing about powered armor is that it's a single package: a stable firing platform that can propel itself around the battlefield, compact and agile enough to go with regular infantry, and it has the benefit of additional protection for the user.

Historically, the bane of machine gun emplacements is that the operators are still quite squishy compared to the weapon. Powered armor virtually guarantees that you have to destroy the weapon rather than just the user, meaning you'll need heavier weapons, and you won't be granted use of the suit afterwards, like you might be with a machine gun emplacement.

Milo said...

For what it's worth, I sanity-tested my numbers above by plugging in a 20 kg value for historical plate armor, and estimated that it would have been about 1 millimeter thick. I don't know if that's correct but it sounds reasonable.


ElAntonius:

"While a tripod is great for reducing recoil, it doesn't really help you with getting the weapon into position."

People can carry more weight than they can swing around and aim in combat. Additionally, there is always the old-fashioned option of having two people carry the weapon into position together. Or putting the weapon on a wheelbarrow for transport.

Not very flashy solutions, but vastly easier and cheaper than powered armor, especially in low-infrastructure scenarios.


"Historically, the bane of machine gun emplacements is that the operators are still quite squishy compared to the weapon."

This would seem to be most readily solved with a high-tech redux of the pavise, rather than carrying the armor on your body all the time.


"Powered armor virtually guarantees that you have to destroy the weapon rather than just the user,"

Not necessarily. Guns can be armored too, and there are anti-armor weapons.


"and you won't be granted use of the suit afterwards, like you might be with a machine gun emplacement."

True. However, the other side of this is that damaged power armor can be very lethal to the soldier trapped inside. Of course, any attack capable of damaging power armor to this point could probably also kill an unprotected soldier.

Milo said...

Oh hey, we already have those.

ElAntonius said...

Milo:

"People can carry more weight than they can swing around and aim in combat. Additionally, there is always the old-fashioned option of having two people carry the weapon into position together. Or putting the weapon on a wheelbarrow for transport.

Not very flashy solutions, but vastly easier and cheaper than powered armor, especially in low-infrastructure scenarios."


I don't disagree in the sense of just carrying it around.

What I mean is that powered armor lets you bring the big gun right into the fray as part of your infantry.

I should say that I consider powered armor to largely be an offensive weapon. Defenders have the luxury of infrastructure, so they can set up fortified weapon emplacements where necessary and have heavy vehicles where possible. An invading espacier (sp?) force probably won't have the luxury of heavy weapons platforms.


"This would seem to be most readily solved with a high-tech redux of the pavise, rather than carrying the armor on your body all the time."

The pavise is likewise (somewhat) immobile. Machine gun nests are a great luxury when you have the advantage of setting them up in proper fortified positions, but when you think of D-Day-like invasions OR the modern urban warfare concepts, soldiers will really appreciate not having to take the time to deploy their big guns under fire.

"Not necessarily. Guns can be armored too, and there are anti-armor weapons."

I'm considering the powered armor/gun combo as a total package. Essentially an infantry tank.

What I mean to say is that a machine gun nest can be disabled by attacking the operators. A powered armor suit, on the other hand, can only be disabled by disabling the armor.

I'm not under any illusions about that, though. Powered armor is a small-arms deterrent, but if it becomes a factor on the battlefield, belligerents will make sure that every platoon has means of destroying it. At some point you have to worry about anti-tank weapons.

This feeds into your last point: The problem with armor is that it tends to be binary. I think any weapon designed to pierce heavy armor would transmit a lot of energy to the occupant...and that would ruin their day.

Thucydides said...

"Real" powered armour is more about logistics (the ability to pack in enough supplies to stay operational for extended periods of time) rather than fighting ability, even if most SF reverses the trope.

Actually, a battlesuit should have the main weapon mounted on the top of the head, for the greatest field of fire, the ability to "look and shoot", and to reduce off axis forces on the suit itself (especially if you are planning to mount a very large or powerful weapon). The soldier can carry the weapon on his back during the march, and when it deploys onto the head mount, the cradle extends down and back to provide the third leg of the tripod.

This is pretty Rube Goldberg, so I will go along with the suit being there to protect an observer controlling a number of remotes. A personal defense weapon is provided, but any soldier who has to reach for the smartgun in the holster realizes things have gone very wrong indeed....

Moving long distances for operational or strategic reasons does call for some sort of vehicle, but the logistical trail for giving each soldier his own vehicle (or fire breathing mechanized horse) would be so great that only the very wealthiest of nations (or one that devotes a huge amount of GDP to military functions) will be able to go that route. An equivalent of an APC or Blackhawk helicopter will be needed instead.

Milo said...

"What I mean is that powered armor lets you bring the big gun right into the fray as part of your infantry."

Yeah, but why do you want a big gun in the fray as part of your infantry? Frantic close-quarters combat against other infrantry soldiers isn't a place where you need mortar cannons. And room-by-room urban combat is unfriendly to weapons that barely fit in the room, no matter how strong you are.

Open field battles like big guns, but they also like tanks. This environment suggests no appreciable advantage for replacing your vehicles with infantry. (Tanks weigh less than the "portable" nuclear generators that Turbo10k suggested, so any large-scale invasion can surely bring along a few.)


"Machine gun nests are a great luxury when you have the advantage of setting them up in proper fortified positions,"

With good design, I'm sure you can shift them between wheelbarrow mode and tripod mode in significantly less than a minute. Not fast enough for a sudden "I saw a shadow move in the corner of my eye, kill kill kill!", but that isn't what heavy weapons are for.

Turbo10k said...

I saw apc's as an extension of laser weaponry.

A laser weapon, especially one that can pierce dense atmosphere AND penetrate armor would need a consequent power source. To protect against such energies, you might need several cm of SNCF. This could be mounted in a design similar to tank armor, with electric pulleys supporting most of the weight. Building on that, we have a hermetic life-support system, targeting arrays and surface-to-orbit communication ability. I don't want vehicule speeds, as they are provided, but they won't be doing the grunt work, as we have cheaper robots for that. They'll be the 'Heavy squad', commanding robots for not far away, and providing consequential firepower.

My APC's are around 3m tall, and weigh at around 1 ton. They can jog and jump, but not run. They are armed with a cannon looking like an a modern assault rifle (with trigger and separate ammo), bigger than any grunt can carry, and with good stopping power. It is inefficient against lighter infantry or fast vehicules, that's why we have our robots (creepy crawly spiders) armed with lasers for taking out stuff, and LMGs for personnel. Lasers, in my setting, doesn't do good against my APC's armor, so the aforementioned cannons are used.

APC's are best against each other, and the robots do the rest...much like constellation combat.

PS: Nearly all combat is done is urban areas, with dome-hopping the way to project force. Brief, robot-led assaults followed between rushes towards another dome...

Milo said...

"A laser weapon, especially one that can pierce dense atmosphere AND penetrate armor would need a consequent power source."

I don't see what the constant "lasers need a huge amount of energy" fuss is about. A laser that fires shots with a comparable energy to a gun, which should be enough to seriously hurt someone, would need to carry a comparable amount of energy as a gun. The problem is that current lasers use their energy rather inefficiently, and that (I think) electrical batteries don't yet have quite as much energy density as gunpowder. Midfuture tech could plausible invent an improved battery that quite easily powers a handheld laser, while not being that much more explosive than the gunpowder in a gun.


"they won't be doing the grunt work, as we have cheaper robots for that"

Just remember that urban warfare is just about the worst possible place for robots. Both due to the complexity of the terrain (and the consequent complexity of tactics) and due to the possibility of there being things there you don't want to shoot at.


"My APC's are around 3m tall, and weigh at around 1 ton."

3 meters? That sounds a little tall. Also, I hope you know APC already has a meaning, and powered armor isn't it.

Thucydides said...

Going back to Heinlein, the MI are used in a similar fashion to paratroopers; in order to provide a measured level of force for strategic purposes. You notice it is never said or even implied that the MI fight in mixed formations (although other types of units do exist to support them, combat engineers and logistics troops are explicitly mentioned in the book).

Since the Navy can only offer weapons of mass destruction (world wreaking weapons are mentioned), the MI provide more political and military flexibility for the Federation when use of force is called for.

Given the limited numbers of MI (@ 200 graduate from Rico's 2000 man recruit course) and the large range of missions they must accomplish, battlesuits exist to provide force multipliers so the Federation does not need to carpet the target planet with divisions of troops and supporting arms. (Heinlein said he wrote the book in about six weeks. Some more careful editing would have caught references to regimental carriers, which seems to undercut the set-up Heinlein himself provided).

In the here and now, troops using exoskeletons will use them to support heavy loads for logistical reasons at first, manpacking in ammunition and supplies to carry out missions that last a week or more without needing external resupply. Protection will be provided against small arms and fragmentation, although troops already wear such protection without exoskeletons. A more probable solution would be to support and operate protective equipment in a Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Warfare (NBCW) environment, including cooling equipment since being buttoned up in a protective suit risks overheating the soldier within.

Soldiers are pretty adaptable, but I could see the front line troops wanting things like Gekko gloves added to an exoskeleton so they can scamper up walls before they want the ability to throw cars through the air. Smart weapons and self seeking rounds also limit the advantage that a battlesuit can offer, no matter how heavy the armour. I would guess an evolved battlesuit might resemble a diving suit with some strike plates over the most vulnerable parts more than Ripley's "power loader" in" Aliens".

Turbo10k said...

I even think that heavy weapons are probably prohibitive in a planetary assault. You can use those anti-ship lasers from the spacewarships (they have to gain relative control of low orbit anyway) in a much more precise and efficient manner. Missiles might be dropped, but only because they offer much better target distinction, from the ground.

In my scenario, heavy mecha suits are used because they can lift enough armor survive powerful laser blasts, so to counter them, heavy cannons are used. This gives a mixed-arms situation.

Robots wouldn't be too bad in an urban warfare environment as they aren't automated, but followed closely by their mecha operators. Closely as in you have a VR headset linked to the robots' cameras, and the trigger is under the soldier's hands...the operators are just outside the building, remember?

Anti-tank type ammunition would be a bane to these mecha, but so they are to modern tanks, and that hasn't prohibited their use until now...

Milo said...

"You can use those anti-ship lasers from the spacewarships (they have to gain relative control of low orbit anyway) in a much more precise and efficient manner."

Assuming they are effective out to those ranges (which they probably will be, given Stupendous Range), and that they are capable of aiming at their target (which is less certain, given they're shooting at small stuff hidden in the clutter of a planet, possibly with an atmosphere bending their sight). Also, if the planet has an atmosphere, lasers designed for penetrating it need different design concerns than those meant to be used in empty space. (A tunable wavelength, though, would make for a nice general-purpose laser.) Penetrating that much atmosphere may just prove difficult, period.

jollyreaper said...

Urban warfare robots --

In Iraq these bots are used simply to get a proper look at a target. The robots can be armored against rifle fire and can scout around corners without the concern of losing a soldier. Broken kit can always be replaced.

If you think about it, a grenade is a pretty indiscriminate way of clearing a room but they're employed deliberately. Bombs aren't dropped from planes to level whole blocks, tanks aren't just driven through the houses. Soldiers do a clear and sweep. When they find a room full of hostiles they chuck a grenade in and then shoot the survivors. The shrapnel doesn't tell friend from foe.

Now if a combat bot was employed in a similar fashion, it would breech the door and draw fire. Its guns would lock onto each target and let the operator issue a "shoot/no shoot" order. Or it could just be put on automatic.

What I'm talking about is really twenty minutes in the future. We have image recognition software, we have the chips to run that software, we already have armed combat bots deployed, though they look more like upgunned RC cars than the Terminator.

Up until now ambition has far outstripped the ability of the technology. Hell, the first dot.com I worked at was trying to do internet streaming video in 1999. Anyone here remember how bad dial-up realplayer looked back then? The first online video I tried watching was back when Craig Kilborn was on the Daily Show. They tried making the move too early. A decade later, it's a whole new landscape.

Rick said...

Note that we are using Predators in Afghanistan in a way completely unlike what people would have expected of robotic warplanes.

Instead of being used in high intensity threat environments, as we would have pictured in the 1990s, we are using them as lurking snipers that hang around for 24 hours for someone to show up.

Turbo10k said...

"Instead of being used in high intensity threat environments, as we would have pictured in the 1990s, we are using them as lurking snipers that hang around for 24 hours for someone to show up."

Or, they were used in the most efficient way possible. Robots are perfect for high endurance, 'nothing happening for hours' type of mission as their attention span is infinite and their performances don't degrade over time. On the other hand, 'high-intensity' missions, as in drone-vs-fighter combat is not what they're suited to as their feedback loop with the operator limits reaction time.

In my setting, humans are better in urban campaigns, but are not very expendable. The large numbers of cheap, multi-purpose robot used in conjunction with very tight feedback loops relieves the invading forces of heavy attrition.

jollyreaper-According to you, robots have three modes only:
-I decide when to shoot
-Shoot at everything that moves
-Default don't do anything mode

I see that as limited by technology, rather than design. I see a semi-automatic mode developped in the future (in use in my setting) that identifies potential threats (we have facial recognition, so why not behavior software?), gets ready to shoot at them, and only needs the operator to decide whether to maintain gun on target or switch to another potential hostile/ sweep area for others...It would combine robotic reflexes wioth human decision making.

"though they look more like upgunned RC cars than the Terminator. "

Upgraded RC cars is the cheapest method, as in it can't go up stairs because complex legs are expensive. Terminator is plain silly, in plot AND robot design. Maybe it needs to be menacing to humans to be effective in combat?


Milo-You'd have a targeting team on the ground. This could be the strike force you are supporting, a bunch of robots calling in the heavy artillery or simply warships in space dropping targeting equipment from orbit (some kind of solar plane with cameras).

Milo said...

So the point of robots is to do stuff that would be too easy and therefore too boring for humans to do?

That seems pretty sensible. It's very hard to program robots to do, umm, hard stuff, so the best place to use them is for stuff the programmers know how to do themselves, but don't want to.

This might be interesting...


"I see a semi-automatic mode developped in the future (in use in my setting) that identifies potential threats (we have facial recognition, so why not behavior software?), gets ready to shoot at them, and only needs the operator to decide whether to maintain gun on target or switch to another potential hostile/ sweep area for others...It would combine robotic reflexes wioth human decision making."

I see ship-to-ship combat as something similar. The targetting computer shows a list of detected targets, or a picture with a set of crosshairs pinpointing the important stuff, or whatever. The human operator can then enter an order like "Fire all lasers at target #4, half power, drill beam.", and then the computer calculates a firing solution accounting for light lag and the target's known velocity. Possibly occasionally the sensor suite's image recognition would fail to catch a particular object, so if the human notices something the computer didn't (by looking at raw sensor data on a viewscreen, not a window), he can then nudge the computer into taking a closer look.

ElAntonius said...

Milo:
"I see ship-to-ship combat as something similar. The targetting computer shows a list of detected targets, or a picture with a set of crosshairs pinpointing the important stuff, or whatever. The human operator can then enter an order like 'Fire all lasers at target #4, half power, drill beam.'"

That's pretty much how modern air-to-air combat works, with missiles, so it's easy to extrapolate that that's how near-mid future combat will work.

Turbo10k said...

"That's pretty much how modern air-to-air combat works, with missiles, so it's easy to extrapolate that that's how near-mid future combat will work."

Emm. Not that much. It's more like a shooting game where the difficulty is set to 'REALLY easy". Air combat follows lots of rules, there is much ambiguity and you still have to deal with relatively large constraints due to your medium (you're FLYING through air and your CONSUMING LOADS OF FUEL) and targeting software (we still have lining up crosshairs with the intended so that the computer is looking at the correct direction").

It's also more fun that space warfare, and less grisly that ground warfare. In my setting, ground warfare becomes much cleaner and less ambiguous, at the cost of expensive operations and limitations to the setting.

ElAntonius said...

Apologies, I'm on my phone.

I didn't mean to say that air = space in terms of the physical medium, but in reality an airplane launching missiles is following the same user interface paradigm. IE, the computer presents targets, the operator selects one, does whatever he has to to get in firing position, then issues a command to few the weapon, which then completes it's mission autonomously.

The chase/defense mechanics of weapons are different in space, but the autonomous nature of the weapon mission and the increased abstraction between vehicle and weapon are not.

Turbo10k said...

"he autonomous nature of the weapon mission and the increased abstraction between vehicle and weapon are not."

I was assuming this increasing abstraction would be followed in ground warfare as a trend with technologies.