Will we ever get matter-replication technology? What social effects?

The kewlest black-box-technology in the Star Trek canon is not the transporter, the phaser, or even the warp drive. It’s the replicator! It makes anything! As presented, this has created a free society without want or hunger. As Picard once put it, “Material needs no longer exist.” It depends on a power source, of course, but antimatter power is too cheap to meter.

But I recall a 1959 SF novel by Damon Knight, A for Anything (a/k/a The People Maker.) A high-minded inventor comes up with the “Gismo,” a compact matter-replicator that runs on a nine-volt battery (and actually violates the law of conservation of mass-energy – no raw mass is necessary, the Gismo creates mass). Clip something to one pole and a duplicate immediately appears at the other. He starts mailing paired sets of Gismos (so you can use the pair to make more Gismos) to people at random. Recipients simply walk away from their jobs and look forward to spending the rest of their lives on vacation; organized society rapidly and pleasantly breaks down. Only . . . some people decide, “Ya gotta have slaves now. Nothin’ else is worth anything.” And start enslaving their neighbors through armed force. A caste society results where most people are “slobs” (slaves).

How would it go?

More importantly, will we ever get it? Is there any theoretical technology that could, someday, within the laws of physics as now understood, give us a matter replicator?

I don’t think we’ll ever have matter replicators - I think Heisenberg gave the lie to the idea that you can ever duplicate something that accurately, and conservation of energy + E=MC² gives the lie to us ever doing it relatively cheaply in energy terms. The closest I think we’ll ever get is a micro-scale version of the 3D printers we currently have - a less-coarse version of [RepRap](RepRap Project) would still be cool, but it isn’t matter replication.

Using nanotechnology I can see a “matter replicator” being possible, but it’ll be much slower than Star Trek’s. I see a semi-plausible future replicator as using nanotech to build the microscopic scale stuff, and something like a 3-D printing process to assemble the nanomachined components on a larger scale quickly. How fast such a process would be I don’t know, but I doubt it would be just a few seconds Star Trek style. As we see in living things, building stuff on a molecular level produces a fair amount of heat, which will limit manufacturing speed; I expect one major limit on speed will be how much molecular scale precision is necessary for the product. Most of the time, I’d expect them to only act as semi-replicators; you don’t really need your new entertainment center to have a plastic housing with identical molecular structure to everyone else’s.

So, what I see is a future where you’ll have an economy/manufacturing with one segment for things that people are willing to wait for the replicators to grow/build what they want, and another where other methods are used for quick manufacture. You might buy the slow-to-make parts premade, stick them in your replcator, and it’ll build the rest in a few minutes. Food comes to mind as another example; I want my spaghetti dinner TODAY, not in a week or month. Picard didn’t have to wait very long for his Earl Grey, or he’d have brewed it instead of replicating it.

Atoms are really too large for quantum uncertainty to make duplication a problem. Cells work with atomic and molecular scale objects all the time, and do build duplicate after duplicate molecule, which is proof it can be done ( Yes, they don’t build things that are exact duplicates on a larger scale, but that’s not a problem involving quantum uncertainty ). And, they do so with a low energy budget. What they don’t do is do it fast; if nothing else, I’d expect waste heat to be the biggest limiting factor.

As far as social effects go, I don’t buy the idea that it would destroy society; I especially don’t buy the Gizmo slave society idea. First, there’s little incentive, since there’s far less for slaves to do. Second, and more importantly, because the slaves would be uncontrollable by a few guys with guns, in a society where one escaped slave with a rifle, a sandwich, and a stolen Gizmo can equip a guerrilla force against the slavers. An army can beat a guerilla force, but not a few guys lording it over slaves because they have guns and the slaves don’t. And what would the slavers pay their overseers with that they can’t get themselves ? Slavery on any scale beyond one master and one or two slaves requires a system of oppression to make it hold together.

More likely, I see an economy that’s materially a lot like the Internet. Lots of stuff, sometimes of questionable quality, that can be copied for free or cheaply. Other things that take more money ( or with replicators, time ). And, there’s be a base cost in resources for everything; you need a computer, an ISP, and electricity for the Internet; you’ll need electricity, raw materials and templates for your replicator.

If you are using a Star Trek replicator where does it start building from? Atomic scale or does it have to start smaller? My guess is Heisenberg will still screw us up royally here as it would have to build from sub-atomic scales.

And the energy budget would be staggering. Presumably you are converting energy to matter in which case you go with E=MC[sup]2[/sup] which makes big numbers fast. Some time ago I asked here if I converted all of my mass to energy how big a bomb would I make? Been awhile but IIRC equivalent to somewhere around 10,000 megatons. Even small things would take staggering energy expenditures. We’d definitely need antimatter generators and have access to essentially free anti matter to even think of it. Having that much energy coursing into your house…scary.

I’ll go with nano-construction. That I can see as being possible.

As I recall, even Star Trek replicators use some sort of feedstock. As for Heisenberg, they use “Heisenberg compensators”.

“How do Heisenberg compensators work ? They work very well, actually.” :smiley:

IIRC, the feedstock is to make the process relatively cost-effective in energy terms. They could also use pure energy, I think. Could be wrong. Not a Trekkie.

And I don’t think comparison with a cell is accurate - from my understanding of the OP, he was talking about exact duplication - to me, that means at the subatomic level. Like I said, we will have small-scale assemblers someday - micro if not nano - it’s only an extension of current tech, after all. But we will never have exact replication, and even if we could have near-perfect replication (so all the sub-atomic particles were close enough to the right place to form all the right atoms in *their *right places, not explode spontaneously in a messy flash), it still wouldn’t be cheap if using pure energy for the process, as there has to be some energy to power the process and then E=MC² to make the mass.

Granted, if we allow for feedstock and mere copying, not Trek-style replication, I see no practical barrier to a Replicator Lite working. And if we’re talking about merely making machines and simple organics, rapid prototypers are already there.

To answer the other part of the OP - the slave society is right out, for the reasons DT already gave. I do see the rise of a new social division - people who can design new things would be held in some esteem, and there would be some cachet to doing things “for real” (like the restaurant Cisco’s dad runs in DS9) - so for instance, a handmade clay pot might have more prestige than a fabbed one, but the only way to be really sure would be to be there when it was made, wouldn’t it?

I could definitely see nano replicators that take basic materials (which would be compiled and sorter by a nano scale deconstructor…something that would be fairly dangerous and that you would definitely want to keep a good handle on if you want to avoid the gray goo problem) and construct some rather exotic things with it. I doubt you’d be able to take a living person, deconstruct them and then reconstruct them somewhere else. Not because I think it would be impossible to deconstruct them but because I think the amount of data you’d need to gather to reconstruct the person at the other end is simply overwhelming. But constructing something like the panel on a car made out of some exotic material that is pretty much impossible to make by traditional methods? Sure, I could see that. Or solid state computers made out of very exotic materials and put together in highly improbable ways…yeah, I think that’s possible though I doubt I’ll live to see it.

I remember reading a book by John Ringo where he talks about a race of aliens who’s major technology pretty much hinges on praying (well, focus perhaps since they never talk about god) and thus creating all of their technology by putting it together one atom at a time. They actually have teams of folk who sit around and imagine what they want…and then it comes together. Even their space craft are made this way (though obviously it takes a LOT of folks sitting around praying for that :)). I envision humans interfacing with advanced computers to direct nano replicators to build the exotic materials of the future.


In a society where you had effectively free energy and matter transformation, you’d probably end up with an economy based on the things that could not be reproduced by those technologies: space, service, and creativity. Matter transformers couldn’t create new land so real estate would still have value. The ability to create things like art and entertainment that other people enjoy would still be a way to make a living. And there’d still be jobs working for other people (until they perfect android technology).

So you’d probably end up with a society where there were no poor people; everyone would have the basic material needs of food, water, and shelter. But there would still be commodities that were valuable and worth buying and selling.

There;s not such thing possible even with “nanotechnology.” Nanotech is anot a cure-all, and it’s a horrifically bad way to make most things. It is slow, inacurate, and would be a massively difficult engineering task to even begin toa ccomplish for no gain.

Short version: Without handwaving away the issues of energy, time, and control, manufacture via nanotech is vastly inferior to virtually any other manufacturing method you could conceive of.

Not sure if this is a stretch too far, but we could have a form of “matter replication” if we master nuclear fusion.

Because, all the heavy elements on Earth* were ultimately produced via nuclear fusion within a star. So, if we did find some simple way to get fusion going and contained, we could probably manufacture whatever elements we want, and be able to make gold, say, as a side-effect of energy production.

But yeah, nanotechnology is closer to what the OP probably meant.

WRT the other part of the OP, I think that it would bring huge prosperity to society, which will obviously have a huge impact. But sadly, I don’t think in itself it will mean world peace or an age of scientific enlightenment or anything. The general public are remarkably resilient to the wonders of science.

  • OK, so IIRC, once the Universe cooled after the big bang there was lots of hydrogen and helium and I think trace amounts of one heavier element (lithium?). But all the other elements, and quite a bit of the helium around today was made in stars. Or by humans in particle accelerators.

That’s such a cool idea for a scifi novel!

Praying is adjusting the nature of the universe as you perceive it. Sounds obvious until you realize that the best prayer is “make me perfectly satisfied with the world as it is.”

Thus, calibrating one’s personality to attune it to the already existing universe is the easiest way to attain the goal. Why bring the mountain to Mohammed when it’s easier to take Mohammed to the mountain?

If you can successfully “convince” 7 billion people they are living in paradise and they believe they are living in paradise, who’s to say they aren’t?

Back to the OP. We will likely have “dumb” replication available. Think of replicators that can handle different scanning and “3D printing” resolutions, are completely dependant on a detailed, litteral “source code”, very finicky with ingredients, extremely slow to produce anything, limited in materials, etc.

The interface would be as devoid of intelligence, imagination and initiative as our computers are today of course but wait a century or two and you’ll have a brand new era on your hands*

*IF you live that long…maybe if you freeze yourself before you kick the proverbial bucket…

Do you know how long ago he wrote it, because I wrote a short story of similar theme[sup]*[/sup] circa 1989-90. A colony at Wolf 359 was preceded by self-replicating pseudo-nanobots that can form objects and perform complex tasks by voice control. Trouble is, the humans’ language began to subtly change and certain voice commands stopped working, or stopped working reliably. The descendants of the original colonists soon “prayed” for things, and “guilds” existed to accomplish certain specialized tasks, with the guild’s only real skill being that they knew the keywords and jealously guarded them. A boy captures a few of the grain-of-sand-sized bots for study and eventually discovers a leftover operator’s manual. Now he alone has near-infinite power because he’s the only one who knows how to speak standard English.

[sup]*[/sup]Based on an idea by a guy named Ed Tomlinson, a cousin of a friend of mine.

In terms of a starship they might master the ability to recycle the matter in a homeostatic mechanism, so that the machine takes our poo and recycles it into food that we can eat. Kind of like nature does but in a less roundabout manner.

Nah, it was fairly recent, and it was more a matter of ‘groking’ than praying, as I dug it. They were craftsmen, not monks. From his ‘When the Devil Dances’ books.

Huh. I find it hard to believe that no one has mentioned Stephenson’s The Diamond Age yet. (Stone age, Iron age, …, Diamond Age; so-called because the nanotechnology allows the use of diamond as construction material.) There’s way more to the story than just matter replication (and I don’t remember it well enough to convey it); in fact, replication plays more of a background, even though pervasive, role than anything. But engineers end up with a very high status in the resultant world.

Interestingly, in the “Victorian” enclave, guilds and the like that make hand-made items find a place, because having “non-feed” items is a status symbol.

Nah. Somebody will come up with a gadget that can spot subtle indications that the item was made by a replicator. I’d imagine that in the case of something built via nanotechnology (as opposed to handwave technology like in the Trekvers), the atomic arrangement in the replicated item would be a bit too neat and orderly compared to the handmade one.

Rather like some gemstones these days, where as I understand it the ones that can be manufactured can be distinguished by their perfection, resulting in flawed stones being more valuable.

Sounds like a response to George O. Smith’s Venus Equilateral seriies. Smith wrote pretty hard-core (but pre-IC technology) SF back in the 1940s, and a whole series of them revolved around a research/communication station at one of Venus’ Lagrange points (hence the name). The researchers there came up with successive inventions that produced teleporters, which lead inevitably to matter replicators. Smith’s discoveries lead to a major shift in the world’s economies, as you can imagine (no substance is “scarce” anymore, since you can always make more of it), although replicators and energy arguably are. Smith was a bit of an optimist.

I don’t think that other eople would pursue straight slavery. I do think that there are enough control freaks who would try to corner the market even in a world of infinite supply, even at the expense of other people’s suffering. Read the Riverworld stories by Philip Jose Farmer (and the two volumes of Riverworld stories by other authors).

I think he wrote the first or second one in the late 90’s because I remember one of the books got delayed because of 9/11. But yeah, it was his Hymn Before battle series (whatever he calls it).

He used the term praying though it was from the humans perspective. I always thought of it the same way…intense concentration. It was a pretty cool concept and allowed them to make some rather exotic materials that couldn’t really be made otherwise. I remember him talking about how they made anti-matter (and encapsulated it) for instance. He said the humans could make very small quantities by use of things like particle accelerators, but that doing so it was a very low order of probability and so they could make very little of it. The aliens on the other hand were manipulating reality itself in such a way that they were essentially rolling 6’s every time. :slight_smile: But it was a very slow, time consumming process taking many masters to build anything substantial (which was one of the reasons there were so few of the powered armored suits available…and why it took them so long to create star ships and such).

My guess is that IF we ever get replication type nano-tech it would be used to make very exotic materials that we simply can’t make through traditional means…but that it will be fairly time consumming. For one thing I doubt that it would be very sane to set up this kind of manufacturing here on earth…or to make it really widely available, no matter how well it works. Things like self replicating constructors or deconstructors could be wildly dangerous in the wrong hands.