Trope-a-Day: Scale of Scientific Sins

Scale of Scientific Sins: All of them.  Absolutely all of them.

Automation: Of just about everything, as exemplified by the sheer number of cornucopia machines, AI managers and scurrying utility spiders.  Unlike most of the people who got this one very badly wrong, however, in this Galaxy, almost no-one is stupid or malicious enough to make the automation sophont or volitional.

Potential Applications: Feh.  Anything worth doing is worth doing FOR SCIENCE!  (Also, with respect to 2.2 in particular, Mundane Utility is often at least half of that point.)

GE and Transhumanism: Transsophontism Is Compulsory; those who fall behind, get left behind.  Or so say all we – carefully engineered – impossibly beautiful genius-level nanocyborg demigods.  (Needless to say, Cybernetics Do Not Eat Your Soul.)

Immortality: Possibly cheating, since the basic immortality of the eldrae and galari is innate – well, now it is, anyway – rather than engineered.  Probably played straight with their idealistic crusade to bring the benefits of Avoiding That Stupid Habit You Have Of Dying to the rest of the Galaxy, though.

Creating Life: Digital sapience, neogens (creatures genetically engineered from scratch, rather than modified from an original), and heck, even arguably uplifts, too.

Cheating Death: The routine use of vector stacks and reinstantiation is exactly this.  Previously, cryostasis, and the entire vaults full of generations of frozen people awaiting reinstantiation such that death would bloody well be not proud.  And no, people don’t Come Back Wrong; they come back pretty much exactly the same way they left.

Usurping God: This one is a little debatable, inasmuch as the Eldraeverse does not include supernatural deities in the first place.  On the other hand, if building your own complete pantheon of machine gods out of a seed AI and your own collective consciousness doesn’t count towards this, what the heck does?

Labor Theory of Value

(I was going to post the next chunk of Before the Phoenix today, but it’s not quite ready yet. So, here’s a quick wee thing instead…)

In the Conclave of Galactic Polities, Ambassador llin-Terl-an of the Palnu Sodality put forward a measure – supported by others of the Socionovist Association – proposing a system of voluntary interpolity fund transfers for the support of those individuals deprived of employment by imported cornucopia and other “industrial magic” automation technology.

Speaking for the Empire, Presiding Minister Calis Corith pointed out that his polity had, by the definitions contained within the proposal, all-pervasive deployment of industrial magic and an employment rate of zero, and thanked those supporting the proposal for stepping forward to financially ease the citizen-shareholders’ negative-value labor deficit at what would surely be a great cost to themselves.

The measure was tabled for further study.

– from the Imperial Infoclast

It’s FAQing Time!

Yes, folks, it’s that time again for the first time when I answer y’all’s background questions!

We have one question this month. James Sterrett asks:

What precursor elements do autofacs require for fabrication?  The same elements in the same proportions as the finished product (plus waste etc), or can they synthesize required elements?

Well, now, that’s an interesting question with quite a complicated answer, inasmuch as autofacs are rather complicated things in themselves..

Let me first suggest that this might be a good time to re-read Things That Make Things, since it covers a lot of the terminology I’m about to be throwing about.

So let’s start at the small end, with one of the most common working parts of an autofac, and which is also the core component of a cornucopia, including the ubiquitous desktop nanoforge, the portable nanolathe, and the specialized fabbers.

These, themselves, can’t synthesize elements, or indeed produce any other part of their feedstock – which is to say, you can’t just throw trash into them and have them rearrange it into what you want (you need specialized disassemblers for that, that are hardened to the job. Throw trash into a cornucopia, you have a good chance of wrecking the delicate internal components). They’re just glorified 3D printers. They’re absolutely dependent on a supply of feedstock, which is called nanoslurry.

(One exception to this is that you can also get what is called a nanobrick, which is basically dehydrated nanoslurry and formed together with a mass of simple assemblers. You use it together with a programming nanolathe for field construction, after mixing it with a suitable solvent, usually water, to form a nanopaste. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

Nanoslurry itself is a complex suspension of materials useful in nanoconstruction, designed to make it as easy and efficient as possible for nanofacs to pick out the bits they need. It comes in a variety of different kinds and grades, most of which are intended for one specialized industrial application or another. Standard-grade, which is what is shipped out as a public utility down municipal nanopipe systems, comes in two forms, informally referred to as “gray” and “green”.

The nanopipe you have plugged into your domestic cornucopia, for that matter, is actually a four-pipe system. The first supplies gray nanoslurry – which is water, long-chain alcohols, sulphur and nitrogen compounds, a suspension of iron and copper oxides, heavy metals, silicates, acetats, nanograins of industrial plastics, ceramics, and alloys, and prefabricated molecular components, or to put it another way, everything you might need to perform “common mechanosynthetic applications”. The second supplies green nanoslurry, which is specialized towards organic synthesis applications – what this means, of course, varies from world to world. And the third is the special-order pipe, which gets aliquots of specialized feedstock shot down it upon request, because while you may occasionally need, say, 2.1 g of technetium, it’s something specialized enough that there’s no point in including it in the regular feedstock.

(The fourth is the return pipe, that pumps what’s left after the nanofac has picked out what it needs back to the nanosource for recycling.)

And what the nanofacs need is, well, exactly what elements are in the finished product. (Plus a certain degree of in-process waste that ends up squirted down the outgoing pipe back to the nanosource.)

So, so far, we’ve just pushed the problem back to the nanosource; after all, nanoslurry doesn’t exist in nature, so it has to be manufactured. Which is what nanosources do: out of a variety of sources. Air mining, for worlds with atmospheres that have useful components. The bactries of chemical companies, refining volatile asteroid-liquor into useful chemicals with bacterial aid. Giant metal ingots shipped from smelters, which are reduced to slurry components. Reclaimed and purified chemicals from recycling plants and biocleaning cascades. In short, from the ends of all the conventional supply chains. Larger autofacs, like the Hive, will usually have their own nanosource(s) to produce all the specialized feedstocks that they want, especially since autofacs use a bunch of those raw materials elsewhere in their non-nanotech manufacturing processes.

So now we’ve just pushed the question back another level, haven’t we, to “can the people the nanosources use as suppliers synthesize elements?”

To which the answer is, finally: yes, but they usually don’t.

Nucleosynthesis is possible. There’s an entire engineering discipline, alchemics, that specializes in this sort of thing. But it’s neither cheap nor convenient, inasmuch as it still involves banging nucleons together and trying to get the wee buggers to stick, a process that tends to involve particle accelerators and nucleonic furnaces and isotopic separators and mucking about at absurdly high energy densities and low efficiencies. That said, it is now regular non-experimental engineering, and a large enough autofac might well include the equipment.

…but economically, it is almost always cheaper to dig the stuff up and have it shipped to you for nanosource processing than try to manufacture it on site from other elements. Nature’s production process may be slow and uncomfortably explosive for anyone within a couple of hundred light-years, but, damn, does it have economies of scale.

This effect is only amplified, of course, by the fact that alchemics equipment is also what you use to produce gluonic string,  muon metals, and various other kinds of exotic matter that genuinely don’t occur in nature anywhere. Now that’s what you call comparative advantage!

Things That Make Things

Since we’ve just passed the Matter Replicator trope, and since it may be relevant to an upcoming FAQ question, I thought I’d throw out some definitions relating to such things that may make things clear. Well, clearer.

nanofac is the basis of nanofacturing technology. Think of it as essentially a 3D printer which can handle arbitrary molecular components with single-atom resolution. (It doesn’t have to: a lot of the time it can simply place pre-assembled multi-atom components picked out of its feed, but the point is that it can.) While it can use free-floating assembler nanites as part of its operation, the vast majority of the work is done in a supercooled vacuum chamber by an array of distant descendants of the atomic force microscope. The materials supply it needs is fed to it as a suspension of molecular components called nanoslurry available in a variety of forms, supplied as a utility from a central nanosource that makes the stuff from raw materials and recycles the return feed of all the stuff that the nanofacs don’t use.

Most important to note is that a nanofac is not a discrete thing you can buy itself – it’s just the term for the central construction array as a module.

What you can buy, on the other hand, is a cornucopia, which is a general-purpose construction device that comes in sizes ranging from desktop-printer-sized (the ubiquitous nanoforge) to dishwasher/fridge size. These are common household, etc., appliances, packaged as vending machines by companies like Valuematic Vending, and are basically a user interface/power supply/etc. wrapped around an appropriate nanofac. They can make pretty much anything you can describe in a recipe, or conceptual seed, to give it its formal name, although if it’s something too big to fit into its vacuum chamber what you’ll get is a heap of parts over several runs which you have to assemble manually following the v-tags after you get them out. (They may or may not bond permanently once you do this.)

specialized cornucopia, on the other hand, is a fabber. These exist because in nanofacturing, there’s essentially a scale with versatility at one end and efficiency at the other. A cornucopia is a magical device that can make everything, but isn’t the fastest or most efficient way to make anything in particular.

So there are fabbers, which trade off that ability for greater speed and efficiency and customized user-friendliness in doing one particular thing. So while you want a cornucopia available to you, certainly, what you want in your wardrobe is a clothing fabber, in your kitchen is a food fabber, in your sickbay is a pharmafabber, in your wet bar is a cocktail fabber, etc., etc.

And finally, it’s worth noting that assembling things atom by atom, or molecule by molecule, is not actually a terribly efficient way to do things in the first place. It works fine for small objects, sure, where the convenience outweighs the inefficiency, and especially for those made out of lots of tiny components with fine detail to assemble. But large things, especially large things with large areas of relatively homogeneous structure, you really don’t want to make that way.

Which is where autofacs come in. An autofac is a automated assembly system that contains an array of nanofacs for making individual detailed components, but which also contains lathes and drills and presses and kilns and extruders and all manner of other macroscale manufacturing-process equipment, along with plenty of motile robots whose job is to do the assembly of all the different outputs of these processes into the end product. (So they take in nanoslurry for the ‘facs, but also metal ingots, ceramic powder, plastic granules, etc., etc., as their raw materials.)

These vary in size from the relatively modest autofacs you’ll find in most neighborhoods, belonging to companies like Ubiquifac, whose job is to construct large goods people have ordered on-line at a point relatively local to them for immediate delivery, up through larger factories – such as the ones that take nanoslurry and sheet metal in at one end and have finished vehicles drive out the other – all the way to truly giant many-square-miles really-can-build-anything complexes like the Hive.

Trope-a-Day: Matter Replicator

Matter Replicator: The cornucopia machine or autofac, which can build matter into pretty much any object that you want and have – or can write – a recipe for.

Sadly, they are required to obey the laws of thermodynamics and conservation of mass-energy.  They also tend to incorporate – especially in larger models designed to build larger objects – arrays of specialized nanofactories and macro-scale tools, and require plenty of energy and specialized appropriate feedstocks for whatever it is you want them to build (so mining, refining, recycling, bactries, and the rest of the industrial supply chain haven’t gone away quite yet).  You can make them increasingly general-purpose in these areas at the cost of greater inefficiency – field autofacs are a lot less elegant and more energy-hungry and expensive to run than standard household models.

Living things generally have to be grown in a medical vat instead; simply because most of them tend to die when only half-printed.  Yes, this is exactly as gross as it sounds.  (Also, some dead organic matter – well, let me put it this way.  While you can print up a steak in an autofac, steak is still made in carniculture vats, because first, self-replicating steak is cheaper, and second, it gets boring eating the exact same steak hundreds or thousands of times.  Similar although aesthetic considerations are why vatwood is generally preferred to directly replicated wood – although vatwood planks are seen as input to larger autofacs.)

Nonetheless, they’re more than good enough for post-material scarcity purposes.

Trope-a-Day: No Poverty

No Poverty: Played straight in the Empire – and indeed the entire Core Economic Zone.

Well, at least as far as absolute poverty goes. Let us consider, for example, the hypothetical lowest-income citizen-shareholder in the Empire, someone who certainly doesn’t exist, having never had a single original, marketable thought in their entire life, possesses no skills, and who has never found any way to make themselves useful to any other sophonts whatsoever.

That guy, whose only source of income is the Citizen’s Dividend, can still afford a good-sized, luxurious home to live in, and – for less than the price of basic cable *here*, at that – an energy-and-cornucopia-services subscription sufficient to fabricate more food than he could ever eat, more clothing than he could ever wear, and a wide range of other assorted consumer goods even if they’re last year’s relinquished-copyright model; along with information-services access, basic-coverage tort insurance, and comprehensive medical.

That’s only going to stop being true if he manages to screw up deliberately and dramatically – and, given the generosity of Imperial bankrupty/debt law designed to encourage entrepreneurship and leave people able to function and earn more money to pay their debts in future, in fairly exotic ways. (And this is itself unlikely, inasmuch as That Guy is likely to receive a friendly visit from the Guardians of Our Harmony seeking to cure his obvious craziness even before taking it to the next level.)

tl;dr It is within delta of functionally impossible to have less than a well-off middle-class lifestyle in the CEZ in general and the Empire in particular.

Now, to mention what the trope page says is rarely mentioned, if you’re the type to concern yourself with relative poverty, then you can still find plenty of material to get hot and bothered about. The Empire got to its poverty-free post-material-scarcity state of awesomeness through the vigorous and rapacious practice of free markets and greed, and isn’t planning to change any time soon. As such, were anyone to bother computing its Gini coefficient or other such measures of economic inequality, it would undoubtedly cause some serious palpitations and flabberghast, the fantastically wealthy Numbers owning private luxury moons, and so forth.

It’s just that no-one *there* gives a damn, because the traditional ways of “legally stealing” your way to wealth are all illegal, and because it’s hard to convince people who live in big houses and own magic boxes that can make heaps and heaps of anything for twenty bucks a month that they’re being Horribly Oppressed by the 1%, the Man, or pretty much anyone else. At least, it is without idiot primate status-game instincts to help you.

Finally to note, this is something that I do pretty much try to take lightly, at least inside the CEZ. After all, to the lucky people from there, the magic box that makes whatever you want just as soon as it occurs to you to want it is the natural state of the universe, belike.

Of course, when they have to deal with the people from outside there, or, dearie me, with the people from the Unemerged Markets, they have the most terrible – “No comconsoles?” – problems in understanding exactly what the heck this poverty thing is. (See much more under Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense.) Not having a cornucopia machine of your very own is about as far as the non-cosmopolitan imagination gets.

Trope-a-Day: Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense

Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Part of the problem – to an extent, sense being defined as specifically those kinds of it that apply in scarcity economies – the Empire and its economic peers have in relating to the rest of the galaxy, specifically those parts of it that aren’t awash in automation, cornucopias, and in any case, cashy money.  Which is to say, those who’ve read history or geography enough to learn about the past or elsewhere can more or less appreciate the notion of poverty as an abstract datum, but, y’know, it feels like poverty ought to mean something like bandwidth limitations, or having a valet-bot with no sense of taste, or having to make do with public-domain fashion, or something.  At worst, the sort of temporary condition that happens on very early colonies or during disasters before you get the power plants and the autofacs up and running (again).

The sort of thing that we would recognize as poverty, either here in the West or worse, in the Third World, isn’t even on the imaginative radar of the modal Imperial citizen-shareholder.  Those who do come to appreciate its existence generally form the core of the faction that wants to see Order, Progress, Liberty and the Imperial Way of Life rammed down the throat of the entire galaxy right the hell now, because gods above and gods below, how can any sophonts bear to live like that?

(This is also the one, incidentally, that supports any number of smugglers willing to take immortagens and cornucopia machines to the Oppressed Masses, and remains terribly, terribly confused that people who have all the means to live in a comfortable not-as-cool-as-ours-obviously but still pretty damn nice Utopia still manage to consistently screw it up.)

Also, apposite and relevant Jeeves and Wooster quotation: “As I stood in my lonely bedroom at the hotel, trying to tie my white tie myself, it struck me for the first time that there must be whole squads of chappies in the world who had to get along without a man to look after them. I’d always thought of Jeeves as a kind of natural phenomenon; but, by Jove! of course, when you come to think of it, there must be quite a lot of fellows who have to press their own clothes themselves and haven’t got anybody to bring them tea in the morning, and so on. It was rather a solemn thought, don’t you know. I mean to say, ever since then I’ve been able to appreciate the frightful privations the poor have to stick.

Trope-a-Day: Infinite Supplies

Infinite Supplies: While nothing in this case is actually infinite, thanks to the Laws of Thermodynamics, centuries or millennia of living in space have made most advanced cultures in the Associated Worlds very, very good at closed-cycle recycling; and on a simpler level, well, the cornucopia machine does wonders for logistics problems, inasmuch as – albeit with inefficiency – it’s able to manufacture essentially anything that doesn’t need rare elements or exotic-matter components from fairly simple feedstocks.  So unless you need something particularly exotic or bound about with draconian Fabrication Rights Management restrictions, the odds are that you can get it without too much trouble.

Trope-a-Day: Genie in the Machine

Genie in the Machine: The classic example here is the classic cornucopia machine (available in all good Imperial appliance stores or catalogs!) with its friendly, helpful artificial intelligence to help you find the right tools for what you want to do, and then build them for you…

…despite the essential benignity of the device, however, people still manage to get themselves into trouble with them, because they’ll help you to do what you want to do.  They expect you, however, to already know if what you want to do is stupid, illegal, or merely incredibly dangerous.

It’s astonishing how many civilizations let people run around without having figured that out.

Third Worldity in the Associated Worlds

In answer to a general question elsewhere about “Third World” nations in your setting:

Depending on whose perspective you look at it from, the Associated Worlds have lots of these. From the point of view of the Empire and the other self-designated “Core Economic Zone” powers – which is to say, distinguished by being effectively post-material-scarcity and energy-rich, most of the known galaxy is like this.

Actual conditions vary considerably, from places like the People’s State of Bantral (which could give most desperately impoverished kleptocracies on Earth a run for their money in the grinding poverty/oppressive dictatorial craphole stakes) at the low end to places resembling the Star Trek federation in which, despite having cornucopia machine technology (== replicators), somehow terms like “quotas”, “allocations”, and “rations” still keep turning up, and the lifestyle is still pretty much 20th-century wealthwise.

While the difference between these cases is pretty obvious even to them, the people from the civilizations in which the average Joe lives in a mansion attended by a flock of robotic minions, can have virtually any material good for the asking, and thinks nothing of heading three star systems over for an impromptu “road trip” when the whim strikes him are not impressed, and would call both of them and everything in between poverty-stricken backwaters.

As for why – well, the standard CEZ diagnosis of either is “stupidity and/or power”. Stupidity, in the sense of having their brains eaten by bad economic ideas, like “relative wealth is more important than absolute wealth”, or “economics is a zero sum game”, or “the best way to get rich is to keep other people poor”, or “jobs, rather than the products of jobs, are good”, or “free trade bad”, or suchlike; and power, in the plain old sense of wanting to be able tell people what to do. Either of those things tends to be acutely corrosive to prosperity in general and the post-scarcity transition in particular.

(The locals in most of those places disagree, and usually have some narrative or other about, in the former-type case, how the bad old CEZ powers are keeping them down, or in the latter-type case, how their situation is actually better, safer, keeps superempowering tech in the hands of the experts, isn’t so decadent, etc. Since there are plenty of people in the CEZ who would happily give an open-source cornucopia and the open-source/public-domain fab library that goes with it to pretty much anyone who asks for one… well, the former is not exactly considered a serious complaint, and as for the latter – hey, if you like poverty so much, you go ahead and marry it, why don’t you?

That the governments and in many cases the corporate, unionist, etc., special interests that own them in much of the non-CEZ world go to a lot of trouble to keep smuggled cornucopias, or at least unregulated cornucopias not running state oversight code out of their polities only gives more credence to the “it’s because you can’t strut around like a great entitled jackass and tell people how to live unless you keep your economic, etc. leverage” point of the view that the CEZ-types espouse.)

As for how they’re treated – well, a few of the interested activist types in the CEZ work actively to try to spread counter-propaganda about what life’s really like in the less, ah, controlled chunks of the galaxy, and smuggle cornucopias to friendly groups inside those nations (and, of course, when you have one, you can rapidly have more than one) to try and fix the problem – after all, it’s not the locals’ fault that they’re governed by power-hungry idiots.

(Well, mostly. It’s not like most of the Western world on today’s Earth wouldn’t instantly be classified by them as a perfectly democratic example of both economic stupidity and power-hungry jackasses, and it’s hard to argue that we didn’t do that to ourselves – as in the cases of many of the democratic, etc., polities in the Worlds outside the CEZ, of various levels of economic development – but I digress.)

But the modal member of the CEZ mostly just ignores the problem. You can’t fix stupid, and you can’t fix grasping, and you pretty much can’t do anything with these people until they grow the fuck up, so worrying about it will only give one indigestion. More wine, old boy?

While this might seem depressing, and in the short term rather is – well, the CEZ are pretty sure they’re on the right side of history, here.  In the long term, it’s pretty damn hard to persuade people that refusing to touch the magic box that can build anything is for their own good, and as for banning a technology that’s freely available elsewhere – hey, that trick always works, right?


Trope-a-Day: Energy Economy

Energy Economy: While the esteyn is not a pure energy currency (it remains, in our terms, a fiat currency using indices to carefully balance the money supply against the productivity of the economy), in the modern era, given the ready availability of nanofacs, energy forms a major part of these indices (the major indices used are the prices of energy, computational cycles, volume, and standardized feedstock mass; the former two usually predominate).

See here for more.

Trope-a-Day: Easy Logistics

Easy Logistics: Averted, even with nanotech, cornucopias, and suchlike, because it’s not like they don’t still require supplies of feedstock and energy, not to mention being inefficient to use for bulk manufacturing of things like ammunition – which is not a good place to be if the other side isn’t obliging you by being equally inefficient.

There’s a reason why the Eighth Lord of the Admiralty has the biggest stratarchy (the Stratarchy of Military Support and Logistics), which works very hard to keep equipment, fuel, ammunition and materials standardized, and to maintain the largest set of depots and fleets of oilers, tenders and transports around anywhere.  Tactics win battles; strategy wins campaigns.  Logistics wins wars.

Trope-a-Day: Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap

Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: …sort of.  Hydroponically grown food and meat out of the carniculture vats is cheaper, for example, yes.  That’s what mass production is for.

But it’s not like anyone’s going to go broke buying a nat-steak dinner.  Sure, people aren’t going to be eating nat-steak every night, but it’s not like a night out at the Natural Foods Restaurant (“Don’t Eat Vat!, et. al.) now and again is going to be out of reach of anyone with, well, an income.  Because the difference here isn’t that natural foods became more expensive due to environmental degradation, or whatever, it’s that vatfood became dirt cheap.

(Slight exception: well, okay, you can’t fit that many cows into a space station.)

Played straight in most other areas: after all, in near-post-scarcity economics, Baumol’s Cost Disease is in full play.  Cornucopias can make pretty much anything made of common elements of regular matter for trivial amounts of money; people’s time, on the other hand, is expensive.

Which leads to counterintuitive results: diamond, for example, is a practically worthless structural material – and not even a good structural material, being too flammable – because even the simplest assemblers can produce arbitrarily large amounts of carbon-crystal in short order.  Gold is cheap due to automated belt mining.  Anyone can afford to parade around in diamond-encrusted cloth-of-gold pants.  On the other hand, that hand-sewn, hand-embroidered shirt of what, to our eyes, are much humbler materials was orders of magnitude more expensive.  Hand-made goods are practically the definition of luxury.