Monday, July 18, 2011

What is a Replicator?

Let’s begin by defining what I mean by a Replicator.  There is the ideal concept and then there are compromises and simplifications that we need to make to fit into the real world.  In the ideal case: 

A Replicator is a device which takes energy and information as input and produces physical objects and waste heat.

This is a very idealized concept which implies the creation of matter from pure energy.  This is certainly possible and is being done today in the real world.  A visit to your local particle accelerator might allow you to see for yourself.  The amount of matter that can be created is, however, very, very, very tiny.  You would probably have to take somebody’s word that matter had actually been created at all.  And the amount of energy that it takes is prodigious.  That bit about waste heat is not really a joke, either.  Making the particle accelerator be able to operate without melting is a major consideration. 

So, maybe we need to compromise a little and allow some type of raw materials to be used.  What we mean by raw materials, where we get them, and how they are delivered to the Replicator are all interesting questions which will require further exploration.  Now we have:

A Replicator is a device which takes raw materials, energy and information as input and produces physical objects and waste heat.

This has radically simplified things and moved more into the realm of what we might be able to do practically.

Allowing our Replicator to accept raw materials leaves open the possibility that we could process previously replicated objects into new, completely different objects.  This recycling ability forms the heart of a sustainable technology. 

* * *

Now, what do I mean by information?  In this case I am talking about a description of the object in sufficient detail to allow an acceptable copy to be created.  It is expected that the Replicator itself will contain a library of detailed information that can be accessed by using nice, user-friendly names.  We do not intend to require an atom-by-atom description when all I really need is “Make me a chair”. 

A Replicator Pattern is the information necessary to describe the conversion of selected raw materials into a particular physical object. 

The Replicator may contain patterns for 10,000 different chairs, but we expect a suitable user interface to allow the most popular or most appropriate version to be selected.  Think of it as Googling the Replicator’s pattern database.  You get a kind of catalog to choose from. 

Even though the Replicator contains 10,000 chair patterns, it goes without saying that the one you really want is not there.  So, the user interface should allow easy customization of objects and some level of error-checking and visualization of the object prior to creation.  Thus, “Make me a chair like this, only paisley” would allow you to see if the pattern really matches the decor.  And “Make me a chair like this out of mercury” might elicit a cautionary response that the object would instantly melt at room temperature.  You could then correct your request to “Make me a chair like this out of titanium.”

* * *

Where might this Pattern information come from?  For simple objects it could be built from manually created Computer Aided Design (CAD) drawings.  For complex objects, an entire library of these detailed descriptions would be needed.  The information applicable to each different manufacturing process uses its own set of standards and has certain hidden assumptions that need to be included as part of the Pattern. 

For many objects, both simple and wildly complex, it would be very nice if the Replicator could simply duplicate an existing object.  This would require a (presumably non-destructive) scanning process, coupled with an ability to identify materials, plan processes and actually derive a Pattern.  This Pattern would then be used to duplicate the object.

I will argue later that a proper Replicator Pattern must include disassembly and recycling instructions, and that this is at least as important as the object-creation part itself.

* * *

We have gone to great lengths to have the information input to the Replicator accurately describe the desired physical object to be produced.  The Replicator is expected to produce exactly that object and nothing else.  We do not want more than one of the object.  We do not want a bunch of left-over, scrap object-pieces, sawdust, used tools, solvents, or radioactive waste.  Just one chair.

* * *

Right now we are simply trying to define the problem.  Actually achieving all this is what the future is for.  Even getting close in the near term is going to be a challenge for a lot of people to work on.  But I think it is a worthy goal to start toward. 

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