5th July 1991
All Interested People
In any Nation of the World

Dear People,

I am placing this article in the public domain in the hope that it will stimulate thought and discussion about the future of life on this planet. This was originally written as a magazine article in reponse to an editorial challenge to do something positive for our ecology.

It is a lengthy response, but I believe warranted both by the topic, and the content.

I. What is it that causes our environmental problems ?

A. A chain of answers.

There is no one simple answer. Though there are a number of significant contributors. But before we look at some of the answers, lets look a little more closely at the question.

B. Our environment - what is it ?

What is our environment ?

In practice it is the biosphere.

What is the biosphere ? The shallow region on the surface of our planet in which life can exist. In the extremes it stretches about ten miles up into the atmosphere, and about the same distance down to the sludge at the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches. In practice most life lives in water, or on the land-air interface. Very few organisms penetrate more than a few meters into the earth itself.

We are a living breathing part of that biosphere, and yet our habits, social and industrial practices, are currently greatly reducing the ability of this small region of our universe to support life.

What is pollution ?

Pollution, by the broad definition above - is any practice or material which reduces the ability of our planet's biosphere to support living organisms (ourselves amongst them).

How do we stop polluting ?

We develop a broad set of technologies and practices which meet our existing and future objectives, and also promote and advance the ability of our planet to support a vast range of life forms.

Did anyone say "Impossible !" ? Read on !

C. Inertia.

This is a fact of life. It is a fundamental property of the universe, that it takes energy to change the way anything is.

When we apply this principle to people it means that they must be able to see clear advantages (both short and long term) in making any change, before they will seriously consider making it.

What has that got to do with pollution ?

Most people blame technology for pollution - but that is not strictly accurate.

A technology (or practice) which is perfectly viable and environmentally friendly when practised in low concentration can be disastrous in high concentration.

What does this mean in practice ? It means that what worked perfectly well for our great grandparents, and all their forebears, doesn't work today. There are just too many people.

We have reached a sufficient concentration on the surface of our planet that some would say our very existence (in such concentration) is a form of pollution {I disagree with that contention - but it gets the idea across}.

D. Production driven by Profits.

Our dominant social structure is our economic system.

Our economic system is driven by the need to make profits.

One way to increase profit is to reduce costs.

Profits are viewed in a very short term. Most investors are interested in the annual balance sheet.

Our economic system must, inevitably, be very slow to respond to any pressure which does not show an immediate improvement in the annual balance sheet.

Investment in new technology is expensive, and has a negative impact on the annual balance sheet.

II. The Concept of "Personalised Means of Production".

A. Introduction

1. History of "Means of production"

When Man was a "hunter gatherer" the means of production was personal - you found your own food, or starved to death. But there was very little control over the food supply. If there was no food where you were, you went looking somewhere else.

As people started to cultivate it became possible to settle in areas. People started to specialise in producing certain things in excess of their own requirements and trading those things with others to round out their requirements. Production and consumption started to separate, but the range of goods and services available for consumption increased.

Prior to the industrial revolution most people were still involved in the production of food, and the range of other goods and services available was somewhat limited. With mechanical assistance it became possible for very few people to produce large amounts of food, and other goods. Vast numbers of people were displaced from their previous employment, but the free enterprise method of distribution was largely retained.

Today most people are in situations where they are completely divorced from the means of production of the basic necessities of life. These means of production are under the control of other people. Basic items such as food, shelter, clothing; for most people, can only be obtained with money. They have no direct or personal control over their production.

This last fact has one major implication. It forces reliance on the systems and social structures involved in the production of these necessities. It is absolutely vital that someone produce these goods and services. Social structures have evolved to make allowance for this fact - and a kind of economic slavery has evolved.

To ensure that the system always has sufficient workers to keep it going, the majority of those workers are deprived of real freedom of choice. They are forced, by the necessity of getting money to eat and live, to work within the system. Most people have no real choice in what they do.

Many people say that our society is run by greed. This is not quite true. Greed can be a successful strategy in our social system, but for most people it is simple necessity that drives them. It is the requirements for food, clothing and shelter that keep most people from telling their boss exactly where he can stick his job. It is the need for those things that stops them from going the beach, or the mountain, or just lying in the sun.

Personalising the means of production gives people real choice with what they do with their lives. For the first time in history it will give that choice to everyone. At the same time, the strategies discussed later in this document go a long way toward solving most of the ecological problems our world is faced with.

2. What is a "Personalised Means of Production"

"Personalised means of production" means giving every individual the industrial capacity to produce all of their material needs without the need to involve anyone else.

This does not mean that everyone MUST make everything themselves. It says only that they should have the ability.

It is only since the invention of the silicon based microprocessor that this has become a real possibility. It is only in the last year or two that we have had all of the technical ability. We can now produce such a machine.

This paper is based upon the concept that it should be possible to build a machine complex (as described later) which can produce a vast array of goods and services, amongst them the ability to produce duplicates of itself.

It should be able to produce a copy of itself in a week. Given this, thirty three weeks (8 months) after producing the first one, there could be one for each individual human on the surface of the earth. (The energy figures for this are not prohibitive - the solar-mites mentioned below would, after 33 weeks, cover 50% of the arable land, at a density of 1% - i.e. 99% of the energy from the sun would still be available to each and every plant - their (the robot complexes) enhancements to the micro-environment should see a net increase in biological production in that first year in excess of 50%).

These machines could feed, talk to, house, and cloth their people. They would talk to, and listen to their people. They would obey.

3. A current political view

To produce one of these machines will take an investment of billions of dollars.

The second and all subsequent machines will have zero dollar value.

There will be no input of human resource.

This project should take 5 to 8 years to complete.

It ought to be possible to use a political platform to launch a nation into such a project.

That political platform should be able to use the "clean green" environmentally friendly approach, as well as the technical, as well as the practical; to appeal to the lowest and the highest emotions of most voters.

With a good graphical background - animated video - it could be understood by most people.

4. The coming reality

This is a technical possibility.

I believe it is socially desirable.

I want it to happen !

I will be doing everything in my power to make it a practical reality.

I want the future that this development promises. And all of the further futures that it makes possible.

B. The robot complex of a "Personalised Means of Production".

1. The Base

The base need only be semi mobile. So long as it can move with the aid of the servant and the workers that is all that is required.

The function of the base is as a central communication and control complex, and the necessary manufacturing technology.

Major functions include:

Production facilities for workers.

Communication with, and control of, the workers.

Communication with, and support for, the servant.

Communication with other bases.

To be the local repository of knowledge.

The base should be aesthetically pleasing to look at, and feel good to touch, but should not be situated in too obvious a place.

It's role is decision and support - it should interface only with other robotic units, and not with either the environment or humans.

2. The servant

The servant is the primary human interface of the team, and as such should have a humanoid appearance in most cases.

The servant must be aesthetically pleasing to behold.

It must not look or act in any way which causes people to perceive it as a threat.

It should be physically small - elf or pixie like. The precise appearance will depend upon the social context. Whatever it is in the history of those it is to serve which is traditionally the helpful agent.

It will be necessary to pay attention to details such as warmth, furriness etc. It must look, feel, sound, and act in a friendly manner.

It should have a physical strength somewhat less than an adult human, so that it can quite easily be disabled in practical situations, but a quickness that makes it easy to survive most of the time. (This to counter any perception of threat).

3. The workers

The nanobots!

The microbots!

Nano meaning very small.

Micro meaning just small.

-Bot meaning robot; a mechanical entity which follows a set of rules.

Most of the robots in the team would be very small, insect like machines.

Individually they would have very simple control systems, and nothing much in the way of intelligence. They would be able to perform very simple tasks without supervision, but would require supervision from base for any complex tasks.

Many of these would be too small to see with the naked eye.

4. Some worker scenarios

a. Solar mites

These are small, almost microscopic "mite" like robots which spread out over an area. Each "mite" would carry a concentrator lens mounted above its back, to focus sunlight onto the solar cell mounted on its back. Each mite would be responsible for directing it's lens toward the sun.

The cables leading back to base could be underground.

Large cables could be installed by mole-like robots. Smaller feeder cables could be carried out by worm like robots. From the tip of each worm hole there would spread out a horde of solar-mites. Each with a solar cell on its back, and longish "feelers" front and back and sides to act as cables connecting it to other mites in the swarm. The whole swarm would form a network which would supply power to the grid.

If the "Feelers" on individual mites were 10 times the length of the concentrator lens on the mite's back, then they would only intercept 1% on the incoming solar radiation. Shorten the feelers to 3 times lens length, and the capture rises to 11%.

Plant ecosystems would not be noticeably affected by mite concentrations of this order.

The mites would have a control program which caused them to run for cover if approached by anything large, or just wander quietly about making power if there was no danger (movement to prevent over-shading of any part of the plant they are on).

b. Miners

Nanobot miners could take many forms.

In sandy soils small ant-like miners could mine the sand grains themselves. They would search for a grain of the desired mineral type, and when they found one, scurry back to base with it.

This activity would supply all of the mineral needs of the base production unit, while at the same time enhancing the soil (by aeration) for biological systems.

Other worm like microbots (bigger than nanobots, but still small) could work through clay type soils and subsoils. Similar machines could search through subsoils for nutrients required by plants in the surface soils, and bring them up.

c. Grazers

If you wanted to have a normal garden, see the next section, but if you wanted to blend totally in the existing ecosystem, you could use small grazer mites, to harvest a very small fraction of the sugar and protein production of whatever was growing nearby to supply you with food.

It could be taken right down to the molecular level. Small nanobots could go searching for particular flavour molecules which you liked. Or go looking for flavours in certain classes of flavours, and surprise you ....

d. Gardeners

Gardening could not be simpler. Each seed could be tended by its own worker, and, as it grew to maturity, a team of workers.

The team would have soldiers to keep away insects and higher life forms from tended plants. Cleaners to keep dust and bacterial and fungus spores off the leaves. Miners to ensure that the soil had the minerals required in the right concentrations. And a host of other specialised micro-machines to keep all aspects of the micro-environment within acceptable limits for the plant they tended.

e. Windmill butterfly-bots

These small wind generators could be used to provide power when atmospheric conditions made solar power unavailable. It would be up to the base to decide how many to have in reserve for such a circumstance.

Such micro-machines would go out to harvest the evening breeze, or to tame some energy from a storm.

f. Personal hygiene and health mites

Much is possible here.

Small mites could swarm over your skin as you slept, removing dead skin; holding any cuts or punctures closed (after cleaning them) so that the body could heal more rapidly; removing any unwanted foreign objects (such as dirt, dust, or harmful bacteria).

Others could live in your hair, and each would make sure that it's hair was clean, the right length, and in an appropriate place. You would need to tell the base - through the servant - what was the appropriate hairstyle for the following day.

Others could work in and over the body assisting your natural defences to fight off any disease or infection.

5. Some global scenarios

a. Desert reclamation

Having solar powered nanobots available would makes re-gardening the deserts of the world a relatively easy thing to do. Some deserts would have to remain as ecosystem enclaves, but most of the currently expanding ones could be significantly shrunk.

b. Gaia

A world aware ?

C. A political framework.

1. The Concept

The concept here is to develop a democratic manifesto which allows for all people to put in their ideas, for these ideas to be examined, and for the plan to be modified.

Changes can be proposed both to the objectives, and the methods.

Both the objectives and the methods are to be clearly defined and placed on a public access bulletin board. Anyone may make reasoned submissions as to why either the objectives or the methods should be changed. People can also question the validity of all assumptions either explicitly expressed or implied.

The decision making panel must give reasons why each suggestion is to be accepted or rejected. These will then be open for further comment for a period before being actioned.

D. The challenge - What can you do now ?

What do you think of this ?

All comments and suggestions welcome.

I am looking for others interested in sharing the advancement of this concept. Please get in touch.

Ted Howard

email: Ted ted@fishnet.co.nz

to Fishnet Homepage