What Will be the Last Physical Technology Created?

Excluding software, what do you predict will be our culture’s last technological creation? This has to be something that, once made, means “game over” for our culture. It’ll break the world, but we’ll want it anyway.

When I asked this once before, a friend of mine replied, “A really good sex robot.” It should be obvious why that might make half the planet reprioritize their lives and stop showing up to work on time.

My personal view is that it’d be a replicator. While I think a culture could recover from that, it’d be tricky. You can bet that most everyone on the planet would want a replicator, and it’d literally spread virally, since your neighbor could replicate a replicator for you. People could make food, replacement parts, even larger replicators that could build bigger things like cars and houses. The replicator could make whatever you needed to stay clothed, fed, and sheltered. All you’d need is material to feed it, and we have plenty of garbage even today. In such a scenario, the most important job would quickly become that of replicator programmer (yes, I’m biased in thinking that) but finding them would be hard, since everyone’s basic needs would be met, reducing the motivation to work.

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “What Will be the Last Physical Technology Created?”

  1. While the most basic needs (food and water) will be met, a lot of needs can’t be met by a replicator. There will still be a need to purchase things — money would have to be worked out, some for of electric currency. Tasks could be assigned “units of work” which provide credits which can be used to make purchases. What will people need that a replicator can’t provide?

    Shelter. Yes, a replicator can make a tent or a house, but land will become an issue. If everyone can create their own 4 story, 80-bedroom house with a pool, where will they put it? So there have to be people willing to sell land (though once you have it, I can see almost no motivation to give it up, short of death), handle the deed transfer, etc.

    Protection. Firefighters will still need to pull you kids out of a burning house. Even with 90% of everyone’s needs being met, there will still be violence, neccessitating the need for police and military organizations. People will always be motivated to work for those kinds of groups if they feel that they are serving a greater good.

    Knowledge/Development. While a future society may find a way to electronically teach 2 year olds how to do advanced calculus and theoretical physics, along with providing them a wikipedia-style “everything we currently know” wristwatch, a fair percentage of people will still want to “figure things out”. We may have a flying car, but someone will want to make it faster or safer or take it to pluto. People will want to interact with others to study these subjects and will probably hook up with an R&D company (as manufacturing plants will simply be large replicators).
    [As a side note, if we have a replicator, we probably have an “item generator” — the design/program/blueprints are done on the computer and the “replicator” creates it. Once the design is done, implementation takes moments. At some point, your replicator programmers are really engineers developing designs.]

    Entertainment. What good is having a 130-inch TV if you use it to watch re-runs from the 2050s? Hollywood/YouTube will survive. I’m assuming actors/actresses won’t be replaced entirely by robots/CGI. Movies, music, video games, holodeck-games, someone has to create them.

    Companionship. Similar but different to entertainment. People need people — which means they need ways of meeting people. When message boads don’t cut it, we have to go to someplace common — a club, a bar, a pool hall, the opera.

    Raw materials. Assuming this thing needs something more substantial than air, the garbage of today and the future will have be collected, compacted, and delivered to replicators around the globe. While you can certainly dispose of your own garbage into your own replicator, it’s doubtful that you would produce enough refuse to be self-sufficient. It would have to be delivered/picked up, much like groceries and fuel are today. This even leads me to speculate that it might be more economical to setup “replication sites” — much like the stores of today. The stores handle acquiring and processing the raw materials from various suppliers and people place their orders online. They can then either pick it up themselves or have it delivered. I could almost imagine 4-5 town sized replication sites processing orders in each state.

  2. I always enjoy discussions, and fiction, related to the Singularity concept. Two books you should check out, _Singularity Sky_ and _Iron Sunrise_, by Charles Stross. Both include ideas about a Singularity and also replicators!

    There’s also been a lot of fiction centering around human-created black holes being the “game over” technology. I’m not sure there’s going to be such a show-stopper. I’m the kind of optimist that thinks mankind will have spread to other planets/solar systems/artificial habitats before any kind of planet killing breakthrough is reached. So even if one planet died, humans would survive and learn from that mistake.

  3. I agree that it’d be the replicator. I don’t think any other thing would be able to change society enough. First though, a quick response to the robot idea. I am a Christian and so I know it actually wouldn’t be that big of a thing, and the cost of such a thing would be too great. A replicator would need programmers I agree, and I myself couldn’t not work, once again because I’m a Christian. (Slightly biased on my Christian viewpoint due to being in school to become a pastor) So since I would myself become a programmer for my own sake I would also, following my belief in FOSS, give away what I do. Any replicator programmer would be able to be paid though, in the way of socializing and fame. Following your buddies idea, the programmer that created a replicator, shall we call them recipes, for a lifelike perfect substitute would gain international fame. There WOULD still have to be police though, why, because of terrorists, rapists, etc. Evil would still exist and any country would be able to replicate droids and nukes. So countries wouldn’t be developing better weapons, they would be making better replicators, if you can replicate one droid faster than any other country can make one you’ll win the war by sheer numbers, if a terrorist cell set one to make a poisonous gas, or a virus, or the like and just let it run somewhere it would be deadly. Not to mention the nukes, if you could replicate a nuke then you could replicate more than one. And then you could launch them. You may think that safeguards could be put in (think the three laws) but there would always be hackers who would beat it. The hacker who makes it produce drugs would be famous too. So many bad uses. The good uses (medication etc) are obvious I feel and don’t need mentioned. That’ll hit the philosophical and cultural parts, along with some of the technology. Now for the science and the rest of the technology in my response. Quite simply, E=mc2. You wouldn’t need matter, you’d need energy. Since once one was replicated they could make more exponentially scientific experiments on how to harness energy from anything, maybe even just from sound and ALL light, the spinning of the earth, etc, would make them capable of maybe even fusion. Which with both fusing and then fissuring (fission) the same atoms you’d have perpetual energy for the machines. So while all the needs would be met, it ultimately would fail due to mans evilness.

  4. Very interesting, everyone 🙂 Thanks for being the first to initiate the discussion!

    ytjohn, I agree that services can’t be provided by a replicator. Because the technology would have the effect of deleting everything in the economy but a subset of services, it’s not clear that what remained could sustain itself. So if it can’t sustain itself, what happens when people lose access to those services?

    If you guarantee the essentials to someone and give them any physical object they want, what would motivate people to want to, say, become doctors? What would motivate people to want to turn students into doctors? Both ends of the process are grueling, and because full-spectrum healthcare is not addressed by the replicator, the need would still exist.

    I do think that some small local economies (or at least, agreements to share the chores) may evolve, but it’s hard to imagine this growing beyond neo-hunter/gatherer behavior. I agree fully that if there were a thriving service economy out there, people would participate, but I just wonder if it’d get off the ground. You do raise a very good point about the raw materials. Now that could be something people fight over.

    I agree that that protection-oriented jobs (police / military / firefighter) would still exist. Currently, the pay is usually horrible, but people still choose those jobs, and some even volunteer for firefighting work. It’s not hard to envision people still wanting to do those things when pay is taken out of the equation entirely. But I would offer that post-replicator crimes would mostly take the form of person-to-person crime, where bodies are directly involved. The people who would have taken your things have their own things. That only leaves the people who want to do something to you that you don’t want them to do.

    There may be a small market for pre-replicator objects (antiques, rare items to scan for use in recipes) but for the most part, nobody would steal objects that anyone else had. They could just make their own.

    lon, this may be a sign that I need to read more SF 🙂 And the black hole (which is literally a singularity) sure could be the end. I hope by the time it’s possible, there’s enough wisdom to try it somewhere far away from where we live.

    Arenlor, my personal reason for not being afraid of sex robots ending the world is that they’ll be designed and built by engineers at the top of their field; these are the least qualified people to take on such a task. 🙂

    The payment in the form of socializing and fame is similar to the Whuffie concept in Cory Doctorow’s “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” which takes place in a world that has an achievement-based social economy.

    You mention the need for police, and I highly agree with the need to protect against rapists, since I have a feeling that crimes like these would increase. But terrorism would likely decrease. The people who actually commit terrorism have been profiled to be young and poor, and their families are often rewarded with money when they are done blowing up. In a post-replicator world, the concept of poor goes away. It gets harder to find people unhappy enough to die for your cause if they’re busy enjoying the fruits of the replicator.

    As for weapons of war, wars are usually for taking physical objects that you want. The only thing you couldn’t make would be land, as ytjohn said, so I guess the question is whether or not you’d risk your life to kill a group of people living where you want to live. Having said that, you’re right that anyone could make a fully-functioning nuke. Everyone on your street could have one. How do you suppose that would change interactions in the neighborhood?

    “So while all the needs would be met, it ultimately would fail due to mans evilness.” I evaluate humans as intelligent social animals, which takes good & evil out of the equation but still explains why they behave in such extremes. But I understand your point.

  5. The theme of this post reminded me of a project just started by a friend of mine – the OVerse. It’s supposed to be an open source science fiction repository for timelines, story lines, characters, art, future technology, etc. He hasn’t really gotten the structure set up yet, but the home is here – http://overse.org/wiki/Main_Page.

  6. pebler, I’ll keep an eye on it. In the meantime, tell him to check into open game worlds for role-playing games. There are some people who publish all the details of their game worlds, some of which are sci-fi-oriented. For his purposes, there may be little difference between that and stories.

    Arenlor, I’m sorry that I inadvertently edited out the line that thanked you for the “recipe” term. I was thinking “program” but “recipe” seems like it’d catch on 🙂

  7. 1) The ability to create a working car requires far more knowledge than a programmer alone has. You need an automotive engineer. THe knowledge of the mechanics of creating a blueprint for replication isn’t the same as the knowledge necessary to ensure the subject of the blueprint works. You change the medium that the engineers work in, but not the engineering, unless of course you assume that replicators are artificially intelligent and capable of independent thought and idea synthesis. I didn’t think you were bringing that up here.

    2) Replicators don’t manage or control. As long as you need to manage and control things, you need something to do that function, and society has always been willing to fill in those gaps. Examples: You can’t build infrastructure willy nilly. You have to plan your power grid, your roads, airports, space ports, logistics train.

    3) Think art. I can get 1000 copies of the Mona Lisa that all look so exactly like the original that I can’t tell them apart. Even so, each one of those copies isn’t worth anywhere near the ballpark figure of the original. Why is that? What value does an original have? Would replicators change this at all?

    4) If physical objects have very little value, because anyone can have them, then the blueprints suddenly become enormously important. Having the blueprints that other people want creates power. Wherever there is power, there becomes organizations and structures put in place to protect that power. Organizations that have power are not likely to just give it away (as history shows). Perhaps there stops being a value to gold and paper money. Having things other wants, creates an economic differential. Hmmm.

    5) If objects have very little value, because anyone can have them, then maybe human ingenuity has enormous value, because now it’s easy for anyone to leverage a good idea and take immediate advantage of it. People become more immediately valueable?

    6) If you follow the FOSS model, then maybe people give away their good ideas so everyone can have them. People who have the best ideas become famous. Is fame a new kind of money?

    7) I agree with what has been said regarding the entertainment industry. Also, if you do manage to make it trivial for people to actually “engineer” something, then artists become extreemly valuable. It’s hard to build creativity.

    Just a few scattered thoughts on an old topic.

  8. Noah,

    1) It’s true that you’d need an engineer to, well, engineer things, but one reason I think it’s a last technology is because people could become complacent just having access to anything mankind had ever made before that point, in any quantity they wished, assuming they had the resources for it. For new things, you’d certainly need to design them, and the replicator just becomes a factory. In that case, the replicator wouldn’t be the last physical technology created.

    2) A lot of the reason why this is done by larger organizations like governments is because they are the only ones able to justify/afford the expense over the long term. If I can make a lamp post every 3 feet, I might just recycle the broken down cars I found on the road next to my house into self-powered lamps. Then I would be making infrastructure willy-nilly, and it’d be up to someone to find the motivation to tear down my work or move it. Replicators would basically turn the world into a giant wiki. Anyone can edit things or move them around, and whoever feels like doing it more often ends up having their view of the world made manifest.

    3) Sure, replicators would cause originals to go way up in value, if they were unique or rare. From a collector’s viewpoint, they’d be incredibly valuable, but they’d be more useful as templates for replicator recipes. For things like iPods, you’d only need one example of each (assuming your example isn’t a lemon) and then the originals wouldn’t be worth much to most people anymore.

    4) This basically describes the current software market. And just like today, piracy would be a thorn in the side of anyone who wanted to protect their recipes. There would be analogs to every trick that software and hardware makers have used to keep your product from working without their permission.

    5) Some people become more valuable, yes. Actually, a very few people would. Might create a bit of an oligarchy where people are paid heavily in services in order to modify recipes or make new ones.

    6) You have discovered the notion of a reputation-based currency, ala Whuffie: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whuffie

    7) Very true. It may be that everyone will become art collectors, since the mad dash to get more “stuff” will have been satisfied by the replicators.

    Another thing I don’t think anyone mentioned would be that anyone who had a replicator could make a massive nuclear bomb with a replicator, given enough time and a large-enough power source. Suddenly, every human on the planet would have the capacity to wipe out millions of people in an instant. And if we can draw more analogies from wikis, eventually someone will do it.

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