A Science Fiction Perspective of Self Replicating Machines

      Since the earliest works of science fiction writing, science fiction has been used as a form of social commentary. It can be a mirror of sorts, that we hold up to ourselves as a species. It can help us gain some insight into our human condition by looking at issues and ideas in novel ways. Self-replicating machines have been done many times in science fiction literature, television, and movies. I would like to share my small tale about self-replication.

      Imagine looking at Earth through the eyes of an outsider, from a considerable distance. Imagine this outside observer to be a representative of an advanced star faring race, who once were where we are, but perhaps tens of millions of years ago. The would probably be so advanced, that they wouldn’t think much us, other than as intellectual curiosities to be studied and catalogued and watched. It’s fun to imagine what they would think of us. How would they compare us to what they know? Would they consider talking to us, or perhaps they would wait until we reached a certain level of development? If they were experienced in cataloguing new civilizations, they would probably have a rough idea of what sort of developments we would go through on our ascendancy towards the stars.

      At first, they would see the pale blue dot. The various frequencies of light coming from Earth would give away that many interesting things are going on, and the radio frequencies would tell even more. As they approach even closer, they would start to see what our astronauts see: Clouds, oceans, land, ice, and green patches of life. On the night side, they would see something surprising, a glow from thousands of cities covering great sections of land. Even in the sunlight, they would see a grey creeping over the land in the places where at night there is light. Perhaps to them, it would appear that Earth, a pristine world, has been recently invaded by intelligent machines that are taking over the world. Even from space, there are obvious signs of machines extracting resources, processing them, paving the world to suit themselves, and drastically changing the environment at a geometric pace. Because of the pace of change, it is obvious that even on time scales as short as a few hundred years, the Earth will probably become unrecognizable compared to it’s old self. A thorough examination of this reckless new machine species and it’s origins would be an obvious priority.

      Imagine their shock, that it’s not the machines themselves that run things, but rather, a native biological species that built the machines from scratch. That would explain the messiness of the development… but what benefit do these machines give a species that is so quickly obliterating it’s environment and building a new one without much large scale planning? Instead of seeing a restful and happy populace, they see instead struggling and toil. Starvation exists in the midst of bumper crops. A world that could easily provide for all the physical needs of even such a bloated population, instead enslaves all but a few to labour as if they are machines themselves. Humans used instead of mining machines underground. Humans tilling fields and picking crops like robots. Humans in factories working mindless jobs. Even more shocking, is a thing called the “economy” that gives people no choice but to covet and compete for these “jobs”, trading off the majority of the useful days of their very short lives for meagre resources, most of which could easily be supplied indefinitely by even mildly sophisticated machines.

      While it seems like human nature to enjoy working and feeling useful, a life of hard toil and a hand to mouth existence just doesn’t make sense while being surrounded by a world of plenty. Considering the relaxed hunter-gatherer history of humans, this modern world that treats humans as worker drones does not seem to be good environment that humanity has created for itself. A telling anecdote is what humans call this system: a “rat race”.

      Now let’s assume the aliens, instead leaving, stay to help. Not by magical technological handouts, but rather, a hand up, to help us work our own way out of this mess with sage advice, guidance, and the odd technical assistance. It would be interesting to think about what they would tell us. Proclamations from above about what not to do rarely helps very well. For real change and growth, people and societies need to find a new, better way of doing things and incorporate that into who they are. What we need is managed growth, to grow into something better. We need to change the game and put into play economic and social forces that don’t pit us against one another, but rather, encourage us to be kinder to each other.

      In the first phase, there would be planted technological seeds. Gifts to humanity, ideas and machines, which could help people in many industries get their jobs done better and faster, and for more money to be made. Also, seeds of ideas, about how the future should look. Humanity would likely already have developed some of these ideas, and these developments would be encouraged and guided.

      In the second phase, these seeds grow and develop into new businesses and ways of doing things. Eventually, new economies emerge, and old ways of doing things no longer remain practical. This would be a time of radical change, where old ways would be forced out by necessity, lest terrible things happen. For instance, in a world where machines instead of people could provide for us anything we could desire from a grocery store or shopping mall, what place would our current form of capitalism have? On one hand, in our current system of wealth begetting wealth, it would make sense that the rich would own these automatic factories. So despite the production of goods costing virtually nothing, capitalists could still charge exorbitant fees for delivering these goods, keeping the vast majority of the world in a system of virtual slavery. Serfdom could continue indefinitely into the future. On the other hand, I also place faith in people’s natural sense of fairness and indignation. As the system becomes more and more unbalanced, the urge for change will grow to the breaking point. Also, the development of disruptive technologies of production may eventually put the power of production into the hands of common people, incrementally negating the power of wealth over the masses. In the 21st century, information is already virtually free, where the largest barriers to disseminating data are not technological, but rather cultural, economic, and legislative. I don’t think western civilization has barely begun to adapt to this new reality, let alone considered how to adapt to having a machine make us virtually free consumer goods as easily as we now copy data from computer to computer. In many ways, it could bring our whole way of life crashing down around us.

      Rather than cataclysmic class wars portrayed as inevitable by some failed visionaries such as Karl Marx, I think a managed decay of the powers of capitalism will prevail, because after all, what meaning does wealth have when we have machines that can within certain limits give us whatever we wish for? There are always limits of scarcity, so economic forces will always have a place, but they will likely look radically different from what we have now. The economies and societies that don’t change in the face of the new realities will fail, perhaps tragically, to be replaced by those which can grow in new ways. The role of leadership in engineering a sensible path for social change without catastrophe will be invaluable. I very much see this as a process of positive growth rather than destructive change.

      In the final phase, post change, humanity would look very different, and happiness and contentment would abound. This would not be a utopia, but rather, a higher base level for humanity. I don’t know if cancer would be cured, or cheap fusion energy would be built, but I think it’s reasonable to give everyone in the world a guaranteed standard of living that’s far above what first-world countries enjoy now. Given our ability to destroy the Earth in a puff of radioactive smoke, I think levelling the inequalities in the world, giving everyone the opportunity of an education, and blunting the attractive pull of greed as a motivator are necessary for our survival. Development in the final phase of the automated industrial revolution would involve us learning to use our new-found powers in radically new ways. With control over an automatic economy that can scale geometrically to do whatever we see fit, we could literally move mountains on a whim. Even radical projects such as terraforming our neighbouring planets would be reduced to a big but manageable exercise in science, engineering and logistics. We would as a race become the ones dreaming up and managing great projects and goals, and enjoying the fruits of those labours instead of being stuck as the machines doing the work, desperately toiling just to keep the pay-cheques coming. After all that, then, we would become something I could see as worthy of having an interesting conversation with our visitors.

      This science fiction fantasy is great as a way of looking at ourselves from the outside, but I don’t think we need an alien to show us the way to a good future, we can do it for ourselves. Many of these developments I’ve touched on are already moving forward and in some ways I believe they are inevitable. The problem with inevitable forces is that they are largely uncontrolled, much like our current form of economic growth that’s devouring our planet’s ability to sustain life at a frightening pace. The purpose of this book is a seed to help the world transform this chaos into an achievable goal, with the means towards the goal not seen as toil and moral obligation, but rather, as a self-reinforcing and self enriching economic path of least resistance that will gradually free humanity. I don’t mean to just talk about grand theories and generalities, but also to discuss practically and in as much detail as I can, things that would bring us towards this great goal in a self-reinforcing and immediately profitable way.


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