Category Archives: Book

Thinking Outside the Box: The Importance of Interstitials, Intersections, and Peripherals

     Part of my motivation for this work is designing a robot system that maximizes usefulness. This comes from a childhood (and adult) frustration of robots being not much more than mostly useless toys and curiosities, or things so specialized as to not be considered a robots anymore, such laser printers. General purpose robots have usually been unimaginable our out of reach. This chapter is exciting to me because it discusses many of the possible extras, attachments, improvements to a basic RASA frame work and how the will most likely work.

     The RASA framework itself is extremely simple, as it’s just a basic scaffolding structure, built to allow motorized boxes to drive around inside of it.

Travel Path: The path that the motorized boxes take through the framework is the main part of what makes RASA work.

Intersection: An intersection is where something blocks the motorized box’s travel path.

Interstitial: This is everything else that’s not a travel path. This is the scaffolding structure that holds everything up, and the empty spaces between the travel paths.

Peripheral: This is anything outside the whole system.

      Designing a system totally reliant on boxes moving around can solve a lot of problems, but let’s face it, it doesn’t make sense for some things. Electricity for one, lends itself to being wired. Fluids travel well through pipes. Batteries and tanks also work, and fit well in boxes, but it’s not always the best or cheapest solution, so the system needs flexibility to handle much more than boxes.

     So, how to add piping or wiring (or anything else) extra to this system? One way is to run it around the outside of the system (the periphery). Having wires, pipes, charging systems, or what not, all on the edge, where the boxes can access what they need, makes a lot of sense.

      If we put stuff inside the system, it will intersect with a box’s travel path, so that part of the scaffolding will be inaccessible to the automatic systems. In some cases, this is necessary, and that’s ok. The other option is to put things around the travel path, so that the boxes aren’t blocked. This is probably the best way, because everything can coexist.

      Since the goal is full automation, the ideal way of mounting system services such as cabling, piping, or gadgets attached like lights, sensors, or charging stations, is to let the machines do the work. I imagine the best idea would be a wiring bot, mounted inside one of the motorized boxes. This machine would string pieces of wiring throughout the system and attach it to the framework, allowing the system as a hole to wire itself for whatever it needs. Developing automated wiring and plumbing standards for RASA would give it an entirely new level of self sufficiency and usefulness.

     When designing a RASA implementation, it’s good to give the interstitial space between the travel paths some thought. The minimalist approach would be to make the structure as small as possible, but then future needs of cabling and piping might be hampered, so in my design I have left a few inches of space between travel paths and structure, to allow for any future things that might be needed. In the illustration below, I have drawn two RASA systems, one which has the bare minimum space between travel paths, and a second one that is designed with some extra interstitial space for anything that might need to fit in between.  This leaves a lot of room for future innovation.

RASA

RASA with Interstitials

Measuring Progress Using Degrees of Autonomy:

      In any developing system, there needs to be goals, milestones, and measures of progress. In other chapters, we’ve discussed economic fitness models. These are much like the blunt instrument of natural selection, they lack the fine detail that an engineer would need. In this chapter, I examine degrees of autonomy as another measure of success.

      The basic system of RASA would be considered the zero state. An empty box, able to move freely in all three axes of a pre-built framework, is the simplest form. Naturally, there are things that can be improved upon such a system, and any upgrade that increases the autonomy of such a system would be considered a measurable step towards a fully closed self-replicating machine. Also, it can be thought of as the removal of one task, however small, that human beings would have to perform for the system to operate. This is quite a broad definition, so I will try to provide examples and categories of degrees of autonomy.

Pure System Improvements:

      First of all, there are improvements to the basic system that can increase autonomy, which can include:

  • Energy system improvements, such as charging stations throughout the grid. This would replace people manually providing batteries or fuel.

  • Control system improvements, where a person would not have to physically direct the small details of the system functions.

  • Fault detection systems, which would identify maintenance problems as they come up.

Payload to Basic System Processes:

      Probably more importantly, is the category of degrees of autonomy that have to do with the ecology of the machinery that will ride within the RASA system (the payload), and how it relates to the RASA system itself. Each of these tasks could potentially be carried out by a custom machine nested within a cube. Some examples would include:

  • Construction machines that can assemble the grid framework by themselves, providing they are given a steady supply of the correct parts. Also, machines that can attach or assemble improvements to the basic grid, such as power lines and charging stations.

  • Construction machines that can build or assemble the empty mechanized boxes that drive around the grid.

  • Maintenance machines, which could deal with problems with the grid as well as mechanical problems and breakdowns of other machines. An ability for one machine to take another defective machine out of service and bring it to a service centre would be incredibly useful. I think even early systems should at least be designed with this ability in mind for the future.

Pure Payload to Payload Interaction Improvements:

      Important degrees  further down the road are improvements relating to how two or more payload machines can interact with each other, where the RASA system is just the passive carrier among them. Possible examples of this are:

  • Payload machines that can assemble and/or service other payload machines.

  • Payload machines that make parts for other payload machines. Depending on the construction of machines and parts, and then the parts for the machines that make the parts, and so forth down the line, this can easily develop into a complex economy of machines serving machines.

  • Machines that harvest raw materials and pass them on to other machines to make parts. Mining machines, gathering machines, and so forth. Machines that move and dispose of waste as well.

  • Cargo machines, which store, carry, and transfer different types of materials around for other machines to use.

      Now that we have discussed some of the general types of improvements that would push the system towards a greater degree of self-replication, it’s possible to write down on paper and count how many degrees of autonomy a system has. I can envision a future, where someone is designing a RASA based industrial application, and uses degrees of automation to help pick and choose which machines would be needed to get the job done in the best and most economical way.

      Using degrees of autonomy, it’s possible to measure the efficiency of a machine in degrees of autonomy per machine. For instance, replacing a machine that makes a special part with a machine that can make twenty different parts would be a great improvement. Degree density would be an obvious measure of efficiency, though not the only one. My guess is that measuring degrees of autonomy will see much more practical uses as the complexity of the system increases.

      Unlike degrees on a compass, each degree of autonomy of a self-replicating system is unique and generally not replaceable by another degree, but this can change as things get complex. It’s easier to see this as an analogy to degrees of separation between people or other such separations on a network, in that each path between two points is unique. Just like interconnected groups of friends, or nodes on a network, there is often more than one path between points A and B. Once the RASA system becomes a sufficiently complex self-sustaining economy, there could easily be more than one way to perform any given task, and measuring how many machines or degrees of autonomy are needed for that task can help in deciding which is more efficient or economical.

     In research and development, a future company can pick any specific degree of autonomy that isn’t built yet, and by developing a working system that satisfies that degree, they can turn a profit by supplying that to anyone who would need that for their own work. It would take a lot of guesswork out of venture capital because these kinds of degrees would resemble niches in biological ecosystem in that there’s a rule that something will eventually fill an empty niche. And in the bigger picture, a designer for a highly desired industrial process could break it down into various degrees of autonomy, and focus separate research teams to each that would come together in the whole without ever needing to be aware of one another, as long as a sufficient standard system is in place that allows them to inter-operate. I feel the ultimate flexibility and modularity that the RASA system provides will lead people in the future to wonder how they ever did without it in the same way that we now wonder how we did without the Internet.

The Profitability Principle of Self-Replicating Machines

      In “The Architectural Model of Self-Replicating Machines”, I defined the ultimate self-replicating machine as a guide for understanding and development. That is, to be able to move arbitrary matter and energy to any point in three dimensional space. Because naturally, once a machine has the ability to do whatever it wants with its own internals and any material in it’s reach, it can build whatever it wants, including copies of itself. One can think of it as a matter and energy processor, with stuff going in, and stuff going out.

      If we translate this ideal into physical machines, we could imagine owning such machines would be similar economically to owning an orchard of trees, the fruit of which could be anything desired, including commercial and industrial goods, or more of itself. Such a “giving tree” would naturally also be the ultimate form of economic capital, because of the unlimited nature of wealth that it can provide.

      While the ideal machine is quite likely impossible to build, it is certainly possible to make machines that approach those qualities in one way or another. This means that at least in theory, as a machines abilities increase towards that of the ultimate self-replicating machine, so does the machines potential profitability increase as well. This principle can lead to some very interesting results.

  • This means that we have the theoretical evidence that developing self-replicating machines is in principle a lucrative field of research.

  • In order to maximize the potential of any research, profitability should be a design consideration from the beginning.

  • Profit can be the positive feedback-loop that will drive an evolutionary type of development of self-replicating machines.

  • Applying the profitability principle of self-replicating machines to all the diverse fields of human endeavour is an area of study with enormous potential. I imagine every other economic activity can be re-imagined with this principle in mind. The business opportunities are potentially staggering. Think of all the millionaires who profited from taking old ways of doing things, and patenting the idea of “doing it on a computer”.

  • Even small improvements can have a huge synergistic effects. Because the goal is convergence on an ideal machine, it’s possible to have vast, system-wide improvements. There can exist a new level of standardization and efficiency. For example, settling on standard ways of moving things about in 3d space in a factory can easily result in more interoperability between factories. This could allow dramatic things such as dynamically re-organizing assembly lines as new production machinery becomes available. More on this later.

      Of course, people have been improving usefulness and efficiency, and subsequently decreasing the need for manual labour since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  The difference with Profitability Principle is that it becomes an explicit conscious push towards self-replicating abilities. If used commonly in the planning stages of industrial and commercial ventures, this principle has the potential to dramatically increase profit and economic development in a much more geometric fashion.

     In the short term, what this means for my work is that any prototypes I design should have profitability in mind, and indeed, they do.

Practical Models of Emergence or Why We Shouldn’t Sweat the Small Stuff

      In this book, I interchangeably compare my ideas about self replicating machines to living things, to economic models, and to information science. I think this is appropriate, because I believe it to be obvious that self-replicating machines will have great impact on, relevance to, use of, and similarity to all of these fields. By looking to all three spheres of thought, and noting their relationships, I believe it possible to come to a better understanding of the future course of things.

      Biology is the only field of science where self replication is taken as a given. Life is the only greatly successful system of self replication we can study, and there are billions of years worth of trials and errors to teach us. The theme of emergence is continuous, running from present day living things, all the way back in time to the theoretical beginning of life, where it’s widely held that life emerged from a complex interplay of simple self-reinforcing chemical reactions. In that way, life just started all on it’s own. It wasn’t created or designed, it was an inevitable consequence of a set of preconditions that came together naturally.

      Emergence exists in economics as well. Because human behaviour is often planned and deliberate, there is of course managers and designers of systems, but that gives us an incomplete story. Given a bazaar of ideas, it’s not clear which economic policy or social ideology will grow and guide us in the future. All economic things, such as booms, busts, fads, innovations, markets, and competing models and theories of how it all works seem to burst from humanity as if from nothing. Yet there is a sense of how it all works and there are some near universal truths as to how things work, such as the emergent laws of supply and demand that govern so much of our daily lives. Without the profit motive, the machines we use would likely not be continuously refined with such a seemingly singular purpose of efficiency and utility. Our machines are not self-replicating, yet, the concept of evolution of our machines is well known, followed, and even predicted. Much like the complex molecules of life likely evolved in a state of non-equilibrium before they became truly self replicating, our machinery evolves before it can reproduce itself. Human driven evolutionary replication of machines is commonplace.

      Even in the more deterministic world of computers and information science, emergence exists. From the humble beginning of Charles Babbage’s proposed Difference Engine, learning how to manipulate ones and zeroes has given us the Internet as a wonder of the world. As with our machines, it didn’t so much get built, as evolved. It is still emerging and evolving at such a rate, that it is only safe to predict basic improvements on existing systems. As a whole, with completely novel systems and inventions constantly appearing, it would be foolish to predict what happens in anything other than the shortest lengths of time. In the complex space where people, the economy, and computers intersect, many kinds of replication happens. From computer viruses and worms roaming free, memes and pictures of cats spreading like wild fire, man-made but automatically installing updates to software, and wholly theoretical beasts emerging from cellular automata, the forms of replication are diverse.

      What these systems have in common, is that given the proper conditions and feedback, replicating and self-replicating systems appear almost spontaneously. They grow and evolve following general rules, yet never cease to amaze us with newly discovered complex behaviour. Keeping this theme in mind, I’ve looked at past research efforts on self-replicating machines, and noticed a pattern.

      While reading Robert A Frietas Jr. and Ralph C. Merkle’s seminal 2004 survey of the field of self-replication and references therein, it occurred to me that most researchers took the most straight forward approach in their efforts. That is, to attempt to design and/or make self-replicating machines. A scientist’s sensible urge to theoretically model, design, describe, and in some cases, build a prototype self-replicating machine is, after all, the whole point of this field of research. Doing anything else seems irrelevant and unproductive.

      I wouldn’t dare call any of these esteemed researchers misguided or mistaken, for they have brought the field to the current state that it is in. However, I have noted that arguably the most successful recent developers in the field have done just that: They de-emphasized the goal of modelling and making self-replicating machines in favour of other goals, and in doing so, have somewhat counter-intuitively, brought us much closer to the practicality of self-replicating machines.

      The noteworthy exceptions are lights-out manufacturing, and rapid prototyping. Neither of these have the explicit main goal of making a self-replicating machine, though the idea is certainly part of the thinking. The goals are instead, manufacturing, profit, and improving and revolutionizing existing manufacturing systems. Manufacturers wouldn’t make a lights-out shop unless it padded their bottom line, no matter how cool or partially self-reproducing or repairing it was. Makers of rapid prototyping machines are far more preoccupied with other amazing and useful outputs of their machines, than the fact that this brings us closer to the goal of making machines that make more machines. Even the famous RepRap designers, whose stated goals are to build a RepRap mostly by using parts made by another RepRap, understand that the main use of this machine is all the fun, useful, and profitable things that it can make that aren’t other RepRaps. If partial self-replication was all the RepRap was capable of it, it’s likely the endeavour would have been stillborn. If usefulness and subsequent market penetration and profitability are measures of success, then it appears that emphasizing usefulness more than self-replication is the way to go.

Shifting focus to more than just designing and building fully functional self-replicating machines from scratch leaves us with a different approach:

  • A piece by piece approach can be taken, where focus is made on just one trait of self-replicating machines, and the research and development associated with it. These kinds of developments would work towards the whole, and are likely have practical uses as well.

  • Taking the cue from the increasing successes of the fields of lights-out manufacturing and rapid prototyping, employing the concepts learned so far about self-replicating machines can lead to revolutions in many other diverse fields. I believe there are many industries and fields of study that could benefit from being re-thought from the ground up with self-replicating machines in mind, with the goal of increasing usefulness, productivity, and profit. Scientists versed in self-replicating machines may soon find themselves employed in a diverse set of previously unrelated fields which would benefit from varying degrees of self-replication.

  • A holistic approach also has merit. Examining the relationship self-replicating machines have with computer science, the economy, and biology is still mostly unexplored territory. Much like biological life four billion years before, self-replicating machines are waiting for the right conditions for their emergence. Armed with better knowledge, we can facilitate changes to bring about these necessary conditions. For instance, asking which economic conditions would best lead to the research and development of self-replicating machines could lead to some surprisingly useful economic policies, profitable business ventures, and positive feedback loops.

      What these approaches have in common is the presupposition that the fine details of these systems will be worked out in time, and that there is nothing inherently difficult in any specific function of a self-replicating electromechanical machine beyond a good exercise in engineering and a bit of smart design. That being said, the very hard problems lie elsewhere. While solving a small engineering problem is not so difficult, the sheer number and diversity of problems to solve to bring a system to even the most rudimentary levels of self sufficiency is mind-bogglingly large. It is my opinion that no person could design and build more than a tiny subset of the aspects of a self-replicating machine, which is one of the reasons why I advocate a technology management approach over designing a self-replicating machine outright. Another analogy that comes to mind, is an economic one: Designing a self-replicating machine is equivalent to designing a centrally planned economy where every worker is a robot. In my opinion this is an exercise in academic masochism. What I advocate is allowing well known market forces to do a lot of the design, building, and maintenance for us, leaving us as managers of the system as a whole. History has shown us that the efficiency of a managed capitalism, while far from perfect, is far more efficient than the logistical nightmare of a centrally planned economy.

     On the other hand, transitioning our economy to one where every worker is replaced by a machine seems like something we have been doing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. One of my goals for this book is to attempt to model this transition into the future.

The RASA System: Practical Applications

     When talking with friends or family, the inevitable question comes up about my work on the RASA system: “What does it do?” I usually cringe, because the simple answer of describing what it’s physically capable of usually draws blank looks and more questions than answers. The larger answer, of how it could be used usually leaves people even more confused. People stare at me, imagining me as more mad than scientist. Understandably, in this age of marketers hyping every new technology as the next big thing with underwhelming results, such claims should be met with a large dose of suspicion.

     So what does it do? The short answer is it’s a cheap framework with robot boxes that drive around all over the framework. There is no information about any of the equipment that would do any specific job whatsoever, so this can’t be the whole picture. What this is, is the standard equipment upon which a variety of other machines should be built on.

     The first half of the big picture has much more to do with the magic of what people can put inside the boxes. What is needed is an open mind and an imagination that can think inside the box. Boxes are used everywhere and are very versatile, so a technology that increases the versatility and usefulness of boxes surely can have a lot of uses.

     The second half of the big picture is self-replication. The system is designed so that the boxes can eventually build the framework all by themselves, and further into the future, build each other and repair what goes wrong. I envision the future of automation to be a lot more worry and maintenance free than things are today. Self-replication, more than anything else, has the potential to transform things in ways that people currently have a very hard time even imagining.

     This chapter is dedicated to listing and briefly explaining as many diverse uses as I can possibly think of, in order of increasing complexity and cost. This can be seen as a form of development road map, where the easier ways of making money using this system are outlined.

     Towards the end of this list will be all the most expensive, futuristic, and complex systems that will take decades of development to achieve. They will also be impressively profitable and beneficial for humanity, though the basic principles of the operation will still resemble the simple systems that are easy to develop. In my mind, this is the shape of things to come.

Part 1: Immediate Uses, General Form

     The first wave of usefulness generally fall into one or more categories. Storage, distribution, and manufacturing are the main categories I will discuss, as well as some examples I think are noteworthy.

Storage: The most obvious use for boxes is storage. To me, automated storage is the easiest way to put RASA to work and earn it’s keep. It most resembles existing automated material handling systems, though it would be a far cheaper and simpler alternative. Built from cheap local materials and off the shelf hardware, a basic kit can be erected and assembled over a weekend, and often replace the need for things like ladders, forklifts, or even reduce stock room staff. By having machines bring the storage, feet need not leave the floor, increasing safety. The ability to build right up to the ceiling of a warehouse can also help with storage volume and efficiency. Because the content of the boxes is almost completely irrelevant, size permitting, this is probably the simplest possible variant of RASA.

Small Scale Distribution: Part of the storage function is to bring the contents of boxes to people or machines that need them. There’s no reason to assume this needs to be right next to where the boxes are being stored. This can be as simple as a path to a small distance away where things are needed, to a complex network through a factory or perhaps even between buildings. Having things appear when and where they are needed is incredibly useful. Connecting storage, shipping/receiving areas, and coordinating factory input and output is a very useful task. In a lot of ways this would be like a computer local area network but for physical objects.

     Systems like this exist, and this is the mature industry called automated material handling. What sets RASA apart is the focus on the network rather than the focus on the process, as well as the simple modular and standardized systems. Instead of each system being custom built and highly engineered, this will resemble an off-the-shelf networking product that can work for a wide variety of tasks. Some efficiency will be lost by having such general purpose machines, but I believe that a simple and cheap system that can handle a broad variety of tasks will prove it’s worth in the end.

Manufacturing: Closely connected to storage and distribution is manufacturing. When you have stored things moving around a building on their own in an orderly fashion, it makes sense to equip other boxes with machinery that can interact with the content of the boxes and do things with it. I envision machines in the boxes, passing material from one box to another assembly line fashion, each with a tool or tools inside to do things until a product is finished. Alternately, I see cargo boxes moving about, interacting with machinery boxes that will do various things to the cargo as needed, or a combination of both of these examples. With a completely flexible system such as this, maintenance and equipment failure can be easily managed, as any one component can be immediately replaced by a spare, and the process can continue while the affected piece can go off to a maintenance area. Factory shutdowns for mechanical reasons could easily be a thing of the past.

     The other thing this system can do is free some manufacturing systems of the constraints of locality. An assembly line need not be a line anymore. A half finished product can zip off the assembly line, down the tracks to another building where something else can be done, and then be driven back to where it left off in the assembly line. In some instances ultimate flexibility can be very rewarding.

     I don’t see this as a cure-all for all forms of industry. Obviously it would take a long time, if ever, that all forms of manufacturing would benefit. Examples of not easily adapted systems would be heavy industry, some kinds of chemical plants, and such. However as more and more industrial systems get a RASA counterparts, and the capabilities grow, I could see these barriers slowly fade away. I think it’s most important to start small and focus most on what is easily done and watch the system grow from there. Here are some ideas bouncing around my head…

Part 2: Examples of Immediate Uses

Small Business Storage and Distribution: To me, this truly is the first low hanging fruit RASA has to offer that has a good chance of making a great deal of money. In my research, I’ve noticed an almost complete lack of automated material handling in the small business side of the economy. This seems like a good match for RASA, as the aim is to use locally sourced materials and off the source hardware. Small business can afford RASA. The list of technologies that are needed to from a first prototype to a useful technology is not very long or expensive by today’s standards, and be built almost entirely from hobby electronics shops and the local hardware store. In kit form, as an open source technology, a reliable form of this technology can transform any business that has need for a warehouse or large stock room. This is especially so for companies such as auto parts distributors, that have a large variety of unique parts that need to be sorted, stored, found and delivered to the front desk in an efficient and orderly manner. Coupled with inventory management software, any space can be converted cheaply into a building sized vending machine for anything that would fit in a box.

Greenhouse Automation: Having bins going around carrying plants in a greenhouses an interesting idea, and this has been already tried in various forms with success. With a completely standardized physical networking system, much more can be done with less cost. The system that moves plants around could also move machines around that distribute fertilizer or insecticide. The plants themselves can be moved to different locations easily, to take advantage of different growing conditions in various greenhouses, or alternately, by moving different environmental machinery to where it is needed. For harvesting or seeding, plants can be moved to specific machinery, or the machinery itself can be moved around where needed, and of course, the final products and waste can move around. With total freedom of movement and configuration of equipment, plants, and supplies, much can be done that would be very difficult for traditional greenhouses, even automated ones. Switching crops and growing cycles could be very difficult for a custom built system, but much easier for a system as flexible as RASA. To my point of view, automation with a high degree of standardization and extreme degree of versatility would offer clear benefits over other custom built systems or pure manual labour.

Non-Linear Hybrid Manufacturing: Not everything can be done by machine. In some cases, even doing things in an orderly fashion can be a challenge. Since RASA excels at flexibility, this can help many kinds of industries. Imagine a manufacturing process where some things need to be done by people, some by machines, and the exact things that need doing can vary greatly from time to time. When you have people sitting at work stations, keeping people busy can be a challenge. With an open ended distribution system, a box containing something to be worked on can arrive on a desk, and depending on what it is, appropriate work can be done by the person, and then the item is off again to the next station or machine. This can also be used as another way to keep factory workers happy, because switching tasks kills the monotony. A good example of a business like this could be a garment factory. Some things can be done by machine, while people are needed for others, and the variety of things that can be produced by the factory is often varied and changes weekly. Such a distribution system could even link separate buildings, allowing for separation of tasks. One of the major benefits RASA can offer is making the location of workers and machinery a lot less relevant. In the far future, it could transform manufacturing to the point where the exact location of workers and machinery may not even need to be known, much in the way telecommuting and call centres work today.

Part 3: Medium Term Usefulness by Increasing the Degrees of Self Replication

     So far we have been talking about very basic systems, not so much different from existing forms of automated material handling used today. I’m sure that most, if not all of what I discussed, has been envisioned by experts in various fields, and probably most of it is already in operation somewhere. I’m less sure about universal standards, but in one form or another this technology exists. So far, we have only been thinking inside the box. Enabling self replication allows for truly “out of the box” thinking when it comes to what to expect from automation. This is where I intend on helping robots go where no robot has gone before.

     When increasing the degrees of autonomy and self replication, this is where RASA diverges most from what is commonly known and understood. Enabling a system to build even small parts of itself anew changes everything. I see the first steps as automating the erection and distribution of the framework. The framework is the most massive part of the RASA system, so it makes sense to have it made as cheaply and simply as possible. That means that it’s also the simplest and cheapest part of the system to achieve self-replication. Self erecting frameworks will be the first steps in truly self replicating automated systems entering useful economic service.

Self-Installing Frameworks in Industry: Probably the simplest and most obvious labour saving could come from all the systems mentioned above being able to build themselves. A somewhat difficult construction job that could involve ladders and man hours could instead involve watching machines go about building structures themselves. The kind of equipment to do this kind of work is considerably more complex than the basic box framework but not by much. The framework just needs to be modular, and machines inside the boxes just need to be able to snap segments into place like Lego, and then go to a distribution centre to load more. That’s simplifying things a bit, but that’s the basics. As far as complex machinery goes, it’s not that bad.

     In addition to helping “standard” applications deploy, modify and repair themselves easier, it’s possible that entirely new businesses and methods may come to pass simply from this first small step in self-replication is achieved. As more degrees of autonomy are gained, the possible uses become more and more fantastic compared to what exists today.

Self-Installing Ancillary Framework Services: Why stop at the framework structure itself? Technically the specifications require almost all the complexity to reside inside the boxes, reality may require a hybrid system. While the basic framework consists of just posts and beams, any decent application will require more gear tacked on. Everything from charging stations, cargo attachment accessories, wiring, communications, loading/unloading gear and other special things that we could only speculate at. All of these could be mechanically attached to the system by a special machine in one of the mobile boxes. Everything is built “plug and play” style these days, it’s not a great stretch of imagination to visualize a simple machine doing the plugging. Uses can range from just making the framework better and offer support to the uses it’s needed, to giving it completely new and often unimaginable properties.

Resource and Raw Material Acquisition: While it’s one thing to feed raw materials into a factory and have finished goods come out, how about systems that go out and get their own raw materials? With enough automation, automated harvesting, automated mining, solar panels, all sorts of processes can be done with this system as it matures.

Hosting Self Manufacturing Systems: Once the systems and factories get complex enough, it’s possible to reach a point where one can have all the factories that build the components also be solely made up of those same parts. This is the pinnacle of a system that builds and maintains itself with almost no hands on help from people. This goal is of obvious use, especially a system that is somewhat self sufficient in gathering resources too. While very far in the future, I see these as the inevitable conclusion of development in automation, no matter what course we take to get there.

Ubiquity: Eventually, it will seem like this technology will be everywhere. There won’t be just one standard, there will be many complementary standards, of different sizes, structures, and sets of usefulness. Like micro circuits today, it will be hard to look in a given direction without seeing something that uses them. Having every home, business, farm, factory, port and mine connected to each other using this system will transform life as we know it in the same way that we can’t imagine going back to a life before the Internet. With the system everywhere it’s possible for materials to go from mine to factory to port to city to home without ever seeing human hands. Naturally transportation would be revolutionized, with a fully automated package delivery system to anywhere needed. With a system like this, I think even I’m only in the beginning stages of understanding the diverse uses that this will have.

Part 4: Specific Examples of Medium Term Uses

Automated Scaffolding Systems for Construction: Just about every construction project over a certain size needs scaffolding. It’s a dirty, gruelling, and often deadly job, that is impossible to do for anyone with even the slightest fear of heights. Having the entire structure assembled by machines while people stand away at a safe distance removes risk from one of the most dangerous construction professions. The same goes for dis-assembly. But it doesn’t have to end just at assembly. Likely the system would benefit from having the boxes be roughly man or room size. This means they would double as a makeshift elevator system, shuttling workers wherever they need to be in the structure, instead of forcing them to climb awkward and very high ladders. With a bit of research and development, this could be a major transformation for a very old industry.

Automated Building Construction: Why stop at just scaffolding? Much has been made of automated construction in various forms. Most of construction is a matter of getting the right tools and materials to and from the right places. Instead of thinking of robots building a building the way people build, we have robots that don’t resemble people at all, so building methods and practices need to be vastly different. A lot is hard to imagine at this point, but a few ideas come to mind. The framework the RASA boxes ride around in is structural. Depending on the sizes of the box system, space can be made for people, like in the scaffolding system above. It’s not unimaginable to imagine machines adding floors, walls, ceilings, external cladding, and internal services to a scaffolding system, all on the grid system. This is one variant, there are many other ways to build things. I wonder which would prove the simplest and most effective in the future.

Automated Mining: Getting raw materials out of the ground is a huge industry, using huge and very expensive machinery. Excavating is huge business, whether it be the tunnel style mine or the strip mine. I don’t claim that the RASA system is good for mining compared to the mega machinery that exists today, but I do have some ideas. Imagine a RASA framework extended across a large open area of land. Some portions supported firmly by earth, and some portions held up by their neighbours, depending on the contours of the land. And then, an army of machines, some to build and maintain the scaffolding, and others to excavate downwards or sideways and move earth to other locations. As space opens up, framework can be extended. Instead of mega machines, a smaller swarm army of modular machines take the place, unmanned, each doing very simple, repetitive work that needs absolutely no on site manpower. The beauty of this that it can be scalable for small digs all the way up to massive mega projects. It’s just an idea from my over active imagination, but maybe it’s a viable alternative in some cases. Who knows what the future will bring?

True Lights-Out Manufacturing: There is a lot of talk of that these days, but the amount of factories that can truly turn off the lights to save money because no workers aren’t needed is pretty small. Things wear out, things break. For that, usually people are needed. The versatility of RASA makes this a much easier thing to automate, as absolutely any component of the system can be quickly replaced by another. At the very least, in an assembly-line scenario, problem machinery can be instantly swapped out by a spare, and the repair can be done by people at a different location. Once systems begin to do things such as harvest their own raw materials and manufacture and store their own parts, even a lot of the maintenance can be done automatically. Also at this stage, it would be easy for a system to increase it’s own productivity according to demand by making a new line for itself, or retooling itself for different products. I believe that a kind of manufacturing is right around the corner that will put to shame all the kinds of production that have come before.

City Wide to World Wide Automated Distribution: Container ships are amazing modular systems, where shipping containers can go from nation to nation, and warehouse to warehouse, hopping from ship to transport truck with little effort. It’s a very effective, modular, and somewhat automated process. Imagine a similar system (of varying sizes) that goes door to door, business to business, and even room to room, that links up and works with the shipping container system at the port level, or also interfaces with aircraft cargo holds. RASA conduits, below or above ground, hidden or in plain view, can network a city and provide virtually free automated shipping from point to point. In some ways it would be expensive to retrofit a city, but allowing for self-construction coupled with future architecture incorporating RASA the same way they now incorporate heating and cooling, it wouldn’t be so hard in the long run. Postal workers, delivery men, and lorry drivers would eventually lose most of their jobs, but having virtually free delivery of anything door to door across the planet would likely be of as much value as the invention of the Internet. This kind of change is not to be underestimated. It may seem futuristic and pie in the sky technology, but it doesn’t require that hard of a push to get rolling, as the system is designed to have the framework be as inexpensive as possible. For the price of shutting down a postal office, a smaller town may easily make RASA a door to door reality in short order. I know this is a radical way of thinking, but I will leave it out here as food for thought, as one of the more radical middle-term ideas enabled by RASA.

Part 5: Uses and Forms Envisioned in the Distant Future

     If you think the medium term applications are rather fantastical, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Having machines do our every bidding has been a staple of science fiction since the beginning of the genre. The prospect of actually achieving such a future can be equal parts exciting and terrifying. We are quickly approaching that point in our development, and its nigh time we explored the ramifications of our development in fine detail, because they will become daily issues for our decedents. While I leave the sociological issues like who controls the means of production to another discussion, I will outline a handful of highly advanced forms RASA will take, and some of the implications for humanity.

Consolidation: Artificial Mechanical Life. I’ m not talking about machines that think an act like us. I’m not even necessarily talking about an animal level intelligence. What I foresee is the RASA system enabling machines that fulfil all the same definitions of life that something like a single-celled organism would also fulfil. That is, being able to function in an environment, gather resources, expel waste, and reproduce itself independently. On the face of it, it it seems drastic and unbelievable, but I think this reality will creep in slowly, and I don’t even think people will quite notice the exact point at which these systems become alive, because it will be a chaotic, slow, incremental process.

     Once automated manufacturing, repair, and resource gathering and transportation all get advanced to a certain point, there will probably come a time when it’s possible to put all these varied assembly lines and systems under one roof, or at least in the same area. Generations of development cycles will refine a lot of systems to high levels of interdependence and interoperability. Eventually it should be possible to take only certain key core systems of the automated economy, place them in a new location with adequate resources available to them, and have the system build whatever is needed from this seed. Naturally such a system could make more copies of itself, as self maintenance and growth can also be tasked to reproduction. It may even be possible to put a RASA civilization seed in a remote location, leave it to it’s devices, and return in time to a fully functioning city awaiting habitation. The entire material economy of civilization can in theory be contained within the mechanical and computerized automatic systems, given sufficient complexity. While hard to imagine in some ways, it becomes easy to imagine if one realizes that this system exists today. We have an economic system that is repeatable and reproducible, and it’s also completely automated if you consider the use of meat based humanoid machines. The only complex task we have challenging us is removing humanity from the hardest toil of the system. Given the Industrial Revolution we have already come a long way in that regard, it is reasonable to expect that trend to continue to it’s logical conclusion.

Giga-Projects: As a species, we’ve done pretty well when it comes to work of massive scale. Huge dams, bridges, skyscrapers, and road systems cover much of the world. When we can have access to a virtually unlimited supply of self-replicating mechanical workers, the work we can do will put all past projects to shame. We will be able to move mountains. We have the ability to truly reshape our world in a way that’s hard to imagine now. Imagine bringing water to the most barren deserts. Reshaping continents and waterways. Even huge projects such as building a space fountain to the stars becomes a realistic dream. (Notice I did not use the term “space elevator”, because it much more based on science that has yet to be discovered, such as unobtainium. A space fountain is at least in theory build-able only with materials available today, just a lot of them. But I digress…)

Truly Exploring and Colonizing the Solar System: If the RASA system becomes advanced enough that putting a seed somewhere can result in the construction of civilization, there is no reason to think that the seed needs to be on this world. The moon, deep space, or another planet are all realistic options at this point of development. Having an army of machines on Mars slowly transforming it into a second Earth won’t be a pipe dream but a matter of logistics and planning. Mining the asteroid belt, massive space solar energy collection, and deep space habitats all become realistic in a way they never were before. People were never made to work in vacuum, but machines can be. We should put them to work for us. The current age of the robotic rover will be a very quaint anachronism in short order, I think.

Real, Honest to Goodness Freedom From Work: We won’t fight for our daily bread anymore, we won’t need to. With these kinds of developments, it’s obvious that production can so easily outstrip population that nobody will ever need to worry much about issues such as paying for virtually anything that can be done by machine. I’m not saying that money and capitalism and wealth will completely vanish, but I do see a future where things we fight for so hard today will come as easily as water from a kitchen tap for our descendants. This will depend just as much on how smart and kind we are with each other in the future as much as how good our science and technology will be, but I think the cornucopia of material wealth to be had will make a lot of the decisions much easier to make.

Part 6: Conclusion

     I’ve drawn a straight line across time and space, from simple machines easily built now, to some of Mankind’s largest hopes and dreams. It’s grandiose, audacious, presumptuous, and in my maybe humble opinion, somehow inevitable. I’ve glossed over so many important devilish details, that perhaps we may never make it all the way there, but indeed, this is the dream I hold for the world’s children. We have seen how a simple idea such as placing a steam engine on metal rails catapulted a feudal agrarian civilization into what we have now. We have already witnessed how discovering how electricity runs down wires has lead to the birth of the Internet, the planet’s new nervous system. How far can a simple idea of an automated box that runs on sets of rails that go off in three dimensions take us? I don’t know how far it will go in reality, but at least within my imagination, it can take us to heights that I myself can barely imagine. After reading this, I hope you, the reader, can also share in this vision I have for a better future.

Cellular Automata and The Early Development of RASA

      In my life, I have come across the John Von Neumann’s Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata more than once. A historic work of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. While interesting to me, I remember passing it over and dismissing it as too theoretical and unworkable in real life, a mere intellectual curiosity. Subsequently while developing my RASA ideas, I never gave his work any thought at all. As time went on, this changed.

      My initial ideas were largely formed based on my preconception built from decades of following the development of robotics. Since my first childhood encounters with robots in the 80’s, with the likes of Armatron and the Omnibot toys, I was disappointed. None of these robots were very fun to play with for long. Also, they didn’t seem terribly useful, and didn’t live up to the promise of the science fiction books I devoured. I recall avidly paying attention to any new developments, and being mostly disappointed. This disappointment carried on well into my adult life, and was probably the reason why I was reluctant to enter the otherwise interesting world of hobby robotics.

      While robots have had their successes and certainly have their place, the limitations that robots have with interacting with the real world seem here to stay. Advances have been made, but still to this date, we haven’t been able to design a robot that can outperform even the clumsiest of toddlers when it comes to the complexities the world can throw at it. Robots can outperform a toddler in many specific rote tasks, but even a toddler can beat just about any robot on a task as simple as taking verbal instructions to pick up an object and throw it to me. This isn’t because the toddler has faster reflexes than a robot, or better voice recognition, but rather, because the toddler is smarter and more flexible with how he or she faces the world. Intelligence matters.

      People are working hard to create smarter machines, and so far, the progress seems limited. Even in theory, there is no generally accepted model of cognition, so most developments have been improvements in specific narrow tasks, such as face recognition. While the idea of machine intelligence is very interesting to me, I haven’t seen any inspiration in that field. Instead, because of my frustrations with the usefulness of the machines we do have, I have focused on the things that machines can do well. After all, why focus on a system’s weakness when there are so many great strengths to choose from.

      After a heart operation that involved angioplasty, I was fascinated by the tool the doctor used. Basically, it was a long and narrow tube that was inserted through my groin and threaded into my heart, where a machine at the tip was to inspect my heart and do necessary repairs. Thankfully, it found no repairs that needed doing. In preparation, I did some reading about minimally invasive surgery, and found it interesting that complex machines could be threaded through a small tube and do useful work by remote control. It left me thinking about the problem of the limit of how complex these machines could become and still be able to be threaded through a small tube.

      Years later in 2012, while driving through the mountains in, I remembered my thoughts on those, and pondered transportation systems in mountain ranges. In their own way, I saw that roadways, railways, and tunnels through the mountains were a functionally equivalent to laprascopic surgery. I found it interesting how railways snaked through the mountains to give life to complex towns and cities. In laprascopic surgery, devices that snaked through a body to do complex work saved lives. Under normal circumstances, that’s where my daydreaming would have ended.

      Numbed by the hours of monotonous highway driving, yet invigorated by several highly caffeinated drinks, I kept on daydreaming about these ideas while I drove. First I imagined a railway hauling shipping containers, and how in larger centres, the logistics of transporting these shipping containers from port to rail to city had already in large part been automated, much like a computer network. Inspired by the idea of remote control promised by minimally invasive surgery, I imagined a remote control railway, doing work in a city or factory without people, or even perhaps, building a city or factory all on their own. By necessity, this took trains that could lay their own tracks, and from here my imagination went wild. Somewhat inspired by obscure Canadian scifi movies, I imagined cube shaped trains, able to lay their own special track as they needed and able to travel in all three dimensions. With this level of self-assembly achieved, I imagined an ecology of other cubic train cars, each one able to perform specific industrial tasks, replacing all aspects of industry. I imagined their uses in forestry, in mining (both strip and underground), and factory assembly. From there, as I imagined more and more uses for this system, I became excited because I realized that once this system reached a certain level of complexity, it could sustain itself with minimal human intervention. Each new machine built for such a system would bring new uses to the owners of the machines, but would also serve to extend the capabilities of the system as a whole. I knew I was on to something good, because the core of the design didn’t rely on improving machine intelligence or flexibility, but rather, focused on the strengths of machines, which is to do a few things very well. At last, simple robots that could do something useful on a large scale. On arrival at my destination, I began work in earnest on my ideas.

      In re-reading Von Neumann’s book and refining my thoughts about the RASA system, the relationship between my work and his became apparent. Because of the grid system inherent in RASA, any abstraction or control systems could be easily visualized as a form of three dimensional cellular automation. I have not given the idea of controls much thought, other than that they will be likely be diverse and need to be appropriate for the task at hand. Some tasks can be fully automated and controlled entirely by the unit riding around in the grid. Other machines will need centralized control with varying degree of human input. All of these need to be visualized and modelled. The similarity with the creations that John Von Neumann built entirely out of imaginary tiles is striking enough to me that I must say that he is truly the grandfather of this design. It will be a long time before this design comes even close to being self-reproducing in the way that Von Neumann envisioned, but when it does, I’m sure that it will resemble his work, if not specifically, but as an organic whole. I think a driving force that will help RASA succeed is that it’s become John Von Neumann’s wholly theoretical self-reproducing automata made real. Combined with an architecture that focuses on the useful strengths of machines, simple construction, easily divided piece-meal development, and an economically based evolutionary fitness function, I think this daydream stands a great chance of success. These beliefs are the fire of my passion to continue my work.

The Architectural Model of Self Replicating Machines: RASA

      Since self-replicating machines could be considered a form of life, borrowing traits from living things is useful in developing functional self-replicating machines. One such trait of living things, in my opinion, has been given short shrift: the ability to influence internals and surroundings to better suit the needs of the organism.

      In biology, it is often the organism that is best able to modify its environment that is able to survive and propagate the best. This ability is found in all living things, and is necessary for life. The first cells were successful when they gained a cell membrane that effectively walled them off from the exterior world, and allowed them to evolve their delicate internals with less interference from outside. Today, organisms control their own internals in a myriad of ways: temperature, pressure, pH, nutrients find their way automatically to where they are needed, waste is automatically removed, food is processed, the list goes on. Life’s complex processes are generally feeble and need a very specific environment to function properly. This means that organisms that influence the world around them to suit themselves can survive where others fail.

      Translating this important trait to electromechanical self replicating machines is a challenge because of the unknown complexity of designing a self-replicating machine in the first place. It would be useless to describe the trait in all but the broadest generalities. When considering an imaginary ultimate machine, it would be defined as complete control over three dimensional space and all materials and energy within it. The ultimate machine is obviously not build-able, but it does give us a specific goal and trait to maximize in a self-replicating machine: versatility and control over itself and its immediate environment.

      Rather than revel in the complexity of such an idea, it is easier to think of it simply as the ability to move any amount of matter (M) or energy (E) to point X, Y, Z in three dimensional space. Control of such a system becomes radically simplified, and would be easily controlled by modern computational methods. In fact, it starts to mirror modern computing, which revolves around moving and processing arbitrary data. For the reason that this system appears analogous to computer RAM (Random Access Memory), I call this automation system RASA, which stands for Random Access Spatial Automation.

      Following the information technology lead, we can divide space into a three dimensional grid, and then we need to maximize the ability to move arbitrary lumps of stuff around the grid. We will need:

  • Arbitrary matter to move around: Like computing science, it makes sense to divide it up into pieces of standard size.

  • Something to move the matter around: Since the matter will be of uniform size, the machines that can move the matter around can also be uniform. Standardization is important.

  • An extensible medium to move through: Some kind of framework that allows the cargo machine to move freely in 3D space.

      By dividing the self-replicating machines into these three categories, we can now turn this into an exercise of architecture for robotics. To begin, it is important to identify general desirable characteristics for each of the three categories:

Spatial grid:

  • The bare minimum physical construction needed to allow uniform machines to travel throughout on all three axes. To allow for easy addressing, a three dimensional grid of support struts and tracks is needed to allow a simple machine to travel throughout.

  • Since this framework will define the physical extents of the self-replicating machine, it will likely be the most massive part of the machine. Optimizing the design will require it to be of simple construction, of uniform standard size, and as inexpensive as possible. Ideally, it should be built of materials easily harvested from the local environment.

  • Since this is a self-replicating system, the grid must also be easily constructed by machine.

Cargo Haulers:

  • Must be able to easily travel throughout the grid in all three dimensions, and be able to carry an arbitrary cargo to any point in space within the grid.

  • Cargo haulers must have power, actuators, control systems, sensors and related systems to carry out their tasks of moving throughout the grid.

  • The cargo bin must be able to handle matter in the most arbitrary way possible.

Arbitrary Matter Specialization:

      So far, we have been discussing the standardized parts of a self-replicating machine. Here is where we get into the specializations that make the system function and do what is needed for itself and for us. When it comes to specialization, again it can be useful to draw inspiration from living things. Certain parallels can be made with multicellular organisms. These can be considered as specialized cells that all do their thing for the benefit of the whole.

      As this is a system that will be created by people at first, this can be seen as mirroring an economic system. As the system develops, many functions will at first be done by people. Much machinery will be built and serviced by humans, and tasks will be slowly replaced by innovative robots doing the same work. The profit motive has been incredibly effective in development of new and better machines, and self-replicating machines should not be left outside this process.

      Functionality of what we can put inside the cargo haulers can be divided into four categories:

  • Cargo Level 0: Inert Cargo: Simply put, this is inactive stuff we can move anywhere it is wanted. Examples could include solids, liquids, gas, manufactured goods, waste, etc.

  • Cargo Level 1: Spatial Grid Machinery: This category would include any machinery involved with building, repairing and maintaining the spatial grid. Developing this machinery would give this system its first stage of being a self-replicating machine.

  • Cargo Level 2: Cargo Hauling Machinery: Any machinery that builds, repairs, or maintains the cargo haulers themselves. Construction of these machines would be the second stage of achieving self-replication of this system.

  • Cargo Level 3: Interactive Machinery: This is the category of machines that can interact with each other or the outside world. Examples could be many types of machines that could combine to form an ad-hoc assembly line, or machines that mine ores, or machines that provide goods or services to people, or machines that maintain and repair other machines at this level. Building these necessary machines would “close the loop” and make this a fully self-replicating machine.

RASAFigure 1

      A visualization of the basics of this system can be seen above in Figure 1. The coloured grid represents the spatial grid, and the grey cube represents the cargo hauling machine and the cargo or machine hidden within. The red posts are the structure of the grid, holding everything up. The cargo hauler can ride upon the green rails using retractable wheels. Also, retractable wheels can hang the box off the blue rails, allowing movement in the other direction, allowing for full two dimensional movement within the grid. Allowing the retractable wheels to slide up and down vertically on the box gives it the ability to climb up and down levels, making this a system able to access any random point within.

      Now obviously this system has its physical limitations and overhead, but within the system, we have an infinitely configurable system of machinery. The obvious parallel of this architecture can be seen in the structure of Internet TCP/IP communications. In the same way we have wires, data packets, and the data carried within the packets, we have a grid framework, cargo haulers, and the cargo and diverse machinery within.

      As I see it, the first obvious use of this system is storage and warehousing. This system can easily be set up as an automated warehouse. As far as the first step towards self-replication, I anticipate a machine inside the cargo bay of the box able to construct new segments of the grid by itself. These uses could be profitable for some companies, and I foresee the profit motive quickly driving many innovations once it is released upon the world.