Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Biological Factories

In order to understand what type of alien ship might show up on our doorstep, and even what might show up in lieu of aliens themselves, it is important to try and understand what their civilization might look like. As noted elsewhere, we are in the midst of some robotic developments, and that takes our attention. But the genetics grand transition is likely to be much more revolutionary and much more transformative of an alien society.

One aspect of the possible use of biologics instead of robotics concerns available energy. Biological organisms occurring via evolution are autotrophs, consuming either available chemical energy in solutions or on surfaces or solar photons, or heterotrophs, consuming other organisms. Energy generation in our society, and probably in an alien civilization, is done in large central plants producing electricity, or in small local electricity producing equipment. Other energy sources are mined fossil fuels, and to a very small extent, gravitation via tides, which might not even exist on an alien planet.

Is it possible to grow a biological organism that consumes electricity directly? If so, then the doors are wide open for doing many things biologically. If not, there would have to be an intermediate step, perhaps something like a digestive organ for some organic liquid fuel that is made biologically or industrially, out of precursors that might be obtained from recycled materials plus the usual carbon dioxide and water. With the power source established, genetic engineering can be used to produce almost anything conceivable.

Animal organs might be used in combination with stable plant structures to produce a chemical processing facility. For the production of nutritional substances, organs could be designed to secrete a combination of substances, perhaps a complete nutritional mixture. A chemical production facility of the industrial type would take separate chemical lines for each substance, but an organ can be as versatile as necessary.

Why manufacturer a pump and piping when you can code in a heart and arteries and veins, along with a means for powering it? These biological items might be largely self-repairing, with little or no wear. The aliens would need a surgeon for major repairs, instead of mechanical technicians, but this might be completely facilitated by the analogy of asymptotic medical technology, applied to biological factories and other facilities.

Biological facilities and factories might have certain advantages, but they would also have certain disadvantages. High through-put for the footprint used is one where they might not be the best. This would imply that small volume production was needed, biological solutions might be better, in some overall metric, than mechanical ones. But it is not necessary that the alien civilization will centralize things such as we do, especially after the genetic grand transition. If the aliens have individual living quarters, or live in small groups instead of in larger dormitories, each of the living quarters might have many functions that are centralized here on Earth. Could some large fraction of recycling be in these homes? Could the equivalent of plant generation of oxygen be done locally, using electricity provided by a central source? Could food generation, perhaps excluding specialty items, be done in the home, again using electrical sources, or their surrogate, some fuel chemical as discussed above. With a pipe running the fuel source into all homes, some amount of wiring in the city could be eliminated. The pipe might even be biological, capable of growing to match the demand it sensed.

Perhaps hygiene and routine medical care would be done in the home. The aliens might have scales or claws or teeth or skin or joints or muscles that improved with some treatments that could be done in the home. A chair, if they sit, or a bed, if they lay down, might have some displacement ability, and some orifices to excrete whatever was the best lotion or polish or cleaning substance or whatever.

Wiring in the city might be non-existent. If transportable biological nutrients were used to power the home devices, power wires might not be needed. With optical cable, perhaps even grown, providing all the communication and information services, mechanical items would not be needed, except perhaps for displays or camera, and even these might be done biologically. The eye is an analog of a camera, but no creature has evolved anything that might be adapted for use as a display. This does not mean it is impossible.

In doing some figuring in a previous blog about the use of resources for an alien civilization, it was noted that a high degree of recycling would have to be used in order to extend the life of a high-living-standard, high-population alien civilization for long periods, more than millennia. We recycle on Earth through facilities which serve areas the size of cities, tens to hundreds of thousands of humans. But aliens might have something completely different, which enables them to recycle to a high degree without all this transport one way and then another way. Local biological units to reprocess biological materials might be possible, and if almost everything was biological, this might work to the high degree required. Central facilities might still exist, but only for the service of some centralized production or manufacturing facilities, such as gestation.

Even gestation might be done in the home, if it was done by a grown biological organism. This would restore the concept of family units, although with some very different aspects compared to what evolved. Perhaps aliens on some planets would spend most of their time in their homes, and only come out on special occasions, or to transfer homes, or for serious medical requirements, or some small number of other unique requirements. Or perhaps they would spend much time out of the home, but stay involved with their homes for some functions we have there and some we do not. Perhaps information and communication services would be largely in the home; perhaps they would be centralized.

In short, the genetics grand transition opens up so many possibilities for how aliens arrange their lives that we would fall short if we try to imaging all of them. For us on Earth, the mechanical revolution we have, when engines were invented and electricity became common, was totally transformative of society. Very likely, the genetics revolution will do the same for those alien civilizations which reach it.

Two questions are raised by these insights that affect the goal of the blog, which is to explore why aliens are not visiting Earth. One is that the genetics revolution, or grand transformation, may affect their motivation to travel through interstellar space, but how? The other is that any ship they build might have interesting mixtures of biological and mechanical devices, but how? Would that affect their ability to travel for long periods in isolation? Would it reduce the energy costs of such a trip? Undoubtedly, there are even more interesting questions.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy your blog, would like to hear your thoughts on KIC 8462852, aka "Tabby's Star" or "WTF 001". Eric SECT