Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Affordability in Alien Civilizations Part 1

There has been much discussion in this blog about what is possible technologically for an alien civilization to accomplish, once they pass the hurdles to asymptotic technology. However, some of these items may not be affordable. This exactly means that the alien civilization would know how to do the task but using all the effort they could muster, they could not accomplish it.

The only way this cannot happen is if there is a cost to the task, and whatever that cost was, the alien civilization could not collect enough currency. Here on Earth we talk about using a resource as currency, typically gold, and it was used as currency for many factional civilizations here for different periods. Silver was also used. A few primitive cultures used other things, such as sea shells or carved stone objects. In a previous post, the use of energy as a currency was discussed.

As long as exchange ratios are roughly constant, it should make little difference if energy or a suitable material is used. For this purposes of this post, consider it is energy. Then affordability can be restated in very clear terms.

The building of some infrastructure, such as a large city capable of recycling very efficiently, has an initial cost and an operating cost. There are also maintenance costs, which might be bundled under operating costs. If the object, the city or whatever, has to be disposed of for some reason, as opposed to abandoned and given over to natural processes to eliminate, the disposal costs need to be incorporated in the total scheme of funding the object.

It is certainly possible to be able to fund the construction costs of something and then not be able to fund the maintenance or operating costs. This means abandonment. These different scenarios might just be the result of external events, for example some geological difficulty arose which cut down the annual production of energy, or scarcity costs taking over some of the energy production. Scarcity costs occur when the civilization depends on some type of material and the planet’s resources of it gradually become exhausted. Each of these scenarios might be expectable, or common, and add up to a reason why aliens haven’t shown up here on Earth.

Consider the whole cost scenario. The alien civilization has engineers par excellence who could easily design the object in question, along with all the construction plans and so on. They just need funding to do it.

As long as there is net energy production in excess of the civilization’s operating costs, there can be construction of new infrastructure. To put it a different way, an energy system, meaning everything from obtaining the materials to build all components plus the operating expenses, can be expanded if the total product of the expanded section is more that the total costs to build and operate it. To the most coarse level, if energy can be produced by a plant and only a fraction of the energy produced by the plant is needed to be returned to fund the construction of the plant, the alien civilization can go around doing whatever infrastructure they want to. However, there are details.

One of the details is the tolerance of the planet for energy production. There may be side effects to energy production, and some maximum clearance rate to these side effects. The most obvious one is thermal. Energy production is not typically highly efficient. Chemical and nuclear reactions produce heat, and this heat has to be turned into useful energy, which might be electrical or hydraulic. There must be waste heat generated by this conversion process – simply thermodynamics. How much heat can the planet stand? Let’s just assume someone tells us this number, H. That means the alien civilization can produce up to some amount of energy, E(H). Instead of building whatever infrastructure they want because they know how to build energy production facilities, the governance of the civilization has the process of allocating E(H) to different uses. This is not the simplest calculation to make, as some uses will involve transformation into more heat, meaning part of H has to be devoted to the conversion of useful energy back to heat, while some will transform some of the energy into stored energy, such as in chemical bonds when materials are made.

There is also a geographic distribution to be accounted for. Moving energy around uses energy, which turns into heat, using up some of the total, H. So locating infrastructure near the production of energy would be most efficient, except for the fact that energy plants are not necessarily what everyone wants to live and work near. If the aliens all live in self-sustaining, almost closed cities, is the plant inside it? That would mean a large cost of moving the waste heat out of the city, which probably makes it prohibitive. So the energy plant is near the city, but not inside it.

Just this one detail of affordability changes the way to talk about being able to build infrastructure and other objects. If you ask, is star travel affordable, and the alien civilization is living on the surface of a planet, you have really asked, is there spare amounts in E(H) not already accounted for that could be diverted to all the energy costs of building a starship? Furthermore, you have changed a meme-driven mission into a complicated energy allocation decision. In this blog, we talked about memes for star travel as being a necessary pre-existent social factor for star travel, as there is no inherent need for a civilization to do it. But if the meme butts its head into the full allocation of E(H), it calls for a sacrifice of things already agreed to. Recall that alien civilizations beyond the full transition to asymptotic technology are stable, meaning E(H) is already allocated and has been for a long time.

What sacrifices would the alien civilization make so that energy could be found to build star ships? This question might need to be phrased differently to be clear. Some construction of starships might be done on an asteroid, or a satellite, or in space. There, more energy production factilities might be built that do not fall under the allocation process for E(H). In fact, they would have their own energy production limits, maybe E’(H). But there is still some costs that have to fall under E(H) such as the transport of materials, people, robots, or whatever from the alien civilization’s sites on the planet off it to the starship construction site. So some sacrifices will still have to be made. Instead of asking if there is a star travel meme in an alien civilization, we might instead ask if the star travel meme is strong enough motivation to mean some deprivation would be experienced by the members of the civilization to do star travel.

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