Sunday, January 3, 2016

Affordability in Alien Civilizations Part 3

Previous posts have covered the use of energy as a surrogate for currency, the make-or-break question being net energy production, and how to fund starships. There is more to affordability than funding starships. Infrastructure must be funded. However, in a civilization lasting millennia, with stable population and no significant scarcity problems yet, infrastructure is already built. It needs to be maintained, which might mean replacing parts, as well as repairing existing parts, and operated.

Recall that the idea of replacing parts and doing repairs, as well as operating, is somewhat unique to our particular point in time. We on Earth are beyond much of the electronics revolution, which followed the mechanical revolution. These two changeovers transformed our technology and in so doing, transformed our society. We are still in the process of the electronics revolution, particularly the artificial intelligence part of it, and it is, of course, exciting to watch developments proceed. Because of this excitement, meaning the media attention, we think of a city as a mechanical system with much electronics threading it on wires and in the electromagnetic spectrum. However, we have hardly gotten our toes in the water of the genetic revolution. As pointed out in another post, one clear option for cities is that they would be as biological as possible.

This means that the costs for infrastructure operations would largely be recycling nutrients. This is a fairly simply process, and not exorbitant in terms of energy. Just imagine the difference between having to refine a bunch of different materials out of old, discarded parts, and then refine them into the new mixtures needed to produce new parts, and having to put fertilizer, aka waste, into some vats and provide it with some energy, either chemical or photonic, or even electrical. Out of the vats come nutrients for the biological city, which pumps the stuff itself in biological arteries traveling all over the city. What about walls and floors and ceilings? They grow like carefully controlled trees. Trees on Earth grow in shapes designed to provide the nutrients and energy they need. That can be changed.

Thus, affordability really depends on how much advantage the alien civilization takes of the genetic revolution. Recall also that decisions made about most things in an alien civilization would be made on the basis of cost, meaning efficiency. If biological cities were more affordable, which seems likely, they would exist, assuming that the specifications that were drawn up could be met with some biological invention.

So now affordability has a vastly different face to it. When the city the aliens live in is an organism, recycling is part of its biological components. Earth itself can be thought of as a recycling mechanism, with the oceans and land components somewhat separate. Some of the processes are geological, meaning having timescales of hundreds of millions of years, and some are annual, such as in soil in areas where there are significant seasons. We talk about the evolution of organisms, but the totality of organisms also evolves as a system. Each organism mutates and self-selects improvements to match the environment in which it lives, but that environment includes other lifeforms, which are evolving as well. So there is a way of thinking about a giant ecological system, which has been designed by evolution not simply for some abstract fitness measure for each organism, but for some coordinated fitmess measure that depends on the evolved status of other organisms. When one lifeform changes from a mutation, others may have to change as well. It is not simply a predator-prey type of relationship, although that is certainly the mainstay. Animals change their environment, and plants do as well. So the whole she-bang is an evolving system.

What this exercise in conceptualization does is make it reasonable to think of a city as an intelligently designed biological system, able to house alien citizens in comfort. And that has affordability implications. Affordability in this large macroscopic scale of thinking is about energy inputs that are required to keep the system stably functioning. A city which has a large fraction of its materials being living cells functions efficiently. Repair costs go down, as the city’s components are self-repairing to a large extent. A new profession would have to be created, sort of a combination of a repair tech and a medical doctor. Perhaps surgery would be done by robots rather than by biological creatures, or perhaps there would be a cadre of intellos whose whole job would be to go around the city inspecting components for tumors or inflammation or ruptures in the biological city components, and then repairing them.

It might be more efficient to have insect-sized inspectors for some of the city components, who would simply build a marker for the intellos to notice for repair. Perhaps the inspectors would be of some intermediate size, and shaped like snakes for the pipes and fish for the vats.

If affordability directs every alien civilization to a biologically dominated city, virtually all our science fiction to date would have been totally off-the-mark. Instead of gleaming skyscrapers for a city of the future, there would be large closed, pulsating structures, perhaps even green on the outside.

One more affordability issue arises in this scenario. If aliens have all been living in a biological environment for millennia, and they decide it is time to for space travel, either because they need to move their home planet or they want to clone it, they would naturally think of a starship as biological as possible. Instead of building it somewhere in space inside their solar system, they would grow it there. If it could be grown like a tree, but with internal spaces, they could simply provide it the energy inputs and material inputs it needed, after coming up with the genetic coding. As noted elsewhere, creatures being designed after the genetic revolution might be chimeras, composed of different genetic coding in different areas. But the concept is the same: design the DNA, create the seeds, put it in place and build some analog of a gestation machine to get it started, and then provide it with the necessary inputs while it grew. Meanwhile the mechanical parts would be constructed so they could be inserted into the starship when it reached maturity.

As noted in a previous post, early star flight might be a waste of time and money. If the genetic revolution has the breath-taking consequences that have been contemplated here, it would be so off-course as to be hard to appreciate.

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