Thursday, April 21, 2016

Stickiness in the Transition to Arcologies

One of the most important things about figuring out the propensity of alien civilizations to involve themselves in star voyages is the longevity of their civilization. An alien civilization which does everything an alien civilization should on technology, figuring out virtually everything about everything, in short order, and organizes the knowledge, both the scientific and the practical applications, can do star trips. However, if they are like a short-blooming flower, and collapse for one reason or another after only a short time on the top of the technology pyramid, they are not going to be doing star travel. On the other hand, if they settle down to a way of life which allows them to stay at this level for many, many generations, then they would have the opportunity to come and see us.

Yes, there are perils, of galactic, stellar, planetary, and social types, which can even extinguish an alien civilization, but these appear to be rare enough that many if not most alien civilizations would not suffer from them. Others can be mitigated. But one essential fact faces all alien civilizations: resources are finite. Maybe they originated on a planet where some essential resources were in short supply to begin with. Maybe they live in a solar system where no other planets can support their needs for some essential supplies. On the other hand, maybe they have both. Either way, there is a limit, and the alien civilization will be well aware of it as the scarcity clock begins ticking, or as their knowledge grows strong enough to be able to make predictions in this area.

As has been pointed out in the blog, recycling to a high degree is perhaps the most suitable way for an alien civilization to multiply its expected longevity, resources-wise, by a factor of ten or a hundred or even more. This is such a huge payoff that if would seem to be like a giant signpost hanging in front of the members of the civilization. But scarcity doesn’t occur in a generation, and a single generation might not feel its effects; yet those members would have to make very grave decisions on how their society is organized. Can they toss off considerations of the future and put off severe recycling until the next generation? And so on across multiple generations?

This depends on when scarcity hits. After the genetic grand transition and the neurological grand transition, personal goals would be more easily subsumed into civilization-wide goals. But if scarcity hits before these transitions, when universal intelligence is not available, could the civilization just drive itself over the cliff into the chasm of resource exhaustion? The question of which happens first is dependent on the amount of resources initially present and available to the civilization, the rate of growth of knowledge and the rate of application of the knowledge, specifically intelligence improvements, to the population, as compared to the rate of growth of the consumption rate, which is a combination of living standard growth and population growth. Consumption rate growth is controlled by the knowledge rate growth, so we have two competing trends driven by one technology engine. Which piece of technology gets done first? Hard to say.

If it happens, for some particular alien civilization, that consumption rate growth outpaces the application of intelligence-raising technology, that civilization may have a problem. Are there any factors which would propel such a civilization to adopt high-percentage recycling otherwise, other than the care for future generations?

One factor which has been discussed in a different post is that of the design-to-recycle concept. This would have a self-propelled momentum if it were more efficient to use recycled components than to gather new ones and prepare them for use, plus transport them to the manufacturing or assembly location. This is actually a huge change in design philosophy. Perhaps what it takes is the appearance of some one or few innovators who do it, and demonstrate it is not only feasible but economical. And the feasibility of this becomes more likely in technology sectors which do not have a tremendous rate of change, in other words, ones where innovation has largely run its course.

Another factor which has been discussed is that recycling to a high degree is handled better in an arcology than in other designs for cities. Subtle changes happen during the industrial grand transition. Mass manufacturing in the earliest stages is inefficient, noisy, polluting and generally a bad neighbor. Transportation requirements are large, and storage requirements are large as well. These dissipate as manufacturing becomes more efficient. Manufacturing is yet another branch of technology, and as technology advances, manufacturing becomes less polluting and less disturbing. It has to reach a point where locational convenience overcomes any additional cost of controls on the manufacturing processes. On Earth, many cities isolate manufacturing into certain areas, in a process called zoning. The reasons for this slowly disappear with time. Here on our planet we see residential buildings and office buildings slowly being integrated, which shortens travel time and increases convenience for all involved in the work done in these buildings. The same process would be expected to happen with manufacturing of all kinds. The need for extreme facilities should decrease. Manufacturing can transition to more small scale operations. This is aided by robotics as well. A small suite of robots can be replicated on a huge factory floor, or dispersed on many floors of a tall building.

Another factor that could slow down the transition into an arcology on alien planets is the technology of recycling. Mass collection, shredding and separation are a way of doing it, but this becomes no longer needed as design-to-recycle comes into vogue. Disassembly can be done with a small suite of robots just as assembly is. In fact, co-location of disassembly and assembly is probably more efficient. So giant shredding facilities are not necessary. The introduction of low-cost controls makes the same processes possible for liquid and powder handling facilities. Larger facilities are efficient when there are multiple controls needing the attention of an individual alien technician. When it is all automated, and the automation costs drop down, smaller scale is possible, and then the convenience cost benefits of dispersal can be reaped.

The provision of nutrition is another factor of resistance to the transformation of alien life into being arcology-centered. As long as nutrition is dependent on harvesting photons from their sun, space is needed, but when photons are available from a power source maintained by the civilization itself, the convenience factor is unleashed. The arcology can be quite integrated, not divided into zones for different classes of activities.

A factor already discussed in a different post is the use of hydrogen, spread in tanks, rather than the use of piping and wiring throughout the arcology. This is yet another factor which would push the alien civilization toward high-percentage recycling as can be done in an arcology.

Thus, there does not seem to be any reason to assume that any alien civilization would find insurmountable barriers to high-percentage recycling, and find itself too far down the road to scarcity to switch over later in their history. So, this is not a reason for assuming we are not being visited by aliens. They can and probably would greatly prefer, for economic reasons, to develop this mode of life style, even before the genetic grand transition.

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