Dr. Phil Frana Explores the Past, Present, and Future of Matter Duplicators
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We previously interviewed Dr. Phil Frana about digital immortality, memory, and sci-fi utopias, but his presentation at Escape Velocity 2017 was about something completely new: matter duplicators.
Apart from robots, rockets, and lasers, matter duplicators are one of the pieces of sci-fi tech that seems to pop up across the decades, from pre-World War II pulp fiction to modern sci-fi novels by authors like Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow. What Frana is trying to explore, however, is whether we can make matter duplicators a reality, and what the world will look like once we usher in a post-scarcity society.
Post-Scarcity, Radical Abundance, and Sci-Fi
For the past several years, Frana has been collecting sci-fi anthologies from across the years, ending up with one of the largest collections in the United States. Much of his reading has been poured into his upcoming project, a book called The Artificial Other: The Past, Present, and Future of Automation and Robotics, but it's also given him a new perspective on the concept of matter duplication, where machines turn out plentiful materials for a negligible cost.
So what would a post-scarcity society look like? The closest image Frana has found is that of Cityland in Dubai, where the residents live in incredible wealth:
Post-scarcity society and its related concept, radical abundance, are essentially economic terms, but their implications are profoundly social: when the balance of supply and demand is upset and human labor is no longer necessary, all of human culture will need to shift to match its new material reality. It's difficult to imagine what a world without scarcity would look like, but science fiction has been playing out these scenarios for over half a century.
Matter Duplicators in Sci-Fi
One of the earliest instances of matter duplicators in sci-fi was Murray Leinster's "The Fourth Dimensional Demonstrator" in 1935, which imagined a machine that could take advantage of the fourth dimension to create copies of anything, from bank notes to police officers. The story was followed in 1945 by George Smith's "Pandora's Millions," in which matter duplicators essentially destroy economies and force a transition to an almost completely information and service-based economy, a novel concept at the time.
Ralph Williams' "Business as Usual During Alterations" in 1958 ended up having a longer legacy than most matter duplication stories, due in large part to its use in economics classes to explain the concept of niche goods and long-tail distribution. In the story, the main character, a store owner named John Thomas, gets hold of a duplicator and uses it to duplicate another duplicator, which triggers a new business model based on selling duplicators on credit and shifting all his inventory to cheap, easily duplicable goods.
However, Murray Leinster "The Duplicators," published in 1964, is the story that Frana finds the most worthwhile, partly due to this quote:
"And dupliers released to mankind would amount to treason. If there can be a device which performs every sort of work a world wants done, then those who first have that instrument are rich beyond the dreams of anything but pride. But pride will make riches a drug upon the market. Men will no longer work because there is no need for their work. Men will starve because there is no longer any need to provide them with food."
No matter how it comes about, the introduction of matter duplicators would represent a fundamental change in society, for better or worse. Now, however, matter duplication is slowly moving out of the world of sci-fi and into the real world.
Steps Toward Matter Duplicators
Frana outlined three potential technologies that bring us close to matter duplication: 3-D printing, molecular assembly, and virtual reality. Though none of them provide true matter duplication, they have the potential to fulfill the same promise: the ability to create a wide variety of useful products (or experiences) with negligible input.
3-D printing is probably the most familiar method. By using layers of plastic stacked on top of one another, a printer can create all kinds of objects slice by slice, from houses to tools to helmets. 3-D printing can even produce skin and tissue, for use in implants. Here's a short video that shows how it works:
The second option is atomic construction, where scientists create structures at the atomic level to serve as the building blocks for larger products. Though it's currently very difficult, atomic construction could represent the closest attempt at creating products from (essentially) nothing.
Finally, there's virtual reality. Instead of creating real, material goods, virtual reality offers the ability to create digital facsimiles of anything you can imagine, from locations to people. Combined with tactile and auditory aids, virtual reality has the potential to "dematerialize reality," as Frana puts it.
Whether or not humans will be able to make a matter duplicator, or something like it, may not be the right question. Maybe a better questions is whether humans are ready for it. The idea of infinite resources overturns everything humans have ever known, but Frana is hopeful, not pessimistic about the future—whatever changes abundance may bring to society, he seems to think that humans can change to meet that brave, new world.
Unlike Cas Anvar.
Unlike Cas Anvar.