Sunday, June 05, 2005

Open Source Reality

Two researchers from opposite sides of the world have embarked on a project which they hope may change production, economics, and the very fabric of human society forever. Adrian Bowyer of Bath University and Vik Olliver of New Zealand are collaborating on open source project to create the universal constructor, a machine capable of reproducing itself as well as nearly any object you desire and they're doing all online in the blogosphere at

Reading through the near daily journal entries points in the direction of a new phase in human collaboration ,driven by the twin desires to create what has never been and to improve the lot of the vast majority of humanity which has been left behind by the developed world. The fruits of their label are meant to available to all.

But back to the invention. What is a universal constructor? John von Neumann coined the phrase in the late 1940s to describe a device which could combine raw materials to create copies of itself. In a sense, biological life, is a form of universal constructor, but one not truly under our control. What Bower and Olliver are proposing would be a variant of that form whose purpose is not just self replication but supplying the material needs of humanity.

The initial goal of their work is to produce a device that can create most but not all of the parts needed to reproduce itself. The excepted list of parts are inexpensive and readily available at most any electronics store. The machine would be hooked to a computer for control and the sharing of designs online. The user would then assemble the parts into a new machine.

The idea is that as the machines spread users would create new designs which would allow the machines to become more capable and reliable, eventually gaining the ability to self-assemble and perhaps even fully reproduce.

Assuming the raw materials are there to support it, if a machine could produce a copy of itself in a day, in a week there would be 128 of them. In two weeks there would be 16,384. In three weeks there would be more than 2 million. In four weeks there would be nearly 270 million. In five weeks there would be more than five machines for each man, woman and child on the planet. That is the power of self-replication.

Ideally the objects created by the machines could be recycled back as raw materials to create new objects. Damage a your toy car? Through it back in the bin and the constructor will reproduce an exact replica in perfect shape.

What would this mean for the economics? Ideally the machine could produce the basics of day to day living from clothing to cutlery. The raw materials could be produced in vast quantities keeping the cost very low and with efficient recycling, most households would need to spend little except on energy to supply the machines.

A whole new creative sector would emerge to supply designs and patterns for construction.

When industrial production first came on the scene, consumers prized the consistency and quality of the machine made goods over that of their hand-made predecessors, leading to a rapid decline in their production. This would likely be repeated for various classes of goods who production is achievable by the constructors. Additionally, the trend to collect antique and hand-made objects would accelerate and that these would be even more highly prized.

Modern economic theory is based upon the assumption that value is derived from rarity. People work as a necessary evil to acquire the wealth needed to purchase their needs. Would the wide-spread adoption of constructors destroy that equation? Likely, no since many good will be in demand which either can not be constructed or are not desired to be constructed. While a pine table is inexpensive and just as functional, many prefer oak or cherry because of the aesthetic and tactile properties. But it will cause vast disruptions to many industries, likely necessitating a rebalancing of the work/life equilibrium.

Obviously, this is only one potential path and just a fraction of what changes likely wait ahead. We'll be exploring more tantalizing possibilities in this blog. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.