Friday, March 02, 2007

How to bootstrap technology

Kevin Kelly -- The Technium: "A favorite fantasy game for engineers is to imagine how they might re-invent essential technology from scratch. If you were stranded on an island, or left behind after Armageddon, and you needed to make your own blade, say, or a book, maybe a pair of working radios, what would it take to forge iron, make paper, or create electricity?"

This is a fun exercise. I like to consider what to take along to colonize another Earth-like planet. I am also assuming clean enough air and water and living soil to start with. And finally I am assuming the colony ship has a good library available, so we are not reinventing the wheel at every stage.

The ship won't be able to carry very much since it takes so much to support the colonists. So it won't have tons of pipe for water handling or things like that. However it would have a full machine shop and a small semiconductor fab to produce some technology. The biggest thing the fab would be needed for would be radio parts. Communication is one of the biggest forms of leverage you can have.

That thing that makes our modern world work best is the division of labor, people who are best at mining may not be the best at farming. That is want we are trying to recreate as quickly as possible. If we do this right we should be able to recreate a goodly sized potion of our technology in 50-60 years or less.

The first thing is to produce food in excessive quantities. If we can make more food then we need we will be able to repurpose much of the population to other specialties. Most of this comes down to domesticating beast of burden so relief ourselves of doing the muscle work, and we want to replace then with machines as soon as we are able. The nice thing about farming is that it is only labor intensive for two periods of the year: Planting and harvesting.

At the same time we need to be sending a few knowledgeable people out to find ores and extract them. If they're close together farming and mining can be done together. As the metals start piling up we refine them and using blacksmithing techniques to make better farming equipment.

One of the next things to start doing is recreating Roman-level sanitation technology. Clean safe water and public hygiene are pretty important. They even had hot and cold running water, sure they used stone instead of metal or plastic piping but it still worked.

Now that the basics are covered we can start building more creative tools: at this stage is where a lathe makes sense to build. Once you have a machine shop you can build steam engines and you are at the Industrial Revolution. The ships has a machine shop but creating another one from local materials would be a great step.

There is also glass making and paper making and textile creation to be considered.

This would take about a generation.

Now you can start building tractors and textile machines and all kinds of labor saving devices. This is when we can start climbing up the tech curve fairly quickly. With all the research in the library we can skip a bunch of blind alleys and dead ends and move more quickly. Even with refrigerators and washing machines and the like the biggest limitation I see is just the sheer size of the population. It is just too small to allow enough specialists to rebuild quickly.

So decisions would be made as the to best use of the available labor pool. It would definitely be worth going for electricity at this point just for the leverage it provides. A bunch of small electric motors in each home does wonders for labor savings, Add to that bunches of simple computers and things get even better.

This is a fun problem to think about, and a lot of interdependent technologies that make it really a lot of fun. But then what things would you do differently if you knew what we know now but where starting over on a new planet from scratch?

The radio spectrum could be used a completely different way and not be a crazy hodgepodge of laws.

though in any case we wouldn't be able to completely recreate modern society but then we probably won't have the need to create many things until we had a big enough population to support sit-com production and all those types of things.

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