James Burke on the coming age of scarce scarcity and abundant abundance

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WHOA! Major cool lineup on this episode!

I loved Burke’s two TV series; Connections and The Way the Universe Changed. I don’t buy every “connection” he made, but it showed the complexity of progress.

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Still have the entire Connections series on VHS. Remember watching it on the local PBS station every week. I credit that series for hooking me on science more than anything else. To this day I am still fascinated by the unbelievable versatility of carbon black.

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Was it Jame Burke who would do little things like set up a shot of a woodland stream and then come stomping into the shot wearing waders?

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I majored in physics at Canada’s University of Waterloo. Every week we had a non-credit class lovingly known as Donuts 010 (instead of its actual designation, Phys 010). We watched films and, not surprisingly, ate donuts. The films varied but the biggest hit was Burke’s Connections. I watched a bunch of episodes again quite recently and, 30 years later, they are still both educational and compelling.

Legend or not, I’m struggling to accept Burke’s view of an abundant future. Leaving aside whether this fabricator that he’s predicating his vision of the future on is even feasible or not, he doesn’t address the energy implications of what he’s suggesting. Where does he imagine the energy to power this future is going to come from? I struggle to see how individual fabricators assembling objects from their constituent atoms is going to be anything other than very energy intensive and, importantly, much more energy intensive (and therefore expensive) than conventional mass production.

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In the naive assemble-everything-from-atoms-one-by-one, you’d be absolutely correct. But there are workarounds.

You can limit the variability of the Common Stuff; you don’t make everything from titanium or tungsten these days too, and use cheap alloys and cheap plastics instead.

The “cheap” in terms of molecular assemblers will be something that can be made from plentiful precursors with minimal additional energy input. The “expensive” components can be reduced by design or sometimes eliminated entirely.

So the cheap/expensive will always be here in some ways, morphed into different appearances. But we will be way better off than today. I expect it to be a similar jump as from artisanal hand-made one-off goods to plastic injection moulding.

A different, more important, use for molecular assemblers will be in biomed/biotech - making meds, or even tailor-made DNA for synbio. The energy inputs here are way less important as the goods are way more valuable. Especially in synbio DNA, where you make just few molecules with mere millions to billions of atoms, and the rest will be governed by self-replication in vivo. The synbio organisms can in turn be used for mass-production of those cheap precursors, forming a technology feedback loop.

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Interesting. Domestic printers are much less efficient than large, commercial print runs and I expect 3D printed objects will always be more energy intensive than mass produced objects (great for small runs or one-offs though). I don’t see why assembly at a molecular level would be any different but I’m prepared to be shown otherwise. It’s not an area I’m at all familiar with so will need to read up on it.

The problem I have with futurologists is that in most cases they just don’t think about the energy implications of their forecasts. Develop abundant clean energy and then we can talk abundant abundance, but until then I’m going to file this under science fiction and expect ongoing scarcity for the foreseeable future.

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Factor in the transportation, and the range of favorability for on-site 3d printing in comparison to cheaper-per-piece centralized mass-manufacturing gets quite wider. Especially in more remote areas (rural places, Africa, orbital stations, Mars colony).

It will be likely pretty similar. Some reactions go on their own. Some have to be kicked hard into their way (though there are cheats, too; compare the high-pressure high-temperature Haber-Bosch synth of ammonia with the microwave-aided version - you don’t have to heat the entire atoms when heating just the electrons will do). Choose the easy cheap road when you can.

Nobody really is. That’s why it is called research.

Or don’t explicitly mention it and assume breakthroughs in energetics.

We are swimming in energy. There’s a lot of ambient energy in heat differences, light, vibrations… Not high-density but it is there; see “energy harvesting” for low-power sensors.

Then there’s the energy locked in matter. Not much in conventional chemical way, much more in nuclear fission, even more in fusion; every element other than iron has stored energy inside, just waiting to be liberated. Albeit only a few (certain light elements/isotopes for fusion, certain isotopes of thorium/uranium/plutonium for fission) are harvestable in places other than cores of stars.

Molten-salt thorium-cycle reactors.
Until fusion gets mastered.

Suppose we had a home printer that spits out health care and justice, for negligible energy cost. Enormous lawyer and lobbyist energy would be employed to ensure that the current players that profit from this scarcity would continue to profit because “Intellectual Property”.

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And that’s why such printers should be as self-replicating as possible, with internet-downloadable software/firmware, and the parts that cannot be replicated being generic off-the-shelf.

The adversaries here rely on the force structures, which in turn rely on having a limited number of at least somewhat compliant targets. Make enforcement impossible and problem is mostly solved.

Because they can stop some of us but they cannot stop all of us.

It’s a hell of an assumption to make. It’s very easy to assume we’ll have abundant clean energy from Thorium or fusion but making it happen is another matter. We’re still a long way from deploying the first practical fusion reactor because it’s really hard to do. Thorium is easier but I believe it costs more than conventional fission and it’s been tried before and wasn’t made to work commercially so I’m not holding my breath. Either will have to eventually become considerably cheaper than the existing alternatives in order for them to make meaningful inroads into the energy mix.

Meanwhile other forms of clean energy which are already being deployed (most notably wind and solar) will have gone through decades of deployment and R&D and so will be getting steadily cheaper making it even harder for technologies like thorium and fusion to get a toehold. Importantly, those alternatives are probably not compatible with a very energy intensive future.

So I guess my argument is really a plea to people who are thinking about the future: don’t just blithely assume that energy won’t be an issue in the future. Our amazing progress over the last couple of centuries is completely down to the extraordinary ‘luck’ to have had easy access to the bonanza that is fossil fuels. If we have major breakthroughs and we have more clean energy than we know what to do with then abundance is a possibility, but perhaps it’s worth exploring other scenarios where we’re energy constrained. What would the world look like then?

Thorium was tested in 60’s and worked successfully. The fuel infrastructure was however incompatible with buildup of the nuclear arsenal, which was a major business for the industry back then, so the uranium route was chosen instead.

Fusion reactors are hard to do. But many other technologies are hard to do and we have them. Let’s wait on this. Some developments look quite hopeful.

Solar and wind are however somewhat unpredictable. They provide quite harsh load spikes to the distribution grid. The installed capacity has to be matched at least to a degree by standby sources ready to kick in in an eyeblink (an often neglected part of renewable energy). The storage of electrical energy is somewhat difficult to do without major losses yet (though there are possibilities, like electrochemical production of higher value goods at the moments when energy is abundant, as power sinks).

An argument that offsets the solar/wind argument.

There will always be “not enough energy”; the demand tends to match the supply here.

True that. Time to go nuclear before the eau de dinosaur runs out. (Actually, time to go wild mix of different technologies.)

We will need a lot of energy. A strong supply of electrical power has all sorts of uses, including metallurgy and advanced materials.

Worth looking at, and - moreso - worth trying to avoid. See the material engineering issue. We have a lot of aluminium and titanium and other metals all around, in ores rich and poor, and the more energy we can spend the better we can extract them from even the cheaper, poorer sources.

Rather lousy, I’d say. We’d have to sacrifice a lot of possibilities, just so some Greenpeace types get an orgasm…

Give me my megawatts, I say.

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