Too much Star Trek

Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s a guy who thinks the replicators on Star Trek are real. Maybe it’s another article from the delusional weirdos of the Singularity Hub. Maybe it’s just that I get really annoyed with physicists who think they understand biology. But yeah, Thomas Hornigold believes that we’ll be able to make desktop replicators that will make anything you want.

These tiny factories will be large at first, like early computers, but soon enough you’ll be able to buy one that can fit on a desk. You’ll pour in some raw materials—perhaps water, air, dirt, and a few powders of rare elements if required—and the nanofabricator will go to work. Powered by flexible photovoltaic panels that coat your house, it will tear apart the molecules of the raw materials, manipulating them on the atomic level to create…anything you like. Food. A new laptop. A copy of Kate Bush’s debut album, The Kick Inside. Anything, providing you can give it both the raw materials and the blueprint for creation.

Just copy biology! It’s not physics, it’s got to be easy!

In recent years, progress has been made towards this goal. It may well be that we make faster progress by mimicking the processes of biology, where individual cells, optimized by billions of years of evolution, routinely manipulate chemicals and molecules to keep us alive.

All we need is energy from the solar panels we’ll build with our replicators to power our replicators!

Suddenly only three commodities have any value: the raw materials for the nanofabricator (many of which, depending on what you want to make, will be plentiful just from the world around you); the nanofabricators themselves (unless, of course, they can self-replicate, in which case they become just a simple ‘conversion’ away from raw materials); and, finally, the blueprints for the things you want to make.

Let me just point out some basic biological realities.

Biological machines are not generic synthesize-anything machines. Enzymatic reactions are narrowly specific: they require very specific inputs (not just a bucket of dirt) and they are honed by evolution to produce very specific output — not just a particular molecule, but a particular chiral form of that molecule. There are very few general, ‘programmable’ molecular machines — ribosomes come to mind — but that’s only going to be useful if you want to produce proteins. Proteins are remarkably flexible, but still, they’re not sufficient if you want to make solar panels, or batteries, or a car.

He trivializes the difficulty of making the ‘blueprints’. I presume he’s thinking of genes, which are not blueprints, and that you’ll just be able to feed in the ‘language’ of your replicator, and it’ll build something complex for you. We don’t understand all the processes that build a cell, so that’s a long way off, and you have to consider the nature of what organic processes assemble. Are you going to build a cell phone made of meat, or wood, or chitin?

He’s also trivializing the energy requirements. You’re going to have to provide your bio-replicator with chemical energy — or you’re going to have to include a fairly complex mechanism for transducing electrical or light energy into chemistry. It’s doable, cells do it all the time, but it’s still a rather elaborate process with more energy losses.

And then there are the raw materials. Water & dirt? You mean organic carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen, and oxygen and hydrogen — fertilizer and gases and water. Can you grow a stalk of wheat in your cubicle? If you can’t do that, what are you doing babbling about the far greater task of fitting a whole farm, fields and livestock, plus an electronics factory, plus an IT department, all into a box on your desk, with negligible requirements for energy or feedstocks. And it has to come preprogrammed with the capability of synthesizing anything.

Singularitarians. They’re the 21st century version of happy clappy religious fanatics.


  1. garnetstar says

    Chemistry is easy, didn’t you know? Not only can we succesfully perform any chemical reaction we want, in 100% yield, at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, in the solid state, we can even program nanorobots to do them all, in the correct sequence.

    All you need is the blueprint.

  2. Emu Sam says

    “All we need is energy from the solar panels we’ll build with our replicators to power our replicators!”

    Isn’t that a definition of photosynthetic life?

  3. rayceeya says

    “You’ll pour in some raw materials—perhaps water, air, dirt, and a few powders of rare elements if required—and the nanofabricator will go to work. ”

    Just like how all you need to run the internet is a massive collection of 1’s and 0’s.

  4. says

    So instead of mataglap nanomachines disassembling the planet into grey goo we’ll have replicators that replicate replicators replicating replicated replicators.

  5. Larry says

    This is so ridiculous. Everyone knows that if replicator technology is ever perfected, the only things that are going to be produced are piles of gold and porn.

  6. blf says

    Somewhat related, I want to help humans genetically modify themselves. Broadly, this guy injected himself with “DNA and other chemicals designed to trigger a genetic change in his cells associated with dramatically increased muscle mass”. Yeah, sure.

    A sample (Grauniad edits in {curly braces}):

    So, how is your arm looking?
    In similar experiments with animals, you only start to see results after four to six months of treatment. I would expect that the DNA in some of the cells of my arm has changed, but I am still working on developing assays {tests} to try and detect that. As to whether the actual size of the muscle changes, I’m more sceptical.

    Good grief. The Grauniad’s pick of the readers’s comments is by an anonymous individual who identifies as “a real scientist who actually does CRISPR editing on human cells” is well worth the read. An excerpt:

    First, such genetic transformation has only been done with cells in a dish with humans. If we isolate human cells and put them in a test tube we can accurately control their environment and make it suitable for the transformation to actually happen. Even then it is rare to achieve an efficiency above 20%, and it is often below 10%. Which means 9 out of 10 cells will remain unchanged even in a test tube after genome editing. In a living body the efficiency is likely significantly worse than 10%.

    Second, Mr Zayner used very little material. He used 40ug guide RNA with which one can transfect about a few million cells. As a reference, 1 gram of human flesh contains about a billion cells. For reference a standard sugar cube is about 4 grams. This is just a ballpark estimate, but its easy to see that at best he could have been able to mutate about a hundredth of a sugar cube’s worth of flesh. That is barely visible to the naked eye.

    Third, Mr Zayner did not target his construct. Once the RNA entered his body, it did not know it is supposed to enter muscle cells. It most likely entered the bloodstream where it was picked up by the immune system and neutralized. Our immune system is very — and I mean very — efficient at destroying any kind of foreign stuff, especially if its a combination of a bacterial protein and a foreign piece of DNA. That is exactly the kind of stuff our immune system is built to get rid of, so no doubt it does it rather efficiently. Even if a few of the CRISPR proteins and RNA bits did elude the immune system for a few minutes, they had to enter the nearest cell they could find — possibly skin cells, cells in the bloodstream and the like. Very few of them could have entered muscle cells just by chance […]

  7. robro says

    Ah youth. Everything is possible when you’re twenty-something and speculation is tantamount to invention and every idea is a mere matter of implementation. I wonder if he’s already filed the patents.

  8. TheGyre says

    Ah, that kind of replicator. The coffee and wine and biscuit making kind. Seeing the word replicator, I immediately thought he meant the Stargate Replicators. I could not understand why anyone would want one. It’s an entirely different beast and not one I want anything to do with.

  9. Ogvorbis wants to know: WTF!?!?!?! says

    Now, keep in mind, I majored in history. I have not taken a chemistry course since high school I filled my science requirements in college with geology and archaeology. That said, aren’t there a whole bunch of molecules that, when freed from bonds with other molecules, so when “. . . it will tear apart the molecules of the raw materials, manipulating them on the atomic level to create . . .” happens, won’t the gasses sublimate into the air? Including the ones you really should not breath? And aren’t there some elements which, in combination, are really useful but, by themselves, are really toxic and dangerous? Or am I missing something obvious again?

  10. bcwebb says

    @8 – he can’t file any patents as Gene Roddenberry already published concept…I would say going from tri-lithium crystals to solar power would get a 103 rejection for obviousness.

    That said, give him a break, he’s an undergraduate – undergraduates only learn how physics explains everything and graduate students only learn that it doesn’t..

  11. says

    Anything, providing you can give it both the raw materials and the blueprint for creation.

    No, that’s not right. No one on Star Trek[s] ever fiddled around feeding blueprints into the replicators, they just said what they wanted, and *poof* there it was.

  12. John Morales says

    Actually, Trek canon is that replicators convert energy to matter and are based on the same technology as transporters. That’s conceptually different to Drexler’s molecular assemblers, which rearrange atoms and molecules.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Hornigold isn’t a physicist. He’s a self-promoter with a physics education. A Musk wannabe.

  14. mond says

    perhaps water, air, dirt

    Think I have worked out the element which is missing from this concept…..FIRE

  15. monad says

    Isn’t that a definition of photosynthetic life?

    And this is how we make things. Take dirt, water, air, and some rare elements as required, have appropriate photosynthetic life process them, and then use appropriate non-photosynthetic life to finish it off. But the assembly is not as small as even early computers; something like an album depends on vast areas and many years to make.

  16. John Morales says

    davidnangle, !

    I literally LOLled. For real.

    In Trek canon, sometimes replicators can’t make molecules which are too complicated, sometimes they can hold someone in the pattern buffer for decades.

    It’s all good — it’s sci-fi, after all. Entertainment. Aspirational, even.

    (But still fantasy)

  17. John Morales says

    [PS davidnangle: Earl Grey… have you read Philip José Farmer’s Tarzan stories?

    Most excellent, IMO]

  18. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    Captain Picard sings Let it Snow (sort of)

    On Topic:
    If (BIG if) humanity survives long enough, I think that kind of tech is likely. But I suspect that we’ll make the Earth inhospitable (to us) long before we can pull it off. Maybe I’m just grumpy as I endure the effects of a destabilized polar vortex.

  19. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    I suspect that if he ever gets the replicator to work, he’ll end up with a liquid that’s almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

  20. Matrim says

    No, no, no…if you want proper Star Trek replicators you need to start by developing functional annihilation based power plants. Or you can do like the Romulans and just use a forced quantum singularity, whichever’s easier.

  21. Athaic says

    @ robertbaden

    Guy obviously hasn’t read enough bad science fiction. Make them self replicating?

    And then add a routine in the programmation to make the replicators feeding themselves on the surrounding biomass. Only in case of emergency, of course.
    You can ask Dr. Elisabet Sobeck* how that turned out. Better ask from a safe distance.

    (“bad” sci-fi? Come on, some of them could be quite good. At least, they don’t pretend to be non-fiction…)

    * from Horizon Zero Dawn. Spoiler: the game starts as after an apocalypse of level 2 (societal collapse), but mid-story you learn it was a level 4 (total extinction).

    @ Ogvorbis #10

    won’t the gasses sublimate into the air? …

    Theoretically, that’s what enzymes and other catalysts are for – playing the middleman between the initial form of a reagent and the resulting form at the end of the reaction.
    Now, as many have already pointed before, you could try to manage it for one specific reaction, or reaction type. But having a nanomachine able to manhandle both sodium and chlore atoms, in their reactive form, not to mention all the others elements of the periodic table… Saying that’s going to be tricky is an understatement.

    The guy from XKCD had a What If post about what would happen if one was to create a live Periodic table – setting a pyramide of boxes, each made of only one element. Pure carbon, pure oxygen, pure chlore… The result is a massive fire.

  22. rietpluim says

    Okay, I’ll file this in the same category as finding alien life or uploading consciousness into the internet: perhaps possible in a distant future, but a very distant future. Better to focus on more realistic goals for now.

  23. Dunc says

    Sorry, just going to have to go full nerd here for a moment…

    Caine, @13: There are many explicit references to the need to program appropriate patterns into the replicators. The process is never actually shown, but it’s certainly referred to many times.

    John Morales, @14: Actually actually, the canon explanation is that the replicators (and the equivalent holodeck systems) use transporter technology to reconstitute matter, rather than creating it from pure energy. They still require raw materials.

    Episode references for both of these assertions are available on request. ;)

  24. bojac6 says

    It is like these people also don’t have normal interaction with the world. Of course the nanofabricators can make copies of themselves, just like plants make seeds. Oh, what’s that? That particular blueprint is locked out and you need to pay a licensing fee in blocks of 100 to produce more. Just like modern crops don’t produce seeds. You want to be able to fabricate an album, that’s $9.99 (also don’t we already downloaded and manage duplicatable albums in the form of digital music?)

    There would be new blueprints developed and released, but then they’d need patches, there would be all sorts of flaws and hacks. People would insist they could tell the difference between an original object and it’s perfect duplicate.

    Also, yeah, his list of three requirements conspicuously left off energy, which is already a massive requirement for a modern American house.

  25. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    I have a PhD in physics, and I find that I spend about a quarter of my time trying to burst the bubbles of quasi-educated dumbasses like this guy. Arthur C. Clarke said that any technology, sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. The corollary is that people expect technology TO BE magic–to be able to do anything they or their favorite science fiction/fantasy author to imagine. Some things are fairly easy to accomplish technologically–electronics has evolved at a pace that would cause even Arthur C. Clarke to say, “Whoa, dude!” However, you will notice that you still don’t have a fricking flying car. Electronics technology had a recipe–a scaling law–that showed you how to shrink the technology by a given factor, and this allowed a doubling of density every 18 months or so. The flying car is an inherently more difficult problem. There the physics is all against you. The whole transporter thing is just stupid. It requires disassembling a person atom by atom and rebuilding them at a separate location. I’m not going to volunteer to be a test subject. You?

    So here are a few of the things that are never going to happen and the salient reason why:
    Interstellar space travel–radiation
    transporter technology–requires too much information storage and destruction of the transportee
    warp drive/faster than light travel–all of modern physics
    effectively infinite or too-cheap-to-measure energy–1st and 2nd law of thermo

    Now, it may be that some clever person could, some day come up with a way to circumvent some of this physics. Fine, there will be other limiting factors. And much more likely, we will have the collapse of civilization or human extinction before that happens. So, I’m not going to lose sleep about being wrong. I’m always happy to tell people why their vision for a bright tomorrow will never happen.

  26. rabbitbrush says

    Star Dreck. Ugh. It’s just a fucking movie with clones, that exist to make money off rubes. Sheesh.

  27. consciousness razor says


    Okay, I’ll file this in the same category as finding alien life or uploading consciousness into the internet

    Uhhh… I have those in two categories. One is unlikely, and the other is incoherent. The “nanofabricator” crap from the OP is in the second category, which means it just ain’t happening, because that’s just not how shit works.


    Actually actually, the canon explanation is that the replicators (and the equivalent holodeck systems) use transporter technology to reconstitute matter, rather than creating it from pure energy. They still require raw materials.

    Yes, I vaguely recall several times when characters put their remaining food/tray/etc. back into the replicator to be recycled, and with some cheap special effects it vanished into the ether, as one might expect. Also, I think use of the replicator was rationed at some point (on Voyager, perhaps?), while power and/or materials were in short supply. This is one of the rare cases when they at least tried to care about conservation of energy.
    That does presumably mean a person dies whenever they use a transporter, at which point a clone is produced elsewhere. It’s difficult to believe that, somehow, nearly everybody in the galaxy is okay with that. (Not the most difficult part of all this, but that definitely makes it harder.) And they’re fine with “transporting” someone against their will, which happens on a pretty regular basis … no telling how many people they murdered that way.

  28. says

    consciousness razor @35

    That does presumably mean a person dies whenever they use a transporter, at which point a clone is produced elsewhere.

    When I first heard transporters explained as basically “it destroys you and creates a copy with all of your memories elsewhere” I was horrified, and remain horrified by such a concept to this day. I know there are people who are fine with it but I wouldn’t be. I’m not interested in committing suicide so that a Fauxby Lavalamp can be somewhere faster than if I took a transportation option that doesn’t require my dying first.

  29. Rob Grigjanis says

    Tabby Lavalamp @36: There was quite the thread about this very topic a few years ago. Might look it up in the archives. Good times…

  30. Dunc says

    Yeah, the old “does the teleporter kill you?” argument is a classic… The existence of Tom Riker gives a great deal of weight to the “yes, it does” camp IMHO, and Dr McCoy is notably adverse to teleportation largely on that basis. (Dr Polaski is also notably adverse to teleportation, but I don’t recall her making this argument – she just doesn’t trust them.)

    Of course, expecting any real degree of internal consistency in ST is a fools’ errand…

  31. opposablethumbs says

    Can anyone recognise the science fiction story that deals with precisely the problem of “transporter” tech being really killing-and-cloning … it’s scotched by some rebel characters at the glorious first demonstration of its use, by means of neglecting to kill the politician gung-ho in favour of it when he tries out the wonderful new transporter. So he wakes up still back on Earth while a clone of him is greeting the crowds and TV cameras etc. on wherever (Mars, maybe???). Having woken back up again the politician (v.1) is understandably not keen on being killed and letting the new him (v.2) enjoy his power and connections in his place, which is how the whole technology gets shelved.
    Ring any bells??? Or has somebody already referenced this, and I just didn’t see it?

  32. Rob Grigjanis says

    opposablethumbs @39: Not the same story, but similar theme in that the original is not killed (due to technical difficulties in this case); “Think Like a Dinosaur”, which is a short story and an episode of The Outer Limits.

  33. says

    Regarding the “problem” of Star Trek Transporters killing the people who use them: I think Cory Doctorow addressed this issue quite elegantly in his book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which includes “mindloading”, a tech that lets you upload your mind to something like the cloud, so that if your body ends up dead for whatever reason, you can get a fresh clone-body and have your mind downloaded into it.

    At one point, the viewpoint character noted “There used to be people with philosophical objections to mindloading, but they all died.”

    Sure, there might well be people in the Trek universe who have philosophical objections to the Transporter… but they’re not going to be going anywhere, are they?

  34. Rob Grigjanis says

    cubist @41: The problem still remains – to “backup” your mind/consciousness/whatever, you need to determine its state, which would require scanning it somehow. The more accurate the scan, the more you degrade the original.

    Old Pharyngula thread here.

  35. birgerjohansson says

    A possibility ( that must clear some formidable hurdles) is bioprinting , using live cells of many different kinds as raw material.
    Since complete organs recquire blood vessels at various scales the concept is insanely complex without being impossible.

  36. Matrim says

    Star Trek kinda muddies the waters in TNG when they show that you retain continuity of consciousness during the entire procedure (Barclay is even able to physically manipulate things in the transporter beam). I think the Thomas Riker thing was a fluke based on the fact they used two containment beams because of plot reasons.

    It’s clear ST intended that the transporters do not kill and reproduce you, whether or not that would be possible given what we know about how they work is debatable.

  37. mcfrank0 says

    I don’t know how common this trope is in Science Fiction, but reading the quoted article, I didn’t think of the replicators in Star Trek. Rather, I immediately thought of the “matter compilers” in “The Diamond Age” by Stephenson in which nanotechnology supplied by “the feed” of matter and energy put together solid objects. Stephenson’s tech, although microscopic is mostly mechanical rather than chemical. (Computation uses “rod logic” rather then electronics.) I don’t think he ever explained how energy is stored in his machines, but he doesn’t shy away from problems though. “Grey goo” and waste heat are prominent elements in expansive plot. The main theme of the book however is the meaning of intelligence (the ability to handle ambiguity and contradiction) and whether it is possible to make an intelligent machine.

  38. garnetstar says

    @25: No. I am a Ph.D. chemist, and this is on my list of things that are never going to happen. Like the physicist @33 had.

    Salient reasons: no control of reaction conditions, assumes 100% yield and no side reactions (both are impossible), no purification of products, no removal of side products/excess or remaining reagents and solvents, extreme conditions needed that are not possible “on your desk”, no separation of the robots from the reactive chemicals and products, with degradation of the robots as a result. Assumes humans will eventually know a transcribable procedure for how to synthesize everything, which is impossible.

    You could potentially work out such a system to carry out *one* reaction at a time.

  39. Brain Hertz says

    Electronics technology had a recipe–a scaling law–that showed you how to shrink the technology by a given factor, and this allowed a doubling of density every 18 months or so.

    Somewhat OT, but this is my field… the “scaling recipe” for semiconductors hasn’t been really true for almost 30 years. Certainly back in the 80s there were plenty of textbooks (Mead & Conway springs to mind) that would talk about process scaling as a simple 3-axis linear scaling and describing the effects on that basis.

    This all fell apart in the late 80s/early 90s for a couple of reasons:

    1. The scaling hit a point where the simple transistor physics fell apart, and we had to reinvent transistors. Every new process generation now needs more tricks to be pulled to keep everything working at all. Back in the day, chips consisted pretty much exclusively of silicon, oxygen, boron and phosphorous (all at absurd purity levels), with some aluminum and copper for interconnect. These days we use a pretty significant chunk of the periodic table…

    2. Lithography scaling got weird. Back around 1990 or so we were doing photo-lithography of 1um features using deep-UV light sources with a wavelength of 192nm. It was always assumed that you needed that wavelength some decent factor smaller than your feature sizes. Today we’re at 10nm in full volume production with (at least) down to 5nm in the lab, and… we’re still using 192nm litho. So say the optics involves some tricks is a bit of an understatement.

    back to the original topic:

    it occurs to me that what we are doing with semiconductor manufacturing is about as close as we have today to the claimed nano-replicator, and it’s… really not close to that at all. We’re pretty close to atomic level assembly (no, really; you can see the individual atoms on micrographs of transistor cross sections these days) but it’s incredibly specific to particular compatible elements that have to be deposited in layers, each with incredible levels of purity. There’s nothing to suggest that it’s remotely possible to assemble atom-by-atom, and lots to suggest that’s not feasible.

    More importantly, the cost and scale trends are going dramatically in the wrong direction for the proposed “desktop replicator”. Semiconductor manufacturing equipment is getting more extreme and expensive, and only makes sense at increasing scales, to the point that today, most of the world’s output of the most advanced semiconductors is coming out of a handful of mega-scale factories.

  40. says

    Few things are sadder than a wanna-be fan boi who’s never bothered learning the canon.

    Replicators are based on transporter technology. The first inkling of the tech came when engineers on the Enterprise (either Spock or Scotty, depending on who you ask) found they could store certain types of cargo mid-transport, and materialize it days or weeks later. Specifically, Kirk was insufferable (more so than usual) if his coffee wasn’t Starbucks fresh, and this got him off everyone’s back.

    This kind of storage took up a VAST amount of data space, so Federation engineers developed a way to store much reduced templates. These templates allowed the reconstruction of matter rather than rematerialization. In effect, the replicator was a very advanced 3D printer that drew on a source of “printing” material to build your food. Non-food replicators existed, and were stocked with a different supply of “printing” material. It is not like this is hard to learn: it was a major plot point in the Voyager series. You could not just pour dirt into one end and get banana cream pie out the other; it was not alchemy. If you lacked the correct “ink”, your “printing” would come out wrong.

  41. unclefrogy says

    all of the common tech in science fiction requires energy lots and lots of energy, FTL, gravity plating?, phazers which turn matter into nothing? without an explosion, transporters and replicators and shields, light sabers.
    as far as I can tell all of that vast store of energy comes from the imagination alone.
    uncle frogy