Replicator Redux

Earl Grey

Earl Grey. Hot!

I’ve written about the Yin-Yang of analog versus digital, a fundamental metaphor for how reality can be smooth or bumpy. I’ve applied the idea to numbers, where we see two types of infinity — countable (discrete, digital, bumpy) and uncountable (continuous, analog, smooth). There is also how chaos mathematics says that — the moment we round off those smooth numbers into bumpy ones — our ability to use them to calculate certain things is forever lost.

I’ve also written about Star Trek replicators and transporters, as well as the monkey wrench of the hated holodeck. According to canon, all three use the same technology (which raises some contradictions for the holodeck).

Today, for Science Fiction Saturday, I want to tie it all together in another look at transporters and replicators!

TOS replicator

Ice cream! Cold!

Obviously, this is a purely whimsical case of ‘Star Trekin’ It‘ — and over a show that went off the air two decades ago! But it’s the weekend — a time for whimsy and fun.

Giving credit where credit is due, this springs from a comment my buddy made during a discussion of transporters and replicators. The moment he mentioned digitized patterns, I realized it solved a vexing question about how replicators and transporters work.

Here’s the conundrum: On the one hand we have the transporter, which converts people into energy, sends that energy a long distance, and then reassembles it into people. All so flawlessly that using the transporter is as common as using a taxi.

He's Back!

Mr. Scott! Alive!

On the other hand, we have the replicator, which converts energy into things (like Earl Grey, hot). Most importantly, replicators have limitations. There are things you cannot replicate. For example, dilithium crystals and puppies (let alone new people) seem beyond the ability of replicators.

If they use the same technology, why can transporters apparently transport anything, but replicators are limited to tea and crumpets? I’d have to re-watch every episode to be sure, but I think they’ve transported dilithium crystals. I know they can transport puppies and people.

Scotty + original Bridge +

Scotty + original Bridge + “it’s green” + Dyson Sphere = One of the best episodes ever!

First we considered the idea it was a moral restriction: you just don’t replicate living things. But that doesn’t account for the inability to replicate certain materials.

[Reality: such materials are plot-important, so being able to replicate them would be too easy. That’s exactly why they’re called unobtainium.]

And would puppies really be such a great sin? How about a goldfish? Can you replicate living plants?  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen cut flowers replicated (“a dozen roses for m’lady!”), but I’m not sure about living plants.

Then we considered the idea that replicators couldn’t do fine detail, that maybe they couldn’t replicate DNA or even the many parts of the living cell. Those cut flowers, for example, would have very simple cells that just looked like plant cells until you looked really closely to see they were just solid blobs of pseudo-plant.

Riker and Minuet

Are holo-people warm? Do they have holo-saliva?

But the transporter uses the same technology, and it clearly handles living cells — including their DNA — just fine. If it didn’t, people would begin to experience horrific mutations after being transported.

Is it just that replicators are a simpler technology? Keeping in mind that the holodeck uses the same technology, does that mean holo-people aren’t real below the cellular level? (What was Riker kissing that time?)

It turns out there’s a great reason for the difference! We almost had it when we considered replicators not handling fine detail. The answer does mean that biological cells would likely be very simplistic. And it explains exactly why replicators can’t create living things or some materials.

Simply put: transporters are analog, whereas replicators are digital.

The Yin-Yang of smooth and bumpy (plus chaos mathematics) strikes again! Transporters work with the smooth, continuous reality of real things, whereas replicators work with digitized (discrete, rounded-off) stored patterns of real things.

I wonder which Kirk that is?

I wonder which Kirk this is?

There is some confusion about exactly how transporters operate. The Writer’s Guide suggests that things are broken down to molecular level, stored and sent by sub-space to a re-assembly point. That doesn’t explain how we got two Kirks and two Rikers.

But consider two things we do know about transporters: There is a “pattern buffer” that can store a person — in one special case, for 75 years. There are “Heisenberg Compensators,” which suggests that transporters must work at a quantum level.

The key is the pattern buffer. According to canon, complex patterns begin to degrade after eight minutes (except for special case Scotty). It seems clear the replicator can’t work by “transporting” them halfway, storing them in pattern buffers, and then completing the transport on demand.

Will and Thomas

Will and Thomas

Despite the double Rikers and Kirks (a freak accident, let’s say), you’d need a separate pattern buffer for every cup of Earl Grey (hot) Picard orders.

Even if you could solve the degradation and duplication problems, you’d still need a separate pattern buffer for every possible thing you might replicate.

What if Gordi wants to replicate a new mounting flange he needs, or a new tool? How do you replicate something that is only a design and never existed before?

It all came together when my buddy said, “digitized patterns.”

Good Kirk!

Probably not this Kirk!

It’s always been clear that replicators had to work from patterns. That’s the only way to replicate a new design. And it makes sense there could be a basic pattern for “beef” that the replicator modifies for tenderloin, sirloin, ribs or burgers.

The kicker was always, well, why not store the pattern for a living thing? Why not store the pattern for puppies and goldfish and Ficus trees?

Because stored patterns are necessarily digitized versions of the real pattern. And remember what chaos mathematics tells us: once you round-off reality, once you digitize the analog, you’ve lost the battle. Those stored patterns simply don’t have the precision of the real-life patterns.

Transporters can — for a short time — store the full analog reality. Think of it as a standing wave of matter. A real-world “chord” that sounds only for so long before fading away.

Earl Grey hotBut replicators are just player pianos plunking out stored notes. You slip in a particular roll and play a simple song.

You can play it fast or slow, high or low.

A clever piano might even have some tricks to vary the tune a bit.

So, Sam,… play me some Earl Grey… And play it hot!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

11 responses to “Replicator Redux

  • dianasschwenk

    there’s DNA in beef isn’t there? Even though it’s not a live and breathing steer… so could one replicate human meat? Gross but had to ask…

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, indeed, there is DNA in all animals and plants. So, yes, if you wanted to have the replicator make you a “long pork” steak, I suppose it could (assuming it had the digital pattern available). The cells wouldn’t have working DNA — might not even have actual DNA molecules — but would have the same proportion of amino acids and other organic compounds as found in a given cell-type.

      As good science fiction often does, this raises an issue technology is already presenting us: as computer-generated virtual simulations become more and more real, we’re faced with the moral question of — for lack of a better term — pretend evil. Consider a holodeck fantasy where one plays the role of Jack the Ripper.

      Today computer-generated images can be very realistic. Is, for example, child pornography still evil even if no actual children are involved? Do such things act as release or encouragement? (There are those who believe easily available internet porn is an outlet that contributes to the decline in sexual crimes against women.)

      The question seems even more relevant when you consider video games, such as Grand Theft Auto, where one can play very evil characters. As computer-generated images get more and more life-like, such games become more and more immersive and life-like.

      So, underneath all the light-hearted fun, there are some very serious questions for society to address!

      • dianasschwenk

        It sure does! I’m not sure porn decreases harm to women. Women in the porn industry are harmed to begin with, and as someone gets into porn or drugs or whatever they always look for a better high and in the case of sex are desensitized and want more…you know like how a rapist can become a killer and then needs to kill more and more and so on just getting more and more depraved..

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, I know what you mean about the desensitizing effect. I think that’s already happened with regard to violence in general, not to mention just ignoring the law and even people’s rights. That’s just our daily diet of “entertainment.” At the same time, there is an “outlet” effect as well. The kicker is that different people react differently!

        May I ask, what do you mean by, “Women in the porn industry are harmed to begin with”? As I understand it, the stars become pretty rich, and a few have built financial empires.

        FWIW, I’m not sure the data supports drawing too strong of a line from rapists to murders. I think those (usually!) tend to be different classes of criminal with different motives. I can see a line from rapist to serial rapist, especially as there are two kinds of serial rape: multiple victims and multiple rapes of one victim (for example, child abuse).

        So the ultimate question here is: if someone can live out a violent fantasy in a virtual environment involving no other humans, and if doing so prevents them from doing it for real, is that a bad thing or a good thing?

        I dunno. I can see it both ways.

      • dianasschwenk

        Lots of women were forced into porn and abused not all, but lots – marilyn chambers for one and then there are those snuff films. I personally met several women who suffered abuse in the sex trade and barely made it out. Whenever a person is controlled by their urges I think it’s not a good thing – virtual or otherwise – just my opinion

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think maybe you might mean “Linda Lovelace” (Linda Boreman) rather than Marilyn Chambers? Chambers had a long and productive film career, won awards and even transitioned into mainstream films. Boreman’s career is much darker and there is some controversy regarding what she said about it. I honestly don’t know quite what to make of that one, and I’m skeptical of both sides.

        Snuff films are almost entirely urban myth. There have been some killers who filmed their “work” and some documented executions, but that’s about it. There’s never been an actual snuff film commercially sold.

        But none of that detracts from the abuses that run rampant in the sex-trade industry. Slavery still exists, and many women are forced into sexual slavery (it’s a significant global problem). And the life of a prostitute with a pimp is not in any way a good one. Compare that to, say, Nevada or Amsterdam, where prostitution is a protected profession. Unless one believes it possible to eradicate prostitution, it seems like the next best thing is legalizing it and removing the criminal element.

        Which brings us back to the idea of using virtual reality to satisfy urges. I agree one shouldn’t be ruled by their urges or emotions. But don’t we all have normal urges and emotions that want to be satisfied? Don’t most people want to have sex? What do the lonely, the homely and disenfranchised do? And what do we do with those who do have urges we deem unacceptable?

      • dianasschwenk

        I hear you Smitty. I think on this one we just have to agree to disagree. I can’t undo what I know and what Ive seen. And this subject is a tough one for me.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Understood! We shall discuss it no more. (Kind of a dark path we wandered down there and such a long way away from Star Trek replicators! :/ )

      • dianasschwenk

        Thanks for understanding. 🙂

  • reocochran

    I am sure that I need to reread this, but will like it until I understand it! Smiles, Robin
    My Dad would have loved your posts, W.S.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Star Trek fans gotta stick together! (Especially now that it’s been turned into the same shallow, stupid modern movie crap as most other “big action” thrillers. I cannot believe they think the same foolish man can direct both Star Trek and Star Wars! ARG!! It’s dead, Jim!!)

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