"I have always been interested in what becomes possible with new technology and new thinking especially when sweeps away lots of unnecessary complexity and enable things that were not possible before. I would describe myself as a generalist with a broad interest in technology and engineering. I currently work as a research engineer for Dyson.
At the turn of the millennium I gave some thought to the increasing ability of computers and industrial automation. What might it be capable of and where could it lead us? Just an interesting thought experiment.
It struck me that as the sophistication of automated systems increased and spread out to cover an ever wider swathe of the industrialised world, it might merge into a complex web of interrelated systems more like a biological ecosystem than a collection of machines. Especially when considering the likely future ability of these systems to repair and maintain themselves (one of the weak points of current automation), and from there it is a small step to self assembly. If automated mining operations, material processing plants, factories, power stations, construction equipment and transport networks joined together it might be possible to completely close the loop.
This would have huge implications. With these kinds of systems, creating goods and machines that people want ultimately boils down to the availability of matter and energy — two things that are vastly abundant on Earth. It would seem that this type of infrastructure is capable of producing an unprecedented abundance of material items. This combined with increasing energy efficiency and material recycling, means we should be able to provide very high standards of living for every person on the planet while minimising our impact on the environment. At those early stages I wasn't thinking particularly about the political and social aspects which are obviously hugely important, but my thoughts were concerned with what might be possible technically.
Some time later I happened to read the fascinating book Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler which describes the possibilities of molecular nanotechnology. It is an eloquent and amazing vision of a technology that might eventually give us similar control over material at the atomic level that computers give us over bits of information today.
At the beginning of chapter four I was surprised to see a brief description of something akin to my visions of advanced automation which was being used as an example of a macro-scale clanking replicator. He describes this concept in order to illustrate aspects of molecular nanotechnology and concludes by forecasting that advanced molecular nanotechnology will surely arrive before the complete automation of industry. However I'm not so sure that this will be the case. We are not yet near achieving the kind of technology he describes - although great progress has certainly been made in micro and nano-scale engineering. I have little doubt that we will be able to achieve this level of control over matter at some point in the future, even within my lifetime, but advanced self-repairing and self-building industrial automation and personal fabrication can be achieved with technology and know-how that we possess today.
Reading about the kind of advanced macro-scale automation that I had been considering gave me confidence to take the idea more seriously.
Free culture and open-source
Around the same time I also discovered free and open-source software (Mandrake Linux v.8) which blew me away when I discovered how capable this software was that it was developed by volunteers collaborating over the internet and given away for free. I felt that if this development method can achieve results of that level of complexity then it seems reasonable to suggest it is very well suited to designing physical artefacts and systems as well, if the appropriate tools could be developed. Because of the visual nature of design and engineering it might be argued that 'open source' is even better suited to this approach than working with obscure computer code.
So it seemed that this approach could harness the necessary mental power, not only to design customised items for the individual, but to create highly efficient machines and goods and advanced automated systems, described previously. 'Open collaborative design' (or 'Open design and engineering' as it might be called) also has the benefits of being a non-controlling, non-proprietary system that encourages people to join in and share. It is inclusive to anyone who wants to be part of the process and doesn't have the conflict of interest that many companies face of trying to produce competitive goods while at the same time trying to maximise profits, and allows far greater transparency in the whole process. It potentially has to power to create all the technical infrastructure required by modern society.
It seemed apparent that sophisticated automation, created using open collaborative design and combined with the vast quantity of matter and energy that exist on Earth could create almost unlimited abundance and after a period of adjustment materialism will become irrelevant. Quality should reign over quantity. Labour won't be an issue because this is the result of advanced machinery - if we need greater capacity, we build more to do the job. We use machines to do things machines are good at and we free people up to do things people are good at (and enjoy doing). For some, as an example, this might involve returning to a simpler way of life such as running a smallholding but with the benefits of access to advanced facilities, such as healthcare, if needed. People could choose what sort of life to lead and be free to experiment with different types of community and society. A 'post-era' era in some sense.
Because these concepts seem to have so much potential in helping to overcome many of the problems that humanity faces at the moment, I put this website together a) to help crystallise my thoughts and b) to give it wider exposure to anyone who might be interested. And because it is created using wiki-based software, it gives the potential for others to help evolve the ideas.
I feel the two major concepts of open collaborative design and advanced closed-loop automation are likely to be two key enabling components in the next phase of civilisation, so this website is dedicated to those two subjects and other things they subsequently enable, as well as other aspects crucial to our survival and progression – vital things that need to evolve alongside to make sure that 'civilisation' is a word that we can still apply to humanity far into the future.
I find it very exciting to find other people thinking in this same space - the more people that think about these concepts, the quicker they are likely to happen and benefit everyone."