A New Engineering-Challenge Discipline: Rapidly Rebuilding Societal Infrastructure
“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”
Alfred North Whitehead, English mathematician
How quickly can an individual engineering student or team of students rebuild from scratch the advanced technology infrastructure of society? From raw materials to simple tools, from simple tools and steam engines to more advanced energy systems (force multipliers), from metals and glass lenses to photography and sensors (perception multipliers), from energy systems and sensors to more precise measurement and control systems (precise production scale-up), from lithography and printing and computers and software to self-replicating machines as envisioned by John von Neumann as a real-world follow-on to the symbolic-world’s Universal Turing machines. Highly advanced nested, networked service systems have this ability to replicate near copies of themselves at multiple scales. Like Defoe’s Robinson Cursoe, competitors will test themselves and discover accelerated alternative pathways that might have emerged if history had unfolded differently. On the way to self-replicating 3D printers, competitors will explore new pathways and combinations of technology and discover new innovation recipes from the same or new sets of ingredients.
The first part of the engineering design challenge is to estimate the quantity and purity of raw materials that will fit in one standard size shipping container. The shipping container must contain only raw materials of set purity levels, and from this competitors will compete to rapidly rebuild societal infrastructure.
The second part of the engineering design challenge is to plan the intermediate steps to reach the ultimate goal. Just like for chess games, over time patterns of effective opening plays will emerge. What is the best sequence of intermediate technologies, and scaffolding technologies to get to self-replicating machines and universal 3D printers?
Finally, let the competition begin! Competitors open their shipping containers on standard size lots and go, start, begin the challenge of rebuilding societal infrastructure. In the container, the teams are allowed camping gear and basic supplies – but cannot use these materials in the rebuild challenge, only to provide for their basic personal needs as they compete. They are allowed smart phones for accessing information and people outside the competition area.
In early versions of the challenge, the starting shipping container can contain a few “cheats” to help the games be more interesting to watch and speedy to the conclusion. Overtime, the cheats will be removed as more creative patterns that can avoid the cheats are discovered. Many variations of this game can be imagined. For example, one quite different version aired on TV as a reality TV show called The Colony and it was complete with IBM Fellow John Cohn.
I expect many others have thought about doing this before from RepRap to Maker subculture.
Are you interested in making this latest “imagination challenge”, learning platform real?
Then please contact me on Twitter @JimSpohrer.
Other related quotes on the importance of learning to rapidly rebuild infrastructure:
“The problem was the problem. MacCready realized that what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human-powered flight. That was a red herring. The problem was the process itself. And a negative side effect was the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding of how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: How can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months? And he did.”
“This was something I had to do, not just dream about it, but do it… I suppose too I was here to test myself. Not that I had never done it before, but this time it to be a more thorough and lasting examination. What was I capable of that I didn’t know yet?”
Richard Proenneke, American naturalist
Quote from: Alone in the Wilderness