Friday, 20 February 2015

Unintended Consequences: Technological Proliferation in the Future World

A two Edged Sword

 One of the central aspects of hard SF has always been the exploration of the effect technology has on society.  In this post I'll look at some technologies that are united in their rapid development and difficulty of control if they are used for nefarious purposes.  All of them are technologies that will doubtless continue to expand due to economic and social factors, and that it would be, in many cases, impossible for a government to control.  All of them exist or will exist in the present or near future, allowing their effects to be more obvious, and more helpful for world building purposes.    

3D Printers

   3D printerest are the closest we are likely to come to Star Trek's Replicators, and although they cannot yet provide us with a steaming cup of Earl Grey, they are nevertheless amazing pieces of technology.  Very simple in concept the 3D printer uses a laser or electron beam to melt particles of metal or plastic together in complexed three dimensional shapes that would be difficult or impossible to create with conventional techniques.  Although there are problems with strength, resolution, and speed, the 3D printer offers a way to produce complexed or one-off designs with little effort, and has advantages when a blend of alloys or plastics is needed.  Although limited to thermoplastic and metal, a 3D printer can produce any piece of technology compatible with them, and therein lies the problem.
   In 2012 the open source organisation Defence Distributed disclosed the plans of the Liberator, the worlds fist 3D printed gun; a single shot pistol crafted from plastic and firing .38 ACP.  Then in 2013 the Texas based company Solid Concepts demonstrated a 3D printed M1911, the only part of which was not manufactured on a industrial 3D printer being the springs, as these are impossible to produce using that technique.  While the liberator is not much of a weapon - despite the additional difficulty of detecting a plastic gun this is no advantage for hypothetical assassins as the bullet is still easily detectable - the printed M1911 is a true weapon.
   Leaving aside the debate over if civilians should have access to any weapon they want, the potential problem is clear.  A 3D printer that can produce car parts can equally easily print a working gun, even a machine-gun.  The only difference is in the commands the machine is given.  Nor is it only guns; missiles, grenades, mines, torpedoes, and armed UAV/UGVs.  Although a great deal of expertise would be required to design the weapon sin the first place, their dissemination would be almost impossible to control, and far easier than trying to distribute physical weapons.  Potentially, every workshop equipped with a 3D printer is the basis of an arms factory, something that will only become more true as the printers gain the ability to print more materials in more accurate patterns.
   And there is very little that the governments of the world can do.  3D printers have far to great an application in legitimate business for them to be outlawed, quite aside from the political impossibility of such a move.  Just as herculean a task would be restricting the distribution of plans or information, and this might well prove to be a futile effort.
   In a futuristic 'Verse 3D printers are likely to be widespread, given their rapid development and adoption.  In space or on a colony world especially the flexibility of a 3D printer could enable much more rapid Human expansion.  Also, the nature of 3D printers makes a von Neumann device possible, not as a single 'organism' but as a colony of symbioses; these could be landed on an asteroid, and years later, have converted it into a spacecraft.  Militaries might not carry supplies with them, only printers and feedstock.  Trade in digital plans would be brisk, and might be one of the most profitable forms of smuggling.  If you postulate a ''Verse in which transferring the plans over the internet is too dangerous, the possibility of a 'Han Solo' smuggler occurs along with a host other SF character types.
   Further yet into the future and SF territory are 3D printers capable of reproducing biological material.  The implications for medicine would be unparalleled, with almost any trauma curable.  However, if it can produce a human cell, it can produce a deadly engineered disease or bioweapon.  It is important to note that due to the complexity of cells, the wholesale printing go body tissue is unlikely.  Instead the printer will create a single cell that is then grown into a replacement organ, perfectly matching the patients genetic and immune makeup.  

Drones & Autonomous Vehicles

   Like 3D printed guns small drones - typified by the UAV 'quadcopters' - are a rapidly exploding technology that has caused some alarm in society at large.  Although almost unheard of a realitivly short time ago, UAVs are now readily available, ranging from small toys not larger than an hand, to industrial models capable of operating without supervision and carrying payloads.  Many of the 'hobby' models can be controlled via a smartphone, while the more advanced models used onboard computers, GPS, and a computer based control system similar to that used with military versions.
   The most common complaint about small drones is their invasion of privacy.  Equipped with a small video camera the drone is a perfect snoop, overflying property and peering through windows.  Another, more deadly concern is that of a drone flying into commercial airspace and causing a fatal accident.  Although it seems unlikely that the small drones in use today threaten a passenger jet, smaller aircraft are definitely at risk, and the size of drones is increasing.  More terrifying is the thought of their use as a weapon, carrying bombs or biological weapons, and acting in essence as low cost miniature 'cruse missiles'.  A common theme in modern military SF has been the inclusion of weapons on small drones, most famously in the video game Black Ops II, and while this is unlikely for a while yet, they are still deadly impromptu weapons that most security forces would be hard put to combat.
   The problem of control is similar to that of 3D printed weapons.  There are so many legitimate uses that it is not possible to utilise an blanket solution, and given that the difference between a aerial mapping and attack drone is the payload, any security measures are going to be a nightmare to enforce.  The problem will also increase as 3D printers become more capable; even if a license is needed to buy a drone it is no matter if you can simply print one off.  Perhaps the biggest difficulty to overcome in this will be the printing of electronic components such as sensors and computers.
   In the future or in a SF work drones will be smaller, faster, stronger, more silent, and more capable. They may also be joined by UGV, perhaps mottled to look like insects, along with aquatic variants.  As electrons are miniaturised further, they may become effectively undetectable, posing a massive security risk for anyone with secrets to hide.  More advanced AI will also enable them to act more independently; Skynet, anyone?  In a SF 'verse drones will be yet another of a myriad technologies that will be juggled on a day to day basis to provide profit, security, information, and offensive ability. 

Ubiquitous Surveillance

   Ever since the invention of the internet, and even more so after the rise of social media, the amount of information available to the general public on any one individual has increased dramatically.  Facebook alone provides a database that many intelligence agencies would have given their eye-teeth to own throughout history.  Many so called 'smart' electronics in fact process little information, sending it across the globe to a supercomputer whose owners may or may not choose to respect your privacy.  An uncountable number of photos exist on the internet, the result of ceaseless snapshots by smartphone users, and a wealth of data for any system capable of interpreting it.  This is without considering increases in government surveillance; cameras, internet and communications monitoring, etc.
   One of the things preventing the utilisation of this data is the limits of computer technology.  Given the programs, computers, and access to the internet, someone could trace people through a city just by there appearance in the background of other peoples photos.  A more ruthless and advanced tactic would be to hack into millions of smartphones, constantly utilising the data from cameras and sound-pickups.  Even now the time is not far off when we will be able to walk down the street wearing something like google glasses, having them feed us information on every person we walk past.
   That a society in which the barriers to using this wealth of information fully will be different to pour own is definite; the nature and extent of the change, however, is a question almost impossible to answer.  Some SF authors, such as Arthur C. Clark and Stephen Baxter in their The Light of Other Days, postulated that unlimited information would abolish crime, and help usher in a near-perfect civilisation.  While the proliferation of total surveillance may not achieve this, it is an interesting concept.
   Because of the myriad possibilities of such a society it is impossible to comment on how it would effect a SF 'Verse.  The effects would be closely entwine with the nature of the technologies used, and thus every 'Verse will be radically different.  One important point to remember, however, is that even with quantum computing, searching vast masses of data takes time.  Without a starting point a search for one person could takes years, so espionage, while more difficult, is not impossible.  A good example of this is in Poul Anderson's novel The Stars are also Fire.

Fusion Reactors & Nuclear Proliferation

   While this is a little on the SF side of things, no fusion reactors currently existing, it is a real problem.  While a in theory fusion reactor in itself does not produce radioactive elements, or pose a nuclear threat, the actual fact is somewhat less rosy.  Very few fusion reactions are aneutronic, that is, releasing less than 1% of their energy as neutrons.  The most common candidates can release up to 80% as neutrons, meaning that the interior of any fusion reactor is quickly transmuted into unstable isotopes.  If fusion reactors ever become so widespread that a terrorist organisation or rogue government could obtain one, they could not produce nuclear warheads without the uranium to enrich, but they could use it to make a dirty bomb; conventional explosives wrapped in a casing of highly radioactive material.  One of these detonated within a city might render it uninhabitable, and kill thousands with radiation poisoning.
   In the real world this scenario is an unlikely one.  Fusion reactors are likely to be more complexed and expensive than fission ones, limiting their availability for a long time.  In a SF 'Verse, however, the may be more widespread, and proliferation that could lead to fears of nuclear terrorism.  This could be a great problem with small corporations mining the asteroids; if they found uranium and enriched it, none back on Earth would know.

Private Spacecraft

   Although not unseen in SF this is a relatively new threat in the modern world.  Anyone who has any scientific knowledge knows that even small objects at high velocity pack a lot of punch, and in space velocities are high indeed.  With the proliferation of private spacecraft the real danger is that one of them might be used as a weapon, either by its owners, or by someone hacking into its systems.  While most spacecraft cannot renter the Earth's atmosphere - and those that can decelerate to around of below Mach 1 even in the worst case - meaning they cannot effect anyone on Earth's surface.  However, and impact in orbit could cause a Kessler Syndrome event, denying access to space for many years.
   Once space is commercialised or colonised the danger is greater.  A moon base, orbital habitat, or mining station is not protected by atmosphere, and even a low speed impact could kill everyone on board.  More terrifying, a cargo ship transporting ore from the asteroids to earth could use it as impromptu kinetic warheads.  Despite being inert, a dense limb of rock and metal is every bit as deadly as a nuclear warhead, and may be more difficult to counter.  Only one tonne, travelling at a velocity of Mach five, has an energy of 1.5E9 J.  Not quite nuclear standard, but change that to a five-hundred tonne asteroid chunk, and the atmosphere looses its shielding effect, pushing the impact energy up into the city destroying range.
   Any future or SF society with widespread civilian access to space will have intense security measures.  It is quite likely that if a spacecraft strays off its course, or does anything untoward, it may be summarily destroyed rather than have the risk it imposes.  Even a suborbital transport could be effected by this, a last minute course change could see it slamming into a city rather than softly landing at a spaceport.  And interesting plot for a SF thriller would be a terrorist group using hijacked spacecraft to bombard the Earth.  Without a full scale nuclear defence system stopping a spacecraft or lump of rock going at interplanetary transfer velocity is almost impossible, so great for a cold war in space kind of setting.

New Look

   I've decided to change the blog's aesthetics for no solid reason.  I feel that the new design is more 'open' than the previous version, which I always felt was a little claustrophobic.  Although, of course, that could just be me.
   Anyhow, the blog has a new look.  Hopefully it'll have some new posts to match over the weekend.

Free Blenderings: Golden Age SF Rockets

Classic Rocketships

   For those denizens of the internet, who frequent Atomic Rockets and its ilk, are two spacecraft designed as 'God and Hienlein' intended.

   Both meshes are un-detailed, but are pretty clean in terms of the lines, vertices, etc. so that if you wish to add any detailing it shouldn't be a problem.

Classic Rocketship

A4 Rocket

Saturday, 7 February 2015

SF Technology: Transport in a Future World

Yes, I want one too.
Is that a plane?  No, its...

   What will the future actually be be like?(since in most cases SF = future)  Although Hollywood assures us that the cars will be faster and the women wear less very little effort is ever spent on what life will actually be like in a hard SF or futuristic world.  One aspect that gets little attention is transport.  Of course, there are almost always flashy spaceships, but these are hardly the vehicle for getting to the office early Monday morning.  To design a transport system for a 'Verse it is necessary to understand two aspects; the technical and the infrastructure.  I'm not really qualified to talk about the latter - the organisation and needs of a railway system, for example - as I am about the actual technology, so I'll focus on that.  There is one aspect however, that while not strictly technological, I will explore; the factors that shape the nature of a transportation system.  Then I'll look at several SF transport systems, or variations of the systems we have now, and look at how they might be used or justified.

Inertia & Change

   Society, like everything else, resists change.  The universe as a whole seems perfectly content to potter along just as it is, and as a result is the annoying and sometimes disastrous phenomenon of Technological or Societal Inertia.  Or, as it is often stated; 'if its not broken don't fix it'.  Of course, this reluctance among society to change often has undesirable consequences, delaying the dissemination of better ethics, economics, medicine, politics, etc.  And, perhaps surprisingly, technology.  Sometimes it is not even a conscious resistance an may be the effect of purely economic considerations.  
   For example; train tracks.  Long ago the Romans built bridges based on the width of their chariots, so that they would fit easily through the arches.  Thus, hundreds of years later, when train tracks were built all over England, they had to be built to fit the same dimensions, or be unable to use the existing infrastructure.  This problem continues today.  Maglev or ground effect trains would be much more common if their use did not require substantial modification of existing tracks, tunnels, etc.  
   The same is true with any system, and brings up an interesting point.  In a newly colonised world, a terraformed Mars, for example, this could be avoided.  As there is no existing infrastructure, it would make sense to go the whole hog and build the best system, rather than the one that meshes most easily with what was being used before.  So while Earth may always use physical train tracks, Mars or a planetary colony could have maglev as the norm.  This should be kept in mind when world building; why are things the way they are?  If you give this some thought your 'Verse will be all the better for it.

Advanced Transport

Sub-Orbital Transport

   Although currently the realm of space enteprenures and of billionares, sub-orbital flight offers intriguing possablities for rapid, long distance transport of people and/or high value cargoes.  Even with hypersonic aircraft - which may or may not ever proove feasable - travelling from one continent to the next is a long and tiring journy.  Even crossing a country such as America in an airliner is an experiance few would hesitate to avoid.  A sub-orbital transport, whether ballistic or aerodynamic, can cut tirp times drastically.  A long-impulse ballistic flight from Europe to America could take as little as half an hour.
   Cost is likly to be the single biggest factor preventing the use of such a system for a long while to come; if it was economical, I have no doubt but that the rich and powerful would travel in suborbital rockets, using them as the ultimate 'exeutive jet.'  But as propulsion and materials technology improoves the cost comes down, and it is only a matter of time untill it is possable.  The other biggest drawback is the effort involved.  The craft, if ballistic is going to be around the size of a smallish surface-to-LEO transport - although with proportionally bigger payload - and will need a lot of fuel.  This problem is most easily solved in a setting with plentiful electric power - simply electrolise water and pump it stright into the tanks as hydrogen and oxygen rather than storing large amounts of volatiles.
   It is alos important to keep the history and background of your 'Verse in mind.  A recently colonised planet, for example, might not have the expertise or resources to build aircraft.  But if they have ISRU plants to produce rocket fuel, and have a lander, they have examples from which to copy.  Thus on a colony world rockets might be more common than aircraft on long-haul flights, exepting those with massive cargoes.  And on Mars, with its thinner atmosphere, aerodynamic flight may not even be possable, not to mention totally airless worlds. 

Cars & Trucks & Things that Go

   Land transport in the real world is pretty much dominated by cars, and not only that, but cars that all follow the same basic design.  Four wheels, IC engine, load-bearing frame, aerodynamic shell, etc.  Only recently, with growing concerns over ecological impact, sustainability, and energy cost, have newer or alternative technologies to land transport been considered.  Solar power, fuel cells, hydrogen, bio-fuel, there are a plethora of emerging power sources, along with composites for construction and computer for navigation and safty.  But all these still feed into the four wheel design philosophy, and to add a little zest to a SF 'Verse authors may resort to more radical designs.
   For a newly colonised or resource scarce world hovercraft are a good option, able to travel over land or sea at high speed.  Similarly ground effect vehicles are spectacular but proven technology, as anyone who has seen this will know.  Both hovercraft and wing-in-ground effect craft have the advantage of much greater payloads than conventional aircraft, while being far faster than any surface vessel.  One with nuclear power could provide rapid transport over wide stretches of ocean or open land, and in the case of the hovercraft, need no expense runway or mooring area.
   But even without going to these extremes you can fill your 'Verse with advanced vehicles unlikely to be widespread anytime soon.  Cars with radioisotopic powered motors, for example, will never become legal on Earth, but might be acceptable in another culture or time, and would have unlimited range.  Some artists have shown variable geometry cars in concept art, able to swivel upright and park in a third of the space of a conventional car, handy in the crowded megatropolis of the future.  Cars without windows, but with the entire inside surface a HD colour screen could be more aerodynamic, crash-resistant, offer better views and more privacy.  Two wheeled cars that balance precariously like a segway may look alarming, but might offer a turn of speed and manoeuvrability that police or armed forces could befit from.  In fact, SF-ifying the cars of your 'Verse could be one of the easiest ways of planting it firmly in the future, as well as indicating the technology of the cultures and civilisations.

Ocean Transport

   Ocean transport might seem at first to be a dead end for the SF writer, after all, not much has changed in the design of ships since the adoption of the diesel engine, and the design, like that of passenger jets, is perfectly optimised.  For greater efficiency a new design must be employed, but given the economics of shipping there is no real push to develop new technologies compared to the aerospace market.   Wave piercing, the use of turbine engines and water jets, are three newer features, but hardly SF.  Submarines offer some possibilities, though.  Say, a fast transport submarine, design to shuttle men from the fish farms at the edge of the continental shelf.  It is super-cavitiating, exceeding the speed of sound in water, and uses a nuclear thermal 'ramjet' with water as the working fluid.  You don't get much more cool than that.  Although somewhat off topic, the American military came up with this, the Cormorant submarine launched arial drone, which is pretty cool.

NASA's aptly named Puffin, one of many designs unlikely
 to get of the ground
Personal Aircraft

   Personal aircraft are a fascinating idea that never seems to die, despite its current flaws.  A personal aircraft of the kind I'm talking about is a single person vehicle designed for transport or recreation, a kind of areal motorbike.  NASA's concept, the Puffin, is typical.  A VTOL, single person, electric craft that would be perfect for a joyride or reducing the time spent commuting.  The problems with this, and with all of its kind, are technical.  Stronger lighter materials are needed for crash resistance and small size, better engines for longer flights and higher speeds, better pilot augmentation electronics - again for safety.  Also considered within this category are other, even more unlikely, devices; jetpacks and fan-packs.  The former needs no explanation, and the second little, it is merely a pair of ducted fans fastened to a harness.  Once again the problem is largely that of finding an engine with sufficient power, yet with small enough fuel use to give a viable flight time.  SF materials and power sources will be a saving boon, and all kinds of personal aircraft could have a myriad of uses on a low-gravity world, especially one with a dense atmosphere, or inside of a 'macrolife' type asteroid habitat with less than one G of apparent gravity.  Inside spaceships and space stations with atmosphere but no apparent gravity, small but powerful fan packs could be used my police, military, or emergency services to move quickly.

Flying Cars

   Like fusion power, flying cars have been five years away for the last twenty years.  However, unlike fusion, they seem achievable even with todays technology.  There are two kinds of flying cars; cars that can fly with either fold out or attachable wings, and light aircraft that fill the same transport niche as cars.  I see no real purpose in the former, other than as a plaything for the very rich.  But there is little doubt of their 'cool' factor, and as such are a great addition in a SF setting, especially as the choice transport for the 'upper class' o the setting.  The other kind - light VTOL aircraft - have many applications.  Usually seen as VTOL, easy to fly, and without large exposed rotors, they are perfect for use within cities as transport for anyone, including the military, police, and emergency services.  Like Personal Aircraft, they will benefit from better propulsion, materials, and electronics.  The latter is vital, for while I personally think it unlikely that all cars will be one day self-driven, for a metropolis with heavy air traffic, this may be the only safe option.  With advances in AI, using a flying car could be merely a matter of stating the required destination.  There are far too many possible designs to discuss in this post, but I will try to look at the possibilities in a blogpost specifically on flying cars at some later date.

Self-Driving Vehicles

   Self driving vehicles are yet another SF technology rapidly becoming reality.  There are many groups actively working on the technical problems involved in such vehicles, and I have no doubts but that a self driving car will soon be perfected.  Aircraft, watercraft, and spacecraft are more complexed, and operate in a more dangerous environment, but they too will be fully autonomous in time.  However, with private vehicles, the change over is likely to be slow, as people struggle with a mistrust of machines.  It seems likely, too, that the first cars of that kind will be expensive, and all will be able to be controlled manually as well as autonomously.  In larger vehicles, such as passenger aircraft, even when the craft is itself capable of operation without human input, there is likely to be one human to make high-level decisions in an emergency, acting as an exterior judge of the system and increasing safety, and to take legal responsibility of the vehicle.  With spacecraft it is likely that the crew of even a large vessel might be almost all in roles that deal with passengers or crew, with only one qualified 'space pilot'.

Really SF
   For those that want a truly SF transport system all that is needed is a little imagination - or an internet connection.  For example, a high speed 'train'.  The 'track' is a metal tube filled with rarefied atmosphere, the train is a hypersonic aircraft, sans wings, that supports itself in the tunnel via superconducting magnets that interact with conductive tube.  Powered with a hydrogen scramjet the vehicle reaches speeds of around Mach, and unlike a hypersonic aircraft, has no problem with sonic boom, runways, or bad weather.

   Or for another application, aboard a large zero-g spacecraft or habitat, is an idea that comes from - by memory - Arthur C. Clark.  Along each wall is a moving strip with handholds attached.  You simply catch hold of the hand, and you are pulled along with far less effort than needed to move a long distance in zero-g, which, while it does not require much physical exertion, does need no small amount of practice to move swiftly.  This could be combined with a colour coded system like that used in the Battle School of the Ender's Game books, a ideal system for transporting soldiers or civilians from one spacecraft to another on a unfamiliar space station.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Free Blenderings: VASIMR Interplanetery Spacecraft

NASA VASIMR propulsion Mars mission spacecraft

VASIMR drive over Mars(not mine)
   This blend is my own take on the spacecraf in these two pictures.
 It combines elements of both spacecraft, but without the badly placed engine radiators.  I also have 4x VASIMR drives as I've read they will be mounted in pairs to prevent magnetic torque.
   The pods on the three booms are small nuclear reactors, the large tanks hold hydrogen for the VASIMR drive units.  The stumpy rocket mounted on the bow of the spacecraft is the landing/return vhicle, and the crew is housed inside the main cylindrical body, with radiation protection provided by the reaction mass tanks.
Another VASIMR ship(not mine)

   I couldn't find any specs for the spacecraft, but it is likly to be fairly fast, although limited by the low power of the reactors, which appear to be thermovoltaic, like the SNAP series NASA experimented with.

   In a hard science 'Verse this spacecraft could be a interplanetary yacht, courier, patroll craft, small passenger liner, or goverment vessel.  Replace some of the remass tanks with habitat pods and it could carry large numbers of people or medium sized cargoes between the moons of a planetary system with ease.
This is my own attempt.

   Feel free to change. add to, render, modify, etc. the mesh.  If you do use it in a finished work, however, I would appreciate recognition for it, thanks.

DOWNLOAD NASA Mars mission spacecraft  (WARNING, partially unfinished.  Needs a little work on the landing vehicle.)