How to make a replicator

Replicators are more of a staple of Star Trek than other franchises. As we’ve seen in Star Trek: Picard, DS9 and Voyager, the fun concept can be a bit limiting to plot and characterisation to the extent that later versions of Trek find ways for people to cook and make stuff without the use of a replicator. Jean-Luc Picard’s brother refused to have a replicator in the house, carrying on a family tradition. So while they are a fun idea, I’m not surprised they haven’t caught on in science fiction quite so much. If anything, they make stories just a little more dull without adding many interesting dilemmas (either practical or moral).

Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes took a different spin on the notion of a food replicator to imagine a kind of 3D printer that can assemble organic objects. The same technology (or something very similar) is used to create new versions of the crew.

The Six Wakes style replicator strikes me as a concept we might start approaching. There are already ways of printing some kinds of food and I can imagine that becoming gradually more sophisticated.

Star Trek replicators are interesting though. Presumably they work using the apparent mastery of manipulation of mass-energy that the Federation has. I’m sure the mechanics of them have been explained within Star Trek lore but let’s speculate about replicators we could create if we have imaginary technology.

  • Rejigged teleporters. Teleporters of the fax-machine style disassemble matter into energy and then store the pattern in some sort of buffer system. Infamously, they can be turned into copying machines. Switch off the safeties and build some more permanent buffers and you have a replicator. Want some earl-grey-hot? Make yourself a cup and then teleport it away. Then teleport it back to the same spot. Now the cup of tea is permanently stored in the buffer and you can re-teleport it back whenever you want a cup.
  • Analyse and recreate. This is conceptually a cross between the 3D printer idea and the teleporter. You need command over the very nature of matter and energy but this time you have a machine that creates a digital model of earl-grey-hot by scanning lots of cups of tea. The advantage of this is that you can change parameters like tea strength or temperature and also combine models e.g. replicate your earl-grey-hot in a wine glass or a nice cab-sav in a tea cup.
  • Read minds. I’ll assume we have some magic and what we want to access is the platonic ideal of a early-grey-hot. Access the higher realms of reality and use your magical power to bring an instances of the ideal cup of earl grey into the mundane world. How to find that ideal cup? Well, the world of ideals is concepts so you just have to look deep into the minds of people who like a nice cup of tea and grab their concept of a nice cup of tea…and so on. It’s easy from there…
  • Use time travel. This is theft and surely breaks all sorts of laws of conservation of mass. Use a time machine to take a cup of tea from the past. Drink the cup of tea. Now, use your time machine to go back to the point just before you stole the cup of tea from the past. Steal the tea again but don’t drink it. Instead, send the tea back into the past to just AFTER you stole the cup of tea the first time. Yes, yes, I know, somehow that doesn’t all add up.
  • Buy tea bags and a decent electric kettle. This only works for creating tea.
  • Digitise your brain. You now exist in a virtual world. Pay developers to make virtual versions of a nice cup of earl-grey-hot. Wait. The developers get back to you explaining that there are delays in the next sprint. Wait. The user-acceptance-testing version of the product is sent to you with a 13 hour turn around. The developers appear to have made a beer glass full of sputum. Explain that it isn’t what you asked for. No, no, you have to lodge a Jira ticket. Wait. Get frustrated and ask why is the cup-of-tea project delayed. The developers explain that you changed the specifications and they need to re-code the whole thing. They send you a bill for the extra time. Repeat this process multiple times. You end up with a saucer of apple juice. You drink that instead.
  • Build a vast planet of robots. The robots create vast quantities of stuff. Use transdimensional wormholes to access the stuff but claim it is replicated.

11 responses to “How to make a replicator”

  1. Just use the ship’s replicator long enough to have it replicate one for your item use. If you’re worried it will take too long, use the time machine.

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  2. There is also Greg Bear’s notion from ANVIL OF STARS of a type of fake matter cleverly named “fake matter”, which is sort of projected from a distance by somehow fiddling with the information structure of space-time. This gives you a rough approximation of particles being physically present and behaving like matter, but only as long as you keep the power on; after that, it falls apart and disappears. So after you’ve enjoyed a nice cup of tea, perhaps along with a gigantic slice of cake, they can conveniently dematerialize from your stomach.

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    • And yes I know that in that book, fake matter was only used for structural elements like spaceship walls, and probably wouldn’t taste good. Which is probably for the best, because otherwise it would be a horribly easy murder technique: let someone think that they’re eating a bunch of zero-calorie fake-matter treats out of the replicator, but you’re secretly keeping the power on for weeks so they are actually digesting and incorporating the food and fluids into their body… and then once a substantial enough portion of their body is made out of the fake-matter molecules, you turn off the power and they are rendered into Swiss cheese at a microscopic level.

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    • There are such things as ‘virtual particles’. Energy and time are Heisenberg pairs, meaning if you know one you cannot know the other precisely. At the sub atomic particle level you can ignore conservation of energy for very very short periods of time and hence particles are spontaneously appearing and disappearing all the time. If you can mess about with time (not unfeasible for a society with warp technology) you could potentially borrow larger amounts of energy out of nowhere. You will eventually have to give it back, but that could be offset elsewhere if you’re clever enough.

      The real difficulty with ‘creating something out of nothing’ replicators is the amount of energy involved. The energy to matter conversion rate is astonishingly large. You can get around this a bit with a teleporter by disassembling something from matter into energy first. Then you only need to add a bit more energy for transmission (and to compensate for any losses). An ‘extremely sophisticated 3D printer’ replicator is a lot more feasible to my mind.

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  3. I feel obliged to chip in with a reference here to George O. Smith’s stories “Special Delivery” and “Pandora’s Millions”, in which the heroic gadgeteers of Venus Equilateral came up with a matter transmitter, realized they could record the signal and make it a matter duplicator, and successfully crashed the economy of three inhabited planets with it. Smith deserves credit, I think, not just for coming up with the replicator (twenty years before Star Trek), but also for working out some of the economic implications.

    It’s implied (most definitely in “Trouble with Tribbles”, I think) that the original series Enterprise had some sort of conduit system for food delivery – those handy meal-dispensing wall hatches weren’t replicators themselves, just an ordering and pickup point. Given that we never really saw people slaving away in the ship’s galley (with the one exception of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), it’s possible that the food was prepared in some sort of massive industrial-scale replicator unit, and distributed by a sophisticated dumbwaiter system – by the time of Next Generation, presumably, replicator technology had advanced to the point where you could have small independent units scattered in handy places around the ship, if you wanted your fix of tea, Earl Grey, hot.

    I stand by a previous comment, that replicated food is presumably OK, but doesn’t have all the subtle flavours and nuances of natural food… or so many people affect to believe. Of course, if you can make a recording in sufficiently high fidelity, I guess you can replicate a cordon bleu meal – I suspect that fine restaurants across the Federation have a strict policy of “no tricorders at the dining table”, lest their haute cuisine be recorded and bootlegged across the galaxy.

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