Chips beat Ships!

Do we need computers to achieve a regenerative economy?

There’s a global battle happening over microchip manufacturing and simultaneously global shipping.

Wierdly, the town of Veldhoven in the Netherlands is the center of it all! Upon watching this awesome video from Jack Chapple I saw so clearly, a fascinating exploration of everything that’s wrong with our world!

1) Two super powers battling for dominance and not working together.
2) The world’s technology supported by one town.
3) Global shipping is a hallmark of the linear economy; circularity concerns local flows of material.

The whole world edifice suddenly seems incredibly brittle. As if it would collapse like a house of cards with the lightest of touches. I wonder how many linchpins of technology there are, vital to support everything else, without which a critical cascade would be inevitable. Single points of vulnerability.

Biological systems work in parallel and with great redundancy, and a high degree of circularity. There are many interlocking layers of local co-operativity and competition from the molecular to planetary, which work locally to regulate global commons such as soil, atmosphere and oceans. These systems are incredibly complex and there is no single central point of control, yet all obey simple global principles, such as robustness through diversity and parallelization.

A beautiful example of such concurrent processes leading to emergent behaviour is this remarkable work from Matan Ben Zion which focuses on swarms of intelligent soft matter robots solving complex problems.

Such systems are clearly inspired by nature. In fact in natural systems, the degree of redundance is so high that in a global extinction event, only a handfull of cells need to survive to preserve billions of years of evolution. Every cell is an archive for the others.

We need to work towards locally regenerative economies, that build up local capacity and self-reliance everywhere. Such systems must be in balance with nature, to eliminate reliance on single points of vulnerability like Veldhoven. Easy to say. Hard to do.

Here’s the irony: Have we built a world that needs places like Veldhoven to build a world that doesn’t have Veldhoven’s?

People the world over use the internet to organize and spread the word for all manner of initiatives, including the global regenerative community. Without the internet such global groups would have no chance of organizing. This little town of Veldhoven makes the machines that make the microchips that builds the internet, which is the main tool for coordinating a global regenerative revolution.

The double irony is that if the world order collapsed, and all our technology failed because China and US went to full blown war because they don’t understand that they need each other, then after a period of huge destruction and chaos, against the backdrop of climate change and global biodiversity collapse, if humans survived, we’d all be forced back into locally regenerative economies anyway. More like subsistence, and without the internet!

Would Veldhoven still be there? Who knows.

This is why I’m interested in chemical computation. The ability to manipulate information in matter with the same degree of control as biological systems. Could chemical computers be a new way to manufacture novel kinds of computer microchips through molecular assembly, rather than top down like the EUV technology that makes Veldhoven critically important? Such bottom up growth is much more like biological systems.

If we can have bottom up assembly (grow our own chips locally) then we can build redundancy. Perhaps making things like microchips could be more like growing carrots. Then you don’t need to have such single points of failure like Veldhoven, which then become the puppet strings of control over which global powers fight for their own survival.

Can new forms of matter computation give rise to new forms of manufacturing, enabling individuals to build and configure powerful technologies locally without single points of failure? At the same time reducing the need for governments and global corporations to fight to protect their citizens.

If we can communicate the blue prints for such locally grown systems via the internet, then we don’t need global shipping. If Chinese and US citizens can support themselves, then the job of the Chinese and US governments is so much easier! They don’t need to ensure dominance over each other to support their people. That is a hall mark of our linear wasteful world. Such fights are inevitable in a system based on continuous growth where resources are finite.

The video that inspired this post, shows how far we have to go. We need an empowered citizenry who can do things locally, without these kinds of single point dependencies. Computer chips are just one example but there are many. Such communities can communicate globally their plans for local regenerativity, helping other communities make such a transition, and reducing the need to trade internationally. Chips beat ships!

How is progress going towards chemical computers? Can they really configure bottom up matter into systems as complex as microchips as I describe in Brave Green World? Not yet. But the article describing swarm “embodied computing” is indicative of progress towards such a goal.

We should, however, not pin our hopes on new technologies. Rather, we should build up regenerative economies using existing technologies that are as low tech as possible. There should be a high degree of diversity across the globe in such solutions. Every regenerative economy should support local biological ecosystems and not be reliant on hi-tech single points of failure like Veldhoven. The good news is that we don’t need permission to build such an economy. Just go out and build it quickly, lest it build itself.

We can help our governments avoid the need to fight each other, and fight for control over Veldhoven, by building an alternative system for ourselves. If we are safe, then the governments job is done.

In the meantime, I keep working on chemical computation, in the hope that it gives us all local control over matter thus eradicating the need for shipping and reducing reliance on single points of vulnerability such as Veldhoven.


The Fountain of Wonderful Shadows

A doting lover once gifted a word to his paramour, and may have unwittingly saved civilisation.

What could be more romantic than to invent a word for someone? A sound and its meaning would forever more associate with the love between that couple. Even if that love would one day end, like a dying star, the word would capture and communicate to all an idea that could last to the end of time. As long as there were mouths to speak, ears to hear and a mind to understand, the word could immortalise that couple’s love.

When christmas came, he told his lover what her gift would be! That she would receive a new word that no one had used before. He asked what her word should mean.

She enjoyed stories of other worlds. Of parallel worlds. Worlds with hidden meaning, and subtlety. Sometimes inspired by Shakespeare. Often gruesome and scary. But not always. Stranger Things. Pirates of the Caribbean. Peter Pan. Pan’s Labyrinth. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His Dark Materials. She said she wanted a word that described the genre of stories about parallel worlds. In music and movies, plays, or books.

He thought and hunted. He delved and he mined. He thought about octopuses and octopi, the etymology of the words and whether he should choose a Greek or a Latin root. He mused and pondered and eventually after much deliberation with himself, he hit on the idea that such worlds were shadows of each other. Like the shadow on the wall of the cave, stories about other worlds were born of desire for platonic perfection, or a realm where struggles between good and evil could play out without harming ourselves in this world.

From his lists of Greek and Latin candidates one word stood out like a super nova in the night sky.


From the latin “mirus” meaning strange or wonderful, and the more familiar “umbra”, meaning shadow. The word itself, given the genre it describes, would be inappropriate without a double meaning. It can mean strange shadow or wonderful shadow, entirely as the user pleases.

She loved it. And the genre of stories known as mirusumbra was named!

The years passed and the lovers moved on. Their lives complicated like all lives. There was no anger or malice. Just a growing distance that could not be closed. Like two galaxies drifting apart for eternity.

One day he found a curiosity tucked into his book shelf that he had forgotten about. A star naming gift. You could pay a company a silly amount of money and they would ask you to invent a name for a star. They would send you a gift certificate telling you the coordinates and constellation of that star, making it official. He knew it was a bit of a scam because astronomers had their own catalogues for stars.

“But who cares about them”, he thought. “I can name a star and if that’s what people call it then that’s what it’s called.”

He couldn’t remember how the package came to be on his bookshelf, but it was unopened. He thought that maybe it was a gift from his former lover. He decided to open and use the gift, and set about thinking what he could call this star.

“Stars create shadows!” he thought, and instantly her word sprang to mind. Using that as inspiration and with a little help from Google translate, he found a phrase that he liked the sound of:

Fons Mirusumbra

The fountain of strange shadows.

That is what he would call his star. And he did. Its coordinates are right ascension 8h 33m 00.0s, and declination +4o 49′ 34.0”. It is a magnitude 12.5 star in the constellation of Hydra and it’s AGASC_ID is 28579072.

He tried to make the name grammatically correct and he thought of his old latin master conjugating verbs and how he had won a prize for best unseen translation when he was 11 years old. And then thought. “Screw it. Rules were made to be broken”.

Literally translated Fons Mirusumbra means the source of the wonderful shadow. That’s close enough.

Years passed and he took it upon himself to save his own planet. He wrote his own book about a mirusumbra world called Brave Green World. This was a vision of Earth in the future and how the technology around today could help us make a better planet. He sold a few copies, but not enough to leave his day job as a research scientist.

He didn’t mind. He loved being a scientist. In fact one day, while waiting for some computer code to finish he started to play with ChatGPT, the new AI. It’s a wonderful tool and can write code and all kinds.

He thought to himself, “what if I asked it to write a poem about a star called Fons Mirusumbra?”

This is what happened:

He cringed a bit at the rhyme scheme. But he loved the last verse and it made him excited. Which is a pretty good result for an AI! What more could a poet ask for than to illicit an emotional reaction?

“That’s actually not a terrible poem”, he thought. “The last line makes me think about humans leaving the shadow of Earth to leap into the great void on starships. I wonder if ChatGPT can make a story about a civilisation that learns to become sustainable?”

Even though technically the path to salvation in the story was largely nonsensical, the story was brilliant and the lover loved it. He thought to write the story of how the story from ChatGPT came into existence on his blog, Rubiks Planet. He hoped that it would inspire others to be creative and to want to find ways to save the world, so that humans could one day travel to Fons Mirusumbra and tell the inhabitants of that star, how they had been an inspiration to save an entire world.

The End.


In this story, ChatGPT took the idea of a circular economy literally and made the ring system around a planet into an economy. That’s not what circular economics means, but it’s an interesting idea: what if all the toxic and terrible things that pollute our world, but give us the standard of living that we want, could be performed in space where the pollution would stay in orbit, and we could leave the natural Earth system untouched?

What if we made all the fancy things like iPhones in space and only moved finished products between Earth and space? and unwanted products back up to space, with interim stages of manufacturing and recycling left up in orbit or on the moon?

Would this work? Apart from the cost of moving objects to and from orbit, we would not be able to satisfy all of our demands on Earth from space. We need food on Earth and our human waste must leave our bodies.

Real circular economics is about converting waste back into useful products. Many of the largest problems in the world, such as biodiversity collapse, climate change and so on are caused, fundamentally, by people trying to get richer in terms of money. But our economic system doesn’t capture all things of value in the number that we use to describe a person’s wealth.

The amount of money a person has doesn’t include the cost of destroying natural systems to get that money.

Thus people who think they are rich aren’t really. They have a large bank balance and share holding but that is only a small part of the story! Work that people do like bringing up children, or cleaning their houses is not paid for but actually contributes far greater value than the entirety of the monetary economy.

The Earth’s systems clean the air and regenerate the oceans, but we do not pay them. And we do not take the cost of destroying them into account. Thus all billionaires are living a lie. They are not that wealthy at all. They reformat stolen natural resource into forms that others want, but they do not pay nature or replace that resource. If they do not start to pay that back in terms of money, they will pay for it in terms of death. For everyone.

All parts of our system should be quantified in wealth measurement, and we must learn how to avoid converting the natural resource of Earth into forms that destroy the original system that gave us life.

When we look in detail at circular economics it is split in two. The renewable and the finite. The left and right hand sides of this diagram (image credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation). Incidentally this image is in my book co-written with Claire Asher, scientific journalist.

What if we could build a lush green biological natural system on Earth (left half), and ship the finite, technical polluting half to space (blue side of the diagram)?

We are part of the Earth! and no matter what we do if we want to live on Earth we can’t separate ourselves from it completely. All living systems and humans together on the Earth form a single system. We are trying to build a second system within the first one. Our economy! This ChatGPT story about separating our world into two parts helps us see that so clearly. We must either learn how to limit what we want to prevent destroying our system, or figure out how to take damaging parts of economics outside the Earth. Is it possible? The aim here is to spark a conversation, not to provide answers. I merely ask the question!

Could we live forever in the strange shadow of our own pollution and restore Earth to a pristine wilderness?

Two realms of existence. Linked for eternity. Or if such a mirusumbra economy is not feasible, then we must learn to limit our consumption within this one. If we do not, we will become but a shadow in the geological record. Let us hope that doesn’t come to pass and the inhabitants of Fons Mirusumbra will one day find our world, and it is we that will inspire them with our Never Ending Story!

Like all the great heroes in Mirusumbra stories it is your choice that makes the difference.

Small Is Mighty

As the pressure on land and natural resources increases due to the increasing demands of a growing population then technology of all kinds will be forced to occupy the interstices of modern urban dwellings. Just as a jar full of rocks can accommodate additional sand and the jar full of sand can accommodate additional water so the performance of vital functions will begin to occur in very small places all around us. Such is the nature of synthetic biology. Powered by sunlight the urban system will become our residence, our factory and our farm. As Feynman said: “there’s plenty of room at the bottom”.

Nikolai Tesla, William the Conqueror and JP Morgan

Nikolai Tesla was a genius. No doubt about it.  He invented the idea of the internet way back in the 1890’s right after he invented radio. In Belgrade there is a museum dedicated to him. At one point this giant among intellectuals and practitioners of science suggested using high intensity electromagnetic fields to transmit power over long distances.  His idea was to create powerful electric fields that people could use to drive electronic devices wherever they were. This is exactly the same idea as the wireless charging devices you see on the market at the moment, but MUCH BIGGER! And not so different from the idea of solar energy. Here is a picture of such a coil powering a series of fluorescent tubes that are not connected to the device other than a flux linkage from the coils.

Tesla Coil

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Inspiring Landscapes

My research group in Cambridge looks for needles in haystacks every day and here I illustrate, jargon free, some of the concepts that we use to help us.

A mountain’s summit is an unremarkable pinnacle that is utterly indistinguishable from the local apex of the countless trillions of dust grains, stones and craggy outcrops that form the rest of the mountain. Despite the banality of the highest point itself, humans frequently yearn to visit.  Why do we do that? For many, the journey itself is far more rewarding than the actual moment of standing atop the mountain’s maximum maxima.

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Can greed eliminate greed?

Rich people hang out with other rich people. But the same applies to every sub-group of humanity; birds of a feather flock together!  Could a global society exist where flocking into naturally emergent sub-groups could be exploited to optimise resource distribution? How much wealth does each sub-group need? What universal protocols could eliminate bias in resource distribution between such groups? Could all the groups be as rich as each other, according to their self-defined notion of wealth?  Can we find a system in which each group is self-sufficient with no one group obliged to work for the others to maintain the status quo?

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Rubik’s cube is analogous to economics

If a red square on Rubik’s cube represented iron, the yellow squares sulphur, and so on, then the organisation of stickers on Rubik’s cube would represent a particular arrangement of material. Since economics is the study of resource re-arrangement, it would seem that both puzzles, i.e. planetary economics and Rubik’s Cube, have something in common. Consequently, can solving the simpler cubic puzzle teach us about solving the planetary one?

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