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.


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