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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Chronobots: Robots as One-Way Time Travelers

Chronobots: Robots as One-Way Time Travelers

Science fiction authors have written innumerable stories about human attempts to spread human culture out into distant points in space (usually by sending spaceships to different planets). But little thought has been given to another interesting possibility: the prospect of spreading human culture (or some part of it) out into distant points in time.

Most people have heard of one way of trying to project part of our culture to a future point in time: the humble time capsule. To create a time capsule, you just fill up a steel chest with various items of your choosing (such as a newspaper, a bible, or the US constitution), and you bury the steel chest underground. The idea is that in some future age hopefully someone will dig up the capsule, and be able to find out about American culture, perhaps at a distant time when people have lost track of who we were.

But a time capsule isn't very technically sophisticated. It's time to dream up a more audacious and sophisticated method of transmitting our culture to a point in the future. We can call this invention a chronobot.

We can envision a chronobot as a specialized robot designed to transmit cultural information into
multiple time points in the future. Now, it is not at all necessary to imagine any type of exotic time machine to make this concept work. We can dream up a feasible plan for a chronobot just by imagining fairly modest technology that man will almost certainly have by about the middle of this century.

The basic operating procedure for a chronobot could work as follows:

  1. The chronobot starts out by being buried (undersea or underground) for a period of decades or centuries. During this time the chronobot is mentally inactive.
  2. A timer on the chronobot goes off, and the chronobot awakes.
  3. The chronobot then somehow brings itself up out its buried state, and reaches ground level where it can walk about.
  4. The chronobot then looks for human life, and transmits its cultural information to various persons.
  5. The chronobot then returns to a buried state (undersea or underground) for a period of decades or centuries, being mentally inactive during this time.

This cycle can be repeated multiple times. For example, if the chronobot was originally engineered well enough to last for a thousand years (almost all of which would be in an inactive state), then the chronobot could wake up ten different times, in ten different centuries, and transmit its cultural information into each of those ten centuries.

The only problematic part about this procedure is the part about the chronobot pulling itself out of a buried state, and later returning to such a state. But this isn't very much of a difficulty. We can imagine various ways in which a robot could do such a thing.

One way that a chronobot could do such a thing would be for the robot to simply swim out to sea a few miles, and deposit itself on the bottom of the sea, where it could rest undisturbed for as long as a century. Under such a plan there would presumably be a need to prevent encrustation by barnacles and similar organisms, but that could be handled fairly easily through some method such as having the robot bury itself a foot underneath the sand at the bottom of the sea, or wrapping itself in a protective sheet.

Another way in which a chronobot could bury itself for a century-long rest period would be to bury itself on the land, underneath a large rock that was several times larger than the robot itself. To reach such a location, the robot would merely need to burrow underneath the rock, moving almost horizontally, perhaps using its hands to dig. To get out from such a location, the robot would merely need to burrow out from underneath the rock, also moving almost horizontally.

So it seems it would be fairly easy to create this type of chronobot robot, given the type of robot technology that we will have later in the century. But why would a culture want to create these type of chronobot robots, and what type of culture might they be programmed to transmit?

One can imagine various possibilities:

  1. A church might wish to create a robotic horde of evangelists to future centuries, who would ensure the propagation of the church's gospel even upon the breakdown of society.
  2. A nation might wish to create a group of buried chronobots, for the sake of giving rebirth to the nation's culture after some environmental disaster wreaked havoc on civilization.
  3. A cultural institution such as a scientific group or a university might want to create chronobots for the sake of insuring that some scientific base of knowledge or some cultural legacy gets transmitted to future ages.

Of course, if a future civilization felt very confident of the stability and survival of its society, it would be unlikely to go to the trouble of creating chronobot robots. But if the civilization was facing the gravest environmental problems, or if it was worried that society might breakdown sometime in the future, then such a civilization might feel the need to create the chronobots described here.

Here is a brief fictional example of how chronobots might one day be used.

Around 2070 everything started to fall apart. It was fifty years after the peak of oil production, and thirty years after the peak of coal production. The world was being plagued by the effects of global warming, and ravaged by biological wars. Dictatorships were on the rise, and the United States was on the verge of breaking up into 52 small states, each ruled by a single dictator. As one of its final acts, the US Congress passed the Patriotic Chronobot Act, which authorized the creation of 100 chronobots, to be buried at various places around the world, some on land and some under the sea. Shortly after that, the USA passed from the pages of history.

But at various times in the next few centuries, the slumbering chronobots woke up, and dragged themselves out of their buried state. The glistening red, white, and blue robots went around the globe, telling all who would listen about the glory days of the United States. The chronobots preached a gospel of democracy to a crumbling world that had almost forgot what the word meant. And the light of 1776 was once again rekindled.