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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Week They Replaced Detroit: A Science Fiction Story

After the fifth bankruptcy of Detroit in the year 2045, Emma Hale (the unlucky person with the thankless job of mayor) began to wonder: isn't there something radical that could be done to fix the city's problems?

The problems had begun several decades earlier. Detroit had once been home to a huge population of auto workers. But largely due to foreign competition in auto manufacturing as well as automation, the population of the city had fallen from 1,850,000 in 1950 to only 700,000 in 2013. The population had then fallen to only 240,000 by the year 2045. The city was full of decaying buildings that looked almost like ancient ruins. Various plans at gradual urban revitalization had failed.

“We need to do something drastic,” said Emma to a meeting of her aides. “I think we have only one option: the Total City Replacement option.”

Emma brought in personnel from a corporation that specialized in Total City Replacement.

“Tell us exactly how the process would work,” asked Emma.

“We'll bring in an army of robots,” explained project coordinator Frank Pearson. “We have two types of robots: one type that specializes in dismantling buildings, and the another type that specializes in construction. The dismantling robots will start first. They'll literally take Detroit apart piece by piece, dismantling all of its buildings. Every bit of recyclable material and metal will be preserved, and used in the construction. Then the construction robots will get to work. They'll build a brand new city, using the wonders of additive manufacturing and 3D printing.”

“How long will the total process take?” asked Emma.

“Only one week,” explained Frank. “We've optimized the process so that it works as quickly as possible. That's so that the tent time is minimized.”

“Tent time?” asked Emma.

“That's the time the inhabitants of the city will have to spend sitting in tents outside the city, waiting for the dismantling and reconstruction of the city to finish,” explained Frank.

After thinking it over for a day, the mayor decided to go forward with the audacious plan. She had her lawyers go over the local laws with a fine tooth comb, and they finally found an old obscure law allowing the mayor to seize any property in the city in the event of an emergency. The mayor announced that the emergency had arrived, and that she was seizing all property in the city. Anyone who resisted would be arrested.

There was a great outcry against this action. Emma was accused of being a tyrant mayor. But the outcry diminished as soon as the mayor's office started running slick television commercials showing what the city would look like one week after each person had to vacate his property:

Imagine living in a sleek shining City of the Future with every modern convenience. Every building will be a brand new structure with its own built-in software and intelligence. Instead of cars that produce smog, non-polluting monorails will take you everywhere. Teams of robots will gather all trash, clean up all graffiti, and maintain every building. All over the city will be intelligent streetlights that help you find your way anywhere. Total surveillance cameras with automatic police notification will make crime all but impossible.

The television commercials won over the public. As the city-wide deadline for evacuation approached, almost every inhabitant peacefully moved to the tent city built outside Detroit. A few angry resisters were arrested and jailed.

Then the dismantling robots began their work. Block by block, they started their job, reducing every building in the city to a pile of rubble. Other robots meticulously sorted the rubble into different piles that would be used for recycling.

Then the construction robots arrived. They began constructing the shining new Detroit. Using additive manufacturing and 3D printing, they printed out each building layer by layer. Once each building was finished, another group of robots came to add finishing touches.

At the tent city outside Detroit, discontent flared up, even though the residents had lived there less than a week. People complained about the lack of any showers or baths, and the need to use latrines. But before the discontent got very bad, people could see the new Detroit rapidly arising in the distance. On the seventh day, loudspeakers announced that the new Detroit had been constructed, and that people could go and live in their assigned living locations.

One of those people was Lucy Ott. Walking to the edge of the city, she jumped on one of the brand new monorails, and took it to near her assigned new apartment. Getting off the monorail, Lucy walked around a little, marveling at the sleek beauty of the newly constructed buildings. But she had trouble finding the exact location of her apartment. So Lucy then asked an intelligent streetlamp for help in finding the location. The electronic voice of the streetlamp told her where to find the exact location. Walking to the front door, Lucy became anxious.

“Oh, hell,” said Lucy. “Those geniuses behind this plan forgot to give me a key!”

But as she got to the front door of her apartment, she saw on the front door a computer-generated face. The face said to her:

“You are Lucy Ott, and I recognize your face. Open the door and come into your wonderful new apartment.” 

automatic door