Why Replicators Break (Or At Least Greatly Complicate) Science Fiction Storytelling
For the purposes of the reasoning laid out in this article, replicators will be defined as atomic assemblers. According to Trek lore they are limited to atomic resolution where transporters are capable of subatomic resolution, necessary for some reason to successfully rematerialize a living person.
There exist various other conceptions of compact generalized fabricators in fiction. Some, like those in Diamond Age, are molecular assemblers rather than atomic assemblers. Capable of more or less the same things, differing in the precision with which they recreate objects from information, and whether they can do so using any old atoms in their vicinity or if they need elementally pure feedstock materials.
We’ll be using the definition from Trek lore because of its juxtaposition with robust manned spaceflight and the logical problems that entails. In Trek lore, replicator and transporter technology are extremely similar.
Transporters deconstruct humans or cargo at the subatomic level, send those particles to the destination in what they call a matter stream (under the pretense that it matters for some reason that the same particles are then used to reconstruct you) and then put them back together into the same configuration they were in at the time of disassembly.
The writers correctly reasoned that if this technology existed, it could also be used to materialize food, tools, munitions and other useful items, not just move people and cargo around. You could scan an object, then use that information to instruct your transporter to create as many copies as you have energy and raw material for.
After all, when dematerialized, you exist only as the information detailing your subatomic pattern. Hence the Trek lingo “pattern buffer”, the memory from which that information is streamed as you’re remateralized. A buffer is used rather than outright storage of your pattern because, to use the in-world explanation, it takes a tremendous amount of space to store even one person’s subatomic pattern.
This is really for story telling reasons however. If there weren’t some sort of technological constraint preventing it, death would not be permanent in the Trek universe. Everybody would be backed up every time they went through the transporter, updating their most recent copy to a newer version.
Then if they died on an away mission or whatever, as frequently happens in Trek, their most recent backup could simply be rematerialized. They would have no memory of the disaster, and could proceed with their life as though nothing happened.
It is confirmed that longterm storage of a human subatomic pattern is possible in Trek lore by way of an episode wherein Scotty and another crew member, trapped on a crippled ship, store themselves in the transporter pattern buffer as a sort of makeshift suspended animation.
But again the writers cannot allow this to be totally successful because of the implications. It would be a game changer that would permanently upset the Trek status quo. So they have the other crew member’s pattern degrade irretrievably, regard Scotty’s success as a fluke and it is never investigated nor attempted in a research environment after that, despite the immense promise it represents.
There is also an episode of Deep Space Nine wherein crew are rescued from an exploding vessel, but it is not possible to immediately rematerialize them. It takes all of the available memory on the station to store less than a dozen subatomic patterns. Permitting it to occur, but as a rare, nearly one-off event which does not upset the Trek paradigm.
Okay, so a manned space station or starship has understandably limited space for massive memory banks. What about the surface of a planet? Or an unmanned station singularly dedicated to storing backups of humans? The ability to safeguard humanity’s best and brightest, at the very least, against untimely deaths seems highly worth the resource investment needed for such a project.
Starship battles also ought to play out very differently in a world with replicators. We see in Star Trek: The Motion Picture that the Enterprise has sufficient energy reserves to transport an entire whale along with the water and a suitable aquarium. That’s quite a substantial amount of matter in just a few seconds.
If that’s any indication of transporter throughput, in terms of a volume per second measurement, it should be entirely feasible for the ship’s computer to repair any damage inflicted upon the Enterprise during battle, in real time.
We see something similar in the final episode of Voyager wherein the future Voyager replicates its own armor plating, but what use is that armor when it could simply use the same replication capability to repair damage faster than it can be inflicted?
Likewise, in the event that ships are destroyed, could new ones not simply be replicated rather than constructed? Yet we see starships in various stages of construction in shipyards both on Earth, in LEO, and on Mars in various Trek shows and movies.
Writer commentary on a DVD admits at one point this is because they wanted the Enterprise to have value, and for its destruction to have emotional impact. That’s not such a big deal to the audience if the Federation can simply press a button and replicate a replacement.
This is why there are no transporters in The Orville. The writers have stated that it’s too powerful a technology which creates too many writing challenges. They have “matter synthesizers” however which are so conceptually and functionally similar as to beg the question.
Now we get to the heart of the matter. If you have warp drives, advanced AI and molecular, atomic or subatomic assemblers, why build massive, manned starships? You could instead build a much smaller, more resource efficient unmanned vessel with large format replicators.
This vessel would carry the subatomic patterns of colonists wishing to settle a habitable planet. The vessel would traverse space, arrive at the planet, then replicate fully apportioned cities on the surface which it would then beam the colonists down to.
The colonists would thus never have to endure manned spaceflight. The journey would be effectively instantaneous from their perspective. What’s more, these vessels would have everything necessary to make copies of themselves.
Self-replicating at a geometric rate, they could establish human population centers on habitable worlds throughout the galaxy far quicker, using far less resources than the approach seen in Star Trek or any other fiction seen in films or television programs.
Even if the Federation refuses to do this for philosophical reasons that boil down to “that idea makes me feel uncomfortable”, are we meant to believe no other species has found the idea more agreeable and implemented it in the past? In which case they should be everywhere in the universe by the era in which the shows and movies take place?
The Borg for example. Alright, so the Federation’s ideals probably would prevent such a brutally pragmatic approach to colonizing space. But the Borg? Why are they seen cultivating fetuses in maturation chambers when they could simply replicate new drones as needed, and recycle them in the same manner when they’re no longer necessary?
We see Borg cubes exhibiting self-repair of some sort in various episodes, though it’s unclear whether this is accomplished using replicator technology. In Picard it’s depicted as being achieved instead by the coordinated efforts of millions or billions of small repair robots.
Why though? Borg have transporters, so they have replicators. What can repair robots do which replicator and transporter technology cannot do? Then there is the question of why they bother with cybernetics when purely robot bodies controlled by digitized minds would be more durable and efficient.
If they have the means to dematerialize a person and in the process reduce them to information detailing their subatomic pattern, why not keep it as information? We’ve seen that the technology exists in the form of holodecks to generate very advanced virtual reality worlds. Why would you not simply use that same technology to virtually rematerialize?
Instead of having a transporter reassemble you out of actual matter, why not have the holodeck reassemble you out of virtual matter? You could then be immortal, impervious to illness, but lacking none of the benefits of corporeal existence as we see in later episodes of Voyager where ship-wide holo emitters are introduced.
Indeed in Picard, all ships are basically big holodecks, with every room being capable of projecting the holograms and force fields needed for tangible virtual objects. So conceptually, what’s to stop humans from digitizing themselves? Inhabiting real space if desired, but in the form of “hard light”, holograms and forcefields as convincing as anything seen, smelled, heard, tasted or felt on the holodeck.
If ever they desired it, they could simply be rematerialized from actual matter. It should be as easy to transport someone between a virtual environment and reality (ala TRON) as it is to transport them between two realspace locations. Real matter one moment, virtual matter the next, then back to real matter. As simple as walking through an arch, based on the new design of transporters seen in Picard.
It’s a shame that these possibilities are ignored. It makes sense why, if you’re writing for a television show wherein coherent narratives have to be relayed to the viewer in thirty minute chunks. Then again Star Trek never set out to depict the future as realistically as possible by extrapolating from technological possibilities.
It was intended as social commentary, with the Enterprise basically being laid out like a small American town with a chapel, a clinic, school and so forth. Just flying through space. A vessel, figurative and literal, for the exploration not just of space but of social issues of the day, such as racial tensions, income inequality and war.
If the writers thought out the implications of the technologies introduced in Star Trek to their logical conclusion, it would be a very different show. Probably one with few or no humans in it, as we currently define human. But it’s a much smaller crowd that would be interested in watching self-replicating robots systematically colonize space, I think.