Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thoughts on an ever expanding population

In Paul Ehrlich's classic tome "The Population Bomb" he calculates that if human beings keep reproducing at this exponential rate we will not only completely fill the earth, but in not too many generations (read the book for the number or use this website, , to help you do the math) humans would outnumber the stars themselves. Talk about the big crunch!

We all know that the population has to come down is we are to have even a modest amount of Lebensraum and leave enough for the ecosystem services that support us (to say nothing about preserving biodiversity for its own sake, but I'm assuming the majority of you are anthropocentric in your outlook and think that cats and dogs and parakeets and houseplants and a nice garden with some trees and petunias are about as much biodiversity as you need, so I'm appealing to your survival instinct here... Go see "Evan Almighty" if you want a better sense of how little people -- particularly Hollywood film-makers, understand the real "flood" of extinctions threatening our planet!)

Anyway, I wondered how the "population bomb" arguments would sound to a race of sophisticated androids (I prefer android to "robot" since "robot" is Russian for "worker" and suggests slavishness. I think androids would agree with me -- as do, apparently, the authors of the game "Syberia" wherein the hotel owner tells the woman in the first scene of gameplay "they (the wind up toy creatures) prefer the name "automatons". They don't like "robot".)

Let us start our thought experiment first by considering whether we would worry about an "overpopulation" of computers in the sense of overcrowding and consumption of resources.

In the 1940s and 50s, when the only computers around were huge and wasteful, if somebody had said that one day we would have a billion computers on the planet we would have had to worry if the earth could sustain that many of the machines. According to

"The ENIAC contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, along with 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, 6,000 manual switches and 5 million soldered joints. It covered 1800 square feet (167 square meters) of floor space, weighed 30 tons, consumed 160 kilowatts of electrical power. There was even a rumor that when turned on the ENIAC caused the city of Philadelphia to experience brownouts, however, this was first reported incorrectly by the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1946 and since then has become an urban myth."

Imagine what would happen if the population of ENIAC computers had risen to the current population of laptop and desktop computers! At 167 square meters per computer and 160 KW of power there would be more than brownouts! Biodiversity would be wiped out and there would be no energy for civilization. It would be almost as bad asthe nightmare scenarios depicted in The Matrix and the Terminator series!

Fortunately, computers have make a quantum leap in reducing both size and power consumption (my laptop fits in... well... my lap, while it consumes a mere 22 watts, which I can supply using the 30 watt foldable CIGS (copper indium gallium di-selenide) solar panel that I carry in the laptop case! So there is no population crisis with computers in sight -- they keep getting smaller and more powerful while using less and less power!

Now, to continue our thought experiment, suppose that we succeed in creating cost-effective high performance androids in the near future (Asimo and Wakamura and the humanoid robots like domestic servant Valerie on show here at are the harbingers of this new race of beings). Given that androids can take advantage of the economies of scale and Fordist mass production techniques that made the Industrial Revolution produce so much surplus so quickly that we faced an underconsumption crises that helped create The Great Depression, should we fear an android population bomb?

If Moore's Law for computers is followed by androids, we should expect that in a very short period of time they would get smaller and more efficient -- each new generation of android consuming fewer resources and taking up less space while becoming ever more powerful and capable.


The idea of overpopulation crises depends on a static definition of the populating entity. We tend to believe that human beings will always be the same size, take up the same amount of space and consume the same amount of energy and resources (or more, according to ecological footprint analysis and what it tells us about affluent people!)

So, according to
Ehrlich's famous IPAT equation , where environmental impact (I) is the product of three terms: 1) population (P); 2) affluence (A); and 3) technology (T), if the term P always implies a certain level of consumption, and affluence makes that level rise, it is easy to see that even when technology (T) improves and reduces per capita consumption, a population crisis can still occurr simply because of the base line value of P.

(BTW: Here is a site that allows you to do sustainability modeling according to IPAT logic:

In addition, one of the assumptions of the IPAT model was that technology, no matter how efficient, when created using mass production techniques, inevitably leads to greater environmental impact, for one reason because easier living conditions encourage further growth of P (assumedly the easier it is to survive, the more children humanity will produce, the demographic shift notwithstanding) and because more efficient technology allows people to exploit natural resources much quicker and thus beyond natural replacement rates. Remember that in the classic environmental debate,
"Ehrlich and John Holdren identified population size and growth as the most urgent IPAT factor, whereas Barry Commoner argued that post-World War II production technologies were the dominant reason for environmental degradation." see

But what about the post-modern cyborg technologies of the 21st century? Could they not factor into this equation? Is it not possible that humans will soon discover that they, like computers and androids, could themselves become ever smaller and more efficient? I don't mean our technology, I mean us, ourselves!

We know that over evolutionary time organisms change size in accordance with their environmental conditions. Felines have ranged in size from tiny house cats to massive sabertooth tigers, there were giant sloths roaming through Los Angeles thousands of years ago (visit the La Brea Tar Pits museum to see!) and there are today small sloths in the jungles of Brazil.

Horses were once so small they were eaten by birds! And of course there are today pygmy hippopotami and pygmy elephants and pygmy humans, to say nothing of the dwarves and midgets among us (many of whom, like George Rollins and Pidge and Michu, the smallest man on earth, I lived and performed with when I was with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1975 and 1976).

So there is nothing in evolutionary biology to stop humans from becoming ever smaller. And with biotechnology we can become ever more efficient (think of camels and other desert organisms when you worry about our dwindling fresh water resources). With a combination of biotech and cybertech we may even be able to push the limits in both of these directions, literally creating the Lilliputian society that Jonathan Swift envisaged in Gulliver's Travels.

One contemporary author has already predicted such a future. In the speculative fiction collection "Beyond Flesh" I found Robert Reed's "Winemaster", about a group of people who have created nano-populations of themselves in nano-cities called "Nests" into which they download their consciousness. Although it never appeared clear to me why the government would be so hell bent on wiping out these inoffensive liliputians (whose entire societies can be carried around in a briefcase) Robert Reed's scenario for fitting a burgeoning population on a degraded planet may be the best answer to the Population Bomb ever conceived.

Of course, playing games like SimCity 4 and The Sims 2, and then viewing films such as Roland Emerich's excellent sleeper "The 13th Floor" one wonders if we will need to create physicalized versions of the creatures into which we wish to download our consciousness. After all, if space and consumption are an issue, what better solution is there than to replace ourselves with creatures made of pure electrons or pulses of photons dancing around tiny circuit connections that constitute the entire universe.

What? You say we ALREADY are mere electromagnetic waves?

What floor are you on? The 13th, perhaps?


P.S. If anybody out there wants to read Winemaster, here is how you can find it:

Robert Reed. Winemaster.
Originally in : Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1999

Transmutations have enabled people to download themselves and retreat to small Nests. Those left behind increasingly resent the elite, and a threat and an opportunity have to be faced by those elite.

found in: Beyond Flesh ed. Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois (Ace 0-441-00999-9, Dec 2002, $6.50, 260 + xi, pb, cover by Jan Franz); SF anthology of ten stories of human life without the limitations of the flesh. Authors include Poul Anderson, Greg Egan, and Paul J. McAuley.
  • ix • Preface • Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois • pr
  • 1 • Call Me Joe • Poul Anderson • nv Astounding Apr ’57
  • 46 • Learning to Be Me • Greg Egan • ss Interzone #37 ’90
  • 66 • Pretty Boy Crossover • Pat Cadigan • ss IASFM Jan ’86
  • 80 • Ancient Engines • Michael Swanwick • ss Asimov’s Feb ’99
  • 91 • Winemaster • Robert Reed • nv F&SF Jul ’99
  • 122 • More Adventures on Other Planets • Michael Cassutt • nv Sci Fiction website Jan 10, 2001
  • 147 • Nevermore • Ian R. MacLeod • nv Dying for It, ed. Gardner R. Dozois, HarperPrism, 1997
  • 178 • Approaching Perimelasma • Geoffrey A. Landis • nv Asimov’s Jan ’98
  • 211 • The Gravity Mine [Manifold] • Stephen Baxter • ss Asimov’s Apr, 2000
  • 222 • Reef • Paul J. McAuley • nv Skylife, ed. Gregory Benford & George Zebrowski, Harcourt, 2000

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