Tonight, working at my part-time janitorial at Mac Steel.
I find the place enthralling.. And hot. This isn't my world. The place is huge, with a building half a mile long and stories high, with great cranes on tracks running overhead. Grit and burnt smoke and tubes, and parts, and gears, and chains, and showers of sparks … and mostly the glowing steel. This is a Manly-man place.
(As it is, I clean bathrooms and floors in offices located in the plant itself. Just to enter, I walk past buckets of boiled red molten, and shafts of just made steel that glow like the top of an electric range.)
Tonight I watched the chamber in which they melt steel. I think they use scrap bits of steel from other places and things, and melt them down. I talked to a guy who said they feed huge quantities of electricity into the chamber … You can see big foil looking accordion tubes -- that look like the hoses of old fashioned hair dryers -- going into the chamber. I guess that’s what carries the voltage. The chamber is about the size of a small house, three stories high. An oven door opens at the base, and you can see the jumping glow inside. Once in a while some guy in a moon suit gets near the gate and sticks in a pole to help the flow or test or brush off the slag. Dear, again don't know what I'm talking about. When the guy pulls out his pole it smokes and burns at the end. He looks to me like a lion tamer. He would tame the sun. A little sun is in the cage and jumping wildly about and cracking. This is a noisy place, The little-sun rages and smears, whips and breaks and turns on itself like an angry beast. Sometimes the sun boils with light through the slit at the base and coats the walls some hundreds of feet away with light. The light on the walls will fool you. It is night, but it looks like the light of the early sun poured on the walls. The sun-tamers wear dark shields. If not, they would all go blind with the raking of the slag.
I'm not sure where the boiled melt goes from here. You can see huge overhead cranes lifting iron ladles like rooms. I can't see it from there, except to know, that when they pour something somewhere that I can't see, I do see showers of sparks and big popping noises and smoke going up as if from the inferno.
Later, or somewhere else on the production line, I see shafts of red molten descending into things that look like the big guns on battle ships. Orange tubes the size of telephone poles descending into vertical canons, with showers of sparks and water. They pour water over everything at that stage to keep everything cooler.
Later the canon tips and pushes out the orange telephone pole of steel onto some kind of great conveyor hot-steel mover. The tubes roll, push, skate, or otherwise get moved from that place to other places on the line, all without ever being touched. As makes sense. One touch and there goes the arm.
The process is multifaceted from there -- More ovens, more belts, sawing and squeezing and such. The goal, as I understand it simple. Cylinder shafts of high-grade steel, made to the specific quality and size requirements of the customer. The auto industry buys a lot of Mac steel for things like transmissions.
So, what is all this to say.
I've learned that they keep guys and a few gals working here around the clock. I figured at first that the crew was lean at night, because it is night, but I've learned that apart from administrators, this place is about as lean by day. Given the high level of automation, it takes only about thirty workers spread over half a mile to check computers, make tests, push buttons and repair broken things. The greater machine of Mac Steel runs itself.
Now here is the thought:
This machine -- The Mac Steel plant -- is something like a body.
Granted, we are generally more concerned with what human bodies do, than what they excrete, but you could make a loose comparison.
The plant of Mac Steel does a few rudimentary human things. In as much as it or its machines have sensors, Mac Steel has a rude sensory system. Some of those sensors "see", others "feel" temperature. I'm not sure about hearing classical music or any such thing, but the plant does sing with various groans, alarms and whistles.
Beyond that, you could say the thing moves. Mostly internal apart from a hard wind, but the internal movement and related nervous system is substantial. Lots of wires, conduit, computers, pulleys, gears, motors, pipes, and any number of machines for lifting hauling, pushing, moving pouring, banging, belching, spewing and the like.
Would the toilets in the system be like the part of a cell that whisks away foreign bacteria?
Finally, the Mac-a-Man thinks. Given offices and assembly lines and a host of computers to aid every inch, the thing "thinks" quite a bit.
I still have a hard time seeing how machine thought could ever, even in our wildest sci-fi imagination, compare with human thought. That though might be faster, more accurate, or more capable of certain kinds of computation, but it would always be in my mind -- cold thought. Thought unaware of its thinking.
Anyway, there we have it … The Mac-a-Man. A thing that chews iron and poops steel.
Now, I'm not sure if you can really make this comparison, the kinds of construction and complexity are different things, but I guess we could venture, for the sake of some thinking, that the Mac-a-man and a bio-man are of substantial complexity. One a bit heavier on the skeletal side and plumbing, the other more prone to poetry, but for the sake of odd thought - equals.
I am wondering today, could you ever make a Mac-a-man to make itself?
That is, could we ever design some computer program that would, from the ground up, build everything that goes into the plant?
Now we shouldn't be stingy. In as much as any human infant is fed by belly for the first nine months and suckled for the next 18 years, we should give to our Mac-a-mite certain base components. A mountain of scrap steel, an electric plant, some porcelain and glass … maybe even a fleet of Tonka trucks and kilns to start the process.
All that, and a computer chip from the year 2100 capable of holding cities of computers on something the size of a period.
Our first order will be to make something like a bolt. The Mac-a-man will need lots of bolts. So first, our chip must be able to teach or form something cable of making bolts. Ha, we will need to first make a machine to make bolts!
And to make the machine that should make bolts? Why some other machine.
I follow this process back and back and back, and now I have in my mind machines the size of ants excreting polymers, or metals or glue or something. Anything to make anything happen that could happen apart from some self existing and all ready running machines. Or, even given our base bounty of machines, we shall have to reinitiate or invent from about the start of machines! We shall have to make our initial program capable of molding clay or beating bronze. And then we shall have to create the thing to mold the clay or beat the bronze. We shall have to make things form wood, or rediscover the making of plastics.
Here, I'm beating my head harder than I know how to think.
Try as I might, and with a whole host of programs, and even allowing for micro-technology that should start us with cranes or smelters the size of crickets, I have a hard time seeing the thing happen.
It seems impossible, apart from active and ongoing human intelligence and design, to have a Mac-a-man make itself.
Odd thought number two:
Had a second odd thought tonight. I'll move it away form the Mac-a man to something like a Boeing 747. The thing is more contained and by virtue of size and containment for like a man and thinkable. Human involvement in the building of the Boeing as a given. No self-creating flying machines!
So, I think instead, How many years will it take us to build a Boeing if we were to start from the scratch? I mean real scratch. The year is 1524. Guttenberg (sp?) is alive, but to top it off, we have a whole crew of men who now make Boeings to help us make our Boeing.
Given forty scientist .. and Guttenberg, how many years will it take us to build the Boeing.
Here, even here, with the idea in our head and some sense of history, it seems we should have to repeat most of that history just to get to where we are. We shall have to have Edison and Kitty Hawk, and some unknown numbers of wars just to develop the technologies that will go into the technologies that go into the technologies. So ugh (dark thought) how many men does is take to make a Boeing. Some millions dead in the first World War just to provide the impetus.
And this is a hard thought. Would we, apart from carnage have half the benefits we now enjoy. This is more than I care to think and the wrong direction, but still, I think. Even with our host of eminent scientist, we have lost so much of what has preceded us, that we should probably need to reinvent most things along the way just to get to our wires and computers and lights, and soap.
We shall need to make locomotives to make grease or something of the like.
So how many years does is take to make a Boeing … 50, 500, or 10,000 … or shudder the thought (and depending on your world-view) 700 billion.