Free Light

There's a news report on the television which helpfully explains some of the backstory.

"Speaking to us now is Germe Mulia, deputy leader of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. Mr. Mulia, eight point five is a very impressive-sounding statistic, but what can you tell us about what this means in real terms?"

"The CAII [pronounced "kai"] is a quantitative measurement of the quality of life of the children living in a region, that is to say the under-eighteens. It takes into account factors such as the degree of literacy, the level of education and the level of medical care available, mortality rates, vaccination rates, levels of crime, levels of contentment, access to clean water and food, vulnerability to abuse, predicted per-capita earning potential and so on. These are measured and recorded by inspectors in the countries in question, tabulated and interpreted by statisticians and refined to the CAI Index. The rising International CAII indicates an increase in the mean quality of life among children in the world."


"We were speaking earlier and you said that this wasn't necessarily a useful figure."

Video montage:

"That's not the case at all. What I said was that there are more useful figures. It's more instructive to look at the graphs of CAIIs over history and the distribution. Here we see that between 2010 and today there are thirteen countries which used to have a CAII of under three point five and five countries with CAIIs between zero and two. This is not the case anymore. The graph is gradually shifting to the right. The highest CAIIs in the world are getting higher and there are more of them. The lowest CAIIs are disappearing. By any statistical metric, the quality of life among the world's children is increasing. We calculate that in ten years' time the ICAII will be close to nine point oh. Whichever way you look at it, it's really tremendously good news."

"We've spoken to other international organizations such as UN Famine Relief and Oxfam and the Red Cross who are reporting similar increases."

"We're truly moving towards a perfect world."

"And to what do you attribute these gains?"

"I would say, improved education, fostered by the spread of the internet, and of course the invention of Free Light Stations."


Free Light Stations are magic.

They're just magic.

You put carbon in one end. It pulls oxygen and nitrogen and trace elements out of the sky, water from wherever it can, energy from the Sun. It produces anything.

In theory it could produce anything. But "anything" is a dangerous and frightening range of possibilities. That's why the sole machine in the world (the most complicated piece of machinery in the world) which can take a real object and turn it into a meaningful, manufacturable quantum pattern is kept in a Swiss nuclear fallout bunker, under heavier guard than the US President, why only two people in the world have the physical access required to use it and only two others have full access to the blueprints of the thing. That's why there are only two dozen patterns, chosen specifically so that a given Free Light Station manufactures nothing that could be used as a weapon.

You could drown someone in the water it produces, but not easily. You could brain someone with a clay brick or a heavy wood beam, but you'd be better off printing a bunch of them and building houses. You could shock someone with the electrical current it supplies. In fact, all of these things have happened. But you can't get a gun or a knife or an axe or a bullet or gunpowder or morphine or a tank. It's a fine balance and every decision to scan and distribute another pattern has repercussions on the international level.


There is no single person who created the Free Light Station or the Gruentolle Mountain Atomic Descriptor, it was a combined effort by thousands of people. Even the core concepts were developed in groups. But the project has a public face, and that public face is sixty-year-old Ekaterina Vorslova, one of the most controversial people on the planet.

"Nothing in the world cannot be used for evil, but many things can be used for nothing but evil."

Prominent on the list: Rice. Wheat. Fruits. Paper. Condoms. Notable omissions: All other plastic products. Gasoline. Meat products. Metals. Computers. Glass. Syringes. Alcohol. Money.

"The world is getting better. It is not perfect. People with what they want are less likely to attack other people for that. FLSes are a net gain for humanity. I will not apologise for the actions of the foundation. Yes, the world has problems. FLSes cannot solve all of these."


They introduce new problems. Colossal ones.

Sell an FLS for a billion dollars apiece, and only the most powerful people in the world will ever be able to buy them. By definition, only the people in the world with the least need for free rice and bricks will be the ones able to afford a Universal Constructor which can make them. They'll buy them and install them in their palaces and the gap between the haves and the have-nots gets better.

Sell them for a million dollars and still the poorest areas of the world, especially the areas with no economic structure to speak of, will be locked out.

Sell them for a dollar and everybody in the world will be able to afford one. Where would you put them all? How could you meet that kind of demand? And still there are people in the world who don't even have a dollar, who were born into debt and who will die in unimaginably bigger debt through no fault of their own.

Give them away for free and you have an unsustainable model. Not even a business model, since distributing a device of unlimited manufacturing capability for less than infinity dollars is charity by definition. An unsustainable charity.


So you have to pick clients and negotiate prices. Some of those clients have to be regions and settlements with no capability to even contact the foundation directly and ask for what they desperately need. You have the power of life and death over those people, you have the capability to introduce a completely unstable singularity in the political layout of that region of the world. You could save a town. But which one is most in need of saving? You can only manufacture one FLS every two hours, let's say. Or two weeks. Or two days.

Provide them as is, and they become the most sought-after objects in the world. Install one in a village -- they're intentionally huge and heavily armoured, close to impossible to uproot once installed -- and the village will become a target for the more powerful to take over and steal the goods. Install one in a village and send people to defend the FLS as well and then you have to stay there for eternity because a time will quite likely never come when the village can defend itself. Install one for one year and then take it home again or remotely deactivate it, and what kind of response will that yield?

Is it an unfair head start for one city to have an FLS and not the other? Is it fair to sell goods from the FLS to get money? To stockpile? Is it fair to sell FLSes only to Less Developed Countries? Is it good to become dependent on something which will never go away until the human race itself ends entirely?

What is the way forward? What is the philosophy, to balance the world out? To give everybody everything they need? To switch out the current crop of world problems and replace them with different problems.


Different problems. Here are your different problems:

It's ten years later and the process has been reverse-engineered by a military-industrial consortium. Oh, such wonderful pushbutton words. Their version of the machine has two patterns. One is an AK-47. The other is a bullet. Their machines need ore (or just plain rock) to process (there is no transmutation) and much more power. Their machines are not for sale, but a shipment of them gets stolen. They are shut down remotely, but almost as quickly after that someone has figured out how to hotwire them and they are up and running again. Guess where these metaweapons get sold to? Sell them for a billion dollars apiece. It's charity.

No, they can't manufacture plutonium: there is no transmutation. How about this: unlimited pure anything. Do not sell the means of manufacture, just The Product.

This all sounds so familiar.

At least there's somewhere productive to chuck all our trash, now.


Here's your problem: you just put a million rice-growers and lumberjacks out of business forever. Now what? Are you accountable? Nanotechnology is tantamount to tampering with the basic genetic code of global economy. It introduces a vast and unpredictable variable into the equations, it flattens complexity and introduces chaos of its own.

But the graphs keep shifting to the right, the hump in the curve moves past the 8.5 mark and keeps on moving up.

When you have heat, light, shelter, water, food and oxygen, you're ninety percent of the way to stopping caring.

Do you remember a time when mahogany wood used to be expensive?

There is, after a while, a solitary apple in the world. Of course there are plenty of trees and people still sell their home-grown fruit. That's fine. But there's a single iconic Platonic Ideal apple, a delicious flawless well-chosen apple (the original was planted on the Mountain), one which everybody has seen and everybody knows. There's a solitary plank of wood whose specific density and nature and internal structure and flaws (of which there are almost none) are the subject of books and books. The one plank, that everybody has seen, that made up most of your house, with that same three knots halfway up the left-hand edge. You feel like you live in a texture-mapped world. You could use real-world wood if you liked, to build your house, but it would cost a fortune more.

The real expense is in the skill of the builders. The clever bit is the creativity of the chef who works on what goes alongside the rice.

Discussion (22)

2010-11-10 19:25:08 by qntm:

1732 words. Running total is 19722. This is a bit garbled and doesn't make a lot of sense. This is more the stream of consciousness which I think is going to become more prevalent towards the end of the month unless I can help it. I actually have a lot of free time this week in contrast to the next few weeks, but the extra development time hasn't helped me to write terribly fast. Today's discussion topic: if you were going to allow people to manufacture unlimited quantities of stuff, which types of stuff would you permit?

2010-11-10 19:56:05 by EthZee:

Man, I would want the device to produce nothing <i>but</i> nuclear weapons, constantly. I'd have the device designed so that it couldn't be switched off after it was turned on. I'd market it as producing wheat, and ship millions of the things all over the world. Then I'd wait to see what people did. That, or maybe bananas. Same as above. Maybe install a flywheel system on the output of the device so that it fires them out of the machine (vertically) at high velocity. Build a speaker into the machine so that when it is turned on, Brian Blessed's voice (I'll have to find other people for the localisation team, unless Brian Blessed can speak multiple languages) bellows, "SUDDENLY, BANANAS! <i><b>THOUSANDS OF THEM!</b></i>" at 100 decibels. Those sound like the best ideas.

2010-11-10 20:06:40 by linkhyrule:

Please, please, <i>please</i> tell me you're joking.

2010-11-10 20:54:11 by JeremyBowers:

Stream of consciousness it may be, but in some ways it's still one of the better treatments of the Singularity in the real world I've seen. I sort of wish this wasn't in November, I'm always busy with work that month as we try to jam things in before December, a month you can't really release anything significant in.

2010-11-10 21:00:01 by BenFriesen:

If it were me ... food and water to start with. Multivitamins. Then a building material that could be put together without a need for tools - some kind of interlocking wood piece. I'd for sure include some kind of toy. Maybe something to help people learn - a custom teaching computer of some kind. Condoms, or maybe some better form of birth control. A variety of medicines, but those that use patches or skin contact instead of syringes. And a way for people to be creative - something that they could make art with.

2010-11-10 21:01:31 by EthZee:

@linkhyrule: Yes, that is honestly what I believe. ...No, of course it's not. It would be interesting, sure, but not a very long-term, sustainable solution. The best solution is probably something mundane and useful, like rice or fruit or basically what's been said in the story. Can't really improve on "Wood, rice, grain, fruit, paper". Question: Can the Mountain Atomic Descriptor produce blueprints for living things? Because if so, Bees. Bees, forever. (Sorry about the html tags, can they be removed?)

2010-11-10 21:51:11 by BrightMikal:

Basics, like you said. Fish? Possibly add the superstrength glass? The panes which need diamonds to cut. Make the edges rounded, to prevent cutting. If people can be bothered trying to slice up glass, I'm going to assume they've made spears and such already. <br> Send a FLS to the moon, then mars, etc. Have them operated by robots, who proceed to build space bases, for further human expansion. <br> Scan in animals, in case of further extinction. Have several (see: as many as possible) subjects, to widen the gene pool. Repopulate fish stocks, etc. <br> I think the real loss is in creativity, and uniqueness. Sure, everyone can use the materials differently, but to the extent it still looks the same. Maybe paint? Non toxic, of course. The possibilities are endless.

2010-11-10 23:19:33 by Val:

Here's your problem 3. A town/tribe/nation/sect decides it's time to take revenge on its neighbors. Or just to conquer a region. Or the Earth. Let's have the women start making children as they turn 16, and don't stop until they are biologically incapable of producing more. Previously, only the limited amount of food and other necessities were a limiting factor.

2010-11-11 00:30:30 by qntm:

That's almost as ridiculous as the anchor babies idea.

2010-11-11 00:45:14 by eneekmot:

Everything that has happened before will happen again. I think the last point, about chefs and architects, is the most correct prediction. Remember factories putting craftsmen out of work? Remember robots putting factory workers out of work? Yeah, that's how civilization advances. You have a period of instability, where the unskilled laborers have to become skilled to keep a job. It's tough, but products get cheaper so it's not that tough. And then your next generation is all going to college and has a better quality of living. The neat thing about THIS particular invention is how it promotes peace (the ethical concerns the inventors have are shared by every invention since fire.) If it's widespread enough, of course. Hungry people are willing to fight. Satiated people are willing to be idealistic. Why risk your life fighting when you have a good standard of living? W Anyways, an invention like this could change life we know it... Assuming it could get past the legal hurdles. Companies will push governments to make these sorts of machines illegal. At the end, (once one machine can build a new machine,) everyone will have one in the basement and print out stuff. People will make websites to collect blueprints for particular things (there are already websites for 3D plastic printer models.) Patents as we know it will cease to exist. Why mass-manufacture toys when people can print them in their basement? Large manufacturing companies and corporations will cease to exist, or end up folding into the government. Commerce will drastically shift towards entertainment and copyrights will either be strictly enforced or reduced to nonexistence. Anyways, I'm a pessimist. If this ever gets invented, it'll take a century for it to become legal in the civilized world.

2010-11-11 01:51:02 by Snowyowl:

I don't believe it would be very long before someone builds another GMAD. The relevant physics papers would be easily accessible. A pop-science version of how the machine works would be available in half the newspapers on the subject. Someone would work out a way to optimise the system, now that we know for sure it works. Someone else would make a breakthrough in nanotechnology. Someone else (or several someones) would have a billion dollars they would gladly spend in exchange for the ability to create infinite computer chips, diamonds, ingots (using rare metals extracted from seawater and stone), or weapons. After that, someone would eventually manage to make a GMAD that can scan another, smaller GMAD. A few years later, duplicators (legal or illegal) are readily available. Then people start scanning and duplicating living things. Eventually, people duplicate themselves, for whatever reason they can find to justify that. To be continued.

2010-11-11 08:42:58 by Val:

Well, everyone knows how nuclear bombs work, but it does not mean anyone can build one. The required technology seems to be high enough that only very resourceful governments could produce it, not anyone in his basement.

2010-11-11 16:59:11 by Homer:

All I can think is: Ultimate outcome - The longer you have the technology, the more likely someone stupid/crazy will use it to build something with the capability for exponential growth. You cannot keep the technology locked away forever - or its capabilities stripped. There are always leaks. But hey, that's not depressing. That's interesting! I think it was on xkcd: "Maybe we're all gonna die, but we're gonna die in *really cool ways*!"

2010-11-12 21:30:50 by Abdiel:

"The real expense is in the skill of the builders. The clever bit is the creativity of the chef who works on what goes alongside the rice." Can't you program Free Light to create houses and meals instead of planks and rice?

2010-11-18 16:05:20 by JoetheRat:

I'm thinking the complexity of a cooked meal (which would likely come out room temperature at that) might be a bit much in terms of data. A pile of rice is a repetition of the 'rice' program. Making risotto adds a few free starches, more water (in varying amounts inside and out of the rice), various complex organics for flavor... salt... in a specific arrangement... all run at once... yeah, I'm guessing it'd be simpler to have it produce all the raw ingredients, a stove, and a copy of the recipe. Repeat the above for 'house'. Sometimes it's more efficient to put the pieces together after they come out than to build it all in one pass.

2011-02-02 04:00:16 by Sysice:

Tile-based textures always bothered me, because they all look exactly the same once you see where the tiles start and end. I really wouldn't want to live in a house with the exact same pattern of textures, again and again and again! That's a really interesting idea. I like how well it was thought out. The idea of entire books being written about one object, just because there is millions or billions of that object everywhere on the planet, is one of the more interesting to me. Great story!

2011-05-16 15:05:29 by Boter:

Hm, and I expected a bit about the FLSs themselves being used as a weapon, where the "carbon" fed in would be a person.

2015-06-25 18:06:33 by Toafan:

Texture packs. If you just hit the "wood plank" button, you get the default wood plank. But if you use the pull-down (however that's implemented), you get a choice from several different wood planks. Do they come in different sizes? The real limiting factor on this is going to be amount of matter. Eventually, we're going to need to go to space to get more. Yes, I know I'm not saying anything actually new.

2015-08-03 04:24:41 by Daniel:

Put one on every 100 square miles of the Earth's surface. Make them immobile and impossible to shut down. That way everyone has a universal fabricator within 10 miles of their house. You can make the grid wider if you have too.

2018-10-04 03:14:06 by tahrey:

Toafan has the right idea. I'm in the middle of organising having a new kitchen fitted at the moment. Even the mundane, early 21st century, actual factory-based manufacturers who make the equivalent of those building materials offer them in a bewildering array of shapes and finishes. You just pick the one you like the look of, put in your order, they program the necessary four-digit code into the machinery that makes the parts... raw materials - wood chip, binder, thermoplastic, pigments - go in, are processed in certain ways, and out the other end comes a worktop, or a cabinet base unit, or the door to go on the front of it, in your chosen style and colour. So why not have that variability built into the FLS? Sure, if you don't really care about what the wood looks like, and it's going to be used as raw building material and hidden away, in a building design that largely uses a single standard size of plank and demands minimal cutting... just tap in WOOD-001, and take your standard photocopier-style 2 metre by 30cm solid pine planks (or whatever they'd be). If you have a desire for something different, e.g. for building furniture where it would be nice to have a different finish to the identikit Ikea-style white pine... change the code number and pick from a few hundred other possible variations. This also gets rid of the need for patterns for paint, woodstain/varnish, etc. All it does is change some very minor parts of the molecular pattern being laid down from the base input elements. But it gives the impression of much more variation, much more choice, and with it a more comfortable, better quality of life in its own way, rather than settling for the straight plain austere white pine, when you can't afford to buy the paint or varnish separately. Question is whether you also provide nails and/or screws to actually put the stuff together. Presumably hammers and screwdrivers would be verboten, but those can be improvised in a pinch and it's probably fair to say they're in reasonable supply on at least a temporary lending basis throughout the world already. Maybe just blunt ended coach bolts (and nuts) and lightweight hex-socket drivers, designed to go through holes in wooden planks and lightweight sheet metal - either pre-formed, or drilled by other means. Though a simple auger-type hand drill would be difficult to turn into an effective weapon? Saws could at least be obviated by just programming in the shapes of wood you needed, including dovetail-jointed ends etc. Also I would suggest adding at least a few vegetables on top of the fruits, rice and wheat (for one thing, maize is a staple for about a third of the world; with that trifecta you can cover the background "daily bread" hunger-sating demands of the entire planet ... add some beans, leafy greens and what-have-you and you can actually cover the full nutritional requirements, so long as it comes along with programs for simple healthy-vegan-diet cookery books to go alongside the plain paper), if only to add a bit of interest to the fare. Perhaps some simple sauces or flavour powders, dispensed in strictly limited quantities (enough to give some taste to the other food produced, and in direct proportion to that production) to prevent the FLSes becoming simple industrial-food megacorp cash cows. Maybe coconut milk or the like as well. Also, I can see the reasoning for not providing glass, as the regular stuff can be smashed easily into lethal shards. But there are other options - safety glass, gorilla glass, perspex, which are either shatter resistant/shatterproof, or that break into harmless round-edged pellets. And there are such an array of amazingly useful, simple tools that can be (pre-)formed from such glass-type materials; heatproof drinking vessels and measuring jugs, and, most particularly, vision-correcting lenses. After all, what good is having access to infinite written knowledge and paper on which to write if you can't see the words? Or materials to build if everything more than a couple of metres away is a blur? Not to mention the usefulness of sunglasses... (as well as some kind of translucent material being extremely useful for the production of, say, basic lanterns and flashlights; plus you could make lenses for starting fires without a spark or volatile fuels, perhaps, if having that ability was still relevant and important... not to mention the option of spitting out roughly brick-sized, though somewhat thinner pieces to use as window panes, set into wooden-lattice frames, which allow light into buildings and much greater practical use of the interiors without having to fit lighting systems and the solar panels/batteries/mains power to run them) And such material, doped to have an opaque colour instead, would be a useful alternative to plastics and particularly ceramics (also smashable into sharp shards; ceramic weaponry was even an alternative to metal blades in some early civilisations) for use in both crockery, cutlery and sanitaryware (both the obvious fixtures, and the piping and other fittings) and indeed cookware, all quite vital things to make good use of all the other stuff. You can't cook rice in your bare hands, and carrying water around to drink that way is impractical, especially if your hands might not be super clean (might have to limit the sharpness of the cutlery of course). And one of the biggest improvements for QOL in the most deprived areas of the world is providing some measure of sanitation, which demands some kind of easily cleaned, hard to damage receptacle for the waste, basins to wash hands in, and pipework to deliver the water and carry away the effluent. This may also demand some kind of simple rubber washers and bushings that can be spun up; seeing as condoms can be produced, then why not these using the same sort of material? Sterile gloves, too. (thinking of it: roofing material would be rather vital for finishing off any house, and synthe-perspex shingles would be just the thing. You could even use some opaque, some translucent, to form useful skylights without too much of a privacy hit) Probably you want at least two dozen basic patterns, each with a few dozen simple variations available. Oh, and, we'll want some kind of writing implement to go with the paper. Probably don't need to bother with erasers though, as any spoiled sheets can just be fed right back into the FLS. Or maybe just go with slates and chalk. And a rather major thing has been missed: sanitary products. Both of the universal paper towel kind, and feminine hygiene in particular. That's another massive thing for women on the poverty line - literally there's a problem known as Period Poverty which acts as a barrier to education, social mobility and general life quality. If we're going to include condoms, then we have to provide this as well. Combine that with basic analgesics (again produced in strictly limited quantities, maybe on a prescription basis) like paracetamol/acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or even just aspirin (which could also be used for preventative geriatric medicine purposes) to overcome the various pains that come along with... ...soap is probably something you want, too. Final group of patterns... fabric. Simple cloth for making clothing, blankets, towels. Either spat out raw for further human processing, or maybe more usefully fully formed (no need for thread, needles, etc, and if we're already baking in design variability and pigmentation etc...). As well as wrapping food (muslin bags are a fair alternative to plastic or aluminium wrap and bags if the latter aren't available, and far better than no wrapping), use as Bags of Holding, curtains, mosquito netting, light shades, etc. Even basic bedding and pillows (plain cloth outer, loosely spun fine thread making up the stuffing). Most of the things needed for comfortable human life contained within there, and still little that could be turned into a weapon or otherwise abused. And you could probably build a bicycle without needing to get overly ingenious using the above facilities. Lets see... 1. Water (including ice... not sure if boiling-hot would be a good idea though) 2. Rice & rice products 3. Wheat & wheat products 4. Maize & maize products 5. Subcategory: limited common varieties of bean/legume/nut 6. Subcategory: limited common varieties of vegetable (including potato?) 7. Subcategory: limited common varieties of fruit (including juices?) 8. Some kind of soya/nut/other non dairy milk subsitute 9. Maybe similar tofu/other bulk non animal protein source 10. Subcategory: basic range of flavourings to add to the above (no substitute for a decent chef with access to proper spices etc, but if you aren't one of those or don't have one available...), in limited quantity, low in sugar/salt/etc. 11. Paper (and printed books) 12. Writing tool(s) 13. Wood of various stripes 14. Wood fastenings? 15. Wood fastening tool? 16. Condoms, sterile gloves, other very simple rubber (or neoprene/vinyl) items for pipe sealing (...bicycle tyres/inner tubes/drivebelts/brake blocks?) 17. Sanitary products (toilet paper, feminine hygiene, soap) 18. Non shatterable glass-like substance (transparent and opaque) of various kinds, including spectacles, roof tiles, etc. 19. Simple fake-natural fabric (cotton- and hemp-like) in a range of styles much like the wood and glass. 20. Basic level painkillers, non-addictive/non-narcotic type, again minimal quantities/supervised dispensing. 21. Simple biodegradable cleaning materials and disinfectants. 22. Other first aid kit supplies not covered by any of the other categories; band-aids, saline eyedrops, etc ( pins? difficult). Perhaps sunscreen and insect repellant? Antihistamine? Asthma inhalers? Epipens even? Hm. 23. Low-voltage electrical power (...produced from?) 24. Joker category... anything that would be a near-essential that we happen to have forgotten at this point, or may emerge as a requirement. Maybe low-wattage lighting systems to use the electricity? Bang, two dozen basic patterns, and possibly an average of two dozen variants on each of those. Dial your thing up with a simple two-character alphabetic code (extend it a bit with 2-digit alphanumeric, with some at least initially dead areas in the codespace?), no hacking possible on top of that, the machine is a black box essentially like a vending machine that doesn't take money or dispense potato chips, chocolate or soda. Job done. Everything else is, essentially, a luxury...

2018-10-04 03:20:57 by tahrey:

(suppose if you can make some kind of bicycle you can also make shoes, in fact...)

2021-08-24 05:46:40 by bluef00t:

This is extremely interesting, and probably by coincidence, almost 1:1 to the premise of an essay I had to write for Robotics 1001 my freshman year. It was our only non-technical assignment, and I think a lot of students rolled their eyes at the concept, at having to think about this. But it stuck with me hard. I still don't remember exactly what I said about it. I do know, at least, that this one is a bit more insightful.

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