Plastic Life

Twenty-five years from today, the first viable artificially created, autonomous life form will become.

Twenty-five years but it starts right now. Well, actually, the way history works, maybe it started in the 1930s or 40s, with the first patent for “automatic binding bricks”, most famously developed by the Danish company Lego. Or further back than that, when our species started to build, putting rocks on top of rocks or bricks on top of bricks.

Maybe it was always going to happen, from the point we crawled out of the mud.

But right now, a young engineer with an obsessive compulsion is using components, scrounged from the lab where she works, to pursue ideas in her converted garage. They are ideas that she first explored in her thesis, a few years before.

She has ended up working with machines, but her passion is for toys. And what she will eventually create are self-building bricks.

The core principle is that these toy bricks have tiny processors built into them, chemical based and capable of only making the simplest of switches. Binary devices, magnetised at each end. Several hundred years of human ingenuity and development, and more than a thousand hours of trial and error, building and refining sophisticated technology to achieve this basic function. On/off. Attract/repel.

She dreams of a toy that can delight the world… the bricks generic, cheap enough to find their way into every home, but with one unique feature. Parents and kids can buy designs – for buildings or vehicles or any model replicable in brick – from stores or over the internet, communicated to the bricks via wireless, and if the bricks are within specific range of each other, and the pattern has been “uploaded” properly, and the orientation of the bricks isn’t too erratic, they will pull themselves together and construct the model.

She never quite nails the wireless upload. She doesn’t have a business model. Her prototype is made using off-brand plastic blocks, to save money.

Concurrently with the engineer working on her project, the toy plastic brick industry replaces innovation with complication and diversification. Lego in particular have eschewed a sophisticated and maturing approach to their core block types – selling kits with intricate designs that mainly still use rectangles, rectangles with smooth tops, squares, squares with smooth tops, rounds, rectangles with sloping tops – for much more direct and specific toys, using new moulds and one-use brick types in their designs. Doors. Hooks. Flags. A miniature TV. A lawnmower.
Creative departments get cut back, and the marketing team get whole floors to themselves. The corporation’s new direction is in marketing similar sets to different demographics. A gendered advertising campaign causes a stir, but by the time kits are being marketed by ethnicity and social status, nobody really notices any more.

The one technical innovation at Lego during this period is a niche product called NanoLego, and it isn’t really an innovation, so much as an expansion on a theme. The company had great success with over-size blocks for children, and NanoLego was a similar idea – much smaller bricks, designed to be used under slight magnification using tweezers, for older model-makers.

Efforts elsewhere to create artificial intelligence are failing creatively. Computer models, hardware and software, thousands of variables programmed in, millions of dollars, trillions of potential processes and decisions running per second.

When eventually one of these constructs passes the Turing Test in a convincing fashion, the scientific and computing community realise or decide that the Turing Test is no longer an adequate benchmark for AI, proving only that processing power and speed is increasing to the point where a computer can pass for human. Descartes is invoked. Technological progress casts about for a new context in which to frame the discussion, eventually settling on the Lovelace Test, for want of a better option. Intelligence is no longer seen as enough. We decide that imagination is the only real proof of “life”.

The engineer struggles to sustain her research, but then, a break! She has sent out samples of her work to all of the main plastic brick manufacturers, and the larger ones have all ignored it, but a particularly mercenary executive at a company that makes knock-offs of Lego sets sees something in it, and folds it into a presentation that lands him a directorship at the Danish firm.

The engineer is brought into the fold.

At first, only the magnets found their way into the various size bricks, but economy of scale meant it was easier to put them in all bricks, and introduce the switching mechanism so that some bricks could be switched to “vanilla”.

It took exactly six months for the general population to start “hacking” the bricks. Amped up magnets. Switches scrambled to create spinning blocks. Mainly mischief.

Adults, over and over, trying to get one over on the tech.

Children, just playing. Building mechanisms.

Accidentally nailing the engineer’s original idea – building automatons that can make simple structures to a blueprint.

Twenty-five years from now, building and building on the play and invention of every child before, two kids – a brother and his younger sister – are going to accidentally build a plastic brain.

And that brain is going to have an idea.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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