Omnifex, the Ultimate Household Appliance

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    I originally composed this essay in Summer 1989 and I have updated it only slightly.

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    Itís called an Omnifex (the Latin word for "all-maker") and eventually every home will have at least two of them. Indeed, the Omnifex will be such a necessity of civilized life that it will be the subject of a fundamental human right: every human will be born with an automatic claim on at least one Omnifex and one Omniphage (and if you think thatís a little unbelievable, it helps to remember that the idea of all humans being born with a government-guaranteed right to freedom of speech was a fairly incredible one not too many centuries ago). What the Omnifex does to warrant such a privileged status among all of Humanityís inventions is simply to make virtually anything and everything we want. In the not-so-distant future we will obtain our food, clothing, furniture, tools, and more from our Omnifices. As a consequence the Omnifex will effect upon Humanity the most profound change since the invention of civilization itself.

    Consider the Omnifex that will be standard equipment in our kitchens (the other Omnifex, more for the creation of dry goods, will be located in another part of the house). About the size of a modern dishwasher and solidly attached to the kitchen floor, it will be fully equivalent to a modern supermarket and then some. Cables and pipes rising into it from beneath the floor will bring it power, information, and chemical soup, which it will use, in accordance with our instructions, to make every kind of food from apples to zucchini, in every desired state of preparation from raw ingredients to finished dishes ready to be served, over the complete temperature range appropriate to food from ice cream to steaming baked potatoes. It will achieve that minor miracle by building up its products atom by atom in a process we might regard as a kind of reversal of the Omniphage process.

    Imagine, as a specific example, the Omnifex that will occupy my kitchen (if I should live long enough to get one). It stands about four feet high, just above waist level, and is a little over three feet long and two feet wide. The outer skin of the machine is the enameled steel and chrome that we associate with household appliances. The top of the machine is also a lid that opens to reveal a cavity a foot and a half deep. A white plate, looking very much like the active element of an Omniphage, covers the bottom of the cavity. When I close the lid I see that most of the area on its top is taken up by a monitor screen, several sensors, and a keypad, the elements of the interface through which I communicate with the supercomputer that runs the Omnifex.

    Shopping through a kitchen Omnifex is certain to be a mind-boggling experience. (The other Omnifex will take your mind beyond "boggle".) No supermarket had the variety available to you through that keypad. Every food known to Humanity will be in the catalogue along with food related items, everything from aprons to zymometers. But I donít want to go shopping right now: I simply want a late-night snack.

    First I need to log on to the Omnifex. I accomplish that by pressing the "log-on" key while staring into the retinal scanner. The scanner checks the pattern of blood vessels on the backs of my eyeballs, ascertains that the person carrying those particular patterns is authorized to use the Omnifex, and turns the machine on. Thereís no sound to indicate that the Omnifex has come on, only the sudden appearance of a menu on the monitor screen.

    That menu is simply a list of all the "shops" to which the Omnifex gives me access. Itís like the entrance to a great shopping center, one that would have to cover a good number of square miles if it were ever actually built. Itís a long list but I donít have to scroll through it in this case because I already know what I want. I enter the code for the Midnight Entree Boutique and the monitor suddenly displays another menu.

    This time I want to browse through the menu, so I hold the scroll key down and watch the entries on the menu float across the monitor. Iím going to pass up the muktuk and seal blood tonight (Iím not knocking it, mind you: itís actually quite popular in northern Alaska). Iím also not in the mood for fugu (which is still called "Samurai Roulette" even though a functioning Omnifex will absolutely never create a poisoned food). The photon torpedo is simply out of the question (itís a section of boiled tentacle of giant squid on a hotdog bun with wasabi and jalapeŮo relish). No, tonight I think Iíll go for the shrimp cocktail, so I enter the appropriate code and the monitor flashes up both a verbal description and a picture of my selection. I then confirm my decision by pressing the "activate" key and the Omnifex goes to work.

    At this point I could open the lid and watch the Omnifex create my snack. What I would see starts out as a fairy ring of translucent white meat at whose center a red dot grows into a dollop of catsup-based sauce. The whole concoction appears to rise directly out of the plate, materializing at the plateís surface and riding upward on successive layers materialized from below, and thatís pretty much whatís happening.

    The process begins with pumps forcing fresh quantities of the appropriate chemical soups into the pipes that enter the Omnifex from beneath the floor. Those pipes branch into arteries, which branch and branch again until the soups are flowing through networks of capillaries that fill the lowest level of the Omnifex plate. Dancing to the same ten billion cycle per second (ten-gigacycle) beat to which all of the Omnifexís functions are choreographed, molecular grippers reach out from the capillariesí walls, snatch molecules and atoms from the broth flowing past, and shove them through highly selective gates into channels that interpenetrate the capillary networks. Each gripper snatches only one kind of atom or molecule and the gate at its base will pass only that kind of atom or molecule. Thus the Omnifex "knows" how many of each kind of atom are available at any given location in its substructure because it issues to each and every gripper a series of quotas, each quota to be filled within a given sequence of beats counted off the Omnifexís internal clock.

    Each channel carries only one kind of atom, gathering them together at a node whence they will be distributed to the assemblers. As the atoms are gathered together any molecular pieces, such as chelating agents, that have been attached to them to make them soluble in the broth will be removed and forced back into the broth to be reused in someone elseís Omniphage. Each node functions somewhat like a railroad sorting yard: in response to a timed signal an atom is pushed over "the hump" and is then switched through a multiply-branching channel until it is in the one channel leading to the assembler to which it has been assigned. Proper timing of the signal and of the switching sequence ensures that the atom will reach the tip of its assigned assembler when that tip is within one Ňngstrom unit of the position that the atom is meant to occupy in the object being made.

    Each assembler is a needle-like AFM-derived atom manipulator. Ninety-two different channels, one for each kind of atom, come together at the assemblerís base and merge into one channel that guides the incoming atoms to the assemblerís tip. Like one of the active elements of the Omniphage, to which it is related, the assembler sways back and forth to make its tip scan a square one hundred Ňngstrom units on a side in lines one Ňngstrom unit apart. As the tip scans its square at a rate of one Ňngstrom unit per beat of the Omnifexís internal clock, it will place the atoms coming up the channel to it into the structure growing above it, placing each atom within one Ňngtrom unit of its proper location and allowing the interatomic forces that will bind it to the growing structure to correct the discrepancy.

    Stated thus, the Omnifex process seems simple. We might even think of the Omnifex as a kind of supercomputer whose output is a solid material object rather than, say, an animated sequence on a video screen. But in practice the Omnifex process will be much more complex than a simple sequential placing of atoms in layers (though for the creation of certain crystalline structures thatís all it will be). In the creation of many items the assemblers will have to create temporary atomic scaffolding to hold pieces of the object in place until they are connected to other pieces. Shortly thereafter the assemblers, acting as Omniphage elements, will have to go back and remove the scaffolding (the assemblers will be able to move ten or twenty Ňngstrom units vertically in order to carry out that function and the following one). In addition, some of the assemblers will be assigned the task of carrying the objectís weight and lifting the object so that the other assemblers can make their atom-placing scans. Periodically those assemblers will turn their weight-bearing function over to other assemblers and make their own atom-placing scans. To cope with the complexity the Omnifex will take shortcuts.

    On the chemical level the basic shortcut involves treating molecules as though they were single atoms of some imaginary chemical element. In the creation of food, such as my shrimp cocktail, for example, the Omnifex would not break water molecules into atoms of hydrogen and of oxygen but would treat the molecules as if they were atoms in their own right. After all, food is mostly water, so itís absurd to draw water molecules from the chemical broth feeding the Omnifex, break them down, and then reassemble them. That particular shortcut wonít be feasible in every instance: the creation of metal objects is one good example of such an instance. But the creation of organic materials (e.g. food, wood, leather, etc.) and pseudo-organic materials (i.e. rubber and plastics) offers numerous opportunities for chemical shortcuts. In the creation of food, for example, the twenty amino acids from which all proteins are made will be treated as if they were twenty new chemical elements and they will be fed through the Omnifex in the channels normally used by atomic species (such as lead or arsenic) that we donít want in our food.

    On the physical level shortcuts available to the Omnifex will also depend upon whatís being made. Crystalline materials will generally not be good candidates for shortcutting because the properties that we desire in them tend to depend on every atom being in its proper place. The perovskite superconductors discovered in 1987 are a good example: minor changes in the number and placement of oxygen atoms in the crystalline lattice produce substantial changes in the temperature at which the material becomes superconducting. However, crystalline materials are the simplest of the solids that the Omnifex will make, so shortcutting, while desirable, isnít critical to the process of making them. Again, it will be the organic and pseudo-organic materials that will offer the greatest opportunities for shortcutting.

    Again my shrimp cocktail provides a good example. If I were to take a natural shrimp, slaughtered, cooked, and chilled, and place it among the shrimp coming out of my Omnifex, no gourmet, however discriminating, would be able to determine which shrimp is the natural one. To the unaided human senses, even highly trained, the natural shrimp and the Ďfexed shrimp will be indistinguishable each from the other in appearance, aroma, texture, and taste. To spot the difference between the two we would need a high-powered microscope. Through the microscope we would see that the cells of the Ďfexed shrimp have no nuclei, no mitochondria, none of the organelles that float in the cytoplasm of natural shrimp cells. The shrimp that comes out of the Omnifex is not intended to be a living organism at any stage of its existence, so the Omnifex makes greatly simplified versions of a shrimpís cells. It ignores the wealth of detail manifested in true living matter and simply creates a cell wall filled with a solution thatís a kind of chemical average of what would be found inside a real shrimp cell. By thus ignoring unnecessary detail the Omnifex minimizes the amount of information it must process and thereby maximizes its speed of operation. The result is just as satisfying and just as nutritious as a natural shrimp cocktail.

    When the Omnifex has completed its assigned task it chimes to let me know that my shrimp cocktail is ready. What I find resting on the Omnifex plate is a shallow wooden bowl filled with thumb-sized shrimp piled around a low mound of sauce. The bottom of the bowl is fluted with a series of centimeter-wide grooves and an inch-wide hole penetrates the flattened rim on one side: when I hold it my fingers rest in the grooves and my thumb goes through the hole so that I am holding the bowl as a painter holds his palette. A six-inch wooden skewer shaped like a blowgun dart rests on the bowlís rim and I use it to spear the shrimp, dip them in the sauce, and put them into my mouth. As I eat, pacing the kitchen floor, I can contemplate what this machine means to Humanity.

    A machine that can create perfectly nutritious food from chemical scratch will bring an end to agriculture as anything other than a hobby. We will no longer need the farms and ranches that now provide our food and we can dismantle the fishing fleets and allow our oceans and lakes to heal. Much of the Great Plains will revert to prairie and the great primeval forest that once covered most of the East and the South will come back to much of its original home. The Omnifex and the Omniphage will lift the burden of civilization off the land, Nature will be able to heal herself, and yet Humanity will eat better than ever before.

    With that pleasant thought in mind, I put my bowl and skewer into the Omniphage, activate the Ďphage, and turn my attention to the big Omnifex, the one in the workroom. Thereís one in every home and theyíre used to make dry goods, though they can be and sometimes are used to make food. Through these we obtain our clothes, bedding, toys, tools, essentially whatever comes to mind.

    At first glance it resembles a bulky version of an executive-style desk: itís about the same size and shape. But the top is an opto-electronic sketchpad through which through which I communicate with the computer (opto-electronic means that it uses a combination of optical and electronic circuitry). Itís also the lid that closes the cavity over the three-foot by six-foot Omnifex plate. The extension on one side, which gives the Ďfex its ell shape, carries the keyboard and monitor screen that round out your communication with the computer and the retinal scanner through which the computer determines whether the person at the keyboard is authorized to use the machine (and, yes, itís to prevent the kids from using it on the sly and leaving their parents to discover several hundred gallons of chocolate ice cream oozing onto the workroom floor, all because their little sorcererís apprentices think that cup is spelled tee-oh-en).

    With this machine I will be able to make anything (as youíll be able to do with yours) and thatís not much of an exaggeration. The computer that interfaces with the Omnifex has access to a catalogue that effectively describes everything that humans have ever made, from the first crude stone tools to the Omnifex itself. In addition, the computer can modify the descriptions in accordance with its userís wishes, thereby creating unique new products. For example, letís suppose that I want to make myself a new shower curtain. Thatís a rather mundane thing, the kind of thing to which we donít pay a lot of attention, and as a consequence my old one has gotten badly dirty, the plastic is cracking and tearing in places, and now that I think about it I realize that Iím less than delighted with the cute little fish pattern printed on it. Itís time to Ďfex up a new one.

    My first move, once I have logged on to the machine, is to ask the computer to display the main catalogue directory. I get (displayed on the sketchpad because I find the monitor screen too small for it) a list of all the "shops" in what would be several hundred square miles of department store if it were ever built. We might also think of it as the index of some megabloated version of the Sears catalogue (in fact, it will contain all available editions of the Sears catalogue as a small subset for people who want to be sure that they are Ďfexing up products authentic to any given year from the late Nineteenth Century through the end of the Twentieth Century). Because this Omnifex catalogue is thoroughly cross-indexed, I can find many products in more than one shop. One obvious place to find shower curtains is Household Plastics. Another is Bath Wares and thatís where Iíll look.

    After I key the proper code into the computer the Bath Wares directory appears on my sketchpad in place of the main catalogue directory. Basically the Bath Wares shop carries everything that has ever been used in the bathroom or would have been if bathrooms had existed when they were in use (chamber pots, for example). The list includes bathroom rugs, bath mats, toilet seats, toilet seat covers, toilet paper, soap, shampoo, shower caps, shower curtains.... Having found the item I want, I key its code into the computer and thereby conjure up yet another directory (when we use the big Omnifex we generally have to spend several minutes "zeroing in" on what we want).

    Now I have before me a list of every kind of shower curtain ever made and that includes significant new designs made through the Omnifex (weíre looking at a truly BIG database). I find what I want right away and key in the code for shower curtains made of untextured plastic film. At this point the computer starts giving me some description of what Iím keying. It tells me that the standard version of what Iíve indicated is a five-foot by six-foot rectangle of flexible plastic film eight one-thousandths of an inch (8-mil) thick. It goes on to point out that one commonly used plastic for this application went by the brand name of Krene, a copolymer of vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate. Iím starting to get the feeling that the machine is telling me more than I want to know but Iíve learned to be patient. Sure enough, the computer adds the information that, although Krene is ideally suited for shower curtains, it has little resistance to tearing on a raw edge.

    OK, Iím satisfied, so I key the computer to show me the specific styles available, key acceptance of the first one to appear on the monitor screen, and instruct the computer to download the Omnifexing instructions. As the computer calls into its memory from the larger database the set of instructions that enable the Omnifex to create an exact copy of the shower curtain displayed on the monitor screen, I notice that the pattern printed on the curtain is, as you might have guessed, cute little fish. That will be fixed.

    Once the instructions have been loaded into the computerís memory I can modify them, so I enter a command to delete the printed design. That takes the fish off and leaves me with the instructions for a transparent-white sheet of hemmed plastic with a row of holes across the top. According to the description the hem is made by folding a quarter-inch strip of the plastic over on itself and then heat sealing it, applying a radio-frequency vibrating electric field to heat the plastic where it comes together and then pressing on the semi-melted plastic to make it form a weld. I command the computer to delete the heat seal and in its place make the raw edge of the plastic merge with the body of the sheet. Thus, when this shower curtain is made I will find that one quarter inch from any edge the plastic thickens gradually from 8-mil to 16-mil and then splits into two sheets that loop around and merge head on to form the hem. With a little extra programming I can instruct the Omnifex to make that hem go around the curtainís corners with nary a wrinkle, something just not possible with todayís technology.

    In addition to giving my new shower curtain an unbroken, seamless hem, I want to give it an improved load-bearing structure. Thatís relatively easy. I command the computer to locate the curtain-ring holes and so alter the instructions that in the curtain the Omnifex creates the plastic will begin to thicken two inches from the center of each hole and grow gradually to a thickness of one millimeter at the edge of each hole. That should give the plastic around each hole sufficient strength to transfer the weight of the curtain to the shower-curtain rings without tearing. Again, this is a feature that would be very expensive to produce today, but it will cost only a few minutes of programming time with the Omnifex.

    Finally, I want the Omnifex to print a pattern on my new shower curtain. I know what I want but I canít remember specifically where I saw it, so I command the computer to put my shower curtain program on standby and conduct a search. What I want is a painting, so I tell the computer to search for a painting whose key elements are a sperm whale and a giant squid. The computer may then show me a few things that I donít want but soon it will come up with a magnificent picture of a sperm whale struggling to get its jaws around a giant squid desperately trying to avoid being eaten. Yeah, teeth and tentacles, thatís what I want to see when Iím bathing, so I command the computer to create a copy of the painting on my shower curtain. The computer automatically selects the appropriate vinyl inks for the image as it creates the additional instructions and shows me on the monitor screen what the result will look like.

    I see immediately that Iíve made a mistake. The artist gave the scene in his painting a black background to represent the lightless depths of the ocean, so my Omnifexís literal-minded computer has prepared the instructions for the creation of an opaque-black shower curtain with the whale-squid duel painted upon it. Thatís not what I have in mind. To correct the situation I command the computer to replace the opaque-black background with a transparent navy-blue tint and while Iím at it I add a command to change the depiction of the squid and the whale from being painted on the plastic to being expressed in pigments dispersed directly in the plastic.

    Now itís perfect. I open the Ďfexís lid and enter the "create" command. Because the plastic is so thin the shower curtain seems to materialize instantly, only the areas around the curtain-ring holes taking longer because of the extra thickness. I notice that the Omnifex created the curtain folded into a two-and-a-half foot by three-foot rectangular package so that the curtain could be created lying flat within the area of the Omnifex plate. If I had asked for an item too big or too heavy for the Omnifex (an engine block for a Ď56 Chevy, for example), the computer would have sent the instructions and the "create" command to an industrial Omnifex and a team of robots would deliver the finished product to me a day or so later.

    However, Iíve got my new shower curtain and I need only give it to my robot valet so that he can hang it and Ďphage the old one. I may have spent between half an hour to an hour designing it and that might seem a bit much time to spend on such a trivial item. But when we have Omnifices in our homes we will have the time to devote to trivial things because none of us will have jobs to which we must go. And given the powers of the Omnifex, we must see that it is not only likely but inevitable that even the most trivial and mundane objects in our lives will become media for personal artistic expression. The Omnifex will give our material culture a strange blend of the raw power of mass production and the individuality of creative achievement that informed the best works of the craft culture that preceded the Industrial Revolution.

    The introduction of the Omnifex into our culture will effect even wider and deeper changes. No place in the world will go untouched. And the very structure of human society, the whole notion of economy, will be changed. The form of our societies, to oversimplify a bit, reflects our attitudes toward human labor and our beliefs about who should do it and who should benefit from it. By eliminating all need for human labor the Omnifex technology will transform our societies into a kind of oddball fusion of strongly laissez-faire free enterprise with pure communism. In the next few decades, then, human history is going to become very interesting and perhaps even fun.

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