Aliens, Robots, and Perpetual Motion
About three years ago I read an SF (science fiction) novel in which one of the protagonists suspects that the other is either an alien or a robot (or perhaps a bit of both, and thus in effect a cyborg, though that term was never used). I enjoyed the novel, actually, but I noticed a trope that I’ve encountered before in SF. The first tip-off about the possibly non-human nature of the second protagonist is when she is observed not breathing. In a sequel novel, it is made explicit that the second protagonist is indeed a technologically-augmented alien (and thus, as noted, a cyborg) and that she does not need to breathe, eat, or sleep, although she chooses to do all three in order to blend in to human society, and also because she’s developed a liking for those actions. Additionally, I should point out, she doesn’t need to go the bathroom, either. Yes, the second novel went there…. I still liked it, though, which may say something about me.
Robots (and their variant, androids) don’t need to breathe, eat, or sleep, either, though some can eat. It is made explicit in Star Trek: The Next Generation that Data, the resident android, is capable of eating and drinking, though he doesn’t need to. In fact, one humorous vignette in the first TNG movie, Generations, is this:
In the process of testing out his emotion chip, Data drinks the liquor that Guinan offers him. He hates it, and orders another–but the point is that he is indeed capable of drinking it in the first place.
Another thing about robots is that they are immortal and seem never to need repair or recharging. In the TNG two-part episode “Time’s Arrow”, the crew find Data’s head in an archeological dig in a cave in San Francisco. It has apparently been there since the 19th Century–thus nearly half a millennium. Later in the show, Data’s head is blown off, and his body is recovered. His “future” head is reattached, and it works perfectly, while his “past” head is left in San Francisco, to be found in the 24th Century.
Similarly, in the Stephen Spielberg movie A. I. Artificial Intelligence, the boy android David spends two thousand years underwater, awaiting the granting of his wish by the Blue Fairy (you’ll have to see the movie if you want an explanation of the plot point!), until the future Mecha (sapient robots that have replaced the now-extinct human race) rescue him and restore him to the surface. He is after two millennia fully functional. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Marvin the Paranoid Android is functional after 576,000,003,579 years (he counted!) in the radio series, and “thirty-seven times older than the Universe itself” in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, though there it is noted that he has had ongoing repairs.
So what am I getting at with all this? Read on!
In all these cases, we have the trope of an alien or robot which does not need to eat, breathe, or sleep (though in some cases the being can do one or more of these things if it wishes), and which appears to require no external power source, and which seems capable of perfect functioning with little or no maintenance for centuries, millennia, or eons. All of these properties take us out of the realm of SF–that is to say, science fiction–and into the realm of pure fantasy.
For anything to do anything–be it human, alien, or robot–it needs energy. Nothing in the universe happens without energy. You need energy to walk, talk, move around, even to think. Moreover, two of the most fundamental laws of the cosmos dictate important things about energy. The First Law of Thermodynamics–commonly referred to as the Law of Conservation of Energy–states that energy is neither created nor destroyed. Now as we all know from Einstein’s famous equation
energy and matter are the same thing, and can be converted into each other. Thus, one could restate the First Law as, “Matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, but matter may change into energy and vice versa.” Alternately, one might call it the Law of Conservation of Matter/Energy. In either case, the important point to make in light of the First Law is that, since energy cannot be created out of nothingness, anything that does anything must have a source of energy, be it energy directly, or matter that can be converted into energy (e.g. burning coal).
Now one might still imagine that the energy contained in a machine–or in an alien or robot–would be continually recycled. In short, after the initial input of energy, in whatever form, no more would ever be needed. This is what physicists call “perpetual motion”; and alas, it is forbidden by the next fundamental law, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states, “The amount of entropy in a closed system always increases over time.” I’m not going to go into the technicalities and certainly not the math. Let it suffice to say that “entropy” is a measure of energy no longer available for useful action. Think of your car. When the gas burns inside the engine, some of the energy released goes into useful action–that is, moving your car. Most of it, though, is lost through air resistance, friction, and just plain heat. Feel the hood of your car after you’ve been driving. Warm, right? That warmth is heat–and that heat is energy just radiating out into the air, not making the car do anything–pure wasted energy. The upshot of this is that you always get less energy out of a system than you put in to it. All the rest is lost as heat or other forms of useless energy. Now the lost energy can be recaptured by various means; but it can be shown that the energy you’d have to expend to effect the recapture would itself cost useful energy; and thus, in the end, you’d still have more energy being lost into useless forms than you could recapture. Entropy would still increase overall.
Thus, the First Law says, in effect, that you can’t get more than 100% of the energy you put in back out, since to do so would involve creating energy out of nothing. The Second Law says you can’t even get that 100% back out, since you’ll always lose some. Colloquially, the First Law says you can’t win; and the Second Law says you can’t even break even! Of course, bound as we are by the laws of physics, we can’t even quit the game!
I should point out that for centuries any number of schemes to get perpetual motion working, or to get more energy out of a mechanism than one puts in, have been proposed, again and again and again. All such ideas are crankery, pure and simple. The U. S. Patent Office routinely trashes the scads of diagrams of such plans that it receives each year, pending proof that they actually work. To date, not one–not one–ever has. Of course, the cranks, unimpressed, continue about their business, muttering dark tales of evil conspiracies; and the laws of nature remain unchanged. If anyone ever did definitively prove perpetual motion is possible, or get more energy out than was put in*, it would be the most momentous discovery in science since the demonstration that the Earth circles the Sun, rather than vice versa. Possible? Yes. Likely? I wouldn’t put money on it. Just a few years ago a friend of mine showed me an Internet video about a project that claimed it would get more energy out of some contraption than had been put in. I told him I’d believe it when I saw it. Naturally, on the day of the demonstration, the project managers reported a “breakdown” in the equipment, and rescheduled the demonstration. They kept rescheduling it, again and again. The demonstration, unsurprisingly, never came to pass.
So what does all this have to do with aliens and robots? Well, plenty. The cyborgs of the novel I mentioned don’t eat or breathe (breathing is part of the intake of energy, too–food has to be oxidized, or “burned”, to release the energy necessary for life; and to do that, you need oxygen), nor do they seem to have batteries nor any form of external energy production. Thus, they would be incapable of functioning–they’d die. The same is true for David in A.I. and Marvin the Paranoid Android–where do they get the energy to run for two thousand years (in the first case) or billions of years, in the latter? Of course, Douglas Adams was writing humor, so we can take Marvin with a grain–or a barrel–of salt. But the boy droid? A.I. was intended as a serious movie. What energy source kept David running for two millennia?
Before you say “batteries”, it’s worth noting that batteries have an extremely low energy density. That means, simply put, that you get out a very small amount of energy for each pound of input–in this case, battery–that you’ve got. The energy density of even the best batteries we have with current technology is less than that of wood. That’s right, boys and girls–burning a pound of wood gives you more energy than you could get out of a one-pound battery! This is why batteries have to be replaced or recharged. The more you’re using it for, the more you have to recharge it. That’s why your cell phone keeps going dead on you! Certainly, there’s not even any imaginable technology that I know of that could make a battery that keeps an android–or anything else, for that matter–running for two thousand years! That’s to say nothing of the fact that it would have to be small enough to fit inside the robot–no small task in itself!
Likewise, Data never seems to recharge. I was looking at a discussion board about this. One poster said, “Maybe he can simply recycle his own energy.” Sigh. Violation of Second Law! Another said, “In Insurrection, he says his power cells constantly recharge themselves.” I’ve not seen that movie in a long time, but taking this as accurate, then once more, sigh. I’d have expected more from the writing team of TNG than another such flagrant violation of the Second Law! As to his head, by the way–that doesn’t involve violations of physical law; but no one has yet built a mechanism of any complexity that could function perfectly after being in an underground cave with no maintenance for five hundred years! At least in Hitchhiker’s Guide, Marvin said that all his parts had been replaced except for a few diodes on one side!
I forget where it was, but I read some website that evaluated the “science” (scare quotes intentional, alas) of many science fiction movies. At one point, it said that cinematic robots/androids were in effect “perpetual motion machines”. They never seem to need any energy sources, any replenishing of energy, or any repair. They serenely go about violating the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, blithely using up energy they can’t possibly have! Ditto for non-eating, non-breathing aliens of the type I mention (which I’ve encountered elsewhere, as well, though I can’t remember exactly where). No food or breathing, no energy; no energy, no life; no life, dead alien!
I’ll close this ramble by suggesting a reason that otherwise intelligent people write such infuriatingly inaccurate stuff. A lesser reason would be dramatic necessity–you don’t want to show Data plugging in every episode! That’s not what I have in mind, though. I suggest a philosophical, or better, religious reason. Not a conscious one, but a real religious reason, nonetheless. I suggest it is a subliminal Gnosticism. I’ve written about Gnosticism a bit, as regular readers know. A key part of Gnostic systems–what I call the key Gnostic insight–is a feeling of alienation from this material world. One feels unstuck in time and space (to riff on Kurt Vonnegut’s phraseology), no longer feeling that one belongs in this cosmos. One feels drawn to a place beyond this vale of tears. The tendency of Gnostic systems of thought to denigrate the material and prefer the spiritual is an aspect of this insight.
I submit that the key Gnostic insight is subliminally driving this concept of aliens and robots as perpetual motion machines. There is an unconscious revulsion–or better, distaste for–the necessities of eating and drinking and pooping and peeing (where did that drink go to after Data drank it, hmm? And the alien cyborg in the novel I spoke of–she ate plenty enough, so if she didn’t poop, where’d the food go? Hmmm?). The feeling is that aliens more advanced than we are wouldn’t have to carry out such low, physical, bodily functions. They don’t have to eat or drink or breathe–or poop! Of course, all of that violates the First and Second Laws; but God forbid the aliens have to be involved in all that yucky physical stuff! So much the more with robots and androids–they are beyond the pettiness of eating and breathing–why tie them down with USB ports and charging extensions?† They’re better than us, and are thus even less attached to the material world.
Another subliminal factor may be a reluctance to admit that change and decay are a part of life. This is the principle known in Buddhism as anitya (in Sanskrit) or anicca (in Pali)–the meaning of both words is the same: “impermanence”. Anitya is said to be one of the Three Marks of Existence, along with duḥkha (“suffering”) and anātman (“no-soul”–i.e., nothing has an intrinsic, unchanging essence). All things, in short, exhibit these three marks. It is the failure of humans to accept this that results in suffering and enmeshment in samsara, the Wheel of Existence. We want things to stay as they are–we can’t accept impermanence. We want there to be no suffering; and we want things to have an unchanging essence. Unfortunately, things don’t work that way. Things change. We go back to the old college town and it’s no longer the same. Pleasant circumstances don’t endure. Even our own bodies, and our very minds gradually age and change as we move inexorably towards death. Small wonder we like to imagine that aliens and robots can somehow beat the cosmic lottery, can be free from change, free from samsara, ever bright, shiny, and new! Alas, once more, things don’t work that way. Aliens and droids will age, break down, and ultimately die (or become irreparably “broken” in the case of the latter), just like we and our machines do. Such is the nature of the universe.
I appear to have ended this post on a bit of a downer, which wasn’t my original intent. Let me leave you, therefore, with one more video of Data. This time he and Picard are singing Gilbert and Sullivan! Enjoy!
*I guess at this point I should head off a possible misunderstanding. If I light a firecracker, certainly the energy released by its exploding is greater than that of the heat I applied to its fuse. The thing is, I didn’t “get more energy out” than was “put in”. The energy released in the explosion was already stored in the gunpowder within the firecracker. The main source is the carbon, which comes from ancient plants, which stored the energy of the sun. The flame I touch to the fuse isn’t really an input as such; it’s more a tipping point, setting in motion the explosion of the firecracker. The total energy released is still no more than that stored in the carbon and other elements of the gunpowder millions of years ago. Thus, there’s no violation of the Second Law. Same when they talk about getting workable nuclear fusion where you get more out than in. What they mean is not a violation of the Second Law; but rather getting the massive amounts of energy stored in hydrogen atoms to release in such a way that it doesn’t require more energy than that to control the release. It’s like explosions–a firecracker is uncontrolled, but the explosions inside your car’s engine, which make it move, are controlled explosions. Once more, no violation of the Second Law.
†Yes, I know that some of the suggestions on the discussion board I linked to above suggested wireless recharging; but this is easier said than done. Note this discussion of the disadvantages of wireless (inductive) charging from this article at Wikipedia, especially this, my emphasis: “When a mobile device is connected to a cable, it can be moved around (albeit in a limited range) and operated while charging. In most implementations of inductive charging, the mobile device must be left on a pad to charge, and thus can’t be moved around or easily operated while charging. With some standards, charging can be maintained at a distance, but only with nothing present in between the transmitter and receiver.” I don’t know of any proposed implementations of wireless charging that would let Data move freely around the whole ship; and what effect might these induction fields have on the organic crew members? And what about extended stints with the Away Team? No, I don’t buy wireless charging for Data.
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Posted on 26/03/2018, in aliens, science and tagged A.I. Artificial Intelligence, aliens, anicca, anitya, buddhism, Data, Douglas Adams, Gilbert and Sullivan, Laws of Thermodynamics, perpetual motion, robots, science, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, tropes. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.