[Neil Gershenfeld] is accelerating a set of connections that packs computer intelligence into materials and materials into self- reproducing things.
—Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species
Some of us remember the old Star Trek series which introduced the Replicator into the minds of a whole generation in the late 60’s. At that time it was a fanciful idea of replicating anything in the universe out of thin air. A cup of coffee, a meal, a martini… Of course there were under the hood complex theoretical physics and engineering involved which went untold and unexplained in the TV series.
The notion of a replicator works by rearranging subatomic particles, which are abundant everywhere in the universe, to form molecules and arrange those molecules to form the object. For example, to create a pork chop, the replicator would first form atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc., then arrange them into amino acids, proteins, and cells, and assemble the particles into the form of a pork chop.
This process requires the destructive conversion of bulk matter into energy and its subsequent reformation into a pre-scanned matter pattern. In principle, this is similar to the transporter, but on a smaller scale. However, unlike transporters, which duplicate matter at the quantum level, replicators must be capable of a large number of different materials on demand. If patterns were to be stored at the quantum level, an impossible amount of data storage (or a set of original copies of the materials) would be required. To resolve this, patterns are stored in memory at the molecular level.1