Technology: Industrial Nanorobotics

“Already we have turned all of our critical industries, all of our material resources, over to these . . . things . . . these lumps of silver and paste we call nanorobots. And now we propose to teach them intelligence? What, pray tell, will we do when these little homunculi awaken one day and announce that they have no further need of us?”

— Sister Miriam Godwinson, “We Must Dissent”

As one might be able to guess from the name and the quote, Industrial Nanorobotics is labeled by the game as an economic technology. It’s on the ninth tier because it requires both Industrial Automation and Nanominiaturization. But the odd thing about that is that Industrial Automation was already implied by Nanominiaturization. So it really only has one true prerequisite.

That’s a little weird. It’s probably a small oversight on Reynolds’s part. Or, possibly, evidence of an edit to the technology tree late in production. There are signs in the text and voice files shipped with the game that a couple of planned technologies were cut from the final version of SMAC, so perhaps one of these was the second real prerequisite for this technology.

In any event, this technology is a pretty big deal in the gameplay. It unlocks the Robotic Assembly Plant base facility and the Nano Factory secret project. The latter is a significant military boost, as it cuts the cost of unit upgrades substantially and allows damaged units to heal in the field as if they were in a base with the appropriate repair facility for their chassis type.

But the former is the real benefit to this technology. Robotic Assembly Plants are a new mineral multiplier. Essentially, they’re Genejack Factories without the downside of extra drones. Of course, they naturally still have the associated ecological impact that comes from getting a giant pile of additional minerals.

From our perspective, though, the quote is a gold mine of insight. This is the first time we see Sister Miriam come out four-square against a technological advance. At the time of Planetfall, recall that she was full of as much enthusiasm as all of her fellow faction leaders. She eagerly looked forward to the new miracles the future might bring.

Her enthusiasm dimmed as the mid-game ground on. In the implied canon, this is probably equal parts a reflection of the Believers’ dimming geopolitical fortunes and dismay at seeing just how dystopian large chunks of it turned out to be. As horrified as Lal might be by Colonel Santiago’s clone-fueled Police State, how much worse must it be for Sister Miriam to watch billions upon billions of ensouled little babies get casually tossed down the shredder?

And now, as the mid-game slides toward the end, Sister Miriam has reached the point where she’s writing a tome called “We Must Dissent”. In it, if this quote is any judge, she’s loudly protesting what must seem like the inevitable march of history. The posture is reminiscent to that taken by political reactionaries throughout the West during the 20th Century, in that she sees it as morally incumbent to wage a doomed struggle against the oncoming abhorrent future.

Intriguingly, though, she’s resting her complaint here on a practical concern rather than an airy philosophical one. She refers to the potential for a nanobot uprising. Like something out of Terminator, perhaps, if Skynet were less stupid and had a couple hundred years more technological advance available to it. And the grounds for this proposed rebellion are pretty simple: there doesn’t seem to be much of a place in the future for humans, so why keep them around?

Upon reflection, Sister Miriam is the one faction leader who is uniquely qualified to make this point. Because unlike the others, her philosophy is inherently human-centric.

Zakharov cares first and foremost about knowledge. Deirdre is all about the ecology. Yang is obsessed with the idea of society-as-organism. CEO Morgan wants energy to be harnessed and applied according to intelligent values, and Santiago cares for nothing other than victory. Even Brother Lal, when you get right down to it, cares about liberty and free expression more than he cares about physical people.

None of them would have any serious, philosophical objection to replacing all their people with intelligent robots. Or possibly something even more foreign to our modern sensibilities. As long as they could ensure that their successors would continue to live by their values, they’d consider it more than a fair trade.

Only Miriam unconditionally sides with humanity as it was when it landed on Planet, as opposed to some idea of how it could be. Only Miriam demands that the future that they are building keep continuity with the past. Only Miriam demands a future that enables the kind of flourishing that their ancestors would recognize as progress, as opposed to what they would see as their extinction.

This is the ground on which Miriam stands when she insists for the rest of the game that “We Must Dissent”.

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