Machina Babbagenseii

Difference engine
Image from Steve Bowers

The Machina Babbagenseii are a clade of entirely mechanical sophont vecs, based on forms of macroscopic Babbage-engine-type processing.

Babbage's Analytical Engine took up a volume of roughly two cubic metres and massed some two thousand kilograms while having a storage capacity of some one hundred and seventy thousand bits (twenty-one kilobytes). It ran at a roughly one cycle-per-second clock speed. Comparing this to a baseline human brain (storing roughly one thousand terabytes of information and processing, on a neuronal level, at some two hundred cycles per second) implies that a baseline human level Babbage Brain would have a size and capacity roughly fifty billion times that of the Analytical Engine. Assuming this is a rather conservative estimate, a baseline human level Babbage Brain would have a volume of some ten to the twelfth (1E12) cubic metres - ten cubic kilometres - massing some ten to the fifteen (1E15) kilograms (one trillion tonnes) and running some two hundred times slower than a baseline human mind (so that, for them, the entire period AT is some fifty subjective years).

In addition to this, ancillary machinery will be required to allow the brain to run. For a baseline human, the body that supports the brain is about forty times larger than it. Given that Babbage-level technology is rather less efficient than biology, a Babbage Brain needs some hundred times more supporting equipment than brain volume. This implies an overall Machina Babbagenseii volume of some ten to the fourteenth (1E14) cubic metres - a cube some fifty kilometres on a side - and massing some ten to the seventeen (1E17) kilograms (one hundred thousand Teratonnes).

In the late First Federation period a particularly diversity-friendly vec group, the Brown Multiplicity, acting in concert with the sophonts forming the crew of the Museum Ship 'Ada Lovelace', and wishing to create a new form of purely mechanical vec, looked at the Babbage engines for inspiration, and saw that it should be possible to construct purely mechanical sophonts based on that technology, though they would be limited in the environments in which they could survive. This became the basis of one of the first games of what later became known as Technological Taboo, where semi-conductors and electricity were the Taboo Technologies, as well as Victorian-level materials and construction methods also being required.

After some decades of effort, they succeeded, in the process generating a number of significant advances in efficient sophont-level algorithm construction, error-checking methods, and purely mechanical means of wear detection. Some modifications were also made to Babbage's original designs to minimise vibration and wear and tear, but the overall concepts were, as much as possible, kept true to his ideas. Because of the limitations of processing time and communications lags, the Babbage brains were designed to be as compact as possible, and to run a greatly reduced and optimised 'sentience' algorithm at a local level which is then corrected and improved upon as the slower reaction time of the overall entity takes notice of any problems which may arise.

Given the statistics of a sophont Babbage Brain, the sophont Babbage Brains have to be a space-going clade, as their large structure cannot survive in anything other than a micro-gravity environment. They use solar power to run themselves, with large mirrors focusing sunlight on boilers, producing steam to generate mechanical power. They use steam jets and primitive mechanical mass drivers to propel themselves through space, gaining reaction mass from small bodies in space with them - comets, asteroids and so on. Because thermal expansion can be fatal to their brains, they are encased in layers of heat shielding, often mirrored, and have extensive (if purely mechanical) thermal regulation systems, mainly devoted to disposing of their copious quantities of waste heat, and usually based on the circulation of water. Vibration isolation and damping is also used in some places.

They see by means of large arrays of a form of Crookes's Radiometer (light-mills). Light is focused onto the array using lenses and the radiation pressure causes the light-mills to turn, giving a mechanical signal which is amplified and interpreted to give a sensory input channel, albeit with a not very high resolution. They can also sense temperature by means of bimetallic strips, and also have a mechanical sense of touch. Mechanical manipulators - primarily big mechanical grabs and claws, although they do have fine manipulation capabilities too - are used to physically affect their environment.

Communication between Machina Babbagenseii is achieved by means of either heliographic arrays (rather like inverse forms of their eyes) or by controlling banks of rotating coloured squares which flash colour and pattern messages.

They mine and 'digest' asteroidal and cometary material to repair and maintain themselves and to provide reaction mass, using solar heating of ingested material in centrifugally-spun furnaces to separate out different materials which are then processed into new parts for themselves, ejected as waste, or used as reaction mass.

The first of this Babbage race, which were named Machina Babbagenseii by the Brown Multiplicity, were constructed in the system of TW Hydrae (Creamswirl), a young T Tauri star some one hundred and fifty light years away from Earth, well inside the innermost part of the Middle Regions, and forty one light years from the Gienah system. Creamswirl is a system with an extensive protoplanetary disc, the swirling ice-and-rock appearance of which gave the system its informal name. The minds of these first Machina Babbagenseii were those of volunteers from the Brown Multiplicity vecs and elsewhere who wished to become the first of these new entities.

The first Machina Babbagenseii easily adapted to life in the Creamswirl system, and since then their numbers have slowly increased, with at least two generations of new Machina Babbagenseii having been born (built) since the first moved out into the Creamswirl system. Some of these new Machina Babbagenseii are born of a single adult Machina Babbagenseii; others by a more collaborative effort. Reproduction is essentially a process of assembling and programming a new Machina Babbagenseii body in its adult size and form.

Since then, the Machina Babbagenseii have proved to be very quiet and peaceful members of the Terragens, producing little and consuming little from the greater Terragens society. This is all perhaps because they think and act so slowly compared to most others, have little to trade with entities which are not also Machina Babbagenseii, and also because they are, despite their large size, actually quite fragile entities. The fact that certain elements of the Brown Multiplicity joined with Metasoft later in their history may also have had something to do with their continuing survival.

Over time the Machina Babbagenseii have also, with the help of other members of the Brown Multiplicity, spread to other suitable star systems across a fairly wide area of Terragens space.

Occasionally someone from outside the Machina Babbagenseii clade joins them, having their mind translated to a new Machina Babbagenseii body. Equally occasionally a Machina Babbagenseii leaves their slow, sedate, life to tour Terragens space at what others might consider a more 'normal' speed. Some of these tourists later return to being Machina Babbagenseii; some do not.

There are no above-baseline higher toposophic Machina Babbagenseii. For one thing, the mechanical body required to support a higher-toposophic entity would become prohibitively large. One or more emigrants have increased their toposophic level while away, but then found that they cannot return. It is possible that one of these ascended Machina Babbagenseii also helps to protect the Machina Babbagenseii clade as a whole.

There have been no noticeable improvements or degradation in the later generations of Machina Babbagenseii, though this seems to be mainly because it has only been two of their generations since they were created, so that it is too soon to tell.

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Development Notes
Text by Tony Jones
Initially published on 20 November 2003.