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How small population can maintain contemporary technology level

  1. Sep 2, 2012 #1
    I'm interested in that question not for novel purpose, but for pen and paper RPG scenario.


    1) It was possible (though under cost of becoming clearly a soft SF ;) ) of transporting a big group of people to a far away habitable planet with contemporary tech.
    2) Such transfer mechanism worked a bit also in past, (last deviation from hard SF, I promise, ;) I needed a way to make local organisms compatible) thus local flora, fauna and microorganism evolved from those from our planet. Had there been any local primitive life forms - they were outcompeted by our. Consequence - local plants and animals can be edible.

    3)The planet is a bit colder, but a bit more massive and it has twice as high atmospheric pressure. (with slightly lower oxygen percentage it should work, right?) It orbits a really tiny red dwarf (so it is tidally locked, I calculated something like 8 day orbit). Because of denser atmosphere and let's say 80% ocean cover it should have reasonable heat transfer. (right?) Additionally the system is binary and there is also a yellow main sequence star. The planet gets 2/3 of heat from the red dwarf, and 1/3 the main sequence star. The orbit of planet is tilted to the plane of orbit of both stars around common centre of mass thus in long run every point on planet surface is going to be temporarily heated and no long term freezing of carbon dioxide is possible.

    4) I assume that the main place of settlement would be on the side heated by red dwarf, but not in the hottest point. I also assume that the heating from effectively long "day" (day seen from perspective of someone watching the yellow star) would reduce habitability of places with more continental climate - thus main settlement would be near shores. I also think that with low population density the main source of electricity should be water power.

    OK, I have the following question - what would be the minimum population to maintain industrial complex and thus technological civilization? (Assume that it was possible to backup all or practically all necessary information like blueprints or info about technological processes. Also assume that there were people to choose from, thus on general it was possible to take people who were good at their field)

    By expected part of technological civilization I mean:
    -possibility to produce personal computers
    -possibility to produce wide array of normally used medication (I case if it can be differently understood, I mean something like: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2011/a95053_eng.pdf )
    -modern agriculture with fertilizers, pesticides and tractors
    (except from that a much lower standard of living is possible, with much lower personal consumption. Also let's say resignation from ex. aircraft is possible. The aim is to preserve only slightly reduced life expectancy and information technology, using steamboats if necessary - fully acceptable.)

    What would be the most effective way to cut the corners to achieve that? Desperate standardization (any colour as long as it is black)? It's too early for application of additive manufacturing, right?
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 4, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 2, 2012 #2
    what would be the minimum population to maintain industrial complex and thus technological civilization?

    That's an Extremely difficult question to answer, since the answer can very so much depending on local conditions, how large are stores that have basic (for the tech base) materials and chemicals, even societal structure can play a part.

    Now from your description the planet while not a traditional Terran, has been seeded with Terran/Earth life. How long ago was it? Did it include animal life or simply plant life? if there were native life of the animal kind are they still around? are there a mix of local and Earth Animals?

    Societal structure is important factor. I assume either a Democratic government, or a almost military government possibly based on the Command Structure from the ship? Some where in between?

    What is the most common form of land Transport, Air Transport and Sea Transport. (I know you mentioned steamships) This determine how far the settlers will go for materials, and how many people would be involved in simply maintaining the transportation. What is the most commonly used fuel? Coal can only take you so far.

    One of the most important questions is, how important is the answer to the story, or is it important to the setting, or is it some thing you want to know for personal interest? If it is important to the story, why is it?
  4. Sep 2, 2012 #3
    Adam, Eve and a god. a massive explosion. in terms of australia, it only took a ship full of criminals and a few guns to take it over, to permiate life on another planet though would require for example 800 years worth of sustained life on the ship travelling at the speed of light (theoretical) before any inhabitable planet were to exist. not to mention the energy required to reach such speeds or the habitate required to sustain life that long in space.

    Basically the question at hand would effectively mean how many people are required to re-create a world/space craft that can sustain life for over 800 years, but then again you did state they are already there, and they just need to know how many people are needed to be sent down to populate and generate technological advances, technically the minimum amount would be 2 both would have to be able to have kids and then those kids have kids and so on and so forth, but to already have all the technology there, you would have to bring it with you, and train those on the ship on how it all works so that over the 800 years the 8-16 generations worth of humans on the vessel have maintained the knowledge and drop all the technology there at the new planet.

    In terms of people
    to give you an Idea for the minimum a group of 66 people in 2008 lived on Pitcairn Islands, so id say around 50 or so people would be enough, and in terms of technology i thought of a simple solution. Download the internet, it will only take 150ish years at 10gbps internet, plus you will need over 10billion terabytes worth of hard drives but hey in the future people may have that much on their own personal computers haha i mean if you think back to the first personal computer the 8080 practically anyone can create one if you have the schematics.

    So after downloading the entire internet and everything on everyones home computers you then come to storage on a ship, this ship will have to be extremely large not only for the 100 people on board but the storage of all our intelligence, or you could for example set up a long range wireless configuration and just wait 800 years for 1bit of information from earth haha personally i think the storage on the ship works out better.
    think of it as a central intelligence named Siri-US haha okay i think i'll stop now.

    Hope i've helped or stunned/sparked a few electrons in your brain.
  5. Sep 3, 2012 #4


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    It didnt take just one ship. It took a continuous supply chain of ships for a long time. The important question is now long it took before the "criminals" didn't need to keep importing bullets for their guns - not to mention setting up a mining industry to produce the raw materials for making more guns.

    I think a plausible answer to the OP's question (i.e. a reasonably small number of people) depends on the existence of some new manufacturing technology. You could imagine that simething similar to current 3D printers could manufacture a lot of necessary products (inclding more 3D printers), assuming suitable raw materials were available. But if you look at the size and cost of say a computer chip fabrication plant, the current technology only "works" on a very large scale with a few global suppliers. The technology for a huge multinational company to make a few thousand special-purpose chips and sell them to a small startup company exists. The technology for the small company to make those chips entirely on their own does not. The same may apply to medicines (but that's outside of my expertise).
  6. Sep 3, 2012 #5


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    North Korea - with about 25 millions people - is more or less (rather less) self sufficient. Remove ideological idiocy that makes their economy inefficient and they should be able to produce all they need even in isolation.

    Australia? New Zealand?

    Not that in answers the question, but that would be my approach to find the answer. So IMHO we are talking millions.
  7. Sep 3, 2012 #6
    One technical issue - no ship, just teleportation of all people and equipment. (and effect practically not replicable in future)

    Both plant and animal life, including megafuna. No mixed species, though living organism had quite a few million year to evolve to local conditions.

    Effectively speaking monocracy at first decade and later a meritocracy. So first a blatant (though usually softline) dictatorship, later bothering to write a constitution which would maintain status quo thou with prime minister with emergency powers on the top. The final transition would be organising tests for citizens and let those who pass them to elect a small parliament. Also constitution would require for some strategic decision to randomly select a focus group from citizens and check whether they agree (or at least don't oppose to fiercely ;) ).

    I used them only as an example what can be used while almost keeping tech achievements of contemporary civilization. I'd expect a world that would have limited amount of fossil fuels (though if you come back in a hundred million years ;) ). I don't have any special expectations in that area. I expected that:
    -when there is huge water cover
    -civilization is concentrated in coastal regions
    -there are no roads at start and low population density discourage too intensive infrastructure building
    the dominating means of transport should be ships (when measured in tonne-kilometre)

    I don't expect rail (to low amount of transported goods to justify high investments), except in city(cities) for mass transit.

    I've been creating an RPG scenario for quite a while. I'd like to game master a game in slightly odd world, though in such which does not have any serious logical holes, except of accepted deviations from reality.

    Hard to say, I'd say that's more matter of surrealistic economy - ex. the Soviet Union had to import food all the time in spite of controlling vast amounts of perfect agriculture land including Ukrainian Chernozem.

    I think somewhat within that line - ex. vast empty spaces and a few really big cities. Though I see one problem here - a reasonably managed economy nowadays is an open economy.
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2012
  8. Sep 3, 2012 #7
    Keep in mind I'm not an expert, in fact IRL your question would take experts months to hash out.

    Also a lot depends on the Plan for development.

    It also depends on how long they received supplies from their patron civilization. Was it just one chance to send people and material? or was it over the course of a few days or months or even years? (perhaps as a side effect of the transportation device.)

    The Shorter the "Window" the More people and supplies that would be needed to maintain a decent tech base. While the inverse would be true, since they could Step up the technology over time, as specialist arrive., by having the needed materials located or even being exploited.

    I see around 300,000 to 1 million being necessary to a "Modern" Tech base, they would have had bring food for at least 3 years (which would drain even faster with children being born) Most would have had to be generalists with as low as 5-10% being specialist. And then would have had to work back up to certain technologies and convinces as Local resources start flowing in. There would be many technological inconsistencies, Since if you need Gold for circuitry but if there isn't a local source or even one you know about, you either substitute with what you do have or you don't build it. This can mean radical redesigns of common place items. Old Machines might be more valuable as sources of Modern alloys and other materials that can't be produced or mined or acquired at that particular point.

    So long a free and open knowledge base is maintained, you'd see every thing from cars to planes with-in ten fifteen years, most would be home made contraptions, using leftover parts, but they would be there. Government equipment would be build much simply with one thought in mind, longevity.

    Other important questions (more for setting sake) are why was it a on shot deal? or why did People stop coming? Was this expected? was it a local condition that prevents the "teleport" from working or one on Earth, or even is it inexplicable? If its a local conditions is there concern that Earth will start sending people again? Are they preparing for this eventuality? (at least these are questions I would ask my self about my settings)

    Of course this is all just speculation and conjecture on my part. If you like my ideas steal them and integrate what you thing is good into your stories and writing. :)
  9. Sep 4, 2012 #8


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    SF Author Charles Stross asked this question a few years ago

    A few key points:

    - A modern labour pool is extremely specialised
    - Few of those specialities could be done away without without disrupting the network, possibly catastrophically
    - There is a limit to how specialised one person can be, for skilled labour it can take 5-10 years to go from novice to fully fledged (but not master!) worker
    - Not all knowledge can be/is codified, developing a way to codify tacit knowledge would be a must for redundancy
    - Few databases are built as teaching resources, most are reference or rely on previous knowledge
    - Building on the last two points you can't learn something well without someone who knows it teaching you. It might be quicker to reinvent brain surgery with reference texts but without knowledgable teachers you are going to have a painful learning curve (with fatal mistakes).
    - This latter point means that a certain percentage of each profession is going to have to also be a teacher which means keeping another skill set
  10. Sep 4, 2012 #9


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    This whole answer remind me of Adaptation by Mack Reynolds. Essentially thousands of planets have people dropped on them, after a few generations all their high-tech gadgets have worn out and they're pretty much hunter-gatherers (it's not really explained why but this OP is a good approach). A thousand years later Earth sends a ship to one of these systems with the goal of taking the now huge but still primitive population and teaching them to build a high-tech civilisation in 50 years.
  11. Sep 4, 2012 #10


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    I've been thinking about this and for a work of fiction it would be interesting to come up with some ideas for how to lower that number. This would be good for knowing how many colonists we could get away with at minimum but also has applications for post-apocalypse scenarios. With that in mind;

    Mildly speculative ideas
    - socioeconomic regulations to reduce the number of superperfulous jobs e.g dozens of different telecoms services.
    Pros: frees up labour
    Cons: reduced competition reduces efficiency
    - digital encyclopaedias designed to teach subjects as well as act as reference material regardless of readers previous knowledge and skills.
    Pros: easy access digital learning
    Cons: very hard to program
    - designing database of critical machines necessary for an advanced society designed to be built by amateurs with basic tools e.g. The open source ecology project
    Pros: simplifies and standardises across industries
    Cons: may be difficult to impossible for various machines
    - keep the population in a constant state of learning and working multiple jobs
    Pros: knowledgeable and adaptable workforce
    Cons: impossible to keep up to date in multiple fields, high work load and stress may damage overall productivity

    Very speculative ideas
    - advanced industrial automation aka lights out manufacturing
    - intelligent software capable of outperforming a skilled human in most fields
    - intelligent augmentation e.g nootropic drugs, personal digital assistants, brain implants etc
  12. Sep 4, 2012 #11
    This is true, but I'm also thinking it's not as much of a hindrance to your scheme as one might at first suppose.

    To pick up your earlier example, let's say our colonist-to-be xenobiologist (or whatever) spends one day per week assisting a brain surgeon. Clearly, the former isn't going to become as technically skilled as the latter, nor are they going to be able to keep up with any but the most seminal of theoretical research in that field. Nevertheless, once the colony gets underway, they are going to be able to perform the occasional brain surgery without killing many of their patients - and, more importantly in the long run, they are going to be able to train a new generation of brain surgeons. That new generation won't be as good as its Earth counterpart, but it will be as good as its Earth counterpart was a few generations ago.

    So, in short, there's no need to be all the way up to date in a given field to be of use. As long as the colony has someone who's only a little out of date, they'll be much better off than they'd be with someone who's trying to learn from scratch without an actual teacher, no matter how good the teaching materials are.
  13. Sep 4, 2012 #12
    [really soft SF]
    Window of opportunity - approximately 6 months.

    Standard incoming doom, but instead of Hollywood world saving in the last moment there was a possibility to teleport using psionics and temporary space time anomaly big enough group of people to a distant planet.

    Yes, I know how it sounds. However, it makes quite good gaming scenario, with player characters who have both odd civilization to deal with and can use psionic powers. ;)
    [/really soft SF]

    I agree with the estimate. (I'm not saying that's correct but "almost a million" was a value that I thought of for scenario, thus I'd stick to it unless someone shows me that that's rather wrong) I think slightly concerning the food reserves - there are untapped resources of fishes and big land animals, thus fishing and hunting sounds as good source of protein.

    In general I know that, that's the reason why I asked where to cut corners without loosing quality too much. I've already found a few low hanging fruits:
    Containers - in practice one don't need great variety of bottles and jars, a few standard ones would be enough, and no one short of marketing guys would see a difference.
    Financial services - instead of having high amount of banks that are supervised by financial supervision, central bank to manage macroeconomic affairs and gov to bail them out, there can be simpler solution with usual elimination of intermediaries - everyone with an account in central bank with possibility to both place deposits and take a loans against collateral like real estate and limited loans without such. The only place where some real additional value is added is in grading more risky investments, but that can be mostly solved by some smaller intermediaries.
    Processors - a few standardized types would suit most cases. Just with multiprocessor constructions or dumbed version/ slightly defective ones used for more trivia functions.
  14. Sep 4, 2012 #13
    His estimate is terribly high, though he has much higher expectation I do. What I really look for is a Kalashnikov ;) - simple, inexpensive, fail safe device that actually does almost the same job at a fraction of the price ;)

    I'm not convinced about this "painful". Brain is the only organ that lacks pain receptors, thus operating it in inept way shall create lot's of damage, though no pain as such. :D

    Yes, I also thought about it. Actually I faced even a greater obstacle - in quite many industries you would face natural monopolies. There would be presumably no good idea to deal with that - the least bad scenario would be a private entity (just to keep someone sensitive to costs), set prices (because there would be no competitors to keep you in line) and society paranoiac about possible corruption and demanding Assange merges with Zuckenberg ;) amount of transparency.

    I thought about quite a few simpler teaching programs to save on teachers.

    I think that partially the political system (meritocracy) would encourage that, partially one could expect some selection process at start (who to take, who to left behind because of limited transport capabilities) and continuing Flynn effect for a while.

    If one start with very limited population then inventing too much new technology (in contrast to adapting old ones or simply achieving economics of scale) would not be price effective. Nowadays when you sell processors any production short of global is not able to justify huge R&D costs.
    That does not mean that tech development would be stopped, but terribly slowed down. However, I'd expect more incremental improvements - ex. if we can't count on new processors with double speed then the code would have to be optimalized. I see quite many areas when with contemporary tech one could improve used solutions ex. give every citizen a digital signature and make all contact with gov through electronic means, thus speeding everything up and saving need for quite a few civil servants.
  15. Sep 4, 2012 #14
    An interesting read for sure, But what onomatomanic said is more in line of what I was thinking. Also every specialist you bring along would have to pull double duty teaching and working. You don't take Aerospace engineers with you if you don't plan to built air-buses.
    Any engineer could design simple aircraft, he would of course tell you that it won't be perfect and the safety margin will be much lower then if a Specialist engineer had designed it, but safety standards were much lower in the 1900s then they are now. The primary reason? Money.

    Likewise I don't see homes having powered dishwashers, so no need for a Maytag man.

    Going back to his original post the requirements he was looking at were

    Translate Possibility to some people have them, others do without.

    PCs are about the hardest thing you'll be able to produce as I am reminded of a quote from the PC Game Alpha Centauri "You make Tools, to make Better Tools, to Make more precise tools...", so Stockpiles and recycling would be of the utmost importance in a Colony society, especially of high tech tools.

    Many specialties ARE actually superfluous. they are only useful (or cost effective) in large complex systems. Look at what what Charles Stross said about the automotive industry. a lot of these extra subsystems he mentioned are useful to the point where we would not want to live with out them, yet vehicles could operate, perhaps less effectively, as they do today.

    Also many items today have built-in obsolescence, Complicated designs would be dropped for simpler more robust designs.

    Expensive technologies would essentially become a cottage industry where a Computer or Phone could and probably would likely take weeks if not more of work.

    Less advanced technologies ≠ primitive people.

    The Pyramids, the Great Wall, and other monuments of the ancient world were built without the benefit of modern technology, Smart people found solutions to allow them to build these things. In a society where resources are limited, people WILL find ways to do what they want to do, it will simply be more expensive in TIME.
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  16. Sep 4, 2012 #15


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    Re: getting people to assist and everyone to teach...good idea but hard in practice. Not everyone who is good in one field will be good in the next and as we're dealing with minimum number we get the interesting problem of wondering how many people you need to ensure that they all are good and interested in more than one important field with minimum overlap.

    As for painful learning curve I didn't mean that literally but rather along the lines of the numbef of failed surgeries and fatalities resulting from not having an expert handy.

    Finally with regard to people being smart and able to do anything in time forgive me for being a party pooper but this ideal is dangerous. The techno-optimistic belief that anything is possible or that it can be done if imagined detracts from a proper analysis of the difficulties involved. Yes building a grand monument is impressive but (for example) building a technologically advanced civilisation from a feudal state without easily available fossil fuels could be impossible regardless of how innovative individuals are.
  17. Sep 4, 2012 #16


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    Result is still better than not having a brain surgeon at all.
  18. Sep 4, 2012 #17
    I agree that it wouldn't be easy but that doesn't mean it might not be necessary. Allocation of the Human Resource would be very important in the early years. I can easily see Kids going from elementary into apprenticeship type positions, no matter the field (farming to Medical). Aptitude tests can help narrow down where children should begin. Adult retraining is up to the writer, it would be expensive most likely.

    Your Forgiven :smile:. The Idea may be dangerous but might be necessary on a colony world.

    quite right. But from experience in managing in a relatively new field (making plastic recycling profitable is extremely challenging now a days) Any time some one says its too difficult, what they really mean to say is its too expensive to do with what they know. Thats why it is called R&D and not just R. :biggrin: I can't count the times I've been told it can't be done (cheaply) and then I go make a change and it works with little investment, with mixed results, but usually some improvement. drove my boss nuts (which was fair since he drove every one else nuts). Now I'm not saying that there is no limit to whats possible, eventually there is going to be a point where it takes more energy to do some thing then the return will provide.

    Yes it could very well be. there is no way of know that on Earth. At the same time Wind and water power were being exploited for hundreds of years (in some pretty complicated arrangements) before the steam engine was built. At the same time without Coal (a common Fossil fuel) its doubtful we would have been able to progress pass the Bronze age, since we would not have been able to heat the forges hot enough.

    oh and Question, What system are you building your setting for? Gurps? Savage world? or some other system?
  19. Sep 4, 2012 #18
    Assume 1/10th of all technical experts have most of the expertise of the other 90%. Then assume that the technical literatti is 0.1% of the world population.

    Next assume that the know-how is fully concentrated (as the above fraction) in a single highly industrialized country like Japan.

    Then 0.1% / 10 * 300M = 30,000 very very carefully chosen people.
  20. Sep 4, 2012 #19
    Like they did with the 2012 movie, the ships were apparently designed to sustain life and re populate the world after an apocalyptic accurance. They had to pay extreme amounts of money to be allowed access, or be very select few individuals that are required to keep the technology.

    According to the bureau of statistics the estimate is 127,570,000 people in japan as o the 1st of august 2012, this is taking account of all ages, if we were to select a certain age range the number would be lower again also roughly 7 million people are required for 0.1% of the worlds population.

    im not sure how you get 30,000 from calculating your above equation you get 300,000 unless im doing something wrong.
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2012
  21. Sep 4, 2012 #20
    The Above equation uses 300,000,000 not 300,000

    The US has a Population of 314 Million plus as of 2011

    0.1% = 0.001
    0.001/10 = 0.0001
    0.0001*300,000,000 = 30,000
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