Here's a sort of offbeat question. My world has "telekinetic magic"; details later, but grossly simplified, it can be thought of as ethical slave labor. Would this be useful for garbage processing? In particular, are there things you could do that would improve trash handling, and could you do so economically, given that you still have to feed the "slaves"? (I'm thinking of stuff like sorting out materials that are recyclable, compostable, or that can otherwise be reprocessed.) It doesn't have to be directly profitable — this society is sufficiently concerned about the environment that the government and/or trash haulage fees can subsidize this — but if it's ludicrously expensive, it's not going to be worthwhile.

Of course, slavery is unethical... if the "slaves" are sapient. If they're merely sentient, that's more of a gray area, but fortunately, our "slaves" aren't even sentient... they're yeast tanks used to power magic. If necessary, I can get into some really gritty details, but for now, let's just assume the following:

  • You have the equivalent of five human "slaves" per square meter. They need food (sugar is fine) and have effectively unlimited endurance (but not to the extent of being super-human; more like, if a human can do something for 5-10 minutes, "slaves" can do it continuously).
  • "Slaves" are immobile and have no arms, but they are telekinetic with a range of about 1-2 m (it's not a hard line, but any further and their "strength" falls off rapidly). The forces that can be exerted this way are comparable to what can be exerted using muscles; think of it like arms that are insubstantial.
  • Telekinesis can simulate mechanical advantage, so it can do things like cut thin metal (that a human could cut with a hand tool). It's also good at separating things, such as removing bits of food/debris/whatever from containers. (Imagine a human tediously setting up some rig to individually grasp each particle, then pulling them all away in one go. Telekinesis can effectively make the setup step near-instantaneous.)
  • No more than five "slaves" can work together (so, a limit on the biggest thing they can move by themselves).
  • "Slaves" are blind but can sense mass; imagine a really advanced sense of "touch" that works over a distance.
  • "Slaves" are really good at discrimination but have zero creativity. They can do things like recognize "paper", "plastic", etc., but in a novel situation they can only do what their instructions tell them to do.
  • Instructions can be more or less arbitrarily complicated, but someone has to write them, and the difficulty of doing so is roughly on par with writing them out by hand for each "slave".
  • You can also mix in electromechanical equipment (the world also has technology roughly comparable to our own), but the "slaves'" ability to control it is roughly limited to pushing buttons.

Edit: To clarify, I'm aware this can do "easy" things such as sorting different types (metal/plastic/glass/paper) of ready-to-recycle material. I'm interested in if it can do harder things, like extracting material that can be composted and/or recycled from stuff that would be problematic for modern technology. For example, I've read that something like an improperly rinsed soup tin can ruin an entire batch of recycled metal.

For another example, let's say I discover a... "science experiment" in my fridge and toss it, container and all. In the real world, I think that just ends up as landfill? But this system could separate the biological "stuff", which can be composted, from the container, which can be recycled. But would this be practical? And if so, how much would having such an ability differ from what can be done in the real world?

  • $\begingroup$ How fine-tuned is this talent? If you could extract the precious metals from circuit boards (or even separate atom-by-atom), then perfect recovery of rare elements becomes practical in a way that isn't possible in the real world today. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jan 25, 2021 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnO, there is an efficiency cost at small scales, and such an operation would likely be specialized (i.e. you'd separate out such stuff and send it to a dedicated part of the facility, or even a different facility). I think "atom by atom" is not practical. Aside from lack of creativity, though, it is generally at least as capable as a human. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jan 25, 2021 at 15:52

3 Answers 3



For all effects and purposes, you can replace "slave" with "robot" here. You can "instruct" them via programming what to do. They don't have any special intelligence or agency but can be programmed to act on sensor data - a workflow can look like: 1. pick up item 2. check composition 3a. if paper - to to left pile 3b if not paper, to to right pile. Your setup is comparable to technology and capability we have today.

And we already have that technology. Here are some examples of technologies aimed at sorting waste (timestamped to where the automated sorting is showcased):



Also for some fun, here is a sorting system in Minecraft:


So, not only can your "slaves" help with waste management, they are actually slightly more advanced than our current world solutions. The sorting robots are quite new to waste sorting. We do use conveyor belts with some sorting to it (e.g., light vs heavy items) but it's not as complex as a robotic sorter separating the items. Your magic can do the same but seems to be easier to integrate in the process.

Humans might still need to sort the waste by hand but there is a lot less for them to do. The "slaves" should have separated out most of the easier stuff like, say, paper, metal, wood. Moreover, the "slaves" can work 24 hours without stopping, which makes them even more valuable. Probably most importantly, however, they will not complain. Waste management is not a glorious job and I imagine employee retention would be quite low. Reducing the number of employees should make the whole process more reliable.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the references. What I'm really wondering, though, is would you take this a step further to e.g. dismantling certain items, separating stuff that can be composted, and whatnot? For example, I'm imagining something like a half-empty carton of some food item, separating the food to be composted from the container to be (probably) recycled... I don't think we can do that with robots, but would you do that with this setup? How far could you extend that idea, and, if compost doesn't count, how much can you reduce waste? $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jan 25, 2021 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew if the "slaves" can be instructed to do that, then - yes, seems perfectly logical. IRL we are limited because the robots aren't very good at manipulating stuff. The first video shows it's just a very crude "hand" that throws stuff around. If you could, say, take metal lids off glass jars, then you'd have a lot more useful tool for sorting trash. Glass containers (jars, bottles) can be re-used after washing, so the "slaves" can also do that - scrub them until clean. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that's exactly what I'm thinking. Magic ("slaves") is good at concepts like "pick up all the lids" (i.e. differentiating between "lid" and "not a lid") and bad at concepts like "arrange them in order of size". Something like "separate them by material" needs to be expressed as "put metal lids in the pile at such-and-such location", etc. and may result in a pile of all materials you didn't think about when crafting the spell. (If you thought of that. Otherwise, it might just entirely ignore lids of unknown material.) $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew you can do multi-level filtering, to reduce the complexity of commands. So you can have one "slave" unscrewing lids separating lids and putting them on conveyor belt A, then another take, say, large lids from A to belt B and a third one take small lids from A to C. Anything left on A is unsorted but you can work with B and C, at least. Further "slaves" can be added to work on a other limited tasks that are limited in nature. You can also have some "slaves" just moving the conveyor belts themselves (like, turning a bunch of cranks at constant speed). $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Oh, if you have electricity and roughly this level of technology, it's much easier then. I was just thinking magitech world. These "slaves" are going to be a great addition to any facility as they are overall more versatile than a robotic arm. It should be easier to instruct them how to do simple tasks as opposed to programming a computer. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 25, 2021 at 17:11

Yes they will help, but AI and deposit schemes will help without the slavery issue.

Yes some living thing that's only purpose of existing is to sort recycling will help. Telekinetic minds in jars are one way of doing this.


  • Train an animal to do it. I cant find the video now but I saw a dog trained to sniff out recyclable cans and bottles (eg those with a deposit). The owner would just let him loose on bin day and he'd find like $30 worth of cans in the rubbish for a single block.
    • With a bit of extra training you can have them sorting the 100 different types of plastic into their own bins. Each will have a unique scent.
  • Get AI to do it. AI doesn't need all sorting instructions prewritten it can learn from feedback. But it otherwise is your scheme but with ai morality problems rather than human slavery morality problems. I think ai will get less protesters.
  • Plasma arc recyling. Use high temperatures to break everything down to base elements, and drive a power turbine in the process.
  • Pay people to sort their own recycling, such as that which is used in some jurisdictions for aluminium cans. Every single product that isnt compostable should have a deposit. Shoes. Toothbrushes. Ink cartridges. Shopping bags. Everything.
    • If every thing pays me 10c if correctly recycled (which I paid when I purchased the product), I'll sort most of my own recyling. The rest:
    • Allow anyone the ability to start collecting things to recycle for small amounts of money. 2.4 million Chinese people live off this
  • $\begingroup$ Shoes and ink cartridges are interesting examples; could such a system be used to somehow break these down into raw materials that can be recycled? Also, note that there is no actual slavery implied in the question. The capabilities are similar to "slaves" (i.e. people), but there are no ethical issues, aside from the SETUO nut-jobs (Society for the Ethical Treatment of Unicellular Organisms), and no one takes them seriously. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:02

This sounds like beasts of burden situation (i.e. Horses, working dogs, oxen, ect.) to me. If the creatures aren't capable of a human intelligence. Working animals are a long practice in human cultures and in fact, many advanced civilizations arose from cultures with reliable pack animals (animals used to carry heavy loads). Perhaps the most noticable is the horse and llama and you can compare the development of societies with those readily accessible to those without (Euro-Asian cultures had readily available supplies of horses while African and American cultures did not. Llama's allowed the Inca Empire to become quite organized and comperable to Roman society in it's devlopment. They were notably difficult for European explorers to conquor than most Indiginous American societies and while this was achieved, it was mostly due to first contact occuring in the mist of an Incan Civil War over sucession.).

That said, the most enduring is dogs, with many larger breeds of dogs having bread for specific jobs. A Shepard Dog is bred with traits that will help it to herd and protect live stock, often sheep, while Retrievers are used to fetch game that had been shot from a distance, and others were bred for sports, like Grey Hounds (dog racing) and Pit Bulls (dog fighting, and now widely illegal).

  • $\begingroup$ I don't see how this answers the question. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:02

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