Speculations about the future

On my way to school this morning, I told my friend about what I thought some of the implications of 3D printing were.  It was fun talking about, and I think it's a more likely, bigger deal than is easy to imagine, so here are some of my (mostly borrowed or inspired by Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, and other non-futurists) hypotheses. I pointed out yesterday that the new MakerBot Replicator costs about one seventh of the cost of early black-and-white printers, adjusted for inflation.  It prints at a really remarkably fine resolution.  Not enough to do really precision work, but fine enough that most of the things we make out of plastic would look the same coming out of the new Replicator as they do coming out of a factory.

So, for one thing, we can look forward to the death of mass-production of everything that can be made out of plastic without intense precision or large size.  For large size things, we can probably expect that they'll still go out of mass-production, shifting instead to local-business 3D print shops.

Larger businesses that currently shop out the production of their little plastic bits will be more likely to move them in-house, so even industrial suppliers won't be likely to survive the proliferation of desktop manufacturing.

In his latest talk, Cory Doctorow made fun of a record company executive warning his friends in manufacturing that the rest of industry will soon have to deal with the same IP problems that the entertainment industry does.  He points out that copyright is not the biggest implication of 3D printing.  But still, the technology is going to get better.

Low quality lenses are already being printed with 3D printers.  See this paper by Christohper Olah, for example:

While the lenses that have been produced with the outlined technique are incomparable to commercial optics, and fall short of the quality needed for most visual applications, they are of sucient quality to be used for some low-precision light distribution applications like collimating light in a flashlight. Furthermore, the wide variety in modes of failure is reason to believe that much higher quality can be achieved, since each one, evidently, can be defeated individually. It is simply a matter of perfecting the technique.

The author intends to pursue this until he can 3D print a telescope...

(Emphasis mine.)

It's far from unreasonable to imagine that, within 10 or 20 years, 3D printers cheap enough for a teenager to buy (based on today's standards for teenagers' ability to earn money) will be able to print out an iPhone, complete with working digital camera.  Companies won't, in general, be able to protect their intellectual property from being replicated by pirates once the means of production is a device everyone has at home.

But printers that extrude stable solids aren't the only kind that are coming out.  Bioprinters are another topic that Doctorow brings up fairly often -- devices that can literally print out viruses, if you program them that way.  When I think about that possibility, I sometimes get a grim sense of awareness about the frequency of school shootings and murder-suicides in America.  This is not a country well-inoculated against murderous self-destruction.

Other people have also raised concern about foreign terrorists or biological warfare, but I think nihilistic teenagers might be the biggest existential threat to humanity if the current model for socializing them holds into the future of desktop manufacturing.

In California, a store is opening up selling 3D printers whose cheapest model is going to be $600.  The open-source 3D printer RepRap is designed to be able to print large portions of its own components, so if you get one, you can print another one out for each of your friends.

These are the small considerations -- I can't fathom what the real, big changes are that 3D printers are going to bring.  But I can say with a fair amount of confidence that they'll get cheaper, that they'll get more useful, and that they will break massive chunks of the industrial economy.  Here are some of the things that will break:

  • There will be even fewer jobs
  • Companies won't be able to sustain R&D
  • Either:
    • something massive will change about the way kids are brought up, or
    • everyone will die

Maybe I'm wrong, and everything will stay the same from here on out.  But there isn't a great historical track record for 'everything staying the same,' especially in the US and the industrialized world.