This is probably my favourite chapter. Here be sub-chapter #19, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!
FUTURE OF TECH
The future is going to be very bright, brighter than a lot of us can imagine, though that is predicated on getting out-of-the-way of the engineers, scientists, and companies that will make it happen. (Not that we shouldn’t keep a watchful eye.) And if we do, the stars are the limit.
This chapter will focus on two emerging technologies that have the potential to bring about a beautiful future, and try as hard as I might, it will more than likely be an under-estimation because well… I’m dumb. You think I wrote this book? I was compelled to write it by something claiming to call itself free will, but I digress…for the last time…maybe.
3D printing has the potential to render the factory obsolete, and for very simple reasons; technology is beginning to move past economies of scale. Economies of scale refers to making so much of one product that the individual cost per unit is brought down by the mass quantities, which can be sold for a cheaper price, thus selling more quantities and increasing the likelihood of turning a profit.
A physical book makes a fine example (so long as I ignore print-on-demand). When a book is published, a certain number of books have to be printed, bound, distributed and subsequently sold to entail pricing it at say, thirty-dollars. Otherwise, the manufacturers’ and publisher take a loss. If that manufacturer is only printing a quantity that is one-quarter as large, the price results in a book that costs four-times as much, which makes recouping the initial investment increasingly difficult. Making more books allows each individual book to be sold cheaper and therefore increases the chances of recouping the investment, turning a profit, keeping people in work, and, in at least this case, increasing overall knowledge.
With eBooks, there is no such restriction on the cost per unit of the product as it is digital, and there is no difference between having one copy or one million copies. It is a simple command between the two quantities. An eBook has become a digital information technology. This is happening to objects. Physical objects are becoming (slowly for now, but increasing in speed) a digital information technology.
Today, every Jane and her Joe has a printer in the home; this printer is capable of printing rudimentary, usually multicolored, characters onto a 2D sheet of paper.
The future of printing goes well beyond this seemingly simple technology; we will soon be printing physical 3D objects. The 3D printer, otherwise known as an additive printer, will be able to ‘print’ any object that can fit within the length, width, and height of its laser-equipped arms; the user will be able to make three-dimensional, solid objects from digital files.
The first consumer 3D printers were released in 2012, but big corporations have been using these magic machines for decades for the purpose of prototyping. If they needed to make a spanner, a spare car part, an intricate widget, or whatever else tickled their fancy, they simply printed it out to touch it in real life. No theory, no spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to have it custom-made in a special factory somewhere far away, but created, tested, and demonstrated to management and engineering without lag time or exorbitant costs right there in the office, allowing many more innovative and riskier projects as a result of the cost savings. Before 3D printing, the shoemaker Timberland had to spend $1,200 and one week to create a prototype sole.Today, it takes them ninety-minutes and costs them $35. The airliner, EADS that makes the iconic Airbus A380 (the largest plane in the world), are printing shoe-sized titanium landing-gear brackets for use in their airplanes. Normally, such a device would be made via a process called subtractive manufacturing, which results in ninety-percent of the titanium being wasted (since you have to start with a square block and titanium ain’t cheap, and whittle it down to the final design). Additive printing is the complete opposite, which also allows more efficient structural changes and integrity. They eventually hope to print out an entire aircraft wing! The savings in material and reduced time to production is enormous. 3D Systems (which invented additive manufacturing twenty-five years ago), is involved in a consortium printing hundreds of parts for the F-18 and F-35 fighter jets: clearly machines that demand the utmost precision in their capability. If it’s good enough for some of the most expensive machines in history (between $154 to $236.8 million a pop), then surely our home accessories and cars will be more than satisfied.
Slightly off-topic, something similar—decrease in cost and production time—will soon be happening with semiconductors (used in computer chips, batteries, and solar panels), where a new manufacturing process has been demonstrated, in which gallium arsenide semiconductors are assembled by growing them from freely suspended nano-particles of gold, instead of using the more traditional subtractive methods from silicon wafers, accelerating their creation by thousands of times. This tech, while not explicitly part of the 3D manufacturing framework operates on similar principles (by reversing the subtractive process) and is expected to be operational within two to four years, and will result in just as significant a cost-savings. By the end of this decade, computer chips will cost about a penny, and they’ll be used with throw-away mentality. We’ll be able to afford to put them in everything; clothes, tabletops, walls, you name it. A simple way to think of the increasing speed, efficiency, and clockwork reliability of the exponential increase of computers is like this: we are using computers to build faster computers, which we then use to build faster’er computers and so forth. (The same goes for 3D printing, which is why I went on this little detour. )
Back to 3D printing. The manner in which additive printing works is quite simple. An object (encoded as a digital file) is selected and sent for printing. The printer then goes to work building it one two-dimensional layer at a time from the ground up, using (in the first mainstream devices) a plastic resin that is laid down and heated with focused lasers, solidifying in the process. This process continues, layer by layer, creating multitudes of two-dimensional layers that gradually build up until printing is completed, and a three-dimensional object stands revealed. The size of the object is limited only by the 3-Dimensional space of the arms, though nothing will stop you from assembling objects piece-by-piece; such as a table, chair, or plane.
This technology, once it comes down in price for the mass-market will explode. The first ones that are rolling onto the consumer shelves are of the world of plastic, and therefore, only able to print, or create, products in plastic. With time, silicon, metals, et al. will be added to the mix, then eventually all of them will be combined in one to be able to print electronics, watches (Rolex anyone?), cars, food, drugs, and has recently been used to print human body parts; a human lower jaw, blood vessels, bones (five-to-ten years away), teeth, and even DNA. The tech that goes into making the 3D printer, is subject to Moore’s Law. (Doubling of price-performance per 12-18 months, so ten years from now, they will be approximately one-thousand more powerful and intricate.)
These products are functional now; the one obstacle that remains is of making them mainstream. Something that technology is exceptionally good at doing. Forty-years ago, a normal (or back then, state of the art) computer was a building in size and cost $100 million. Today, a phone a million times smaller and a thousand times more powerful is probably in your pocket as you read this. This is known as Moore’s Law. Every twelve-to-eighteen months, the computational capacity doubles for the same price (adjusted for inflation), and 3D Printers are subject to this exponential increase in capability without a subsequent cost increase, and if you forego the increased capability, the cost of any current technology becomes half the cost in the same time frame. The same goes for solar panels, every year they become roughly thirty-percent cheaper (compounded), and fifty-percent more efficient (also compounded). Since 2009, solar costs have dropped seventy-five-percent, even while contending with the Global Financial Crisis.
Decades ago, Bill Gates stipulated his dream of having a computer in every home. The new dream is to put a 3D printer in every home and with the exponentially declining costs and increasing capability, we may be no more than a decade or two from this goal.
“The rate at which the technology is getting faster is itself getting faster.” ~ Peter Diamandis (CEO)
Maybe one day you’ll break a mug and gasp; it was your favorite mug. There are no more stores to sell such antiquated mugs because you’re living in the future! Who knew? So you jump on your computer, open AutoDesk (or some other consumer-friendly program), and design the same mug again, perhaps adding your signature this time or a picture of your girlfriend. Perhaps you made a digital backup of it, or took some photos that can now be converted into its digital equivalent to save the work of designing it again. With that finished, you send it to your printer, and off it goes layering, resining, and laser’ing your new mug, layer by incremental layer. Voila! A few minutes later, you’re making yourself a new cup of coffee. Imagine the possibilities: toys, tables, chairs (assembled piece-by-piece), plates, cutlery, bikes, cars, or anything else you have in your home, or that you can dream of. Recently, a pair of students printed off a plane part-by-part, assembled it themselves, and flew it at a hundred-mph (it was unmanned), at a cost of $2,000. Just five-years ago, a plane of similar size and capability would have cost $250,000 to build. Imagine what we will be able to create five-years from now when it is another order-of-magnitude cheaper to print and create. This technology is taking a hammer to the rich-poor divide, though it will not completely obliterate it. (Something else will, and I’ll get to it in a few paragraphs.)
Now, some might think that we will be utterly dependent on the companies who will make these nifty, life-giving contraptions, much as we are to the energy conglomerates now, but technology sometimes has a funny way of being made of pure awesomeness. When your printer nears the end of its life, you’ll be able to print yourself a new one. Todays 3D printers can print off seventy-percent of the parts to create a new model of itself. Five to ten-years from now, it will print one-hundred-percent of its own parts. It will be next to impossible to monopolize this technology, and even if safeguards were built into it, the hacker mentality will sprout up to circumvent such restrictions. You will more than likely be reliant on someone for the printer cartridge. Though, the feed should be easy enough to make so that a distributed market is created out of it, with no one entity having a monopoly.
Economics will be thrown out the door in so violent a manner; it will be the Italian Renaissance all over again, with far-reaching consequences: negative in the short-term for working people, positive in the long-term for everyone. Look at what the printing press did to the dark ages. Gunpowder to knights. Cars to horse carts. Planes to boat travel. The cellphone to the landline. The CD burner (and Napster and Bit-torrent and consumers and artists) to the music industry. iPads to netbooks, and I leave you with the homework of imagining what will happen to every industry once the 3D printer is mainstream.
iPrint, therefore I am?
The most groundbreaking example of this technology is what the Italian Enrico Dini, has set his life’s purpose to. He can print a house! Albeit only a small one for now as the technology is still in its infancy, but again, this technology exponentially increases in capability, so we won’t have to wait long. Imagine having the home of your dreams built exactly the way you want, to exacting specifications, with high-quality materials, no human labor, and no supply chain (save the cartridge). What previously required the work of a dozen men working tirelessly for months could be done by one man in one day! No more living with your in-laws while you wait for your dream home to be completed. Not to mention that within the three-dimensional reach of the printer, you will not be restricted to the boxy walls and triangular roofs we’ve grown accustomed to. All number of shapes, contours, and home-types will be possible. Want an upside-down fish bowl home? No Problem. Wavy home? Easy. Roman Pillars? Call me when you’re ready to start using your imagination. Again, numerous prototypes of 3D-building homes (also called contour crafting) exist around the world in many companies and inventors. What remains is bringing it to the mass-market, and I imagine the developing world will be the first to embrace it. Just as they did with mobile phones, completely skipping the antiquated resource-intensive landline telephone. There are several other people and companies pursuing this technology. One among them, Professor of Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California, Behrokh Khoshnevis, though he calls it by the latter name, Contour Crafting. (I highly recommend you watch his TED Talk on the subject. Google ‘contour crafting TED’, but suffice it to say; plumbers, electricians, and constructions are going to have a tough-time of it.)
3D printing, Additive Manufacturing, Contour Crafting, or whatever we want to call it will snatch from the future and bring into the present an economy with very little waste, unimaginable possibilities, huge economic and energy savings, and most importantly very little lag time between creativity and creation (see quote below). This will allow the ingenuity of humankind to spring forth and create a beautiful world not bound to the rules and bylaws of monopolistic practices that have manifested themselves as a result of the consolidation of knowledge, influence, and power into the hands of a few, and subsequent protection of that monopoly through government conscription. Human creativity, in short, is becoming unbounded, and technology is the great equalizer that makes it so!
As the futurist Jason Silva ruminates in his short-form video, Imagination, “If you were able to look at human progress, as if through a timelapse of the last hundred years, you would see that literally thoughts spill over into the world in the form of technology. We engage in feedback loops with that technology, which then extends our ability to instantiate new realities.”
Nanotechnology is considered to be the technological Holy Grail. If nanotechnology were to fulfill its ideal, then every single material problem we’ve ever had or ever will have will disappear, or simply not exist to begin with. Nanotechnology, in its simplest form, is building with computers on an atomic level, usually between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm). To put that in perspective, the DNA double helix is approximately 2nm wide. It is essentially creating, or building things a few atoms at a time from the bottom up, with zero waste.
Some examples: carbon nanotubes assembled in this fashion into solid metallic-like objects are one-hundred times stronger than steel, yet six times lighter. Someday in the future, cars and airplanes will be made with them, increasing fuel efficiency and passenger safety. Some scientists want to build a space elevator with this miraculous substance reaching 22,000 miles into space. The cost of putting objects into space would drop from thousands of dollars per pound down to a few tens of dollars, which would begin a third space renaissance (Apollo and SpaceX were the first two)—and I’ll stop using renaissance now.
In medicine, current research is pointing to nanobots programmed to attack only cancerous cells and viruses, carrying the required medicine directly to the point of contact, thereby affecting only the targeted unhealthy tissue, leaving healthy tissue nearby unaffected—no more balding chemotherapy patients! The bandana industry is going to suffer—rally the goldfi…uh politicians to protect their jobs! And as I alluded to in Fear of Fission, we can get down into the nitty-gritty radioactive waste, rendering inert—or isolating—the oxidative ions that are stripped away forming the radiation, leaving behind an inert, harmless substance.
Nano-tech surgery is on the horizon. Infinitely more precise and able to perform functions such as diagnosing and correcting internal disease or trauma, free of slips of the surgeons’ hands, potential infections, and without need of surgical cuts, all from the inside out. (And if you recall from Future of Food, antibiotic super-bacteria are evolving that will make surgery all but impossible potentially within the next decade.) That is, individual intelligent nanobots will be able to travel to the trauma; assess the damage, and repair only the affected tissue, while skipping over healthy cells. We will potentially enter an age where life expectancy takes another huge leap, much as it did in the twentieth century, from a worldwide average of forty-years to kissing eighty years, and in some parts of the world, moving beyond. It’s helpful to note that in twenty-five years, computers (nanobots as we may call them then) will be a hundred-thousand times smaller than the iPhones and Android smartphones we use today, as well as being a billion times faster, i.e., they will be the size of blood cells.
We may even reach a point where a person never dies of old age and is kept in optimal health by an array of nanobots floating throughout his or her body, attaching to cells and repairing them daily. We could stay twenty-five forever! Consider this quote by the Foresight Institute:
“Nanobots work like tiny surgeons as they reach into a cell, sense damaged parts; repair them by reformatting new atoms, and leave. By repairing and rearranging cells and surrounding structures, nanobots can restore every tissue and bone in the body to perfect health – including replacing aging skin with new, resilient skin, restoring youthful looks and good health.”
That’s a future they think is possible by 2020. Eight short years away, but a more realistic timeline by Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurist, is the late 20s. I’m already counting down the days because as a non-theist heathen, there’s no heaven waiting for me, just a boring eternal darkness where I can’t even get bored—how boring! Now, to not accidentally die in the next eight to eighteen years is the task I have given myself…
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this technology is only for the rich. The concept of poor and rich exists only in environments of scarcity, as does the concepts of the trading and price. While the rich will most surely have first access to miracles such as nanotechnology, as they will be the investors—so thank you rich people!—the concept of nanotechnology is that each nano-computer, or nanobot, can turn anything else into another nano-computer. It defies the very laws of scarcity and economics that we live in today.
One nanobot becomes two, two nanobots becomes four, four become eight, eight become sixteen, sixteen transmute into thirty-two, and forty-four steps later, thirty-two is 5,600,000,000,000,000 nanobots. Try assigning a price to that!
Now, there are numerous dangers in having unrestrained nanobot replication in the world; known as The Gray Goo Scenario, in which the biomass of the Earth is turned into dead matter. The envisioned controls are a bit beyond the scope of this book (as well as my limited expertise), but such control systems would more than likely involve Artificial Intelligence and centralized replication servers that keep things in check by doling out permission or denial requests for nanobots in light of the predisposed environment and usage. Perhaps using quantum cryptography security systems: unbreakable codes generated by quantum entangled states, which take advantage of a quantum state known as quantum superposition, where a change in one particle (after it has been entangled with another), invokes an instantaneous (and equal) change in the other entangled particle; thus if an eavesdropper listens in, he or she irreparably change, by way of observation, the quantum state. The security system is just a guess on my part, and there will undoubtedly be many layers of increasingly difficult to crack security to protect us from the harmful effects of nanotechnology, and ensure only the positive effects are unleashed into the world, to the benefit of all. For a more in-depth primer on this, exploring in far greater detail, the pro’s and con’s of nanotechnology, Ray Kurzweil’s, The Singularity is Near, is an excellent read on the subject (as well as on biotechnology, additive manufacturing, increasing computational capacity, turning the Universe into God et al).
The potential of the human race is being realized, and it will usher in a future brighter than any one of us can imagine. There will be pains along the way, especially economic (though due to technology, per-capita income worldwide has tripled in the last century), and the usual social unrest that accompanies such pain, but technology, as it has done so in the past, is the only thing that will alleviate us from the woes of the twentieth century, and all those that came before it, and the only thing that can provide a beautiful life to all seven billion people on this little blue rock, so it must be embraced with open arms and from a platform of knowledge, as opposed to ignorance, as is usually the case when we enter turbulent, exciting times. It is, and perhaps always will be, easier to invent new technologies, than re-programming the irrational hearts and rationalizing minds of billions of people.
“We didn’t stay in the caves, we didn’t stay on the planet, and we won’t stay with the limitations of our biology.” ~ Ray Kurzweil (Inventor)
Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress, and I can’t be bothered inserting them in one at a time. The final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.