Whenever science fiction writers met a deadline with writers block they all defaulted to the same well-worn idea—Robots get smarter and smarter until they can reproduce themselves and take over the world. Well, as of 2012 the robots haven’t gotten smart enough to plan a coup yet—or at least if they are, we don’t know about it. But believe it or not, the reproduction part of things might be just around the corner. It comes, not from the robots but through the new, exciting field of 3D printing.
The idea of 3D printing is less than 30 years old, and commercial 3D printers only became widely available within the last 10 years, but progress in the field is accelerating rapidly. More recently, printers have become cheap enough for consumer use. More significantly, 3D printing now includes a diversity of materials so that printers can create complex objects containing, metal, glass, ceramics, or many other materials.
This is where reproduction becomes possible. The idea is that it may soon become possible to create an entire 3D printer using a 3D printer of all things! By creating each piece separately and then assembling it into a completed whole, the “daughter” printer could be just as large and fully-featured as the “mother.”
What makes this achievement so significant? The 3D printing community has always been an open-source, do-it-yourself culture. A 3D printer that can duplicate itself would open the door for exponential growth. All it requires is a few adventurous people to work out the bugs. They could start making and selling printers to their friends. As soon as there are enough people with their own printers and the urge to make more, the price would be driven down to little more than the cost of the materials (as simple as installing new forms of toner cartridges). Within a matter of months, 3D printing could be ubiquitous.
Of course, the expectations go upward from here. Manufacturing and shipping could change overnight. Invention, and production could happen in any household. The long-standing limitations on innovation and manufacture could be abolished and a new economy would take shape.
These far-reaching expectations are probably a bit idealistic. The world’s manufacturing firms don’t need to declare bankruptcy just yet. A number of difficult technical hurdles remain before 3D printers will be able to handle all the materials necessary for complex devices, and before they can print intricate circuit boards, for instance. It’s also unclear that “open-sourced” manufacturing would be cheaper than mass production, given economies of scale. Another challenging problem would be managing intellectual property—how do you send the template designs for a complex device while insuring that people won’t print as many as they want?
But it’s also hard not to see the uniqueness of these prospects. In the history of human invention, no other consumer device has been able to recreate itself. If computers and 2D printers democratized information and paved the way for anyone to create a document, 3D printing is something of a final frontier. How could an idea this versatile and powerful not have far-reaching consequences? There really is something uniquely revolutionary about a machine that can make more copies of itself.
For now, the future of our species should be fairly safe. Even if they can reproduce, 3D printers still need us to help them do it. The favorite scenario of science-fiction writers awaits a long list of advances in artificial intelligence. In the meantime, watching the technological revolution brought about by 3D printing should be sufficiently entertaining.