Monday, October 1, 2012

3D Printing ...guns

A friend, mprk, sent me this link today:

The article describes the challenges of a group trying to print the first functional gun from a 3D printer. The road blocks have ranged from the 3D printer company cancelling the lease on his printer to interviews by the ATF.  Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your views, neither the printer company or the ATF has awareness of the Streisand effect.

That aside, I think that additive manufacturing is one of the most significant things to be happening in our world right now. The open source hardware movement, which has focused on hobbyist electronics for now, demonstrates interesting precedents for what is going to happen. As Linux, Apache, and other massive open source projects have demonstrated: community collaboration on large engineering is not only possible, it's powerful. What happens when we see that type of collaboration applied to engineering efforts that result in physical objects. We still can't comprehend the long term implications for economies in an age of abundant and mostly free material goods developed with no labor. We are on the edge of a true age of abundance. What happens when we community projects organize the information required to print more complex objects. Cell phones, clothing (of course in the latest styles), motorcycles, cars, computers, televisions, and... yes weapons. I think the ability to have insight into the implications of this remains rare in our society. We look at these events with minds from cultures rooted in the ideas of slower times, when both science and technology lacked their current strength and speed. I've cited it before on this blog and I'll cite it again. The Law of Accelerating Returns is something you must read and understand if you care to follow technological progress. A quote from Kurzweil's writing applicable here: "it is not the case that we will experience a hundred years of progress in the twenty-first century; rather we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress".

When Leonardo Davinci was making his sketches of flying machines and attempting unsuccessfully to build them, he was able to point to an analog in nature as proof of the possibility of heavier than air flight (birds). As we enter this new age of additive manufacturing, we can point in even more directions. Additive manufacturing is how life is replicated. We ourselves were not mechanically reduced from a larger blob of cells like one of Michelangelo's granite statues or injection molded like the plastic keyboard I'm typing this on. Just as oak trees replicate themselves from a packet of information and nano-machines, we are going to see buildings and vehicles created in similar fashion someday. When will the Wright Brothers of replication technology show up? Probably sooner than all of us expect.

Back to the whole gun thing. The idea is a neat one. It reminds me of Neal Stephenson's concept of a h.e.a.p. gun from one of my favorite books: Cryptonomicon. US Marines fighting in WW2, Math, Cryptography, Entrepreneurship, and Programming; a better book will never exist. But in general, guns have been pretty easy to make at home for as long as they've existed. I don't think guns are a bad thing to have generally available. It's estimated that in the US alone there are 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Strangely the only areas subject to routine gun violence are the areas where legal ownership of firearms is banned. If you want to lose sleep at night; ANFO scares me ...guns not so much. The real story here is how asinine the regulation is. I'm loving watching the same arguments we had about bits a few years ago apply to real world objects. Remember cryptography export laws and the discussions about making computer viruses illegal? They all seem silly now. Objects can now be just a stream of bits. You can obfuscate them perfectly through cryptography, archive them essentially forever, and they are as tough to destroy as any idea ever was. As for how that whole restricting the export of cryptography thing went, here's a full implementation of RSA encryption in three lines of perl:

It became trendy to included it in email signatures, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. It's like closing the barn doors after all the animals are out. Except the animals travel at the speed of electromagnetic radiation and are infinitely duplicated using almost no energy for duplication and storage. In the near future we'll see the Streisand effect's influence on physical objects. It will make for interesting times.

This post is already too long. If you're really interested in the topic, check out "Engines of Creation". It was published in 1986 but remains the best book I've ever read on the topic.