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Mon, May 06, 2013

[Icon][Icon]3D printers - worry for the right reasons

• Post categories: Omni, FOSS, In The News, Technology, Science:ItWorks

So 3D printing is headlining again with the news that they've worked out how to print a working gun.

This is sparking off a bunch of "Gun control is now impossible, the whole world will become like the US", "3D printers must be regulated now!" comments from people. And they're also attracting the usual "Meh, 3D printers will never be common enough to worry" naysayers.

First off, let's address the misconception that the big problem with gun control is the availability of guns. It isn't. It never has been. Even if you ignore the enormous numbers of guns available from antique shops that can be easily put back into service, you can find DIY guns on Amazon, and you can download plans off P2P networks for building a handgun using nothing but standard hand tools and plumbing parts. You can download the files necessary for any CAD machine to make you pretty much any gun, too.

For reasons I've never understood, when methods to reduce gun crime are discussed, the conversation is ALWAYS about the guns. But a gun is just a paperweight if it doesn't have ammo. Bullets are harder to make and you need a constant supply of them if you want your gun to be a weapon.

3D printing a gun is just a matter of knowing what shapes to print. 3D printing of bullets is a whole different question. You need the right chemicals in the right proportions and strict safety measures to make sure they don't go off whilst you're in the middle of making them.

No, a machine that can just print out a steady stream of bullets for any idiot with a grudge is still a long way off. And hell, by the time it's here, they're probably have gotten far enough with research into carbon fibre, spider silk, and all the other interesting stuff that's going on out there that a luxurious silk shirt with be so strong it'll stop a bullet anyway.

And that's where we come into explaining why the naysayers are wrong about 3D printing being a lot of hype over a useless product.

They're the kind of people who, not that many years ago, would have said "Computers can talk to each other over the phone lines? So what, hardly anyone has a computer. If I want someone to read something I wrote, I'll mail it to them. What a useless, one-trick piece of technology."

And here we are now with a world-wide network giving rise to immense collaborative projects like Wikipedia and Linux. Social networks. New programming languages.

3D printers today are where a few primitve yet highly-expensive computers were a few decades ago - just laying the foundations of awesome, world-changing things.

Seriously, look at what we can do today with the class of machine known as 3D printers:

  • Print plastics in any shape.
  • Print most metals in any shape
  • Print some simple electronic devices
  • Print with microscopic resolution
  • Print scaffolds for biological structures
  • Print with stem cells
  • Print bona fide working new organs
  • Print DNA that can be inserted into existing cells

We already have 3D printers that allow for cells to be taken from your body, genetically modified, and used to print you new organs.

We already have 3D printers that can work on nanotechnology scales, making machines with parts so tiny you can't see them with the naked eye.

We already have 3D printers that can be used to make devices that store and use electricity.

Sure, they're big and expensive and mostly limited to huge corporations and research universities. But so were the computers that made up the Internet just a few years ago.

Everything that could be done by a vastly-expensive computer that filled up a whole room back then, and a lot more besides, can be done by a smartphone that fits in your pocket today.

So when you look at the sheer amount that can be done with 3D printers today, and factor in the same kind of advancement that happened with computing.. if you still can't see that 3D printing will literally revolutionise life on this planet, you're displaying an awesome lack of vision.

Imagine hospitals that don't have to wait for donors for organ transplants, they just make you new ones on demand. Then imagine being able to decide you want new eyes with the same colour perception as a mantis shrimp.

Imagine being able to print at at home any electronic device you can think of. Then imagine being able to download files from the Internet that will allow you to print out a device that has been created by the collaboration of thousands of people all over the world.

Imagine being able to grow bacteria that can be customised to manufacture any medicine you might need or want. Whether aspirin or heroin, if one organism can make them then others can be altered to do so.

And that's where you get into the aspect of 3D printing that *should* make you, if not scared, then at least a little dizzy.

They won't make it hard to regulate guns.

They'll make it hard to regulate *anything*

And it's unstopabble - because we're already most of the way to being able to use 3D printers to make more 3D printers.

If you can't stop people geting hold of 3D printers - and you can't if supplies are unlimited - and you can't stop them downloading ways to use them - and if you can't since it's just another type of file sharing - and you have 3D printers that can make devices, organs, pharmaceuticals, and whole new types of life...

Then you've got a world where patents are irrelevant, regulation is impossible, and neither Big Business nor Governmnet has control nor any way of regaining it.

The Internet has so far been mostly limited to letting people collaborate on building software. And as a result, we've seen the creation of titans like Android and iOS (Both Unix based), and amazing tools like whole new programming languages (Perl, Python, PHP, Ruby... the list is endless) and collaboration software like Git and BitTorrent.

Take that information-sharing, collaborative spirit. Mix into it the creativity of Instructables and Lifehacker and Make magazine. And then enable it all with 3D printers capable of making literally more things than you can imagine.

That's the future we're building towards, folks.

So don't get too hung up on the idea that a few people will be able to make a few plastic guns along the way.

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