Êíèãà: The Human Age
Printing a Rocking Horse on Mars
Robots on a Date
PART V OUR BODIES, OUR NATURE
Printing a Rocking Horse on Mars
For centuries, the world’s manufacturing has been a subtractive art, in which we created artifacts by cutting, drilling, chiseling, chopping, scraping, carving. As a technology, it’s been both mind-blowing and life-changing, launching the Industrial Revolution, spawning the rise of great cities, spreading the market for farm-raised goods, and wowing us with everything from ballpoint pens to moonwalkers. It’s still a wildly useful method, if sloppy; it creates heaps of waste and leftovers, which means extracting even more raw materials from the earth. Also, mass-produced items, whether clothing or electronics, require a predicament of cheap labor to add the final touches.
In contrast, there’s “additive manufacturing,” also known as 3D printing, a new way of making objects in which a special printer, given the digital blueprint for a physical item, can produce it in three dimensions. Solidly, in precise detail, many times, and with minimal overhead. The stuff of Star Trek “replicators” or wish-granting genies.
3D printing doesn’t cut or remove anything. Following an electronic blueprint as if it were a musical score, a nozzle glides back and forth over a platform, depositing one microscopic drop after another in a molten fugue, layer upon layer until the desired object rises like a sphinx from the sands of disbelief. Aluminum, nylon, plastic, chocolate, carbon nanotubes, soot, polyester—the raw material doesn’t matter, provided it’s fluid, powder, or paste.
Hobbyists share their favorite digital blueprints via the Internet, and some designs are licensed by private companies. Like many other technologies, 3D printing does have a potential dark side. People have already printed out handguns, brass knuckles, and skeleton keys that can open most police handcuffs. Future laws will undoubtedly restrict access to illegal and patented blueprints, and also to dangerous metals and gases, explosives, weapons, and maybe the fixings for street drugs.
Imagine being able to press the print button whenever you want a candelabra, toothbrush, matching spoon, necklace, dog toy, keyboard, bike helmet, engagement ring, car rack, hostess gift, stealth aircraft rivets—or whatever else need or whim dictates. The Obama administration announced that it had seen the future and was investing $1 billion in 3D printing “to help revitalize American manufacturing.” According to scientists and financial analysts alike, within a decade household 3D printers will be as common as TVs, microwaves, and laptops. However, people will still need to buy supplies and copyrighted blueprints for home printing, and many will order 3D objects ready-made from cottage industries.
In the future, even in the Mars colony Olivine calls home, she could fabricate a rocking horse of exactly the right height and dappled pattern on the morning of her daughter’s birthday. Or she might print an urgently needed pump, and then a set of demitasse spoons with Art Deco stems. Or paint shades that don’t yet exist in tubes. Artifacts that can’t be created in any other way, such as a ball within a ball within a ball within a ball. Or an item with a hundred moving parts that’s printed as a single piece. From this strange new forge, who knows what artworks and breakthroughs will emerge. The creative opportunities are legion.
We may ignore all the traditional limits set by conventional manufacturing. With micrometer-scale precision, we can seal materials within materials, and weave them into stuff with bizarre new structural behaviors, like substances that expand laterally when you pull them longitudinally. A brave new world of objects.
What is an object if you can grow it in your living room drop by drop or molten coil upon coil? How will we value it? Today, because 3D printing is still a novelty for many people, we value its products highly, in wonderment. But when cheap home 3D printers become commonplace (today’s cost anywhere from $400 to $10,000), and factory 3D printing replaces the assembly lines and warehouses, and even body parts and organs can be made to order, we’ll live in an even more improbable world, where some objects continue to exist as tangible things, as merchandise, but a great many will exist concretely but in nonmaterial form, in a cloud or in a cartridge of fluid or powder, the way e-books do, as quickly accessible potential.
As cars, rockets, furniture, food, medicine, musical instruments, and much more become readily printable (some of those already are), it’s bound to temporarily unnerve the world’s economies. After all, we value things according to their scarcity. When gold is plentiful, it’s cheaper. But if objects lurk as software codes, inside computers, and are abundantly available at the push of a button, they’ll exist as another class of being. How will that change our idea of matter and the physical reality of all that surrounds us? Will it lead to an even more wasteful world? Will handcrafted objects become all the dearer? Will the Buddhist doctrine of nonattachment to worldly things flourish? Will we become more reckless?
This may all seem far-fetched, but not so long ago the Xerox machine was a leap of faith from carbon paper. When I first worked as a professor, making a carbon copy—what the “cc” on e-mail stands for—was a part of daily life. It’s still somewhat astonishing to me that we can now print images in color, from home machines that can connect to our computers through the air.
Many companies won’t look the same, because they won’t need to hire scores of workers, buy raw materials, ship or stock or produce anything. Industry, as we know it, may end. Financial advisers, business magazines, and online investment sites such as the Motley Fool believe 3D printing companies will clean up big-time, because their overhead will be so much lower, and they’ll sell only the clever designs or raw materials.
Not right away. Most people will probably still find it more convenient to buy ready-made things. But soon enough, in the next fifteen years, 3D printing will revolutionize life from manufacturing to art, and practical visionaries like Lipson feel certain it will usher in the next great cultural and psychological revolution. For some, that future is the obvious sequel to the digital revolution. For others, it’s as magical as a picture painted on water.
“Just like the Industrial Revolution, the assembly line, the advent of the internet and the Social Media phenomenon,” Forbes magazine forecasts, “3D Printing will be a game changer.”
How close are we to that day? It’s already dawned. 3D printers are whipping up such diverse marvels as drone aircraft, designer chocolates, and the parts to build a moon outpost from lunar soil. Already, the TV host Jay Leno uses his personal 3D printer to mint hard-to-find parts for his collection of classic cars. The Smithsonian uses its 3D printer to build dinosaur bones. Cornell archaeologists used a 3D printer to reproduce ancient cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. Restorers at Harvard’s Semitic Museum used their 3D printer to fill in the gaps of a lion artifact that was smashed three thousand years ago. In China’s Forbidden City, researchers use a 3D printer to inexpensively restore damaged buildings and artworks. NASA used 3D printing to build a prototype of a two-man Space Exploration Vehicle (an oversized SUV astronauts can live in while they explore Mars). A USC professor, Behrokh Khoshnevis, has devised a method known as Contour Crafting for printing out an entire house, layer by layer—including the plumbing, wiring, and other infrastructure—in twenty hours. When 3D printers are linked to geological maps, houses can be made to fit their terrain perfectly. Khoshnevis is designing both single houses and colonies for urban planning, or for use after hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters when fully functional emergency houses will be 3D-printed from the ground up.
Boeing is 3D-printing seven hundred parts for its fleet of 747s; it’s already installed twenty thousand such parts on military aircraft. The military’s innovative design branch, DARPA, which began funding 3D printers two decades ago, finds them invaluable for repairing fighter jets in combat or supporting ground troops on the front lines. They’re superb at coining parts instantly, remotely, to exact specifications, without having to wait for urgently needed supplies, or risk lives to ferry them through hostile terrain. Companies like Mercedes, Honda, Audi, and Lockheed Martin have been fashioning prototypes and creating numerous parts inside 3D printers for years. Audi plans on selling its first 3D-printed cars (modules printed then robot-assembled) in 2015.
The Swiss architect Michael Hansmeyer has 3D-printed the world’s most complex architecture: nine-foot-tall Doric columns of breathtakingly intricate swirling organic laces, crystals, grilles, pyramids, webs, beehives, and ornaments, madly rippling around, fainting through, vaulting from, and imbedded into each other as layers of exquisitely organized chaos that began as a mirage in the mind and hardened. Containing sixteen million individual facets and weighing a ton, it looks like a roller-coaster ride down a scanning electron microscope into the crystalline spikes of amino acids. It’s easy to imagine a cathedral by Antoni Gaud? with such columns in Barcelona. Or the labyrinthine short stories the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges might unleash among them.
“Twenty-five-year-olds today aren’t burdened with traditional methods and rules,” says Scott Summit, who heads Bespoke Innovations, a San Francisco–based firm that uses 3D printing to create elegant, tailor-made prosthetic devices. “There are guys who have been doing 3D modeling since they were eleven and are caffeinated and ready to go. They can start a product company in a week and, in general, have a whole new take on what manufacturing can be.”
Since anything that can be designed on a computer and squirted through a nozzle is 3D-printable, people overwintering in Antarctica or other remote outposts will soon print their own cleaning products, medicines, and hydroponic greenhouses.
This blossoming technology widens the dream horizon of research, paving the way for new pharmaceuticals and new forms of matter. At the University of Glasgow, Lee Cronin and his team are perfecting a “chemputer,” as well as a portable medicine cabinet so that NATO can disperse drugs to remote villages, especially simpler drugs such as ibuprofen. Despite unleashing an inner circus, most drugs are only a combination of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. With those simple inks and a supply of recipes, a 3D printer could concoct a sea of remedies. Flasks, tubes, or unique implements might also be printed on the spot. Creating new substances with 3D printers, researchers will be able to mix molecules together like a basket of ferrets and see how they interact. Then, as drug companies patent the recipes, those recipes (not the drugs) will hold value, just as apps do.
With 3D printers, complexity is free. For the first time, making something complicated with crisp details and ornate features is no harder than making a spoon or a paper weight. After the design component, it requires the same amount of resources and skills. That’s a first in manufacturing, and a first in human history. If one person, regardless of skill or strength, can replace an entire factory, then identity and sense of volition are bound to shift. Will we all feel like kingpins of industry? No more so than most people do today, I imagine. But we should.
In research labs and medical centers all over the world, bioengineers are printing living tissue and body parts. That, too, is a first in human history, and a radical departure in how we relate to our bodies—not as fragile sacks of chemicals and irreplaceable organs, but as vehicles whose worn or damaged parts may be rebuilt.
In 2002, the bioengineer Makoto Nakamura noticed that the ink droplets deposited by his inkjet printer were about the same size as human cells. By 2008, he had adapted the technology to use living cells as ink. A regular 3D printer extrudes melted plastic, glass, powder, or metal and deposits the droplets in minuscule layers. More droplets follow, carefully placed on top of the previous ones in a specific pattern. The same is true for bioprinting, but using the patient’s own cells reduces the chance of rejection. Each drop of ink contains a cluster of tens of thousands of cells, which fuse into a shared purpose. Although one can’t control the details, one doesn’t need to, because living cells by their fundamental nature organize themselves into more complex tissue structures. The hope is to be able to repair any damaged organ in the body. No more worrying about size or rejection, no more waiting for a kidney or liver to become available.
Today, in university and corporate labs around the world, bioengineers are busily printing ersatz blood vessels, nerves, muscles, bladders, heart valves and other cardiac tissues, corneas, jaws, hip implants, nose implants, vertebrae, skin that can be printed directly onto burns and wounds, windpipes, capillaries (made elastic by pulses from high-energy lasers), and mini-organs for drug testing (bypassing the need for animal trials). An Italian surgeon recently transplanted a bespoke windpipe into a patient. Washington State University researchers have printed tailor-made human bones for use in orthopedic procedures. An eighty-three-year-old woman, suffering from a chronic infection in her entire lower jaw, had it replaced with a custom-built 3D titanium jaw, complete with all the right grooves and dimples to speed nerve and muscle attachment. Already speaking with it in post-op, she went home four days later.
A team of European scientists has even grown a miniature brain for drug tests (though, fortunately, it’s not capable of thought). Organovo, a leading biotech company in San Diego, has 3D-printed working blood vessels and brain tissue, and successfully transplanted them into rats. Human trials begin soon. After that, Organovo plans to provide 3D-printed tissues for heart bypass surgery. Meanwhile, a kidney is the first whole organ they’re working on—because it’s a relatively simple structure.
Thin body parts like these are the easiest to design. Thicker organs, such as hearts and livers, require a stronger frame. For that, a lattice of sugar—like the haute cuisine sugar cages some chefs confect for desserts—is often used to provide a firm scaffolding, and then cells are layered over it. Sugar is nontoxic and melts in water, so when the organ is finished, the sugar scaffold is rinsed away, leaving hollow vessels for blood flow where they’re needed. The goal isn’t to create an exact replica of a human heart, lung, or kidney—which after all took millions of years to evolve—nor does it need to be. A kidney cleans the toxins from the blood, but it doesn’t have to look like a kidney bean or a kidney-shaped swimming pool. So it could become body art, a sort of interior tattoo: a heart-shaped kidney for a romantic, a football-shaped one for a sports fan. Or would that alter the brain’s mental atlas of the body, a landscape we know by heart, even in the dark? Suppose you have a suitcase. You replace the handle, you replace the lock, you replace the panels. Is it the same suitcase? If we replace enough body parts, or don’t choose exact replicas, will our brain still recognize us as the same self?
Robots on a Date
PART V OUR BODIES, OUR NATURE