“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”
When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more remarkable to him than a microwave oven is to us today. Just as we now use radio waves to excite atoms and generate heat in our own kitchens (which would have been mind-blowing in the 1950s), his replicator uses some fancy energy technology that is never quite specified in Star Trek: The Next Generation to get atoms to self-assemble into food and drink.
That’s science fiction, but it’s actually not impossible. When you see an industrial 3-D printer working today, with a little poetic license you can glimpse the beginnings of something similar. A bath of liquid resin lies inert, a primordial soup. A laser begins tracing patterns in it, like lightning. Shapes form and emerge from the nutrient bath, conjured as if by magic from nothing.
OK, poetic license revoked — we’re still a long way from molecular self-assembly, or at least in any useful way. A 3-D printer can only work with one material at a time, and if you want to combine materials, you need to have multiple print heads or switch from one to another, like the different color cartridges in your desktop inkjet printer. We can only work at a resolution of about 50 micrometers (the thickness of a fine hair), while nature works at a thousand times finer detail, of a few tens of nanometers. And there’s nothing self-assembling about the way a 3-D printer works: It does all the assembling itself, with the brute force of a laser solidifying a powder or liquid resin, or melting plastic and spreading it down in a fine line.
But you get the point. We can imagine something, draw it on a computer, and a machine can make it real. We can push a button and an object will appear (eventually). As Arthur C. Clarke put it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is getting close.
You may think of 3-D printing as bleeding-edge technology today, the stuff of high-end design workshops and geeks. But you may have encountered a 3-D printer already, in ways so prosaic you didn’t even notice.
Take custom dental fittings, such as those that change the alignment of the teeth over months with a series of slightly different mouth guards, each of which shifts the teeth imperceptibly into a new position. In that case, a dental technician scans the current position of your teeth, and then software mathematically models all the intermediate positions to the desired endpoint. Finally, those positions are 3-D printed in plastic as a series of mouth guards that you wear, each for two or three weeks, until your teeth are in the new position.
Likewise for the prototypes of practically every gadget you’ve ever bought, and the architectural models for the newer buildings around you. Custom prosthetics are 3-D printed. If you’re lucky enough to have a dentist who can replace a crown in a single sitting, that’s probably 3-D printed (then sprayed with enamel) in the office. Doctors have printed and replaced an entire human jaw from titanium.
Today, you can buy a custom 3-D printed action figure of your World of Warcraft character or your Xbox Live avatar. And if you go to Tokyo, you can have your head scanned and you can buy a photorealistic action figure of yourself (try not to get too creeped out).
Commercial 3-D printing only works with a few dozen types of materials, mostly metals and plastics of various sorts, but more are in the works. Researchers are experimenting with more exotic materials, from wood pulp to carbon nanotubes, that give a sense of the scope of this technology. Some 3-D printers can print electrical circuits, making complex electronics from scratch. Yet others print icing onto cupcakes and extrude other liquid foods, including melted chocolate.
At the huge scale, there are already 3-D printers that can make a multistory building by “printing” concrete. Right now that requires a 3-D printer the size of the building, but it may someday be built into the cement truck itself with a concrete that uses positional awareness to decide where to put down concrete and how much, directly reading and following the architect’s CAD plans.
Meanwhile, researchers are working just as hard at moving in the other direction: 3-D printing at the molecular scale. Today there are “bioprinters” that print a layer of a patient’s own cells onto a 3-D-printed “scaffold” of inert material. Once the cells are in place, they can grow into an organ, with bladders and kidneys already demonstrated in the lab. Print with stem cells, and the tissue will form its own blood vessels and internal structure.
Today’s vision for 3-D printing is grand in ambition. Carl Bass, the CEO of Autodesk, one of the leading companies making 3-D authoring CAD software, sees the rise of computer-controlled fabrication as a transformative change on the order of the original mass production. Not only can it change the way traditional consumer goods are made, but 3-D printing can also work on scales as small as biology and as large as houses and bridges.
In an essay he published in The Washington Post, Bass explained what’s so different about this way of making things:
“The ability to produce a small number of high-quality items and sell them at reasonable prices is causing an enormous economic disruption. In it, you can see the future of American manufacturing.
“In a computerized manufacturing process like 3-D printing, complexity and quality come are free… A traditional paper printer can print a circle or a copy of the Mona Lisa with equal ease. The same rule applies to a 3-D printer.”
From a design perspective, this is revolutionary. It is no longer necessary for the designer to care or know about the manufacturing process, because the computer-controlled machines figure that stuff out for themselves. The same design can be fabricated in metal, plastic, cardboard, or cake icing. (It might not be very useful in all those materials, but it would exist.) “We can separate the design of a product from its manufacture for the first time in history, because all of the information necessary to print that object is built into the design.” Bass explained.
Even better, as 3-D printers proliferate and become used for small-scale bespoke or custom-made manufacturing, they can provide a more sustainable way of making things. There are little or no transportation costs, because the product is made locally. There is little or no waste, because you use no more raw material than you need. And because the product is custom-made just for you, you’re more likely to value it and keep it longer. Personalized products are less disposable; you simply care about them more.
Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine, thinks that 3-D printing “could be the transformative technology of the 2015-2025 period.” He writes:
“This has the potential to remake the economics of manufacturing from a large-scale industry back to an artisan model of small design shops with access to 3-D printers. In other words, making stuff, real stuff, could move from being a capital-intensive industry into something that looks more like art and software. This should favor the American skill set of creativity.
But also remember what 3-D printing and any other digital production technique cannot do. They offer no economies of scale. It is no cheaper on a per unit basis to make a thousand than one. Instead, they offer exactly the opposite advantage: There is no penalty for changing each individual unit or making just a few of a kind.
It is the reverse of mass production, which favors repetition and standardization. Instead, 3-D printing favors individualization and customization. The big win of the digital manufacturing age is that we can have our choice between the two without having to fall back on expensive handcrafting: Both mass and custom are now viable automated manufacturing methods.
– Chris Anderson
This essay was excerpted from Chris Anderson’s book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.