May 14, 2013

Push-Button Gunsmithing and the Long Arm of the Law

ClickprintbangCalifornia state Senator Leland Yee wants to stop people from being able to print out firearms with 3D printers. Like many other folks, Yee was startled by the work of Defense Distributed, a group working on designs for guns that can be produced by the 3D printers. A few months ago, Defense Distributed crafted a grip and lower receiver for an AR-15; more recently, they produced a fully-functional handgun. Yee's not the only official trying to put a stop to this: NY Senator Chuck Schumer wants legislation to explicitly outlaw 3D printed guns, and the US Department of Defense recently ordered Defense Distributed to remove the plans from their website while the government sorts out whether they violate weapon export rules. To the surprise of nobody who pays attention to the Internet, the Pirate Bay has already returned the weapon blueprints to the web.

To be clear, these two designs are not world-shaking developments. While the AR-15 grip and receiver are critical parts of the semiautomatic rifle, they're not sufficient to make a working weapon on their own. Conversely, the handgun – called “Liberator” by Defense Distributed – is a nearly-complete design (needing only a penny nail for a firing pin), but it can manage only a few shots before falling apart. It’s essentially a 3D printed zip gun. Nobody's going to start an army with 3D printed weaponry... today.

Tomorrow is a different story: within the decade, it's entirely likely that we'll see a completely functional, high quality semiautomatic (or even fully-automatic) rifle being produced via 3D printing. Many people would consider that to be a bad thing, or at least something requiring close supervision. But what are the realistic options?

Here's the core problem: you can't just tell a 3D printing system not to make a gun. You might be able to tell a system that it can't print out a specific design or file, assuming that you can lock down to printer's operating system so that it can't be altered. But in that scenario, how would you stop the design of a firearm made up of printed components that don't look like gun parts? And even if you could somehow restrict the ability of a printer to make a weapon, any 3D printer able to produce a high-quality firearm would almost certainly be able to print out another 3D printer, this time without the restrictions. This is by no means an outrageous or speculative proposition. Among the earliest-available low-cost 3D printers was (and is) the RepRap -- the Replicating Rapid-Prototyper (an older term for 3D printer).

Senator Schumer seems to be pushing to add 3D printed guns to the existing prohibition on firearms that can't be detected by metal detectors. This would focus on the possession of the weapon, and seems reasonable. State Senator Yee, however, may have bigger ideas:

He’s concerned that just about anyone with access to those cutting-edge printers can arm themselves.

“Terrorists can make these guns and do some horrible things to an individual and then walk away scott-free, and that is something that is really dangerous,” said Yee.

He said while this new technology is impressive, it must be regulated when it comes to making guns. He says background checks, requiring serial numbers and even registering them could be part of new legislation that he says will protect the public.

It's ambiguous, but Yee here is probably talking about checks, serial numbers and such for printed guns. However, he may be referring to the printers themselves as needing controls. And even if Yee isn't yet taking that step -- he has yet to introduce the legislation -- someone else will. But how can you control something that can replicate and evolve?

February 27, 2012

Record Battery Energy Density in Context [Updated]

Envia Batteries

A tech company called Envia Systems has announced that it is able to produce rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion, i.e., the standard kind of rechargeable batteries that go in everything from phones to electric cars) with a world-record energy density of 400 Watt-hours per kilogram! (Gigaom has lots of info, and useful background material.) Cool, right?

Yes? No?

Energy density is one of those really important concepts that not many people know about; it's not an exaggeration to say that a viable renewable energy future depends upon boosting energy density of batteries.

But it's hard to evaluate the importance of an announcement like this if you don't have context, so here you go:

Okay, 400 Watt-hours per kilogram (henceforth Wh/kg) means that one kilogram of battery material will be able to pump out electricity at a level of 400 Watts for one hour.

According to Envia, the best commercially-available Li-ion battery has an energy density of around 245 Wh/kg, so this new technology almost doubles that. This is good. Moreover, most Li-ion batteries operate at about 100-150 Wh/kg. The batteries in the Nissan Leaf, for example, have an energy density of about 120 Wh/kg (24 KWh/200kg). Tripling that density would, in principle, triple the range of the Leaf, taking it from around 100 miles to around 300 miles, a range close to a typical gasoline-powered car. This is very good.

But it's not revolutionary -- it's a (significant) incremental improvement.

That's because, even at 400Wh/kg, batteries still don't have an energy density anywhere close to fossil fuels.

Gasoline offers somewhere around 12,000 Wh/kg, 30x the energy density of the Envia battery technology. A Nissan Leaf with the same mass of gasoline-equivalent superbatteries would have a range of around 9,000 miles. Alternatively, to get the same 300 mile range as with the Envia batteries, the Nissan SuperLeaf would only need around 3kg of batteries.

I'm not discounting the importance of this breakthrough, not by any means, but it's important to keep this in context. There's a good reason why petroleum has such a hold on the world of transportation, and it's going to take a lot more than a tripling of battery energy density to beat it. Or, more to the point, moving beyond the gasoline automobile is going to take more than simply chipping away at energy density comparisons -- it's going to take a complete re-thinking of what we mean by transportation.

As has been pointed out to me, in comments and in direct communication (and with varying degrees of politeness), this isn't an entirely fair comparison. It would be more accurate to compare the combination of energy density + drive efficiency.

Most standard automobiles have an average internal combustion engine efficiency of around 20% -- that is, of the energy available in the fuel, about 20% is eventually translated into motive force. So that 12,000 Wh/kg is effectively "only" 2,400 Wh/kg.

Electric motors, conversely, are extremely efficient at translating available energy into motive force; at 90%, that 400 Wh/kg Envia battery is still effectively 360 Wh/kg.

So a gasoline engine system 6.67x better than the Envia, not 30x better. The difference isn't as gobsmacking, but it's still significant, and remains a reminder of just how far battery technology has yet to evolve.

July 14, 2009

New FC: Material Issues

My new column for Fast Company is now up. The Desktop Manufacturing Revolution looks at the possible impact of 3D printing, which seems to be on the verge of the same breakthrough we saw 25 years ago with desktop publishing.

If 3D printing follows a similar trajectory, we may not be likely to see a massive shift to entirely digital "products" any time soon, but we could well see a shift to more local--even desktop--production. There's no guarantee, of course, that 3D printing system prices will crash in the exact same way as laser printers, or that individual households will decide that desktop manufacturing is appealing. Local manufacturing seems a good bet, however, for a variety of reasons. There's a particularly strong sustainability argument around local manufacturing, from the rising tide of "localism" philosophies (from food to media), to the ability of 3D printing to extend the useful life of manufactured goods by making new parts (as Jay Leno does for his vintage cars). The sustainability argument will become especially powerful once cheap overseas-produced goods reflect rising costs for fuel and carbon. And local manufacturing via 3D printing, even if limited to simple consumer items, has the potential to disrupt incumbent manufacturing, shipping, and retail industries.

As usual for my FC pieces, not many surprises are in store for long-time readers, but it's sometimes useful to clarify my core ideas about what the future could hold.

February 5, 2009

Long Tail Micro-Drones

$25 Arduino-based UAV Controller

Our first commercial autopilot, the Arduino-compatible ArduPilot, has been released and our goal of taking an order or two of magnitude out of the cost of an autopilot has been achieved: it's $24.95!

Combined with a RC plane, this makes it easy to build a complete UAV for less than $500, which is really kind of amazing. As exciting as that it is, it's also sobering to know that a technology that was just a few years ago the sole domain of the military is now within the reach of amateurs, so we spend a lot of time educating our community on FAA regulations and safe and responsible flying (always under 400 feet, stay within line of site, pilot always able to regain control).

The person behind this is Chris "Long Tail" Anderson, who designed this along with his now 11-year-old kid.

Global guerilla implications are kind of obvious; what I want to see are suggested uses for amateur science, environmental monitoring, or other tasks that don't end up involving high-explosives.

Open the Glossary:
Arduino -- inexpensive general-purpose computing platform, open-source in hardware specs and easily programmed with commonplace software tools.
UAV -- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a pilotless drone flyer able to follow a path without real-time guidance from a human.

January 15, 2009


Mike Treder, director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, has offered up an entry to the "Citizen's Briefing Book" section of Obama's website. In "Advanced Nanotechnology - What, When, Why" Mike argues that an investment in the development of molecular manufacturing should be seen as part of a larger strategy for dealing with global climate disruption. He lays out a series of suggestions that confront issues around both disruptive technological change and disruptive climate change head-on.

Set aside an equivalent amount of funding to study the implications of advanced nanotechnology, and to develop and ultimately implement comprehensive strategies for maximizing safety, security, and responsible use on a cooperative international basis.

Prepare for disaster mitigation. Given that time is rapidly growing shorter for us to slow global warming before irreversible carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, it is essential that we begin preparing soon for the likely impacts of climate change. [...] We may have a decade or two to make ready for what's coming -- how well we use that time to prevent and/or alleviate suffering of our fellow humans (and other species) will show just how humane we truly are.

I'm often frustrated by people who blithely dismiss crises like global warming with the suggestion that some fantastic future technology will solve our problem, so we don't need to worry now. That's not what Mike argues here -- he's clear that while a nanotech-based solution to global warming would be wonderful to see, we can't depend on it. We need to act now, but be ready to take responsible advantage of new tools as they emerge.

The site allows registered visitors to vote up (and vote down) on the myriad proposals weaving their way through the system. It takes just a moment to register, and I would encourage you to do so -- and to give Mike's proposal your thumbs-up.

July 22, 2008

3D Print-to-Order


Whenever I talk about the rise of low-cost 3D fabrication, one inevitable question (after "how expensive is a printer?") is "does anyone do print-on-demand fabbing?" Real soon now, the answer will be yes. (Update: As Sven notes in the comments, print-on-demand fabbing has been around for a bit, but this one seems to be the first aimed at non-professional users.) Shapeways is a new startup service that promises to take your dusty old X3D or Collada-format 3D design files and turn them into shiny new physical objects. Mashable has more, including invites to the closed beta program.

Prices range from $2.50 to $3.44 per cubic centimeter, depending upon the chosen material (which can be solid, flexible, or transparent) and whether or not you're ordering from the EU. That's not cheap, if what you're looking for is a finished consumer item (they use the cute/creepy "monkey baby" dolls shown above as samples; they measure just a couple of inches tall, and run upwards of $60), but it's terrific if you're looking to get a one-off of a unique design. Many of the pages on the Shapeways site remain locked to non-beta visitors, but the blog is open. The blog is good even for folks not about to get stuff printed, as it provides photos of and details about the 3D printers they use, and discusses the stumbling blocks Shapeways has encountered as they get this thing rolling.

This won't be for everybody. You'll have to do the hard design work, in a 3D program that outputs their preferred formats, so I really don't expect this to be the Next Big Web 2.0 extravaganza. Make an app that will convert Second Life (or other Metaverse environment) objects into fully-qualified X3D files, and we'll talk. I'm just fascinated by how fast this market evolves.

June 25, 2008

Do Not Taunt Massive Quake Ball

Image by Guillaume Paumier / Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa-3.0

As anyone who has built a tower out of blocks or LEGO knows, as they get taller, the more small movements at the base can be magnified into catastrophic motion at the top. This is just as true for skyscrapers, increasingly so as we get closer to building kilometer-high towers. It turns out that there's a solution: tuned mass dampers. Using mass as a way of counteracting vibration, tuned mass dampers can be found in a variety of systems, from transmission lines to bridges. The biggest ones can be found in huge towers. "Biggest" and "huge" meaning, for example, the 730 ton tuned mass damper ball built into the 509-meter Taipei 101 tower, currently the tallest occupied building in the world.

Given the magnitude of the Sichuan earthquake, it should be no surprise that it was felt hundreds of miles away in Taipei. Given the rise of the Participatory Panopticon, neither should it surprise that someone was there to video the sway while the earthquake struck.

Four stories high, the tuned mass damper at Taipei 101 is actually part of the building tour. Bring the family! (via Gizmodo; the Long Now Blog has more)

February 15, 2008

Frame Phishing

In late December of 2007, I wrote a post entitled "Malware for Materials," arguing that the increasing digital smarts of previous-dumb physical objects was a ripe medium for malicious software and spam.

For the most part, malicious bits of code and data -- collectively referred to as "malware" -- have remained comfortably limited to devices that we recognize as being (to a greater or lesser extent) computers. But as products and materials that have long been seen as non-computers start to get connected to the Internet, start to include processing capability and memory, start to offer "always on" wireless connections -- all in all, start to be active parts of our environments -- the likelihood increases that we'll start to see malware pop up in unexpected locations.

[...] A greater concern is that the viruses (and trojans) that do exist will take advantage of the legacy of trust we have for the dumb versions of the now-smart materials; will we have to worry about what the (voice-controlled) refrigerator overhears or the (video-chat-ready) television sees?

Well, that was fast.

An insidious computer virus recently discovered on digital photo frames has been identified as a powerful new Trojan Horse from China that collects passwords for online games - and its designers might have larger targets in mind. [...]

The virus, which Computer Associates calls Mocmex, recognizes and blocks antivirus protection from more than 100 security vendors, as well as the security and firewall built into Microsoft Windows. It downloads files from remote locations and hides files, which it names randomly, on any PC it infects, making itself very difficult to remove. It spreads by hiding itself on photo frames and any other portable storage device that happens to be plugged into an infected PC. [...]

The new Trojan isn't the only piece of malware involved. Deborah Hale of Sans said the researchers also found four other, older Trojans on each frame, which may serve as markers for botnets - networks of infected PCs that are remotely controlled by hackers.

Whoever thought they'd need to run anti-virus checks on their picture frames?!?!?

The "cyber Pearl Harbor" won't attack through our laptops and servers -- it will hit us in our refrigerators, our Roombas, and our robot bathtubs.

December 28, 2007

Responsible Nanotechnology

(The following is an essay I wrote for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's December 2007 newsletter.)

How soon could molecular manufacturing (MM) arrive? It's an important question, and one that the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology takes seriously. In our recently released series of scenarios for the emergence of molecular manufacturing, we talk about MM appearing by late in the next decade; on the CRN main website, we describe MM as being plausible by as early as 2015. If you follow the broader conversation online and in the technical media about molecular manufacturing, however, you might argue that such timelines are quite aggressive, and not at all the consensus.

You'd be right.

CRN doesn't talk about the possible emergence of molecular manufacturing by 2015-2020 because we think that this timeline is necessarily the most realistic forecast. Instead, we use that timeline because the purpose of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is not prediction, but preparation.

While arguably not the most likely outcome, the emergence of molecular manufacturing by 2015 is entirely plausible. A variety of public projects underway today could, with the right results to current production dilemmas, conceivably bring about the first working nanofactory within a decade. Covert projects could do so as well, or even sooner, especially if they've been underway for some time.

CRN's leaders do not focus on how soon molecular manufacturing could emerge simply out of an affection for nifty technology, or as an aid to making investment decisions, or to be technology pundits. The CRN timeline has always been in the service of the larger goal of making useful preparations for (and devising effective responses to) the onset of molecular manufacturing, so as to avoid the worst possible outcomes such technology could unleash. We believe that the risks of undesirable results increase if molecular manufacturing emerges as a surprise, with leading nations (or companies, or NGOs) tempted to embrace their first-mover advantage economically, politically, or militarily.

Recognizing that this event could plausibly happen in the next decade -- even if the mainstream conclusion is that it's unlikely before 2025 or 2030 -- elicits what we consider to be an appropriate sense of urgency regarding the need to be prepared. Facing a world of molecular manufacturing without adequate forethought is a far, far worse outcome than developing plans and policies for a slow-to-arrive event.

There's a larger issue at work here, too, particularly in regards to the scenario project. The further out we push the discussion of the likely arrival of molecular manufacturing, the more difficult it becomes to make any kind of useful observations about the political, environmental, economic, social and especially technological context in which MM could occur. It's much more likely that the world of 2020 will have conditions familiar to those of us in 2007 or 2008 than will the world of 2030 or 2040.

Barring what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls "Black Swans" (radical, transformative surprise developments that are extremely difficult to predict), we can have a reasonable image of the kinds of drivers the people of a decade hence might face. The same simply cannot be said for a world of 20 or 30 years down the road -- there are too many variables and possible surprises. Devising scenarios that operate in the more conservative timeframe would actually reduce their value as planning and preparation tools.

Again, this comes down to wanting to prepare for an outcome known to be almost certain in the long term, and impossible to rule out in the near term.

CRN's Director of Research Communities Jessica Margolin noted in conversation that this is a familiar concept for those of us who live in earthquake country. We know, in the San Francisco region, that the Hayward Fault is near-certain to unleash a major (7+) earthquake sometime this century. Even though the mainstream geophysicists' view is that such a quake may not be likely to hit for another couple of decades, it could happen tomorrow. Because of this, there are public programs to educate people on what to have on hand, and wise residents of the region have stocked up accordingly.

While Bay Area residents go about our lives assuming that the emergency bottled water and the batteries we have stored will expire unused, we know that if that assumption is wrong we'll be extremely relieved to have planned ahead.

The same is true for the work of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. It may well be that molecular manufacturing remains 20 or 30 years off and that the preparations we make now will eventually "expire." But if it happens sooner -- if it happens "tomorrow," figuratively speaking -- we'll be very glad we started preparing early.

October 20, 2007

Green Leap Forward

nanocraig.jpgWhat does a future world of photovoltaic material look like? How do smart walls, "Watt Torrent" power-sharing networks, and electric hyperbikes sound to you? In Metropolis' latest issue, these scenario fragments come to life -- or, at least, show up in a 2017 version of Craig's List. I wrote the piece a few months ago, and it was easily the most fun I've had building a scenario in quite some time.

Metropolis has long been one of my favorite magazines. It's design porn -- I spend as much time gazing at the ads for beautifully-crafted pieces of furniture and appliances as I do reading the articles -- but it's planted itself in the design world intersection of sustainability and futurism. Viridian Pope-Emperor and friend of the blog Bruce Sterling regularly shows up in the pages of Metropolis, so when the magazine asked if I'd be interested in penning a short piece for them, I jumped at the chance.

I went with the Craig's List conceit because it gave me a chance to play with some different manifestations of this future, and to hint at some of what it might include. Not just in terms of solar power and materials, but little bits of plausible surreality, like carbon quota checks in apartment applications.

As much fun as it was to come up with the entries, the work done by Team Pro-Am in creating the graphics for the piece just blew me away. It's a two-page spread of a user interface of the era, managing to hit the right notes of feeling familiar and utterly bizarre at the same time.

Thanks for pointing them in my direction, Bruce!

March 28, 2007

The Future Feels a Little Bit Closer

3dPrint.jpgI write often enough about 3D printing systems and "desktop fabrication" that when something that I shouldn't be startled by just how fast this industry is advancing. And yet: the ZPrinter 450 looks just amazing. The promotional video is almost surreal -- and if somebody had sent it to me as an example of an "artifact from the future," I would have believed them. This is a giant, sparkly, screaming harbinger of what the next decade will hold.

It's not quite desktop fabbing just yet, but it's oh so very close: it's about a single order of magnitude off in price ($40K) and speed ("output models in hours, not days") from being consumer-friendly, and needs to be about half of its current size. That'll happen, probably by the end of this decade (if not sooner). With the "high-performance composite" polymers used as base stock, it looks like dumb objects would be pretty easy to make. The big leap in capability will happen when they can start printing out objects using truly complex polymers as core materials, particularly electroactive polymers (which can move) and organic-electronic polymers (which can compute).

January 4, 2007


(Cue "Powerhouse," by Raymond Scott)

Nanofabbers are on my mind right now. They've shown up in some work I'm doing with IFTF; they're the focus of a project underway with CRN; and they're one of the manifestations of the "software control of matter" conversation underway at the EPSRC Ideas Factory.

An imaginary (*ahem*, "scenaric") version of a nanofabber shows up occasionally here at OtF: the StuffStation Deluxe ("...for when you want more stuff!"). Looking oddly like a fancy dishwasher, the StuffStation Deluxe offers its users a way to make things at the touch of a button. Enter in some code (no doubt grabbed from the AppleZon iStuff Store or downloaded from, press a button, and minutes later, ding! ("Honey, I think the laptop's done!")

But these aren't magical Star Trek replicators, they're machines that put things together, teeny tiny piece by teeny tiny piece. How does that work? Here are two videos that will make things clear.

The first is the latest version of the nanofactory designed by none other than Dr. Eric "Engines of Creation" Drexler, and turned into animated reality by John Burch. It's a five minute clip of a nanofactory making a foldable computer for an engineer (who apparently lives and works in the Uncanny Valley). There was an earlier version floating around the web last year, but this one has been updated, and can be downloaded in its high res, no artifacts, 77 megabyte glory from the animator's own site, Scintillating Science.

The video, along with the accompanying narration, explain how a device comprising literally trillions of synchronous molecular robots could, in fact, work, and hints at what could be done with such a device.

But if you think that's unbelievable, you have to see this:

It's a car factory. No, not just that. It's a robotic car factory. No, wait.

It's a robotic factory... made of LEGO, that makes LEGO cars.

Using only LEGO parts, this guy ("knusel111" from Germany) group of teenagers from the robotics group of the Veit-Hoser-Gymnasium in Bogen, Bavaria, built an entirely automated device to make LEGO car after LEGO car. You even get to choose the color of the components!

It's a YouTube video, so don't expect great quality; if I can find the original mpeg/mov/wmv, I'll post that link. But even with the grainy Flash video, you can see this is something amazing. Sure, it takes six minutes to build a rinky-dink toy... but it's done completely in LEGO! It's also an extremely primitive example of how a nanofactory could (in principle) work.

Next challenge, Veit-Hoser-Gymnasium: make one of these that make make a duplicate of itself.

January 2, 2007

Make Your Own Artifacts from the Future


Here's a site that allows you to make your own newspaper headlines, appearing to be straight out of a real dead-tree edition. (In my case, the New Youngston Gazette. What? You thought it was something else?)

December 15, 2006

The Future is Here: The Wonkafabber

chocofab.jpgOkay, it's not Wonka, but still: it's a fabber used to make chocolate bars!

High school student Noy Schaal used the Fab@Home system design to make a fabber that could print out chocolate bars, including fancy textures. It's crude, but still -- chocolate bar fabber!

I just can't tell whether I'm now suffering from future shock or glycemic shock.

(Via CRN)

December 14, 2006

Bioprinters vs. the Meatrix

One of the odder manifestations of the fabrication future may well revolutionize the world of medicine -- and quite possibly change how we eat and offer a new way to fight global warming, too.

Bioprinters use ink-jet printer technology to lay down controlled layers of cells. Currently in development in a variety of locations (including the University of Manchester, the University of Utah, and Carnegie-Mellon), bioprinter systems will eventually be able to produce custom-made biological structures, including organs. This month, the Carnegie-Mellon group announced an important step towards that goal: a system able to print out biological patterns using muscle stem cells, which then differentiate into muscle and bone tissues. This kind of technology should one day be able to help treat people with degenerative and tissue-attacking autoimmune diseases, as well as people with damaged or failed organs.

We're still a ways away from being able to click "print" and have a heart pop out onto a holding tray, of course. And even when the technology is perfected, the applications will be limited (albeit life-saving). But the work done on this system may have a far larger benefit for those of us who love the taste and texture of meat, but hate what the livestock industries do to the planet.

It's hard to exaggerate just how destructive ranching -- cattle ranching, in particular -- is to the planet. Pasture and feed-producing land for livestock now account for 30% of the Earth's surface, according to a recent UN report, and is a major driver of deforestation. Moreover, the combined greenhouse gas emissions from cattle manure and the infrastructure around ranching (transport and the like) account for nearly 20% of our overall output -- higher than the transportation sector alone. Meat consumption is a major cause of ischemic heart disease, a top killer in the industrialized world. And the meat industry is, in a word, cruel, both to its workers and to the animals themselves. It's no exaggeration to say that a vegetarian planet would be a far healthier planet in nearly every respect -- environmentally, medically and ethically. Unfortunately, that's just not likely to happen any time soon.

Most of what we think of as "meat" is really just animal muscle tissue. In principle, there's no reason why a system that could print human muscle for medical use couldn't do the same for cattle muscle for food use. In reality, such a system would be highly inefficient -- at least alone.

But what if there was a source for animal muscle cells in great quantities, just waiting to be formed into meat-like structures?

New Harvest is a non-profit trying to develop what they call "cultured meat" -- cloned muscle tissue fed on a mushroom-based nutrient, with all of the taste and texture of "real" meat but without the environmental and ethical problems. Moreover, with the right bit of tweaking, the cultured meat could be healthier than animal meat, simply through the substitution of fats and various proteins. The cultured meat process is simple:

Matheny's team developed ideas for two techniques that have potential for large scale meat production. One is to grow the cells in large flat sheets on thin membranes. The sheets of meat would be grown and stretched, then removed from the membranes and stacked on top of one another to increase thickness.

The other method would be to grow the muscle cells on small three-dimensional beads that stretch with small changes in temperature. The mature cells could then be harvested and turned into a processed meat, like nuggets or hamburgers.

New Harvest is also a ways away from having a commercial product, but the problems they face seem to be more questions of engineering than of basic science.

To grow meat on a large scale, cells from several different kinds of tissue, including muscle and fat, would be needed to give the meat the texture to appeal to the human palate.

"The challenge is getting the texture right," says Matheny. "We have to figure out how to 'exercise' the muscle cells. For the right texture, you have to stretch the tissue, like a live animal would."

One possible solution involves cultured meat cellular structures on bio-scaffolds -- exactly the kind of process ideally suited to an ink-jet bioprinter. The scenarios of food service industry giants battling over the best designs for printed meat almost write themselves.

Of course, you can't talk about fabrication technology without at least thinking about the free/libre/open source possibilities. Desktop meat-jet printers are unlikely at first, but could easily be a hit with the DIY crowd. Will we see fights between the Open Source Steak movement and the Free Food Foundation movement? It takes the idea of swapping recipes to a whole new level.

Then there's the form of the food itself. The first generation of cultured meat products would strive to be as close to familiar as possible: products indistinguishable from beef hamburger patties, chicken breasts, strips of bacon, and the like. But as the public grew more comfortable with the process, there's no reason why more unusual meat types couldn't find their way onto plates of adventurous diners. How about burgers made from the cloned cells of the prehistoric Auroch?. And that's just the start.

Imagine: Soylent Green -- It's People™!

November 22, 2006

Irony Can Be Pretty Ironic, Sometimes

John Petersen's Arlington Institute (a Washington, DC think-tank) just posted a copy of the very brief nanospam talk I gave at PopTech. Coincidentally, I'm suddenly being inundated with actual nanospam. Not in the "junk spewing from my desktop fabber" sense, but in the "junkmail extolling the virtues of nanotechnology investments" sense. Most begin:

Score with Nanotechnology!

[...] It is widely predicted that nanotechnology will be the next booming industry for our economy. Our feature is in the perfect place at the good time.

You may be getting them, too, so I won't inflict any more of the content upon you. But if spam is any kind of early indicator of how a meme moves from radical idea to commonplace jargon, nano is really on its way.

November 19, 2006

CopyBot and the Abundance Economy, Revisited

stuffstation_sm.jpgLots of good observations in the comments to my post from a few days ago, Second Life, Economic Evolution and the CopyBot. Rather than try to address them in the comment thread, I thought I'd go ahead and bring them to the front page.

New World Notes writer James "Hamlet" Au argues:

Jamais, I think it's highly debatable whether SL is a scarcity-based economy, to begin with. If you visit SL and explore it at any great length, the immediate thing you'll be overwhelmed by is *stuff*, content of all kinds, high quality stuff, too. That's always been true. (Indeed, there are numerous "newbie junk yards" where clothes, weapons, etc. can be bought extremely cheaply, or free.) So I think it makes more sense to think of SL as a reputation, brand, or even *personality* economy, in which there's a high premium in owning content from the most successful, popular, and/or admired creators. Those are qualities that can't be replicated by CopyBot.

It's true that Second Life is more of a mixed-mode economy in toto than a purely scarcity-based economy, but the part of the SL economy that (a) has attracted a great deal of attention (due to its convertability to real money) and (b) CopyBot attacks directly is one where there is a "high premium" for original content. Nobody is going to get upset about the use of CopyBot to duplicate the "newbie junk yard" stuff. Some people (and it may be a small minority) are getting upset precisely because the application seems to allow the kind of duplication that both reduces a revenue source and undermines the reputational glow of ownership of particular items. It's human psychology -- part of the cool of having a special object (or whatever) comes from it being unusual and not commonplace. If it's not only (potentially) commonplace, but there's no obvious way to distinguish an original from a knock-off, it loses its special cool.

What's scarce in this economy isn't the product per se -- it's just bits, so there's no marginal cost of making a million instead of a dozen -- but that coolness premium. That's what people are paying for. This app makes it possible for an individual to gain the reputational/cool benefits of particular purchased content without paying the economic cost, while simultaneously shortening the period during which the content will be unusual (and thereby attractive). Designers who can put out new ideas quickly will do relatively well in the resulting economy of novelty, while designers that have counted on ongoing sales of existing designs to build up their in-game bank accounts will suffer.

Taran Rampersad (who wrote for WorldChanging for awhile, and maintains his own blog at Knowprose) observes:

"CopyBot alone may not be the doom of the current model of the Second Life economy, but it's a sign that doom is in the offing."

What?! Seriously, Jamais, there is no premise.

I don't want this to be a debate about the details of CopyBot specifically; my point isn't that the CopyBot application in and of itself is going to destroy SL. It's a broader category of threat, and a narrower target. CopyBot may be shut down, but the larger issue will persist; at the same time, it's not SL as a whole that's in danger, but a very particular way of making money within SL.

Generally speaking, systems that make it possible to make effectively-free duplicates of content make economic models predicated upon the relative scarcity of that content (whether the content itself, or the coolness surrounding the content) nearly impossible to maintain. If your industry is based on selling music, systems that make it effectively free to distribute copies of that music are a serious threat to your existing economic practice. This doesn't mean that new models won't emerge, or that it's impossible to make money (dollars or Lindens) in a free-duplication world, only that economic practices that assume persistent scarcity are doomed.

Drawing this back to my original larger point, this aspect seems intrinsic to "bit-based" economies, where the products being bought and sold (or traded...) exist as digital information. That's what the music industry found, what the movie industry is wrestling with, and what served as the key catalyst for the development of new institutions such as the "Creative Commons." Arguably, the emerging world of commonplace fabrication systems (leading to nanofactories or whatever) seems to be one in which atom-based (i.e., physical goods) production takes on characteristics of the bit-based (i.e., information) world. This strongly suggests that we will see similar fights about duplication of previously scarce products, and similar threats of traditional economic practices being undermined.

What happens in Second Life with this situation is important, therefore, because it will serve as a possible model for how the fabrication future will deal with abundant duplication. My interest isn't in seeing SL market models collapse -- my interest is seeing what comes next, and how people operating in this economy of novelty and abundance learn to thrive.

November 16, 2006

Second Life, Economic Evolution and the CopyBot

copybot_protest.jpgTwo related quotes from previous Open the Future posts:

When you are able to manipulate atoms as easily as you do bits, the rules of the bit world apply.

The rules we come up with to grapple with virtual objects of real value will haunt us for decades to come, if we're not careful.

The big news from the metaverse this last week has been "CopyBot," an application that allows a Second Life user to duplicate... well, just about anything, including clothing and objects other Second Life denizens have created for sale. James "Hamlet" Au offers a recap of the situation at his New World Notes site; be sure to read the comments to get a sense of how upset many SL residents are about this program.

As Sven Johnson suggests, the important story here isn't about Second Life per se, but about the clash between a scarcity-based economy and an abundance-based world.

The Second Life internal economy was predicated on the notion that designers could produce in-game objects that they could then sell; these objects would ostensibly be scarce (in the economic sense) because the designer could put limits on how many copies s/he would sell, and because -- in principle -- other residents couldn't make copies except by tedious efforts to reproduce a design by hand. Although the only "raw material" involved in the creation of Second Life goods is the memory & storage space needed on the SL server, the capability to design desirable objects serves as a market-generating form of scarcity. No matter that everyone can have the capability to make limitless numbers of in-game objects -- unless you can design something that other people want, you're just making digital junk.

But with CopyBot, these limitations are less meaningful, because it eliminates the barriers to making your own duplicates of other people's designs. It's not tedious or challenging, it's a click of a button. As a result, apparently over a hundred in-game designers have shut down in protest, and threats of lawsuits and copyright-infringement actions are flying.

If the ability to make copies continues to exist, these vendors argue, the basis of the SL economy will be destroyed. And since there's a direct conversion between in-game money and real-world money, anything that weakens the SL economy threatens the real-world economic livelihoods of many SL residents. They're right -- but is the Second Life economy worth saving?

What Linden Lab has tried to do is replicate the atom-world scarcity rules in a bit-world environment. Nobody should be surprised in any way that this doesn't work for long. It is the nature of bits to be easily copied. Even if Linden manages to shut down CopyBot, it will arise again in another form, and probably as something much harder to squelch. The death of Napster becomes the explosion of Gnutella and Bit Torrent; the death of CopyBot will mean the emergence of something more powerful and less easily eliminated. It's delightfully Darwinian.

Bit world economies based on scarcity are inherently fragile, and cannot survive. To the degree that Second Life is a test bed for a future of abundance, then, the way that the Second Life community (both the builders and the players) responds to this reality will give us an early indication of how the real world will respond to the economic challenges of nanofactories and distributed fabrication. The question is, will Second Life be a model of successful evolution or a painful failure to adapt?

(Update: I wrote a follow-up to this article: CopyBot and the Abundance Economy, Revisited)

October 17, 2006

The Nightmare Scenario

While reading a story about the "gray goo" attack in Second Life, I was struck by what could well be the nightmare scenario for molecular manufacturing:


Hear me out. We all know the logic behind email spam: the cost of sending out a million messages differs little from the cost of sending out a single message; even with a minuscule response rate, sending enough messages can mean a visible return on investment; spam "offense" always eventually overwhelms anti-spam "defense."

The same logic could apply to molecular manufacturing spam, but MM-spam could take myriad new forms. Advertising messages etched into whatever objects get made by a nanofac. Code that tells the nanofac to use all available nanotoner to continuously print out small, mobile commercial-shouting bots. Hacks that instruct a nanofac to embed into the hardware of any new nanofac it makes commands to add commercials on whatever the new nanofac makes. I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface here, and that far more insidious and hard-to-root-out forms of nanospam are on the horizon.

It seems that every digital technology capable of displaying a message and hooked to a network eventually becomes the target of spam. It's highly likely that nanofactories will be online, along with everything else in one's house or community, for reasons of hardware updates and design transfers; those here old enough to remember floppy disks know that malware can travel via sneakernet & disk quite easily, too, so being unplugged is not the same as being offline.

Forget home-printed assault rifles and field-produced drones. Forget gray, green and red goo. The real danger we will face in the time of molecular manufacturing is spam.

September 15, 2006


devoband.jpgI'm posting this via a computer I haven't used for a few months. My current machine, a 2.0 GHz MacBook, began this morning to exhibit the "random shutdown syndrome" that apparently afflicts most of the units made prior to July or August. I've now sent it off to the mothership for a brain transplant.

I had a current backup, so this is at worst a serious annoyance, not a infocalypse. Still, it got me thinking about typical futurist discourse around technology. It's not impossible to find discussions of (for example) nanofactories or everyware sensor networks that assume that the systems will be buggy and prone to surprising and sometimes baffling failures, but they're not at all common. Admittedly, it's awfully hard to talk about failure states of vaporware. Paradigm shifts in technologies of material fabrication, communication and awareness will undoubtedly be accompanied by significant shifts in what broken or buggy systems look like. All too often, while in the middle of a technological revolution, we'll find ourselves forced to go backwards, forced into technological devolution, simply because the new stuff is broken.

It is entirely possible that the technologies underlying nanofabrication (again, for example) simply will not, cannot break in the ways we're accustomed to with our current high tech gear. This doesn't mean that they won't manifest their own quirks and failures. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if the technologies offer such a radical leap that they cannot fail in familiar ways, unexpected and potentially significant new failure modes are inevitable, simply because of an imperfect understanding of the complex interaction of these new systems with each other, and (more importantly) with the remaining, and likely abundant, old-style systems.

Proponents of paradigm-shift technologies are so accustomed to having to demonstrate why the new invention will be utterly transformative that they often (in my experience, at least) neglect to consider how the system will behave in the midst of existing technical, legal and social systems. This leads to technologies that work perfectly well in the lab, but fail spectacularly when in the dirty, crowded environment of the real world.

The biggest danger with this sort of thinking is that it leads designers to neglect fail-safe and graceful degradation modes. When we have convinced ourselves that there's no possibility of failure, any failure that does (almost inevitably) occur presents a far, far greater problem than it would have had we considered that a problem might emerge. Instead, technologies should, in Adam Greenfield's words, "default to harmlessness:" Systems fail; when they do, they can fail gracefully or they can fail catastrophically. When a system fails, it should do so in a way which does not itself make problems worse.

The belief that successful outcomes are possible does not require us to ignore or wish away failure. Basing plans on perfection adds a great deal of risk with little added reward. Instead, success demands that we address failures directly: preventing them when possible, mitigating them when necessary, adapting to them if we must.

September 12, 2006

Abundance, Scarcity and Beta-Testing Tomorrow

I often cite molecular nanotechnology as a transformative technology because of its significant potential implications, especially societal implications. In principle, given inputs of relatively common raw materials (including materials recycled from objects no longer in use), a full-fledged nanofabrication device would be able to build an array of goods limited more by design availability than by system capacity, from clothing to calculators to combat rifles (and, of course, copies of itself). Even if this is just a subset of the products that people normally buy, such a device would still wreak havoc upon traditional economic models. Different cultures will respond in different ways, of course, but a larger question remains. Economics, after all, is traditionally conceived as the study of exchanges under conditions of scarcity. If scarcity no longer applies, how can we have functional markets?

This is not an idle question. Although molecular nanofabricators safely remain vaporware, few specialists in the field would be surprised to see a working prototype within a couple of decades (and, if Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder are right, an abundance of extremely fast, powerful and complete versions a very short time afterwards). That is to say, if you believe that you have a reasonable chance of making it to, say, 2025, you will likely see how the question of markets under conditions of abundance turns out.

If we're clever, though, we might not have to wait.

Continue reading "Abundance, Scarcity and Beta-Testing Tomorrow" »

September 6, 2006

(Virtual) Weapon Smuggling

destiny.jpgThree men in Shanghai were convicted this week on charges of producing and selling weapons -- only the weapons existed solely as computer data for a virtual world.

Prosecutors allege the trio earned illegal profits of more than 2 million yuan (US$250,000) by using the computer code database of Legend of Mir 2, a popular online game operated by Shanda, to produce and sell large quantities of high-level game weapons. The weapons are normally only available to high-level winners, and hadn't been for sale.

Possession of the weapons would allow less skilled players to succeed more easily. The activities of the three also circulated far more virtual weapons than the company planned, which alerted the company that something was amiss.

Note that at no time did the weapon data ever leave the company-controlled servers. This wasn't a simple case of copyright violation by making copies for use elsewhere, it was much more akin to the production and distribution of controlled items. But because these were virtual goods, not physical goods, the defendants were charged with copyright violations, not theft or smuggling.

In a world where virtual goods have definable real money value, however, the question of the precise nature of the crime committed is not an easy one to answer. Existing players weren't harmed directly. They didn't steal the weapons, at least in terms of taking them from one group of players to sell to another group. They didn't reduce the use value of the weapons -- the +10 Swords of Überness presumably still worked as designed. They did decrease the perceived value of the weapons held by those players who had acquired them legitimately, but that in and of itself isn't a crime.

In a virtual world, there's no intrinsic reason for scarcity to be the core economic driver. The +10 Sword of Überness could be duplicated over and over again at effectively zero economic cost. Artificial scarcity is imposed by the game managers, however, as a means of both maintaining a semi-functional economy and providing a set of incremental goals for players to work towards.

This issue moves from being somewhat abstract and geeky to being a Potential Big Issue when we start thinking about objects that have an existence as both virtual and physical products, whether we're talking about Sven Johnson's Kirkyan concept, where changes to the virtual representation of an object influences changes to its physical manifestation, or simply being able to fabricate physical objects at home, with the only restrictions being the artificial scarcity of access to designs.

The rules we come up with to grapple with virtual objects of real value will haunt us for decades to come, if we're not careful.

May 31, 2006

Joining the Late 1990s

otf_shirt.jpgOkay, so I'm the last kid on the block to do this, and it has long been considered kind of silly... but I went ahead and set up Open the Future shirts and mugs (and a couple of other items) over at CafePress.

At the very least, I can get a new coffee mug to replace my sadly broken BBC cup.

And consider it a social experiment: I know I get a handful of readers -- is anybody interested in swag?

Or: is there a better place to create these kinds of items?

Edit: the very first comment reminds me to say: I've done a bare minimum ($1) zero mark-up on the items, so this is *not* a money-making venture on my part.