Technology out of control

Robert Henderson

I have previously examined  how robotics has the potential to make unviable both consumer based  economic systems based on the market and free trade between countries and the vast potential they have for creating economic and social  upheaval  in any industrialised society (  A short recap of these difficulties will set the scene for the less obvious threat posed by other emerging technologies.

When general purpose robots are available they will not only be able to do the jobs humans do now but any new jobs arising from the technology. This is a wholly new situation because all previous technological advance has created new jobs which can only be done by humans.

In such circumstances there will be a choice for any  society: ban robots in the society  and  goods produced by robots in foreign countries or suffer  a catastrophic and unmendable unemployment and the subsequent catastrophic loss of demand.

Alternatively, a society could be organised predominantly on a command economy basis with  the robots producing most of the goods and providing  most of the services with  human beings acting purely as consumers apart from those needed to do whatever jobs robots cannot do or  it is deemed dangerous for them to do. There could also be a peripheral human economy consisting of those producing art or artisan goods for a niche market.

General purpose robots are the most obvious and comprehensive threat to the  economic arrangements of the advanced world, but there are other emerging  technological advances which either already exist as practical tools for general use or will do so in the not too distant future.

3D Printers

A favourite SciFi  invention is the universal replicator, a machine which produces whatever a person wants. We are not there yet but the first significant steps have been made with the 3D printer.

3D printing has the potential to undermine any society based on mass production for high volume  consumption.  If everything can be reduced to an electronic blueprint, in principle anyone can  produce anything. This is  because  3D printers will not only print from ready-made programs. Any object can be scanned and then the scanned information in digital form may be used to print the object.  All that will be required is the requisite printing equipment with the physical materials to create the object required.

This will raise a number of problems for private business, both in terms of what they will be producing and supplying and because of the intellectual property implications.  Imagine a world in which, say, the individual human can produce 75% of the manufactured goods they require simply by printing them.   That is not so far-fetched as it might seem. Consider your own life. What would you think it obviously  impractical for a 3D printer to produce?  Almost certainly a house, quite probably a car.  Perhaps anything large and complicated.

Large is not an insuperable problem even for the present  because  parts  of any object could  be produced with a 3D Printer and then assembled, quite probably by a robot.  A Dutch company DUS Architects are already testing out the proposition that a house could be printed out (

Complexity would not be an absolute  barrier  because a printer could print from the centre to the perimeter or an object.  Using that technique  a complete car could be printed out.  A house would be a stretch because of the problems of foundations,  but it might be possible to print a house in its entirety on foundations created by  humans or robots.  In principle anything could be produced whole provided it was not larger than the capacity of the printer used to print it.

3D printing  has the potential to create immense economic difficulties.  If it was used widely traditional manufacturers would at best find the demand for most of their goods either vanishing altogether or dropping very sharply.  Wholesalers would be rendered unnecessary in great swathes of industry because they only thing they would have to deliver would be a computer programme to the individual 3D printer. Retailers might still have a life as showrooms for the printed product, but it would be a much reduced service because people would probably be more and more content just to view a model on the Web or one printed out by a friend. Perhaps a holographic representation of the article to be printed  would be provided before printing.

Price would also be a consideration. There is good reason to believe that items printed would be cheaper than those made in factories because there would be no overheads beyond the machine’s purchase, its maintenance, the materials used for printing and the energy used. A parallel with 2D printing can be made. It is much cheaper to print text or images on your home printer than give the work to a commercial printer.  There is also the possibility that the materials for creating 3D printed artefacts could be reused, just like  plasticene, over and over again. If  an item was not liked or a  print went wrong there would be only the cost of the energy used to print to be borne.

But 3D printing could go way  beyond the manufactured goods we have now. If anything can be reduced to a computer programme and the correct ingredients by way of the ink substitute created to put into the 3D printer why could not anything physical not be created including food?  Organic material has already been used in 3D printing as we shall see. It might even  be possible in the more distant future to manipulate atoms to create whatever elements are required, just as the  sun causes different elements  to form.

The macro economic effects   of widespread 3D printing would be catastrophic because there would be, as with general purpose robots,  a huge loss of demand  due to a widespread  loss of employment as  industrial, wholesale and retail activity was severely reduced.  A company which makes and  supplies  computer programmes rather than making and supplying physical things is going to need a  tiny workforce  compared to a manufacturer with their  factory or the wholesaler or retailer with their warehouse.

In the beginning when 3D printers are  very expensive less than user-friendly,  there would  be businesses which would set up 3D printing shops  just as there are 2D print shops now.  But the likelihood is that as time goes on and 3D printers become cheap and user-friendly ,  businesses  doing the 3D printing for customers will become defunct or at least very much reduced. In any event such businesses  will  indubitably require far fewer staff than traditional manufactures.

What is it to be human?

3D printers represent an existential  threat as well as an economic one. The reproduction of human parts has already taken its first tentative steps using  3D printers –

If it is possible to print a kidney why not a complete human being ?  Assume there is a situation where a complete body could be replicated. Think further and imagine that not only the physical construct of the body can  be replicated but also the  mental element of a person. This might be done by simply replicating a brain with the replication process exactly copying the brain in all its facets, including the brain’s  operational state,  at a point in time so that the resultant artefact would be an exact copy of the original just as a copied computer file is an exact copy of data at a point in time.  Even more removed from the original person would  be a means of reducing  the entire mental construct of a person to a digital representation which could be stored as a computer file and then downloaded into other machines, artificially created bodies  or even other human beings.

That might seem something which is way into the future, but consider the speed with which technology is already advancing, how we have moved from physically huge computers fifty years ago to tiny devices with many times the power of the most advanced  computer made in the 1960s. The temptation to offer a modern version of “It’ll never replace the horse” is strong but equally doomed to ridiculous failure.

Think on two questions:  (1) if  individual humans can be replicated  what is it to be human?   (2) Once everything  can be  reduced to digital data or indeed data in any form, where does reality begin and end? I would suggest only in the concept of things rather than the physical reality of them.

Self-Organising materials

Another future disrupter of  market economies is self-organising materials. Imagine a material which did not have a fixed state but could assume different states to perform different tasks. Such a material could perform as a  wondrously enhanced Swiss Army knife  without the need to have  any permanent specific tools, viz:

 A. System Functionality

We aim to create a system of sand grain sized modules that can form arbitrary structures on demand. Imagine a bag of these intelligent particles. If, for example, one needs a specific type or size of wrench, one communicates this to the bag. The modules contained within first crystallize into a regular structure and then self-disassemble in an organized fashion to form the requested object. One reaches in, grabs the tool, and uses it to accomplish a meaningful task. When one is done with the tool, it goes back into the bag where it disintegrates, and the particles can be reused to form the next tool. Such a system would be immensely useful for an astronaut on an inter-planetary mission or a scientist isolated at the South Pole. Even for the average mechanic or surgeon, the ability to form arbitrary, task-specific, tools would be immensely valuable in inspecting and working in tight spaces.(Self-Disassembling Robots Pebbles: New Results and Ideas for Self-Assembly of 3D Structures (

This system uses electromagnets and a subtractive system. It begins with a quantity of the grain sized modules and removes those which are not needed for a specific item, just as a sculptor starts with a block of marble and creates by removing material. Unlike a sculpture when the object is no longer required the totality of the grain size modules reforms until it required to form  an object again.

That is self-organising materials as tools, but any object could in principle be so created, even complicated machines. All that would be required is a form of self-organising  material  flexible enough to  translate any  digital map into a real object.

The effect of widespread use of self-organising materials  would mean that much of traditional manufacturing would become unnecessary. That would have serious effects on demand because employment would be substantially reduced.

Intellectual property

The wholesale removal of production and supply by innovations such as 3D printing and self-organising materials have  serious  implications for intellectual property.    If everything is reduced to a digital representation,  where will ownership of ideas and physical  creations lie?  At present it is possible to have patent(s)  in an object, but what if anything can be scanned and  a 3D print made from the scan? Who could claim that a patent had been infringed if the item complained about  was the results of a scan produced by the person making the 3D print?  That would not be the equivalent of someone taking an object or process and simply reproducing it by physically duplicating by an act of copying.   Rather, it would be akin to the situation where someone photographs a painting then mass reproduces the photograph.  There would be no obvious breach of patent  because the copies would be of the photograph taken of the painting not of the painting itself and the creation of a photograph is an act of artistic creation in itself .

In such circumstances patent rights would become effectively null and void.  If there was an attempt to reform patent law to include replication of an original patented design,  however reproduced, if it was identical or even merely  had a large degree of similarity with the scanned object,   it is unlikely that it would be enforceable. That is  because  all any person wishing to replicate an object would have to do to put themselves arguably beyond a patent would be to manipulate the data from the scanned object  to make it other than identical with the original object which was scanned and then argue the changes were sufficient to constitute something different in quality to the scanned original object.   That would be a never ending playground for the lawyers as people squabbled over what constituted a significance similarity.

There would also be an obvious reason why enforcement would fail: the sheer numbers of people copying things, with most of them doing it simply for themselves or at least on a very small scale. The patent holders would be faced with a similar problem to that faced by the creators of digital material such as films or music who still suffer massive breaches of copyright.  Patent holders  would  be overwhelmed by the numbers  of breaches.

There could also be problems over copyright. A person who scanned an object would be creating a digital data map of the object. That would be an original creation. Who would own the copyright of the data map? Presumably the person who scanned it, for the data map they have created is original.  If the data map was then sold to others there would  be a direct conflict between the rights of the patent holder of the scanned object and the rights of the copyright holder who created the data map. How could that be resolved? Frankly I doubt whether it could be in any coherent or effective legal manner. If copyright was legally denied to those who created a data map by scanning, such a law  would almost certainly have general implications for copying anything by any means, even including the copying of a painting by painting a copy.

Disruptive technological advances  do not have to dramatic or completely novel

General purpose robots and self-organising materials  are genuine  novelties in the sense of having no antecedents, but less novel  and exotic  technological advances  also contain threats of social and economic disruption.  Think of the effect that the automation of a single machine dedicated to one general type of  activity might have. An automated sewing machine  meets  that description and there are serious attempts being made to produce one:

Fully Automatic Sewing of Garments Using Micro-Manipulation

FBO – DARPA has provided $1.25 million for Softwear Automation to develop a complete work-cell called a Beta Unit for fully automated sewing. That includes a numerically controlled sewing machine that tracks fabric movement by observing passing threads and under servo control moves the fabric under the needle stitch by stitch. Complete production facilities that produce garments with zero direct labor is the ultimate goal.

The military’s annual clothing budget at $4 billion dollars and employs about 50,000 people.

The US annual import of sewn items is approximately $100 Billion per year.

The technology proposed appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs LESS THAN in China. There is only one basic innovation required; that the metric of motion should not be meters or inches but rather thread count in the fill and warp directions. (Wovens and leather like materials need a slightly different measure.) This leads to THREE fundamental technical issues that have largely been solved and discussed below as well as more routine engineering development.

“The automation process proposed by Dickerson works something like this. First, an “overhead, pick-and-place robot” grabs the necessary pieces of fabric and places them at the head of a sewing machine. The appliance itself would be equipped with “machine vision” capabilities, specific enough to spot and track individual fabric threads. That intel would “provide fabric location information” to actuators that operate the sewing machine’s needle and thread, and “budgers” — motorized balls, underneath the sewing machine that latch onto the fabric via vacuum seal — that move the material to and fro.”

If such a machine is invented much of the emerging economies of the developing world would be lost  because of their  very heavy reliance on producing clothes. And that is just one machine. Other basic manufacturing processes currently relying on cheap labour in places such as China and  India  could be and almost certainly will be invented.

What should be done?

Governments should be considering  the implications of any disruptive new technology and planning to deal with the problems they create, for example, by deciding now whether to ban or restrict the use of general purpose robots or to rejig the way a society produces goods and provides services, rather than wait for the reality of the new  technology to be upon us.

Dispiritingly,  governments  are, with the notable exceptions of GM foods and alleged man-made climate change,  ignoring the potential  dangers technology can  present.  In most instances the potential dangers are not even part of the  mainstream political discourse, not least because  there are no powerful and well funded  interest groups lobbying  about technologies such as robotics.

The irony is that GM foods and man-made climate change either present no proven danger (GM foods) or have no proven foundation (man-made climate change),  while dangers posed by technologies such as  general purpose robots and  3D printing contain  very real and obvious dangers

Why do GM foods and man-made climate change appeal to many while  fears over technologies such as robotics and 3D printing lack a  public voice? Probably because digital technology has become so much a part of our lives.   Most people simply think of the idea of robots and 3D printing as simply a development of what they already use and increasingly interact with on a quasi-human level.  Green issues are set apart from such everyday experience.   There is also probably an element of people thinking they will be treated as SF addicts at best and  unbalanced at worst if they start  raising fears about robots, 3D printers  and suchlike. They should put aside their fears of being embarrassed and think about the practical  implications of such technologies.

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