The Technologist’s Dilemma: 3D Printing

June 25, 2014

I admit. It actually felt like an overnight revolution. Within a time frame in the past 4 years that I can somewhat remember, 3D printers became mainstream but, in fact, this revolution has been going on for 30 years. For all of us who have met the magic world of 3D printers, it’s a dream come true. However, did you ever think what this revolution can bring?

I still don’t remember when 3D printers entered my life exactly, but I do remember the thrill I felt when I first saw FORM 1 3D Printer by Formlabs raise almost $3 million on Kickstarter, approximately 2 years ago. I felt something special was going to happen, because by means of magnitude, this was a time somewhat comparable to how the world changed when Apple introduced the first consumer friendly personal computer, Macintosh. And by consumer friendly, I mean affordable and easy-to-use. The 1984 Macintosh was priced at $2,500, which was affordable for a big chunk of the US population at the time, considering the yearly median household income in US was $22,415 in 1984. [US Census Bureau] That was when the personal computer revolution took off, and over time, it became more and more affordable, resulting in at least 1 computer per household. This is why I was so excited to see the FORM 1 3D printer going on sale starting at $2,400. We could finally afford 3D printers!

One after another, we have seen other 3D printers come into the market competing against each other, resulting in cheaper prices. We have even seen a 3D printing pen! It was obvious that a legitimate industry was forming and more and more firms were trying to reach economies of scale, bringing down the costs of printing materials as well. Then people started to print awesome things. From toys to phone cases to fantasy objects. It was all around the place. I was super glad to hear that it is even possible to print organs to resolve organ-donor problem. Yes, researchers started experimenting with printing livers, lungs, kidneys and even made some of them work! Let’s take a look at this info graphic by Yeggi, a search engine for 3D printable models, to see what people search the most to print using their 3D printers.

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Looking at the top 10, everything looks fine, except number 7! Yes, weapons! Realizing this fact made me worry about this awesome technology especially around the same time governments around the world are discussing tighter gun control laws. Think about it though, if this technology will become more affordable in the next 10 years so that it can reach the level of paper printers, everyone will have access to a machine that can enable them to manufacture guns!

It turns out, VICE prepared an awesome documentary, just about 3D printed guns. After watching it, I felt a lot more worried about potential dangers this technology might have. Cody Wilson, a 25 year old University of Texas Law student, has figured out how to print a semi-automatic rifle from the comfort of his own home and started Defense Distributed, a non profit that enables him to share this information online so that others will join him! In fact, they are advancing every day in building better weapons.

This is what I call a technologist’s dilemma. For every new technology out there, that opens thousands of doors for new possibilities and moves the human race forward, there are potential harmful uses of such technology. What shall we do then? Shall we just stop improving it? Whenever all the awesomeness of new technologies start to diminish in my mind and I start to worry about potential consequences more, I go to Weiser’s Principles of Inventing Socially Dangerous Technology. Mark Weiser, the father of ubiquitous computing, said:

1. Build it as safe as you can, and build into it all the safeguards to personal values that you can imagine.
2. Tell the world at large that you are doing something dangerous.

As a technologist myself, I’m not currently involved in the building of 3D printers. But I still feel the responsibility of communicating this to the world that this can become something potentially dangerous so that we should all are prepared to tackle these issues and take necessary actions without compromising the advancement 3D printing can bring to the development of the human race. Long live the human race!

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