A talent for following the ways of yesterday is not sufficient to improve the world of today’ – King Wu-Ling ruler of the Kingdom of Zhao 307 BC.
Its 2020 and you’re buying furniture from Ikea. Rather than spend the next two hours assembling it, you simply go to your email with a link to the digital blueprints, click “print” on your 3D printer and hey presto you’re new trendy Swedish floor lamp is ready in minutes.
With rapid advances in 3D printing this scenario could soon be reality. The technology is in its embryonic stages yet just like the exponential progress in artificial intelligence, the possibilities on the horizon seem endless with researchers already printing anything from houses to hearts.
What is it?
3D printing also known as “additive manufacturing” is the production of an object using a digital blueprint. If you can find the right design and materials, you can make previously off-limit objects from your kitchen mantlepiece. It is the latest mind bending, fast changing innovation that will enable previously unimaginable applications while also radically altering how the world works and undermining the rules than govern it.
Today 3D printing remains very much a product for professionals. Formlabs, the leading manufacturer in the U.S markets itself mostly to dentists to build molds and jewelers to build casts.
In Nepal, the technology is inspiring a new era of industrialisation. The introduction of several dozen 3D printers has allowed micro-businesses to flourish. They are manufacturing goods such as pipe fittings and medical tools that previously had to be imported at high cost. And in Europe human organs have been 3D printed using a person’s own cells, which reduces the chances of rejection by the body.
In the right hands, 3D printing has shown it has the potential to provide revolutionary benefits across the globe. Yet as with developments in artificial intelligence and blockchain technology, it opens up a new can of anarchic worms for our democratic legal systems who are wholly unprepared for regulation.
In 2013 when self described crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson fired the first 3D printed gun he posted the printing manual blueprints online. It was quickly removed by the U.S Department of Justice but not before it was downloaded nearly 100,000 times.
The case exemplified a significant degree of legal confusion as lawyers tried to apply old principles and traditional concepts to a novel situation.
As the Economist highlights in order to stop Mr Wilson from posting his gun making guide online, the federal government deployed an unusual and rather dubious legal strategy. The State Department accused him of violating export-control laws that prohibit disclosing technical data about military equipment and munitions to foreigners.
These laws were originally designed to stop someone from doing things like copying the blueprints of a nuclear submarine and passing them on to a foreign adversary. Wilson argued that the application of export control laws was wholly inappropriate, given that gun-making manuals already exist in the public domain.
His argument that the government order to remove the instructions violated his free speech won out. Yet even if the government had won the case and banned his blueprints would it have made a significant difference?
Regulating the Unregulatable
The regulation of 3D printing is an enormous challenge. The ability to trace and detect 3D printed weapons or other dangerous items requires a strong and comprehensive regulatory framework.
In California lawmakers have passed a law to ensure homemade guns are registered with authorities and banned from being purchased and sold. Yet at the federal level U.S senators have not called for an immediate Senate report into 3D printing and its future effects but have instead turned to tech companies such as Google and Facebook to block and ban sites that use and share gun making blueprints.
It should make us concerned that rather than law enforcement taking the lead on controlling the proliferation of homemade weapons the U.S government has thought it appropriate to outsource responsibility to the new moral gatekeepers of our society – big tech.
Mark Zuckerburg is not the digital Dalai lama and big tech’s profit motive more often that not doesn’t align with the public good. We are in desperate need for a radical vision to renegotiate our relationship with tech, a constitution or rights and responsibilities fit for the digital age or we will soon be overloaded with unprecedented challenges our institutions and democracies will be unable to manage.
Like all revolutionary technologies, we want a system that fosters the good and minimizes the bad. What will happen when a news story breaks that someone has uploaded a photo of a child to a computer and 3D print a sex doll modeled in its image? This is already possible. In China, reports suggest that sex bot manufacturers have already embraced 3D printing to mass produce sex robots modeled on real people.
These are the scenarios we will soon be faced with. Its crucial we begin now to develop the legal instruments to respond and the online infrastructure to host healthy democratic debate on the issues.