Via Michael Anissimov we hear that the second generation of the RepRap self-replication machine, codenamed “Mendel”, is nearly ready for public release. Meaning that you could buy one (if you found someone who’d sell you one), but you could also build your own from the free open-source plans found at the RepRap website; the parts will cost you around US$650. [image from the RepRap wiki]
While such homebrew 3d printers aren’t currently much use for high-detail work and commercial finishes (like reproductions of your favourite World of Warcraft critters, maybe), they can make functional devices without any major problems. If there really is an increase in demand, you could probably assemble a Mendel and set it up to simple print a copy of itself. Then set up the copy to do the same, get a few generations of fully-functioning clones built, and then start churning ’em out and selling them to local buyers…
Integrating electrical and electronic circuits into physical parts is beyond these current home fabbers, but where big industry leads the homebrew crew will follow. Xerox has just invented a conductive silver ink that works without the need for a clean-room environment, meaning you can print off circuits onto a flexible substrate just like any other continuous-feed document. It wouldn’t take much for someone to buy some of that ink and find a way to use it in cheap and/or homebrew kit… hey presto, you’ve suddenly got the capability to replicate the electronic parts of a more complex self-replicating machine.
So go a bit further, integrate the two functions, have one machine that can print both inert blocks and electronics. Now we’re cooking! Now shrink ’em down, maybe speciate them so that different versions are specialised toward specific types of printing or assembly. But you’ll need to train them to pass off tasks they can’t do onto a machine that can, so you give them some sort of rudimentary swarm intelligence that communicates over something like Bluetooth… and then all of a sudden you’ve got an anthill of mechanical critters that have learned to procreate, cooperate, and deceive. DOOM.
Yeah, I know, it’s not very likely – but allow a guy a flight of robo-dystopian fancy on a Thursday, why don’t you? 🙂
George Dyson has an excellent and compelling essay on game theory, economics, information theory, computer science, banking, finance, technology, and John von Neumann:
We are surrounded by codes (some Turing-universal) that make copies of themselves, and by physical machines that spawn virtual machines that in turn spawn demand for more physical machines. Some digital sequences code for spreadsheets, some code for music, some code for operating systems, some code for sprawling, metazoan search engines, some code for proteins, some code for the gears used in numerically-controlled gear-cutting machines, and, increasingly, some code for DNA belonging to individuals who serve as custodians and creators of more code. “It is easier to write a new code than to understand an old one,” von Neumann warned.
The monograph over on Edge discusses von Neumann’s intellectual antecendants and the development of game theory and statistical modelling. It also includes some interesting commentary on our recent economic difficulties. Definitely worth a read.
[image from kevindooley on flickr]
Flash forward 20 years. Everyone has access to an open-source personal rapid prototyper (notwithstanding a fabber equivalent of Bill Gates…) and can rustle up one of these homebrew UAVs: at the drop of a futuristic ambient computer thing:
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…
As Charles Stross points out, ready-to print Saturday night specials could be only a decade away, and along with the UAVs and the fabbers it makes the next few years an interesting time to be alive.
[via Warren Ellis][image from tanakawho on flickr]
Self-replicating machines, as a concept, have been around since mathematician John von Neumann thought them up. But there has never been a working non-organic machine that has been able to construct a fully-functional working clone of itself … until now. [story via pretty much everywhere; image from the RepRap homepage]
“RepRap achieved self-replication at 14:00 hours UTC on 29 May 2008 at Bath University in the UK.”
I’ve linked to the RepRap Project before when I first started blogging here at Futurismic, and so I’m immensely pleased to see they’ve reached this major milestone. And the head-twistingly awesome bit about it is that, as RepRap is 100% open-source, you can just download a parts list and make your own, then set it to make copies of itself to give to your friends.
“The machine that [self-replicated] – RepRap Version 1.0 “Darwin” – can be built now – see the Make RepRap Darwin link, and for ways to get the bits and pieces you need, see the Obtaining Parts link.”
OK, so it looks clunky, and it lacks the conceptual elegance of Drexler’s engines of creation, but think of it as a proof of concept. Imagine that RepRap could build a functional replica of itself at half the size, and that then the replica could replicate to half the size again, and so on. Unless you’re worried about the largely improbable “grey goo” scenario, it’s possible that we’ll look back on RepRap as the dawn of a new age for the means of production …
… or the root cause of global unemployment, maybe. 😉