Saturday, December 03, 2005

Open Source Hardware

A pair of new technological developments promise to unleash human creativity and revolutionize invention, prototyping, and manufacturing. Let's say you have an idea for a brilliant new invention, or an elegant design for an existing product, but you don't have the money or the space for a machine shop. No problem. To create your vision, you need only go down the street...or, in a future not too far away, just hit "print."

The Fab Lab

"When Makeda Stephenson compared flight simulator games sold in computer stores and didn't find anything she liked, she didn't stop there. The 13-year-old used a set of computer-controlled manufacturing tools at a community centre in Boston to make her own simulator - one that lets her 'fly' an airplane of her design over an alien planet born of her imagination.

In a room filled with computers and tabletop-size manufacturing equipment, Stephenson created a pilot's control yoke with motion sensors she fashioned from a melange of old electronic toys and parts. A computer program she wrote with help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology guides the plane's movements on her computer screen.

She did it all through a teen learning program at one of seven so-called Fabrication Labs that MIT has established in places as distant as Norway and Ghana. Each lab has tool sets that, at about $US25,000 ($34,000), would be out of reach of most fledgling inventors."

Imagine her parents' delight when she came home and explained "what she did at school today!" Now, imagine the effect on human intelligence and achievement if every interested 13-year-old had access to this sort of learning-and-doing opportunity. While the $25,000 ($35,000 Aus.) price tag for such a Fab Lab may be out of reach of most hobbyists, it's not out of reach of a private or government school, big church, neighborhood group or civic organization.

An entrepreneur with some startup capital could operate one in a local shopping mall and rent time to the aforementioned schools, churches, civic and neighborhood groups, filling in any empty time slots by renting to interested artists, tinkerers, and craftspeople.

Deployed to the developing world, Fab Labs give people the ability to "bootstrap" their communities by creating needed technologies that either do not exist in useable-by-them form or are too expensive to order and deliver. Fab Labs in India made it possible for people to create a device to adjust the timing on the diesel engines their livelihood depend on, and for women to easily fabricate new pattern-stamps for their indigenous Chikan embroidery. Think of it as an "Industrial-Revolution-in-a-Box."

"'If you give people access to means to solve their own problems, it touches something very, very deep,' says Neil Gershenfeld, an MIT physicist and computer scientist who is among the movement's chief proponents. 'Somehow it goes back to nest-building, or mastering your own environment.

"'There's this deep thing inside that most people don't express that comes tumbling out when they get access to these tools,' he says."

For those of you who share a libertarian bent, or even an old-fashioned belief in self-reliance, go back and read those last two sentences again. There is the Design Science Revolution in a nutshell. You can quote Mises or Hayek at someone all day and not touch anything "very, very deep." Empower people with an artifact like this, and you reach beyond mere intellectual assent to pro-freedom ideas, down to the defining element of human nature that has existed at least since Homo habilis--man is a maker, the creative animal.

The beauty of this artifact-based revolution is that it goes far beyond mere politics. The "five triangles" that arise from unleashing human ingenuity on a mass scale will bring benefits we cannot even imagine. It has been said that only about a thousand people participated directly in creating the Rennaissance. Contemplate a modern techno-Rennaissance with a million, ten million, a billion participants.

For a fascinating discussion of this technology from Neil Gershenfeld, click here.

The 3-D Printer (the article in this link requires you to view an ad to access)

The 3-D Printer is an even more revolutionary development. It is a "printer" that produces three-dimensional artifacts by "laying down" one layer at a time. These devices already exist, and are used to "print" out designs from digital images so their creators can see and feel what they will be like in reality. Currently, this technology is very expensive. However, just like high-resolution laser printers that were once affordable only by print shops and can now be bought at Wal-Mart, 3-D printers are coming down in price. Combined with the new technology of "printing" circuits on paper or even cloth, it will be possible to "print out" a cell phone or coffeemaker.

The most obvious implication of this is that you will be able to create your own design for any artifact you can print, or download designs from the 'net. There is no reason, in principle, that you need be limited to small scale artifacts. Imagine logging on to the website of the local OmniMat, uploading a design for a car or washing machine you got from the 'net, paying a fee based on the amount of materials used plus profit for the OmniMat, and an industrial-sized 3-D printer starts spray-printing your artifact in layers of Liquid Metal.

This technology will provide benefits for the environment and savings in high fuel costs, since it will no longer be necessary to ship a cell phone or a Toyota all the way from Japan. Instead, only electrons need be transported. But what about all those "good manufacturing jobs" (and jobs in the shipping industry) that will be lost?

As the title of this post implies, these technologies offer us an age of "open source hardware" that provides the increased creativity, function, and reduced price (all the way down to "free") we find in open source software. Free software, information, stories, etc. we've all become used to, since these things can be replicated on the Internet at no cost. But free stuff? Isn't that impossible?

Remember, that all a 3-D printer needs to make something is the base materials, the equivalent of "ink" for a conventional printer. All that is needed to create a truly free (or nearly free) economy of "stuff" is a hypothetical device I'll call an Enzymatic Separator. An EnSep is basically a technological analog of a stomach, a device that breaks down garbage into its component parts the way a stomach breaks down a pizza into simpler molecules that can then be used to provide energy or be assembled into tissues.

There is no reason in principle why such a device could not be created. You already have a functional "1.0 version" in your gut. Developments in bioengineering and nanotechnology, or even advances in conventional recycling technology will make some form of "Enzymatic Separator" a reality. A "first step" called a thermal depolymerizer already exists, a device that can turn waste into oil.

Combine these technologies with renewable energy, and we have an economy in which "resources" and "energy" are free or close to it, and "stuff" can be printed out at the touch of a button. With "costs" reduced to such an extent, alot less "work" would be needed to be able to afford them. Humans could spend most or all of their "work" time in creative pursuits, furthering the "techno-Rennaissance" even more.

Buckminster Fuller envisioned a future in which humans would no longer have to "work for a living" because their needs would be provided by their "sun income" (their share of the sun energy that comes free to Earth every day). This suite of technologies may make that dream come true.


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