Sep 23 2012

The Radicalness Of 3d Printing


Way back in February of 2011, I wrote an extensive article for H+ on 3D printing and how it would allow a transition between an economy based on material “value” and scarcity to one based on nonmaterial “value” and abundance. Also, in a later article published here, I expanded on why this is inevitable and wrote, “it should be obvious that 3d printers allow for goods to behave as if they were nonmaterial. All you need is a single item and you can make an infinite number of copies.” Basically, once 3d printing is refined to a point in the not very distant future to where it can manufacture almost any arbitrary product, the value of that product will reside in the computer file, not the actual physical object.

So now, “The Motley Fool” is repeating my logic to sell investors on 3d printing: “If a physical object is a software code, then… there are no longer economies of scale in manufacturing.”

In other words, it won’t make sense any more to pay Chinese factory workers to make 100 million duplicates of the same product. Better to pay American designers to make 10,000 different products specially tailored to individual customers — in the exact size and style they want to buy. Products they can receive in the mail, or print out at Home Depot, FedEx Office, Wal-Mart, or whichever retailers are smart enough to embrace this technology first.

If a physical object is a software code, then… everyone from an aerospace engineer to an ice sculptor is really a computer programmer creating digital designs. And the market for those designs will be just like today’s market for music, movies, and books. You’ll have the iTunes store,, and other legitimate download vendors on one side of the law, and a thousand fugitive “pirate bays” on the other.

Now, I would change the language of “legitimate download vendors” for “corporate gatekeepers trying to lock people into proprietary designs intended to prevent competition” and “pirate bays” with “the open source free market”.. but you get the idea. Big Business is starting to realize, as predicted, the vast potential for profits that can be generated right up to the final stages, when home printers become as common as smartphones.  As I stated previously:

“Look at this from the manufacturer’s side. The only cost they have incurred is the R&D cost of designing an item, and the cost of running a website. They don’t even have to concern themselves with obtaining the raw materials to make an item from, nor do they have to pay a staff to run the printers, pay the electric bills to run the printers, rent a building to house the printers, pay a transporter to haul the products to market, have a warehouse to store extra products. In fact, they will have put ALL of these issues off on the customer. All that they will have to be concerned about is designing a product, testing a few dozen prototypes to fix the rough edges, and viola, a market ready product at minimal cost that need only sell a few thousand copies to pay off design fees, at which point everything else is pure profit.

If I have faith in anything, it’s in corporate greed. Once it’s cheap and easy to put a 3D printer in every home, and eliminate every cost of manufacturing to the “manufacturer” by passing it on to the customer, major corporations will get it done in a heartbeat. And they won’t give a damn about the consequences, because the only concern will be the profit of the moment.  CEOs will be all too happy about the billions they will save by making their companies cost nearly nothing to run, while still selling the same number of products at the same price they used too.  It’s all too predictable.

But the fact will still remain that by doing so, those very same corporations will be destroying themselves. They will be counting on their brands to continue carrying the same weight they did in the industrial era, and they will assume that by eliminating costs, they will be able to keep on charging the same price while making almost pure profit. And they will be right, at first.”

The Motley Fool is making the same case, telling individual investors that 3d printing is going to be a massive money maker, using the same logical points I made almost 2 years ago. And this will drive investment in further research and improvements in 3D printers. In fact, Makerbot just released its next generation printer.

But to be honest, there is still much work to be done before 3D printing on the scale that I’m talking about can occur. One of the much needed improvements is in the “resolution” of the finest details that can be printed. Fortunately, this is being worked on. The Vienna University of technology is working on printers able to work on the micrometer scale, which is a major needed step for printing electronics and biological tissue. When this hits industrial scale in about five to six years, we will probably have advanced the precision even further to the Nanoscale, though I would qualify that by saying that Nanoscale precision is likely to only be able to use specific materials, namely graphene and other single atom thick materials. True “nanofactories” able to use every element will take longer. However, even micrometer scale manufacturing is going to enable some very radical technological upheavals, as they will enable the first stages of bioprinting and electronics printing. This makes In-vitro food manufacturing and the kind of body modifications I discussed in my article on Gender Change well within the realm of feasibility, as well as the majority of the products I’ve discussed in the past such as QLed displays,  Skin tight exoskeletons, film electronics,  and active cloth.

And yet another field in which 3D printers need improving is the “ease of use” factor. This is also being addressed by software that can analyze the 3D model and apply engineering “artificial expertise” to modify the object in a manner that provides greater strength to the finished project. This is an example of a high level interface to a low level process. The end user doesn’t need to know engineering, because the software provides the engineering knowledge. This is one of the vital steps towards making 3D printing so easy to use that anyone can design a product that can compete in the open market. Another example is software that makes custom DNA design as simple as drag and drop. Once you can use 3d printers to “print DNA”, such software could enable radical technologies as custom designing your own DNA to, oh, say, change your “species” to succubus? Or create “mythological” animals such as griffins and unicorns?

Needless to say, as radical as those concepts might seem now, as time goes by, it’s going to start seeming more and more mainstream. As more and more people begin realizing the possibilities, and begin exploring them, it’s going to lead to even greater radicalness than this.

Aug 13 2012

H+ The Digital Series — A Review


The first six episodes of the much anticipated transhumanist apocalyptic micro-drama H+ The Digital Series are now out. This is a brief review and set of initial impressions.

Warning: It includes spoilers for all six episodes out so far.

H+ The Digital Series is directed by Bryan Singer (X-men) and distributed online by Warner Brothers in a novel short episode format via YouTube. The series tells the story of a near future world where an Irish corporation known as H+ (H plus) Nano Teoranta has developed a neural implant technology used to link humanity into a global real-time augmented reality.

The short YouTube video format is probably as controversial as the content of the program. Can a 140 character culture relate to characters in 4 minute segments?

The series consists of short YouTube videos lasting about six minutes and each featuring something like 2-3 minutes of time in the fictional world. I found it hard to relate to the characters in this short format especially when you consider that only about four minutes and 30 seconds is the actual programming and the rest is just the intro and outro title sequences.

The first two episodes, “Driving Under” and “On Their Level”, were released first, and these consist of what is essentially the first five minutes of the story. The second batch of episodes, 3-6, were released initially only to subscribers to the program’s YouTube channel. A new episode is to be released every Wednesday.

Episode 1 is set “five minutes before it happened”. We are introduced to the H+ Nano medical implant technology and HPlus Nano Teoranta the company that has developed it. The H+ interface is a sort of real time connected augmented reality system that employs a neural implant rather than glasses. The system creates a personal interface only the user can see and is controlled by hand movements. In addition, the system provides real-time monitoring and feedback of the user’s own biological functions.

The first episode also introduces us to the concept of transhumansim, which in case you weren’t aware is an “international movement that supports the transforming of the human body and thereby the human condition through advanced technologies”.

Singer clearly lines the series up with the cyberpunk tradition, presenting a dystopian near future where tech stocks have tumbled, cybercrime is on the rise, and people are protesting being used in scientific experiments against their will despite the amazing technological advances.

Cut to a couple parking their car in an underground garage at the airport. The wife is interacting with her H+ system via her neural implant as they look for parking. The husband is covertly watching a sporting event via his interface, a fact that upsets his wife and causes an argument between them.

It is, of course, traditional for a geeky review of any new science fiction film or TV program to locate and dissect minute technical flaws in any science or technology described. This review will be no exception.

Not even five minutes in o the series and there is already some problematic stuff. In the H+ series future, we’ve got magical nanotech implants but the cars don’t have autopilot. In fact any sort of AI, a central theme of modern transhumanism, seems to be entirely absent from this H+ world so far.

In reality the husband Lee would just switch on the car’s autopilot and crack open a beer. Yes, in the future it will be legal to drink in a vehicle if you aren’t driving and the cars will be designed such that they won’t let you drive if you do drink.

The H+ implant itself is some sort of near magical nanotechnology allowing direct neural interface without invasive surgery. You simply inject this thing and you become connected to the global hive mind via a neural augmented reality interface. The notion is well beyond the current state of the art. Implantation for example with cochlear implants involves actually cutting open someone’s head and wiring a jack into their skull.

More silliness, the neural interface requires you to move your hands and talk in order to use it.  A direct neural interface of this sort will allow thought to be directly transformed into action. That is, you won’t actually need to reach out and touch the imaginary interface, you will simply imagine touching it and the system will sense and respond to the pattern of activity in your brain. Imagine if everyone was waving their hands around in this way. Not only does this look ridiculous, people would slap each other in the face accidentally while using it.

Five minutes and six seconds in, something goes very wrong. People exiting the elevator start collapsing like ragdolls. Someone is running, a car crashes and then an out of control airplane smashes directly into the garage. It’s The Event, a sort of digital viral apocalypse that is going to be the focus of the series.

It is good to get this sort of thing out of the way up front. Singer has an axe to grind. In this vision of H+, transhumanism is bad… really bad. In fact it is the cause of the collapse of civilization and the deaths of millions of people. We can’t have something like direct universal access to the sum total of human knowledge turn out to be a good thing, now can we? It must be dangerous.

Episode 2 expands on the immediate after effects of The Event and introduces us to a few survivors including (naturally) a mysterious man who seems to know more than he should about what is happening.

Episode 3, “The Prophetess”, is a flashback to seven years prior to The Event. We get to play voyeur on a first date that ends badly between Manta and Topi. For a minute I thought this was going to veer into WTF territory, but it turns out that Topi is some sort of future cop who is collecting information on Manta. Perhaps Manta is one of those cyber criminals we heard about in episode one? It’s the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo moved to Finland. I wonder if they will include a tango.

Episode 4, “Airport Security”, takes us back to the original timeline and group of survivors, to just 1 minute after The Event. Does anything really happen in this episode? It turns out that the mysterious stranger is (surprise) one of the developers of the H+ technology.

Episode 5, “A Large Family”, is another flashback this time to just seven months before The Event. This seems like it will be a pivotal episode going forward. We meet Breanna, a high powered executive with H+ Nano and and her husband Connal. Breanna is set up to be the evil transhumanist bitch queen, but perhaps they will humanize her later. Or maybe not.

Breanna and her husband meet a young Indian woman Leena to arrange a surrogate pregnancy. But as part of the deal they want Leena implanted with H+ so she can be monitored until the birth. When things get complicated, Breanna ends the conversation and enters a teleconference via her H+ device. Connal and Leena leave to have a more human conversation. I am assuming the baby is modified in some way, possibly to include the H+ interface in the womb or perhaps it will be genetically enhanced in some other way.

Episode 6, “Voci Dal Sud,” Voices from the South, takes us to Italy two years after The Event. Things have gone from bad to worse, and we’re given a picture of a world in collapse with no access to modern medicine or doctors.

It will be interesting to see if there will be additional transhumanist elements beyond those included in the opening few episodes. Covered so far: neural implants, the hive mind and global 24/7 Internet connectivity, augmented reality, computer viruses, apocalypse or singularity — The Event.

Notably absent from the series so far is any appearance of Artificial Intelligence or General Artificial Intelligence, and, in particular, the favorite theme of transhumanists everywhere — the self improving superintelligent AI — is no where to be seen in H+. Ray Solomonoff must be rolling in his grave.

The short format is problematic. About 25-30% of each video is simply the title sequences, which I have now seen six times. This is too much and it is distracting. The total program length of all six videos so far is just about 30 minutes. As a result the majority of the characters haven’t been developed and they are not relatable or interesting, at least not quite yet. I think a somewhat longer length for each program would work better.

Even so, the show is worth watching. The Event and the H+ device are an obvious analogy to our existing world of connected mobile devices, networked economic systems and eCommerce, real time social media, and so on. We don’t have neural implants yet, but we’re already susceptible to infectious viral agents passed by social media. The Event could happen to us.

H+: The Digital Series

Apr 20 2012

Drone Delivery


I was reading this article the other day and got a good laugh. But I had to agree with the writer: “Here’s the idea as outlined on customers download a smartphone app, which allows them to order tacos to a specific location. The tacos then arrive via flying quadcopter. Tipping your delivery drone is presumably optional. That’s it. It’s so brilliant, we can’t believe the kids down at the GRASP Lab haven’t already cornered the market on this.”

The “Taco Copter” might be a joke, but the concept itself isn’t. And it’s implications need to be examined, because it has much broader impact than what you might see at first glance. It’s that phrase “delivery drone” that you should be focused on.

Because we are on the verge of creating exactly that; a fully automated end to end delivery system from factory to home. From the manufacturing robots to the “automated warehouse” run by drones to the soon-to-be-automated “self driving transport trucks” to the final link from the local delivery warehouse to you home via a quadcopter, it will soon be possible to create an item exactly when a person purchases it and then deliver it directly to the end user. Toss in the developments I discussed in “Adding our Way to Abundance” for H+ magazine with 3d printers making it possible for manufacturers to make any given item in an “on demand” manner, instead of the current “always on” production lines of the industrial era, and what you have is a recipe for unprecedented levels of customer convenience. Imagine ordering a taco on your smartphone during a traffic jam, and getting it brought to your car window. Imagine getting that new dress custom made to your measurements and delivered direct to your door. Imagine never having to travel to a grocery store — or to any kind of store — to shop again.

But that’s kind of tame compared to some of the other possibilities, like using quadcopters to create on demand supply systems for regions that have no roads, no airports, and no modern infrastructure of any kind.  That’s the idea behind “Matternet,” a concept proposed at a recent Singularity University conference. Imagine a village in the Amazon having the same ability to order goods and services from half a world away that you do sitting right there in front of your computer. Then imagine a billion people all over the world being able to make products using native techniques and trade them with any other person in the world, directly, instead of having to go through some 3rd party that pays them pennies per dollar.

That’s what fully automated delivery networks using drones of various kinds could enable. Rather than a product only being available in certain regions, every corner of the world could be accessed as easily as your corner store. You could be walking down the street in NYC and have a drone home in on your smartphones gps location as easily as walking through the Amazon jungle. Military troops in the field could receive supplies just as easily. An expedition to Everest would be just as easy to reach with Quadcopters.

But even that’s not the end, because, as I pointed out in “Quadrotors Will Do Everything,” simple delivery systems are merely the tip of the iceberg. Automated drone systems could not merely deliver goods, but provide services of all kinds, from construction to telepresence. Drones could, in fact, render many labor or people intensive jobs obsolete. A fully automated US Post office could run for a fraction of the cost of the current mail carriers. Drone trucks on our highways could be far safer by eliminating drivers who are too tired, or careless. Drone in those remaining retail stores could ensure they are always stocked, freeing the human workers to concentrate on customer service