Sorry about not posting for a while guys. i’m always a bit sporadic with my posts, but with exams and other terrors bearing down on me over the past few months i’ve been busy. This post is a more an indulgement of my Science nerdy side.
Most of you will have probably seen the most recent wave of articles in both electronic and paper news about the advent of 3D printing. I’ve been following it for a few years, and although university papers have been talking about the possibility for more than a decade, while magazines such as the Economists have been steadily publishing articles about it in their Sci & tech sections, however it’s only been in the past year or so that 3D printing as become the flavour of the month in media, not as abstract concepts explored by visionaries on the radio but as real and sometime frightening tanglible achievements.
Hit 3D printing into Google for news, and you’ll see two demonstrations of exactly what the technology is capable of. The first is about how a engineer team in belgium managed to design and build a racing car from the ground up in three weeks thanks to 3d printing. The other is a bit scarier, about how some (predictably) Texan uni students have set out to create a printable gun that can be made by “anybody”.
That’s the great blessing and curse of 3d manufactoring. Once you get to a certain level of complexity, the printers place all the industrial power of the modern industrial system in the hands of, well, pratically anybody with a garage, including the ability to print other printers.
In fact the only real benefit from having larger printers is you can print larger object parts, for example the frame of a car. But a smaller printer could print a bigger printer, so provided you have the space and materials, joe across the street could print himself a car.
Or a tank.
Equally terrifyingly, it means that everybody, and consquently anybody, is capable of producing a fire arm in a matter of minutes. And not just a handgun either, any gun of any size. Even with today’s primitive printing technology an enthusiast has already claimed to have produced an AR-15, but there’s no technical reason why you couldn’t print a Barret 50 cal.
Of course the wiki weaponry project or Defense Distrubuted (the afore mentioned texans) know this. “How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet? Let’s find out.” it says on it’s website.
The prospect is actually far more terrifying than that. Any model of fire arm, produced anywhere, with no records, no sales, no registration, nothing to track or find. In short, the elaborate system of gun tracking and registration or at least gun numbers by manufactorers becomes completely redundant. Somebody could get onto an airplane, take a lighweight printer in his handbagage, go to the toilet then print himself a hdangun over the next 10 minutes while on the plane. Any depressed teenager has sucicide and murder right next to his computer.
Most alarmingly in the long run there’s few ways to stop it. In the short term ironically although 3D printers can print composite plastic guns fairly easily, ammunition is somewhat harder, requiring high quality metal components and crucially gunpowder. So the huge international systems keeping track of guns becomes practically useless overnight, but buying ammunition, currently largely unregulated in most US states, suddenly becomes pivotal. Meanwhile the political situation in america especially it’s state system makes it virtually impossible for ammunition to be regulated before it becomes redundant.
Because of course ultimately mainstream printers will become powerful enough to make ammunition well, and then the only defence becomes regulation of Potassium Nitrate, which given the fact that it’s also used in everything from toothpaste to fertiliser would be difficult.
And of course, you can also use printing for fabricating everything from cannabis to TNT. So even controlling the natural supply becomes increasingly redundant. Except for big brother like regulation of building materials, the options are indeed few.
The US’s famed gun culture is really nothing exceptional. It is only the US’s unusually lax gun laws that make it that way. Massacres in Sweden, riots in London, both prove that western society in general lacks nothing for mindless destruction.
A repeat of the london riots in a decade or two’s time could see tens of thousands of people dead from printable weapons. It would be a simpel cascade effect. The first agitators arm themselves without assault rifles as they take to the streets. As a consequence vast sections of the society would arm as a reactionary measure, first the general populace to protect themselves from the first group, and then all other riot goers to protect themselves from the general populace.
That leaves the police and by extension the state with a grim situation. In a pitched battle between rioters and civilians, how are the police going to keep order. More importantly, how can the police act? the Police would possess no better quality equipment then everyone else, and in the face of overwhelming numbers training becomes a relatively small advantage in the face of crushing numbers. If the situation escalated that would leave the brits with few options but to call in the army and enforce martial law.
And at that point about half the population of london begins printing SAMS and anti-tank missiles in their apartments. How and when it would end at this point is anyone’s guess.
It has the potential for civi bloodshed on a scale that is unprecedented outside civil war.
Our conception of society as a whole will have to change fundamentally to avoid this kind of self-destruction. The concept of a metropolises may also prove to be untenable. The Economic impact of printers (to be covered next post) make a lot of the reasons why cities exist redundant, while the proximity of such a vast amount of armed people suddenly becomes liability. perhaps there will be a shift back into rural population centres and smaller cities over the 21st century.
And of course, suddenly the middle east becomes flat unwinnable. In fact fighting a land war against any nation in the world suddenly becomes completely untenable. If a powerful, central and relatively stable state such as the UK or the US can not prevent it’s citizens from arming themselves better than the Taliban, than you can rest assured that the Taliban will be kitted out in a similar fashion to the US army, on the ground at least.
How the hell are you meant to hold a country where every man and his dog can make an RPG and contest you for it? Where every man can make a few dozen anti-tank mines and become what every IED wants to become when it grows up.
Of course the average US infantry man would still be substantially better than the average guerrilla. US training techniques, especially during and since the vietnam war (Even without air support Marines vs Viet Cong nearly always ended extremely badly for the VC. This is because most people when untrained are incapable of actually shooting someone face to face, in fact around 85% of the people in a WWII company didn’t shoot to kill- See Grossman’s On Killing for details- yes not one of my most begin reads, but the US has mastered the art of making their soldiers extremely efficient killing machines) but the amount of money that goes into supporting a single soldier overseas is immense.
The logistics of sustain a overseas military force is so complicated an expensive that even when the US has by historical standards an almost flawless record and victory it is still considered a loss. Ho Chi Minh famously said that if 1 American died for every 10 vietnamese he would consider it a victory.
The economics of foreign invasion and occupation, already rather dodgy, fly straight out of the window when weaponised manufacturing becomes an option. This however goes the other way, in WWI an WWII men were secondary to material in terms of cost, but printing will completely reverse the relationship.
This in itself would either lead to two different results. Either diplomacy and international mediation becomes more prevalent, or indiscriminate bombing does as while gunfights become equal, it takes substantially more capability to effectively block a few hundred cruise missiles, which ironically can be produced extremely cheaply by printing.
Then there’s the final question. Will we be able to print nukes? Will a terrorist group be able to manufacture a nuke, or every rogue state be waving an arsenal to put the cold war to shame?
Thankfully no. Nuclear Fission requires hard to come by materials, noticeably Uranium and other heavy rare elements. It does however make building everything else frighteningly easy, so in effect any farm side recluse could build a completely functional ICBM. Just without the nuke.
Of course if our understandings of nuclear fusion advances that may not stay true forever. Nuclear fusion requires nothing more than water, and is vastly more powerful than fission. At the moment most bombs use nuclear fusion to reach the required temperature and pressure which sets off a vaster nuclear fusion reaction, but when Nuclear Fusion reactors become commercially viable sometime in the first half of the 21st, this may change suddenly.
In the Cold war the decision to start the apocalypse rested in the hands of a handfull of individuals, all of which thankfully made the right decision. by 2050 it may rest in the hands of everyone with a largish printer.
More than anything else, that scares me. Having 6 billion people on one planet is only tenable because of the complex economic system of import nad export and large governments, and the former faces complete destruction (see P2) while the latter will be hard pressed. Printing in the long run makes ultra-dense populations impossible, the pressure is simply to great.
If I have things my way I’ll be safely out of the way by the time it reaches this point. Printing also wonderfully removes a lot of the traditional problems with space colonisation. A town on the moon with automated miners and a large printer could produce anything earth could, including food,and the latest computer model and the same for Mars, effectively eliminating the need for everything but internet connection once established. 3D printing grants the masses the freedom of production, and this is both a terrifying and wonderful thing.