Buried in the depths of Conor Friesdorf’s very good list of very good non-fiction writing from 2012 is this cracker of a piece by Cory Doctorow on the challenges facing general purpose computers in the future. I vaguely remember reading this when it was first published, but this is the internet in 2013, and that was more than two twitter-day-cycles ago so bits of it were a little fuzzy.
What did chime with me was Doctorow’s somewhat casual mention of open source plans that enable 3-D printers to turn AR-15’s into fully automatic rifles. Well, I suppose that beats asking Yahoo’s hive mind how to do it. It rang a bell because a friend of mine makes things on 3-D printers for a living in the world of architecture, and we had a conversation about the concept last week. The New York Times ran a piece on this today as well (h/t to Tom Ridt).
Thankfully, as the NYT points out:
there are also major technical obstacles to creating an entire gun on a 3-D printer, not the least of which is that a plastic gun would probably melt or explode upon firing a single bullet, making it about as likely to kill the gunman as the target.
Which allows us to all cool off until we google “3D Print Metal” and find out that they’ve totally developed 3-D metal printers already.
Re-winding to Doctorow’s piece, his basic point is that one can’t “beat” the general purpose computer. Or rather, there are going to be an awful lot of lobby groups lining up to nerf, constrain and destroy the technology of the general purpose computer in future. In part, it’s due to the nature of the general purpose computer itself:
We don’t know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of running any program except for some program that we don’t like, is prohibited by law, or which loses us money.
In other words, once something becomes information (say, music, movies, books) and that information is freely shareable (say, via a program on a computer with an internet connection) then simply going after the program isn’t going to cut it (as the MPAA etc have discovered). Doctorow’s argument is that once the “copyright wars” are done and dusted, the next generation of special interest groups finding their livelihoods threatened will kick off:
It doesn’t take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it’s really important to make sure that computers can’t execute programs which cause specialized peripherals to output custom organisms which literally eat their lunch.
Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or hysterical fears, they are, nevertheless, the political currency of lobbies and interest groups far more influential than Hollywood and big content. Every one of them will arrive at the same place: “Can’t you just make us a general-purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”
To that list, I’d like to add the UN Security Council. At least hypothetically. Here’s the point: the moment something like an AK-74 becomes printable, even if it is inferior to an actual AK-74, even if it has a 500 round life expectancy and so on, then a general purpose computer with a 3-D printing attachment becomes a weapons factory. As the NYT article points out, this is already the goal of gun-rights advocates in the United States, but I think the problem is a bit bigger. One of the key tools used by the international community to freeze conflicts, or attempt to stop them sprawling are arms embargoes. Not saying they’re that effective, but as international interventions go, it’s at the “cheap” end of the scale of policy options. With 3-D printers, that means that all one would have to do to circumvent such embargoes would be to purchase a 3-D printer (or if the futurologists are right everyone will have one) and start printing rifles.
What I think flows logically from this is the premise that maybe, unwittingly, the people fighting the MPAA for their right to
watch films for free party have interests in common with would-be separatist movements, militias and anyone else that, unlike Ice Cube, need to use an AK on a daily basis.
Solutions? I don’t have one. Accurate predictions? Natch. But maybe, since I don’t think anyone can print gunpowder yet, Chris Rock was right all along.