Printing new lives: how 3D printing could change the developing world

Someone at CES 3D-printing a toy eagle, for some reason. (Photo: AP)

Technology gets a bad rap, too often. Twitter is reducing our attention spans, computer games are making us violent, texting is ruining our ability to spell, Facebook is turning us all into sociopaths or something. Generally speaking, the people complaining about this are doing so by typing it into their fantastically useful multipurpose computing tools, or speaking over their satellite-linked handheld communication devices that can also link them in seconds to the large majority of human knowledge, but never mind the ironies.

The latest technology on the cusp of wider uptake is 3D printing, and, in traditional style, the chief focus has been on its dangerous uses: 3D-printed guns (which, as my colleague Willard Foxton has pointed out in the past, are plastic-barrelled single-shot jobs which can only be used about eight times before the barrel breaks), and parts for military aircraft. Boring uses like making parts for, I don’t know, Ikea flatpack furniture (and cool possible uses like self-replicating, evolving von Neumann machines) rarely get mentioned. It’s all of a piece with that marvellous Douglas Adams quote:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

It’s nice, then, to see a couple of more positive uses being reported today. One somewhat heartrending story in Time reports that a company called Not Impossible has begun “printing low-cost prosthetic arms for people, mainly children, who have lost limbs in the war-torn country of Sudan” – comparatively high-tech arms, as well, with controllable fingers, if not all that precisely controllable. There’s a video of a young boy who’s lost both arms to an explosion feeding himself for the first time in two years:

And over at the Consumer Electronics Symposium, someone has started using a 3D printer to print food. Confectionery, admittedly – this is unlikely to be the end to world hunger in the immediate future – but still. It has a pleasingly sci-fi feel to it, like the replicators out of Star Trek, and as humanity gets better at synthesising proteins it might be (I am wildly speculating here) possible to combine it with this other technology to make cheap, protein-rich food that doesn’t look quite so much like a deep-fried grasshopper.

More on 3D printing

The police haven’t found a ‘3D-printed gun’
Go ahead and shoot me with a 3D-printed gun

Can you really 3D-printed gun?

Whether or not that’s possible, though, there’s something wonderful and important about the possibility of people cheaply and easily printing complex, precisely designed objects. Our experience of computing and technology in general suggests that the procedure will get rapidly quicker and easier (for comparison, a “gigaflop” of computing power, the ability to do one billion complex calculations in one second, costs 12 cents now; in 2007 it cost the equivalent of $52; in 1997, $42,000; and in 1961, it would have cost $8 trillion – or the equivalent of the entire global economy). And it spreads to the developing world, as well: the Kenyan economy is now based heavily on electronic payments through mobile phones. In a few years, 3D printing could allow developing nations to build their own high-tech medical and computing equipment and narrow the gap between the West and the rest. Or at least that’s my optimistic take on it. I’d rather focus on that than whether or not Midwestern survivalists can build themselves a popgun.

More by Tom Chivers

It’s just a storm, not global warming
NYT columnist: ‘I smoked weed. But it should stay illegal’
When drug companies don’t publish trials, real people die



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