Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On 3D Printed Guns

Dear Rachel Maddow and Staff:

Tonight's story about gun control, and the 3D printer component in particular, were interesting, but I have a lot of questions that perhaps you can explore in future discussions on the subject.

First, a correction: only the 3D printer you showed, a Makerbot Replicator 2, costs thousands of dollars. Saying they cost thousands of dollars or more is misleading. You can buy fully assembled and ready-to-use 3D printers for as little as $500. Most models on the market today, kit-wise at least, cost somewhere between $800 and $1,200. I can build a RepRap, which is a printer that makes most of the parts you need to make another printer, for around $400. And it's not like it was hard to do--I just followed the recipe there on the Internet, free to all.

I'm a teacher at an art school who teaches 3D printing and design, and so a lot of people--including my mother-in-law--have been talking to me lately about 3D printed guns, as you might imagine, so I've been giving it a lot of thought. So far I've tended to react in these discussions with my own questions, which I do sincerely wish will soon get some public consideration. They nibble around the edges of the BIG question, which is, how should society respond to the progress of technology itself?

1) Do you know that a 14 year old built a nuclear reactor in his garage? And if it's possible for a 14 year old genius to teach himself to do that, and do it without institutional resources, how much dumber can a 20 year old be and still get the same result? How about at 30?

2) Did you know there are hundreds of amateur bio-labs in the U.S.? Those are just the registered ones.

3) Do you have any idea what people are doing with home-built autonomous flying drones? How long until someone hooks a pipe bomb up to one (or a dozen) of those and flies them into a crowd five kilometers away?

4) So, if we're worried about crazy people using powerful weapons to commit heinous crimes, what do we do about the crazy people who will be building their own robotic, chemical, biological or even nuclear (dirty or thermonuclear, you pick) weapons in their basements?

Isn't the real problem not the availability of any particular technology or machine, but rather the availability and free exchange of information? To quote a favorite movie, "You can't stop the signal, Mel." The kid could build a nuclear reactor in his garage because of the Internet. Aspiring bio-engineers can learn just about everything they need to cook up lethal bacteria on YouTube. People with a common interest can find each other and collaborate from opposite sides of the globe, whether that interest is baseball cards or DIY rocket guidance systems. And you can't stop the signal.

The central thesis of your show's introductory essay tonight was, if I understood correctly, that people who think that a problem like gun control is impossible to address--even given a sticky wicket like 3D printed guns--are wrong because circumstances change and where there's a will there's a way. Perhaps that's true in the limited sense that for any single given societal problem there will eventually be a policy solution. That philosophy, however, neglects entirely one hell of a big paradox. 

It can take just one person to make a thing. It takes at least two people to have a culture of making a thing. It takes at least three people to make a law about the thing. The more people you have in the system, the slower the response. Information technology increases productivity in inverse proportion to the size of the system, so individuals can make bigger and better things, and spread the culture of making those things faster than a society can devise rules to govern the things individuals are making, and are being propagated by culture. By the time you have a rule for one thing, a dozen new things have popped up and need rules, and the knowledge of the things are already out there, being shared, multiplied, mutated.

As Ray Kurzweil (who was just hired by Google to build the world's first artificial intelligence, by the way) says, the pace of technology's progress is accelerating exponentially. If I'm right in my previous formulation, that means that the gap between innovation and effective societal response is growing exponentially too.

In short, we're fucked.

Because it's just a matter of time before it becomes trivial for an amateur to cook up some nerve gas in their basement and set off the canisters in some subways. Meanwhile we may have finally come up with some way to keep crazy people from printing up their own guns and going on a killing spree. Yay us!


If that seems kind of out there then let's address the problem of 3D printed guns directly:

How do you even approach regulation to prevent it? Are there any conceivable ways to get in at the issue at all? Isn't 3D printing a gun a different kind of problem altogether from any other problem we've had, not just in scope, but as an entirely different paradigm? Consider the following issues:

1) Short of a true AI, can you create a computer algorithm that will recognize the shape of all objects--however novel--that could be used as components to make a weapon? Ask a computer scientist. 

2) Even if there were such a program, how would you require all computers to analyze all potential 3D models to filter and recognize such objects? How do you prevent programmers from creating and surreptitiously sharing programs that circumvent the filter, or hobbyists who engineer computers from components or first principals so they don't obey the regulation at all? You'd have to hard-wire the filter into every computer chip allowed into the country, wouldn't you? Can we do that? Even so, won't we eventually have the capacity to personally design and manufacture our own chips?

3) Is it possible to prevent amateurs from creating their own designs (of whatever,) allowing only professionally produced and regulated models printed on 3D printers? How? Perhaps more importantly, do we want to, since it will come at the cost of so much innovation and progress?

4) Do we limit the sale and possession of 3D printers only to select, authorized, industrial, and regulated/monitored users? 

5) What is a practical, effective method or mechanism for preventing hobbyists from engineering and building their own 3D printers, which are after all, built using readily available consumer goods as materials.

I understand that 3D printed guns are a salacious, irresistible topic. It's a very sexy story. Beyond the gratuitousness, though, what is there really? Why worry about "weapons" instead of the "crazy" part of "crazy people using weapons" problem? Not to put too fine a point on it, but where does it take us--whom does it benefit. 

Considering the response of the music industry to the invention of the MP3, it is not too conspiratorial to suggest that patent holders are clear beneficiaries of stories that stoke fears about 3D printed guns. 3D printers break 600 years of patent law--they overturn the whole idea of the patent as a mechanism for the preservation and cultivation of wealth. 3D printers, and the whole micro-manufacturing movement in fact, threaten the last relatively safe domain of intellectual property, the making of physical goods. If you look deeply enough you see that the technology coming on line now challenges nothing less than…well...all of commerce. They disrupt scarcity itself. How can any economy function without scarcity. It can't. That freaks some people out.

Personally, I can't wait.