All Future Roads Lead to Problems With Intellectual Property

Technology is advancing on multiple fronts. Here’s a partial list of fields:

  1. biotechnology
  2. additive manufacturing (3D printing)
  3. nanotechnology
  4. virtual reality
  5. artificial intelligence

Once significantly advanced, any one of these technologies has the potential to fundamentally blur the line between ideas and physical objects. All of these technologies strive to take reality as we know it and “digitize” it into malleable information that we can then control.

Biotechnology seeks to make life itself programmable. Additive manufacturing and nanotechnology seek to treat physical goods like software. Virtual reality seeks to digitize full-fledged experiences. Artificial intelligence seeks to scan the measurable world and use all of this data to build reusable decision-making models.

So now let’s consider intellectual property. Fundamentally intellectual property is about assigning exclusive ownership over ideas. When we consider that increasingly we are using our technology to transform the whole world into “ideas”, one starts to see where the conflict arises. Few of us, I think, would want to live in a world where all of reality is subdivided, apportioned, and proprietarily owned (as if that sort of future would even be feasible).

Here is a short round up of links symptomatic of this underlying collision course between technology and intellectual property.

Great Podcast on 3D Printing and Intellectual Property

Michael Weinberg, author of the paper It Will Be Awesome If We Don’t Screw It Up, recently appeared on the Surprisingly Free podcast and gave a fascinating interview on the intellectual property implications of 3D Printing.

You can download or listen to the podcast here.

Most of the interview deals with IP issues following the debut of 3D Printing. However, at one point, Weinberg breezes past an important fact that caught my attention. Apparently, the current renaissance of desktop 3D Printing is only possible because of patents expiring. Which is depressing to hear, isn’t it? There’s our wonderful patent system for you. I wonder what other amazing innovations are sitting on the backburner right now, just waiting around for monopoly rights to get out of the way.

Pirate Bay Preparing to Pirate Physical Objects

Digitization marches forward and the Pirate Bay is planning accordingly. As a result of new technologies like desktop 3D printers, physical objects will soon be pirate-able.

“We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects. Or as we decided to call them: Physibles. Data objects that are able (and feasible) to become physical. We believe that things like three dimensional printersscanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare sparts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years.” (link)

Yet another reason why intellectual property (artificial scarcity) is only going to become a bigger and bigger issue with each passing year.

3D Printing News — Cube 3D vs. Makerbot, The Art of 3D Printing

Two new competing 3D printers that retail for under $2000. Also: using 3D printing to create sculpture.

1. Cube 3D Printer

  • Prints Objects up to 5.5 X 5.5 X 5.5 in. (140 x 140 x 140 mm)
  • EZ Load Print Cartridge
  • Durable, ABS Plastic in 10 Colors
  • 50 Free 3D Print Files
  • USB & Wi-Fi Connectivity
  • Starting at $1,299 (link)

2. Makerbot

“The Replicator starts at $1,799 for a model with a single extruder, and $1,999 for the dual-extruder attachment, which allows for two-color-printing (or Dualstrusion, according to MakerBot Industries).” (link)

3. The Art of 3D Printing

“Oxman, who trained as an architect, says buildings are designed today with an eye toward the components they can be made of—sheets of plywood, panes of glass, steel beams, and concrete columns. As a result, those designs are limited, in much the way Lego bricks constrain the shapes that children can build. Oxman is exploring ways to break with conventional design thinking by looking to patterns and processes found in nature, and using equations that define these processes to generate new designs. The results are often surprising shapes and structures that can be made only with 3-D printers.” (link)

3D PRINTING NEWS (12/30/11) — Additive Concrete Printing, Complex On Demand Components, Online 3D Printing Services

Upcoming developments in 3D printers are poised to:

1. Revolutionize the Construction Industry 

“Concrete Printing Process developed at Loughborough University in the UK is capable of producing building components with a degree of customisation that has not yet been seen. It could create a new era of architecture that is adapted to the environment and fully integrated with engineering function.” (link via Mark Lewis)

2. Enable the Efficient Creation of Previously Impossible Components

Pictured above: jet engine components printed by GE.

“The 3-D printing techniques won’t just make it more efficient to produce existing parts. They will also make it possible to produce things that weren’t even conceivable before—like parts with complex, scooped-out shapes that minimize weight without sacrificing strength…. The technology could also reduce the need to store parts in inventory, because it’s just as easy to print another part—or an improved version of it—10 years after the first one was made. An automobile manufacturer receiving reports of a failure in a seat belt mechanism could have a reconfigured version on its way to dealers within days.” (link)

3. Be Increasingly Accessible to Students and Desktop Users in 2012

Pictured above: an array of objects that companies like My Robot Nation, Stratasys, and Ponoko will help you to design and print.

“…starting this year, the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is planning to put 1000 production-quality 3-D printers in high schools across the United States… Even if you don’t have access to one of those machines, you can get a free download of Autodesk 123D, a 3-D computer-aided-design program still in public beta testing, which gives you push-button connections to online 3-D-printing services, of which there are now dozens, if not hundreds. So if you’re not already printing objects on a regular basis, there’s a good chance that in 2012 you will be.” (link)

3D PRINTING NEWS (12/12/11) – World’s Smallest 3D Printer, Bone Printing, Copy of a Stradivarius Violin

New breakthroughs in 3D printing continue to close the gap between physical products and information products:

1. The World’s Smallest 3D Printer

“A research team at the Vienna University of Technology says it’s built a small, low-cost 3D printer that could soon make it into people’s homes. Unlike existing 3D printers, the Vienna prototype is no larger than a carton of milk. It weighs just 1.5 kilograms, and can be manufactured for only 1200 Euros. The team says the printer’s resolution is excellent… This means it can be used for applications which require extraordinary precision.” (link) 

2. Bone Printing

“It looks like bone. It feels like bone. For the most part, it acts like bone. And it came off an inkjet printer. Washington State University researchers have used a 3D printer to create a bone-like material and structure that can be used in orthopedic procedures, dental work and to deliver medicine for treating osteoporosis. Paired with actual bone, it acts as a scaffold for new bone to grow on and ultimately dissolves with no apparent ill effects.” (link)

3. Copied Stradivarius Violin

“A Stradivarius violin has been “recreated” using an X-ray scanner normally used to detect cancers and injuries, according to researchers. The US-based group used a computerised axial tomography (CAT) scanner on the 307-year-old instrument to reveal its secrets. They then used the data recovered to build “nearly exact copies”. The team said the technique could be used to give musicians access to rare musical equipment.” (link)


Progress in the Area of Affordable Desktop 3D Printers

Apparently car enthusiast Jay Leno recently used 3D printing technology to manufacture a rare part for his 1907 White Steamer. While most of us don’t have the financial means that Leno has, such technology is rapidly falling in price:

While an industrial 3D printer (also known as a fabricator or a rapid prototyper) would once have cost over $100,000, a perfectly adequate machine for home use can now be had for less than $2,000. Those prepared to assemble their own can buy kits for $500 or so…The size of products that can be made using a desktop 3D printer is usually limited to something that can fit within a five-inch (12.7cm) cube…Even so, a desktop 3D printer will suffice for a surprising number of components used in cars and around the home. (full article)

Particularly exciting is the RepRap Project.  Started in 2005, RepRap is a free open source 3D printer that is capable of building its own components. Meaning the RepRap is effectively self replicating:

Following the principles of the free software movement, the designs for the RepRap machine are being distributed free …those designs include all the plastic parts for the [Rep Rap] itself, so if you have a RepRap machine you can print a new one for a friend.

Here is RepRap’s introductory video:

Another competing 3D Printer is the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. Claiming to be “more reliable” than the RepRap, the current kit price is a modest $1,299:

Yet another contender is the Ultimaker which retails for $1700 in kit form.  From their website:

The Ultimaker is the new kid on the block for 3D printing which officially started selling in May 2011….We are committed to making 3D printing better, faster and simpler. Also, the Ultimaker is designed to print larger objects, while the printer only occupies a small space on your desktop.

Although I can’t personally vouch for the efficacy of these printers, it appears we may be on the verge of a revolution in desktop 3D printing…