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Machines Making Machines: Robotics Expert Says 3-D Printing the Missing Link

By Michael Keller

For more than a decade, Dr. Hod Lipson has been working on technologies that, when successful, will fundamentally change human society—creative machines that can design and build other machines.

His research has led Lipson, a Cornell University engineering professor and the head of the university’sCreative Machines Lab, into the fields of artificial intelligence, evolutionary computation and 3-D printing. He considers the last of these to be the link between the virtual world of artificial intelligence and the real world, where robots will use 3-D printing technology to make smarter, better and faster versions of themselves.

But that’s in the future. His objective now is to help 3-D printing enter the mainstream. His team developed Fab@Home, an open-source, collaborative project to develop and spread personal 3-D fabrication technology.

In December, Lipson and Melba Kurman’s book on 3-D printing, Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, will come out. “Fabricated describes our emerging world of printable products, where people design and 3-D print their own creations as easily as they edit an online document,” say the book’s publishers.

Txchnologist: What is the present state of 3-D printing?

Hod Lipson: Three-D printers have been around for three decades now. We’re entering a new phase because people are becoming more aware of its potential.

In the past, 3-D printers were focused on making arbitrary shapes out of plastic. Now, though, they are using food, metal, ceramic and glass. They’re starting to make things with multiple materials, which is the beginning of another phase when we’ll be able to print wires, batteries and electronics. We’re moving from making passive parts into making active, integrated systems.

We can say that 3-D printing has moved out of its infancy in the sense that it is used in industry to make real things. Almost every object you buy now was probably prototyped in a 3-D printer. Now the technology is moving into making the thing itself. It’s maturing but there is still a long way to go and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Txch: Why is 3-D printing generating so much buzz right now?

Cornell University’s Dr. Hod Lipson

HL: The really interesting thing about it that many are starting to realize is that 3-D printing is taking away the premium you normally pay when you manufacture more complex things. In the sense that 3-D printing more or less complicated things costs the same price, it makes complexity free. That’s a profound change.

Txch: It seems like the sky’s the limit with what the technology will one day be able to produce.

HL: There are short-term limitations—we need to make printers faster, materials stronger, the process cheaper. To really start producing things made out of multiple materials offers other long-term technical challenges that need to be solved. No one knows how to print electronic objects embedded in plastic. In a decade, though, we’ll have the answers.

A simple circuit is five years away. Complicated circuits are 10 years away. But remember, still only one percent of U.S. manufacturing involves 3-D printing. The amount of manufacturing it will consume is the billion-dollar question. I believe it will grow substantially into the double digits. If it does, 3-D printing will have global effects.

Txch: If this technology works out the way proponents think it will, where will we see it being used?

HL: It will be a lot like computers today. You’ll have them in different places for different reasons—at home, in manufacturing plants, in your pockets. The home printers will make food or simple consumer products. The ones in factories will make more complex things. There will also be cloud printers— you need a special brass doorknob, you place your order in the cloud and you get it the next day.

I don’t know what the killer app will be—medical implants? Toys? Food?

Txch: What is this all going to look like compared to the world today?

HL: It will mean a profound change in manufacturing and a disruption to the supply chain. You’ll be able to print on demand and manufacturers will keep only small stocks of inventory or raw materials. There will be no need to mass-produce things because you’ll make small batches of things tailored to specific applications. This will have profound implications to the cost of manufacturing and to the environment.

Txch: I’d like to go with you off the deep end now. There is a lot of talk about the technological singularity point, when computers will be smarter than humans and will themselves design and build ever smarter and more capable machines. What do you think about this idea and where would 3-D printing fit into it?

HL: Up to now, whenever we have talked about artificial intelligence, it was on your desktop. Three-D printing is the link that moves singularity out into the physical world where machines make machines. I don’t know if it’ll happen in 30, 50 or 80 years.

Up to now, humans have made robots’ hardware, which has greatly limited the complexity. Once they’re able to design and create their own parts with 3-D printing, their complexity will start to match biological complexity. That’s why we’re trying to make a machine that can walk out of the printer.

But I don’t think the singularity is a sharp point, it’s an accelerating mass that’s unavoidable. The machines are slowly getting better and better, faster and faster. First it’s a computer better at playing chess, then it’s a computer better at doing research, and on and on. I’ve always asked how machines are going to get off the desktop. Three-D printing is the missing link.

Top image: One day, self-aware machines like this Cornell University research robot might make better versions of themselves through 3-D printers. Image courtesy Cornell Creative Machines Lab.

Michael Keller is the Managing Editor of Txchnologist. His work has appeared online and in newspapers, magazines and books, including the graphic novel Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Reach him at mkeller@groupsjr.com.

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