Erikka Askeland: Reach for the sky to print a perfect world

A pink Yoda, printed with a 3D printer. Picture: Getty
A pink Yoda, printed with a 3D printer. Picture: Getty
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IT WAS the gunshot heard around the world. It wasn’t very powerful, and by all reports I have read, the bullet it fired wasn’t likely to hit the side of barn. But a gun made using a 3D printer is a game changer.

I love the idea of a printer that makes stuff just at the press of a button. I even read one enthusiastic report which predicted you will soon be able to “print” a cup of tea. One chap has even used one to make pasta and cheeseburgers – albeit they are plastic, which kind of makes a point about how we aren’t quite there yet. But the “3D printing expert” and maker of inedible burgers, Janne Kyttanen, told Dezeen magazine that: “At the moment the technologies that we use are very, very crude. So they solidify matter, either by powder or by liquid or extruded filaments and so forth. But at the end of the day it’s just atoms and molecules, so one day we will have technology where you can just move molecules or you can move atoms.”

Brilliant. It will be just like Star Trek.

Trekkies (particularly those that watched the Next Generation series) will remember that everyone had a replicator in their surprisingly spacious cabins. According to the Wikipedia account of the Star Trek replicator (which is very detailed and I have a suspicion was written by one of those fans who has all the costumes at home and stalks Sir Patrick Stewart) the device re-arranges subatomic particles. But for some reason it can’t make gold. This is despite the fact that gold isn’t a particularly complex element. But I suppose it would have ruined the series if Will Ryker and Worf had decided to pack in their day jobs on the USS Enterprise to manufacture precious metal all day.

And of course, for those like myself who have a rudimentary grasp of economics, having an unending supply of gold would flood the market rendering it practically valueless. Which didn’t stop the alchemists from trying to transmute lead into gold. But they did eventually, and sometimes accidentally, end up creating such handy things like whisky, gunpowder and vaccines. But the emergence of a plastic gun you can make in your own workshop, with nothing but a set of plans downloaded from the internet and no more skill than is required to operate one of those single cup coffee machines, is worrying. OK, so you also need about £5,000 for the printer. However according to the blogger Willard Foxton, you can get the one used to make the gun, secondhand on eBay if you have the readies.

The “Liberator” – isn’t it cute? Just like JRR Tolkein’s fictional swords, this weapon has a name. It was the creation of a man named Cody Wilson, whose company Defense Distributed is based in Texas.

If you are like me, this mere fact of where he comes from starts the “nutter” alarm bells ringing. And sure enough, his company’s expressed aim is to: “…defend the civil liberty of popular access… through facilitating global access to, and the collaborative production of, information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms”. Oh yes and he wants to make the plans free so anyone around the world can download it and use it.

There is a sense that the whole idea of the 3D gun is a stunt. Surely if you want to get your hands on a weapon you could do better than one that makes a musket used by Napoleonic forces the superior choice. Except you could probably sneak this one through airport security. Which makes you hope that everyone knows shooting up a pressurised aircraft in flight means you will get sucked out the resulting hole in the fuselage. But I’m not sure I have that much hope in the wisdom of humanity.

Wilson’s dangerous new toy is not very useful… yet. But now the technological bridge has been crossed, it will only be improved upon. This saddens me. So much of our useful stuff, from fireworks, to Teflon, to mobile phones, were by products of the development of weaponry. Soon we will be able to replicate sausage and mash with gravy at the press of a button. But to do so, we have to perfect the technology in service of our darkest and basest instincts.