Print Your Own Prosthetic Limb

In Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler explain how 3-D printing and infinite computing will change everything.

Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation
Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation

NADINE RUPP/Getty Images

In their new book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Peter H. Diamandis, the CEO of the X-Prize Foundation, and Steven Kotler argue that new technologies and other forces will make the coming years better, not worse, as we so often worry. In the excerpt below, Diamandis explains two technologies he is particularly excited about: 3-D printing and infinite computing. This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Feb. 29, Future Tense will host an event on the Make movement and do-it-yourself innovation in Washington, D.C. For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.

Carl Bass has been making things for the past 35 years: buildings, boats, machines, sculptures, software. He’s the CEO of Autodesk, which makes software used by designers, engineers, and artists everywhere. Today he’s touring me around his company’s demonstration gallery in downtown San Francisco. We pass advanced architectural imaging systems powered by Autodesk’s code; screens playing scenes from Avatar created with their tools, and ultimately up to a motorcycle and an aircraft engine, both manufactured by a 3-D printer, running—you guessed it—Autodesk software.

3-D printing is the first step toward Star Trek’s fabled replicators. Today’s machines aren’t powered by dilithium crystals, but they can precisely manufacture extremely intricate three-dimensional objects far more cheaply and quickly than ever before.

3-D printing is the newest form of digital manufacturing (or digital fabrication), a field that has been around for decades. Traditional digital manufacturers utilize computer-controlled routers, lasers, and other cutting tools to precisely shape a piece of metal, wood, or plastic by a subtractive process: slicing and dicing until the desired form is all that’s left. Today’s 3-D printers do the opposite. They utilize a form of additive manufacturing, in which a three-dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material.

While early machines were simple and slow, today’s versions are quick and nimble and able to print an exceptionally wide range of materials: plastic, glass, steel, even titanium. Industrial designers use 3-D printers to make everything from lampshades and eyeglasses to custom-fitted prosthetic limbs. Hobbyists are producing functioning robots and flying autonomous aircraft. Biotechnology firms are experimenting with the 3-D printing of organs, while inventor Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, has developed a large-scale 3-D printer that extrudes concrete for building ultra-low-cost multiroom housing in the developing world. The technology is also poised to leave our world. A Singularity University spinoff, Made in Space, has demonstrated a 3-D printer that works in zero gravity, so astronauts aboard the International Space Station can print spare parts whenever the need arises.

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think

“What gets me most excited,” says Bass, “is the idea that every person will soon have access to one of these 3-D printers, just like we have inkjet printers today. And once that happens, it will change everything. See something on Amazon you like? Instead of placing an order and waiting 24 hours for your FedEx package, just hit print and get it in minutes.” 3-D printers allow anyone anywhere to create physical items from digital blueprints. Right now the emphasis is on novel geometric shapes; soon we’ll be altering the fundamental properties of the materials themselves. “Forget the traditional limitations imposed by conventional manufacturing, in which each part is made of a single material,” explains Cornell University associate professor Hod Lipson in an article for New Scientist. “We are making materials within materials, and embedding and weaving multiple materials into complex patterns. We can print hard and soft materials in patterns that create bizarre and new structural behaviors.”

3-D printing drops manufacturing costs precipitously, as it makes possible an entirely new prototyping process. Previously, invention was a linear game: Create something in your head, build it in the real world, see what works, see what fails, start over on the next iteration. This was time-consuming, creatively restricting, and prohibitively expensive. 3-D printing changes all of that, enabling “rapid prototyping,” so that inventors can literally print dozens of variations on a design with little additional cost and in a fraction of the time previously required for physical prototyping.

And this process will be vastly amplified when coupled to what Carl Bass calls “infinite computing.” “For most of my life,” he explains, “computing has been treated as a scarce resource. We continue to think about it that way, though it’s no longer necessary. My home computer, including electricity, costs less than two-tenths of a penny per CPU core hour. Computing is not only cheap, it’s getting cheaper, and we can easily extrapolate this trend to where we come to think of computing as virtually free. In fact, today it’s the least expensive resource we can throw at a problem.

“Another dramatic improvement is the scalability now accessible through the cloud. Regardless of the size of the problem, I can deploy hundreds, even thousands of computers to help solve it. While not quite as cheap as computing at home, renting a CPU core hour at Amazon costs less than a nickel.”

Perhaps most impressive is the ability of infinite computing to find optimal solutions to complex and abstract questions that were previously unanswerable or too expensive to even consider. Questions such as “How can you design a nuclear power plant able to withstand a Richter 10 earthquake?” or “How can you monitor global disease patterns and detect pandemics in their critical early stages?”—while still not easy—are answerable. Ultimately, though, the most exciting development will be when infinite computing is coupled with 3-D printing. This revolutionary combination thoroughly democratizes design and manufacturing. Suddenly an invention developed in China can be perfected in India, then printed and utilized in Brazil on the same day—giving the developing world a poverty-fighting mechanism unlike anything yet seen.

From Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Copyright © 2012 by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster.