3D Printed Gun, Robots, and the future of food pricing

Recently there’s been a company based here in Austin Texas called Defense Distributed, which has been garnering a lot of attention. This is due to the fact that first, they developed a 3D printed magazine for an AR15. Then the decided to develop 3D printed versions of portions of the gun itself. These parts are being printed in plastic, so it seems unlikely that a plastic gun would work right? Well, the lower receiver for the AR15 can survive shooting 600 rounds. That’s a big deal. The first version was able to shoot one, the second only 7. As of yesterday they released a fully printable handgun. Due to restrictions in the US gun code a gun must have a certain minimum weight of metal to be detectable by metal detectors (125g). I think that this will have major ramifications – I’m not even talking about gun rights, or gun ownership or gun whatever. I’ll discuss those in a later post. Below is a video of the “Liberator” in action.

How is this a big deal in other ways than just Gun rights? Well, several months ago a book came out called “Race Against the Machine” which argues that we need to figure out how to work with robots and computers in an effective way to maximize the returns for both workers and for the owners of the computer/robots. One of these robots they discuss is a $25k robot called Baxter. This robot is extremely easy to program and control. It offers a lot of the capabilities that a low skill employee could offer and more than many expensive robots. In fact we’re seeing this in re-shoring efforts from companies like Tesla and Apple. They won’t be bringing back the old school manufacturing jobs. There will only be technician jobs related to fixing broken equipment, which will be significantly fewer jobs. Even if Baxter only lasts 3 years, it more than paid for itself in being able to operate for 24/7 for 25k in total rather than paying four people more than that each year.

Add in the capability for people to download  designs for guns and many other things from Thingiverse which can be printed from home and how cheap it is to send designs to companies like Shapeways – where you can print in metal, these changes are going to radically change our current manufacturing infrastructure and distribution system. We aren’t prepared for this and it’s going to reduce the number of low end jobs in existence.

Which brings me to the next point. Food prices are high. When people can’t feed themselves there are riots and revolts. We’ve seen this twice already in the past 5 years and we’re poised for more violence by August of this year. According to a study published two years ago food prices are near the threshold level of the Arab Spring. If these prices are still as high as predicted then we could see some serious issues in the next few years unless we radically begin rethinking our economic models.

We’ll be seeing massive disruption and opportunities in the manufacturing space. This will likely have massive ramifications on our supply chain, which has huge numbers of employees. The ability to print your own cheap plastic products could impact toy sales and the retail industry.

Is this bound to happen, no, certainly not. However, 3D Printers are now available for sale at Staples for $1,300 prebuilt, they’ve come pretty close to mainstream. The next step are going to be more advanced printers that are able to print faster, cool faster, print more complex designs with less structure, and eventually we might be able to print metal products on a printer that costs $1300. A lot of people won’t want to do this, but there will be enough where it could have a serious impact on the economy.

What do you think? Am I overreacting?

Can technology save us: Food production?

In 1768 Thomas Malthus wrote the Principles of Population, which posited that eventually all populations are held in check by disease and famine. This theory argues that any population that grows to sufficient size will outstrip the resources in that the population requires, which will result in famine disease and population crash. While, this is likely true in a Darwinian sense (he used this as to help develop the theory of evolution) it is not true for populations that are able to innovate and provide additional food resources.

Innovation allows the human population to develop new techniques for providing additional food in the same area of space. In some ways this happens through domesticating crops such as corn or bananas and increasing the size of the produce until it hardly looks like the wild version of the produce, which can be seen below for the banana. For a fruit that is roughly the same size an individual will receive a great deal more energy than with the wild fruit.

Source: Wikimedia

Obviously bigger fruits and vegetables aren’t the only product that we’ve seen increase in density of calories. Cattle are being breed to be larger and provide more meat on a single cow. In the extreme case, the Belgian Blue, they are so large they are unable to reproduce without human assistance and are taller than most cattle at the shoulder.

In many cases our cattle, pigs and chickens are being raised in some pretty terrible living conditions. These living conditions cause pollution of our land, cause diseases and can be smelled for hundreds of miles away from the farm. The production of the meat isn’t healthy for the animals nor for the people that live near them. However, for most people it’s out of sight out of mind, or they can’t afford to pay the market for humanely raised animals (grass fed beef or free range chickens).

In the US there’s child hunger, but there is famine in other parts of the world. Part of this is due to poverty, water shortages or powerful people withholding the food that is available. What technologies are out there that may be able to address some of these problems?

One of the most interesting me to me is Lab Grown Meat. This would remove the requirement of using killing animals to provide the meat and proteins we need to survive. Currently, these meats don’t taste all that great and most people would likely be against eating it. However, it could actually lead to a lot of other benefits. For one, if we are able to get cow meat to taste right, that means that we have the muscle and fat ratio correct. This could also allow us to use the same method to rebuild muscle mass for people who have been injured. Other benefits for people with special diets, like vegetarian or vegan, may be able to eat the meats because they aren’t coming from animals.

Labs devoted to growing animal meat would reduce the amount of corn and grains going to cattle and would increase the general supply of these foodstuffs. Additionally, the area required to grow animal meat would be a lot smaller than that to raise a herd of cattle. We won’t be able to replace every source of meat with this, but it is likely that it could replace a lot of it.

Another interesting idea is called the Vertical Farm Project. Instead of a farm taking up huge tracts of land, the farm could be contained in a single structure. It could take the idea of local to the extreme. There could be different floors for each type of crops and the crops could be grown using hydroponics or in a more traditional method if desired. These towers are planned to help power themselves through wind and solar power collectors. The crops would receive both artificial and natural sunlight through large windows and UV lights.

It is also likely that aside from simply providing crops the lower levels could also be used to house a version of grass fed cattle. The number of cows in the herd would have to be very small, but the manure could provide the nutrients some of the crops require. Additionally, since the air would be filtered it would reduce the impact of the smell of the cattle in the surrounding areas. The air circulation equipment could also filter out methane that the cows release and use that as an additional power source by burning it. The idea of a vertical farm like that would essentially ensure that all the material within the farm would be reused and maximize the sustainability of the farm.

At this point these ideas aren’t yet proven to work. It is going to be some time before these technologies are going to be fully workable and deployed to the general public. They could work in both the developed world and the developing. The vertical farm could seriously help the sub Sahara countries in Africa as it is likely that a vertical farm like that would be able to provide crops that normally would not grow outside of the farm. Additionally, the vertical farm could have a water collector on the top and use sun light to convert ocean water into drinkable water through a evaporation and collection.