This article is the third part in a series on how technology disrupts politics.
In 2013, Cody Wilson made the world’s first functional 3D-printed gun. With this simple act, he may have rendered all legal bans on guns practically obsolete.
A 3D printer is an interesting device that creates a three-dimensional object of any shape, in much the same way as a printer, except that it does so layer by layer until a 3D object is made. Since their inception, 3D printers have become much faster and cheaper and can use a range of materials, including metal. It is now also possible to 3D-print continuously.
3D printers belong to a category of devices known as micro-factories, essentially allowing for high-quality production capability in your home. Micro-factories are nothing new. In fact, most own one already, such as a coffee maker. They are practical, but not disruptive. However, with the advent of 3D printers and similar highly versatile micro-factories, these devices are now so powerful that they allow individuals to reclaim power that is otherwise the purview of government.
The 3D printed gun illustrates this power grab perfectly. When anyone who owns a 3D printer can make guns, bans become ineffective. Criminals can always get hold of a weapon, and a ban would therefore only harm law-abiding citizens. In this way, a micro-factory can force the legalization and deregulation of firearms. It is a politically disruptive technology.
Another such device that has a disruptive potential is a molecular 3D printer – a device that can synthesize any chemical compound. In 2015, the chemist Martin Burke and colleagues published an article in Science describing an automated process for assembling custom carbon-based chemicals. This technology is still not ready for realization, let alone commercialization for the home market, but if it comes, it will have massive political implications.
Recreational drugs are the obvious example. If they can be manufactured by anyone cheaply in their home with generic chemicals, the war on drugs is lost. There would be no point in making them illegal because enforcing a ban would be a nightmare.
Medical drugs pose a different challenge. Today the price of medicines are very high, reflecting an extremely expensive FDA approval process. Pharmaceutical companies recover these expenses through patent protection. However, if anyone can make a pirate copy of a drug in their homes, this will necessarily have significant political ramifications as well as affecting the pharmaceutical business model.
This problem is analogous to piracy in the music, movie, and software industry. With the advent of the home computer and the internet, piracy severely undermined the traditional business models of these sectors. With chemical 3D printers, pharmaceutical companies will face a similar challenge, partially rendering patents obsolete.
This situation will force legal changes. One possibility is a draconian ban of micro-manufacturing, but a more likely outcome is a de-regulation of medical drugs and a simplification of the FDA approval process to bring the prices down to prevent widespread piracy.
As micro-manufacturing becomes cheaper and better, the areas in which they will affect policies will expand. Consider the impact home manufacturing could have on trade. If people can produce many items locally, the need for global shipping and trading would be weakened. Paradoxically this would reduce the impetus for trade barriers. Why impose tolls when you can produce most things locally anyway?
Micro-manufacturing is currently at an early innocuous stage, but as the technology matures, the political disruption will become ever more apparent.