Technology out of control (Robert Henderson)

by Robert Henderson

Note: I think Robert is missing the point here. The sole purpose of economic activity is consumption. If we can produce 75 per cent of the things we want without having to buy them, that reduces the amount of work that needs to be done. The purpose of any production above what is needed for direct consumption is trade for other things to consume. We may be progressing very fast into a world of plenty with both security and independence. SIG

Technology out of control

Robert Henderson

I have previously dealt with how robotics has the potential to make unviable consumer based economic systems based on the market and free trade between countries and the vast potential they have for creating economic and social upheaval in any industrialised society ( A short recap of these difficulties will set the scene for the less obvious threat posed by other emerging technologies.

When general purpose robots are available they will not only be able to do the jobs humans do now but any new jobs arising from the technology. This is a wholly new situation because all previous technological advance has created new jobs which can only be done by humans.

In such circumstances there will be a choice for any society: ban robots in the society and goods produced by robots in foreign countries or suffer a catastrophic and unmendable unemployment and the subsequent catastrophic loss of demand.

Alternatively, a society could be organised on the basis of the robots producing the goods and providing the services with human beings acting purely as consumers apart from those needed to do whatever jobs robots cannot do or it is deemed dangerous for them to do plus those producing art or artisan goods for a niche market.

General purpose robots are the most obvious and comprehensive threat to the economic arrangements of the advanced world, but there are other emerging technological advances which either already exist as practical tools for general use or will do so in the not too distant future.

3D Printers

A favourite SciFi invention is the universal replicator, a machine which produces whatever a person wants. We are not there yet but the first significant steps have been made with the 3D printer.

3D printing has the potential to undermine any society based on mass production for mass consumption. If everything can be reduced to an electronic blueprint, in principle anyone can produce anything. This is because 3D printers will not only print from ready-made programs. Any object can be scanned and then the scanned information in digital form can be used to print the object. All that will be required is the requisite printing equipment with the physical materials to create the object required.

This will raise a number of problems for private business, both in terms of what they will be producing and supplying and because of the intellectual property implications. Imagine a world in which, say, the individual human can produce 75% of the manufactured goods they require simply by printing it. That is not so far-fetched as it might seem. Consider your own life. What would you think it obviously impractical for a 3D printer to produce? Almost certainly a house, quite probably a car. Perhaps anything large and complicated.

Large is not an insuperable problem even for the near future because parts of any object could be produced with a 3D Printer and then assembled, quite probably by a robot. A Dutch company DUS Architects are already testing out the proposition that a house could be printed out (

That is how things stand now, which is threatening enough in its implications, but 3D printing could and almost certainly would be far more of a comprehensive threat. In principle anything could be produced whole provided it was not larger than the capacity of the printer used to print it

Complexity would not be an absolute bar because a printer could print from the centre to the perimeter or an object. Today it might seem improbable that a complete car could be printed out, but there is no impossible bar to it happening. A house would be a stretch because of the problems of foundations but it might be possible to print a house in its entirety on foundations created by humans or robots.

3D printing has the potential to create immense economic difficulties. If it was used widely traditional manufacturers would at best find the demand for most of their goods either vanishing altogether or dropping very sharply. Wholesalers would be rendered unnecessary in great swathes of industry because they only thing to deliver would be a computer programme to the individual 3D printer. Retailers might still have a life as showrooms for the printed product, but it would be a much reduced service because people would probably be more and more content just to view a model on the Web or one printed out by a friend. Perhaps a holographic representation of the article to be printed would be provided before printing.

Price would also be a consideration. There is good reason to believe that items printed would be cheaper than those made in factories because there would be no overheads beyond the machine’s purchase, its maintenance, the materials used for printing and the energy used. A parallel with 2D printing can be made. It is much cheaper to print text or images on your home printer than give the work to a commercial printer. There is also the possibility that the materials for creating 3D printed artefacts could be reused, just like plasticene, over and over again. If an item was not liked or the print went wrong there would be only the cost of the energy used to print to be borne.

But 3D printing could go way beyond the manufactured goods we have now. If anything can be reduced to a computer programme and the correct ingredients by way of the ink substitute created to put into the 3D printer why could not anything physical not be created including food? Organic material has already been used in 3D printing as we shall see. It might even be possible in the more distant future to manipulate atoms to create whatever elements are required, just as the sun causes different elements to form.

The economic effects of widespread 3D printing would be catastrophic because there would be a huge loss of demand due to a massive loss of employment as industrial, wholesale and retail activity was severely reduced. A company which makes and supplies computer programmes rather than making and supplying physical things is going to need a tiny workforce compared to a manufacturer with their factory or the wholesaler or retailer with their warehouse.

In the beginning when 3D printers are very expensive less than user-friendly, there would be businesses which would set up 3D printing shops just as there are 2D print shops now. But the likelihood is that as time goes on and 3D printers become cheap and user-friendly , businesses doing the 3D printing for customers will become defunct or at least very much reduced. In any event such businesses will require far fewer staff than traditional manufactures.

What is it to be human?

3D printers represent an existential threat as well as an economic one. The reproduction of human parts has already taken its first tentative steps using 3D printers –

If it is possible to print a kidney why not a complete human being ? Assume there is a situation where a complete body could be replicated. Think further and imagine that not only the physical construct of the body could be replicated but also the mental element of a person. This might be done by simply replicating a brain with the replication process exactly copying the brain in all its facets, including the brain’s operational state, at any point in time so that the resultant artefact would be an exact copy of the original just as a copied computer file is an exact copy of data at a point in time. Even more removed from the original person would be a means of reducing the entire mental construct of a person to a digital representation which could be stored as a computer file and then downloaded into other machines, artificially created bodies or even other human beings.

That might seem something which is way into the future, but consider the speed with which technology is already advancing, how we have moved from physically huge computers fifty years ago to tiny devices with many times the power of the most advanced computer made in the 1960s.

Think on two questions: (1) if individual humans can be replicated what is it to be human? (2)Once everything can be reduced to digital data or indeed data in any form, where does reality begin and end? I would suggest only in the concept of things rather than the physical reality of them.

Self-Organising materials

Another future disrupter of market economies is self-organising materials. Imagine have a material which did not have a fixed state but could assume different states to perform different tasks. Such a material could perform as a wondrously enhanced Swiss Army knife without the need to have any permanent specific tools, viz:

A. System Functionality

We aim to create a system of sand grain sized modules that can form arbitrary structures on demand. Imagine a bag of these intelligent particles. If, for example, one needs a specific type or size of wrench, one communicates this to the bag. The modules contained within first crystallize into a regular structure and then self-disassemble in an organized fashion to form the requested object. One reaches in, grabs the tool, and uses it to accomplish a meaningful task. When one is done with the tool, it goes back into the bag where it disintegrates, and the particles can be reused to form the next tool. Such a system would be immensely useful for an astronaut on an inter-planetary mission or a scientist isolated at the South Pole. Even for the average mechanic or surgeon, the ability to form arbitrary, task-specific, tools would be immensely valuable in inspecting and working in tight spaces.(Self-Disassembling Robots Pebbles: New Results and Ideas for Self-Assembly of 3D Structures (

This system uses electromagnets and a subtractive system. It begins with a quantity of the grain sized modules and removes those which are not needed for a specific item, just as a sculptor starts with a block of marble and creates by removing material.

That is self-organising materials as tools, but any object could in principle be so created, even complicated machines. All that would be required is a form of self-organising material flexible enough to translate any digital map into a real object.

The effect of widespread use of self-organising materials would mean that much of traditional manufacturing would become unnecessary. That would have serious effects on demand because employment would be substantially reduced.

Intellectual property

The wholesale removal of production and supply by innovations such as 3D printing and self-organising materials have serious implications for intellectual property. If everything is reduced to a digital representation where will ownership of ideas and physical creations lie? At present it is possible to have patents in an object or process, but what if anything can be scanned and then a 3D print made from the scan? Who could claim that a patent had been infringed if the item complained about was the results of a scan produced by the person making the 3D print? That would not be the equivalent of someone taking an object or process and simply reproducing it by physically duplicating by an act of copying. Rather, it would be akin to the situation where someone photographs a painting then mass reproduces the photograph. There would be no obvious breach of patent because the copies would be of the photograph taken of the painting not of the painting itself.

In such circumstances patent rights would become effectively null and void. If there was an attempt to reform patent law to include replication of an original patented design, however reproduced, if it was identical or had large degree of similarity with the scanned object, it is unlikely that it would be enforceable. That is because all any person wishing to replicate an object would have to do would be to manipulate the data from the scanned object to make it other than identical with the original object which was scanned and then argue the changes were sufficient to constitute something different in quality to the scanned original object. That would be a never ending playground for the lawyers as people squabbled over what constituted a significance similarity.

There would also be an obvious reason why enforcement would fail: the sheer numbers of people copying things, with most of them doing it simply for themselves or at least on a very small scale. The patent holders would be faced with a similar problem to that faced by the creators of digital material such as films or music who still suffer massive breaches of copyright. Patent holders would be overwhelmed by the numbers of breaches.

There could also be problems over copyright. A person who scanned an object would be creating a digital data map of the object. That would be an original creation. Who would own the copyright of the data map? Presumably the person who scanned it for the data map they have created is original. If the data map was then sold to others there would be a direct conflict between the rights of the patent holder of the scanned object and the rights of the copyright holder who created the data map. How could that be resolved?

Disruptive technological advances do not have to dramatic or completely novel

General purpose robots and self-organising materials are genuine novelties in the sense of having no antecedents, but less novel and exotic technological advances also contain threats of social and economic disruption. Think of the effect that the automation of a single machine dedicated to one general type of activity might have. An automated sewing machine meets that description and there are serious attempts being made to produce one:

Fully Automatic Sewing of Garments Using Micro-Manipulation

FBO – DARPA has provided $1.25 million for Softwear Automation to develop a complete work-cell called a Beta Unit for fully automated sewing. That includes a numerically controlled sewing machine that tracks fabric movement by observing passing threads and under servo control moves the fabric under the needle stitch by stitch. Complete production facilities that produce garments with zero direct labor is the ultimate goal.

The military’s annual clothing budget at $4 billion dollars and employs about 50,000 people.

The US annual import of sewn items is approximately $100 Billion per year.

The technology proposed appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs LESS THAN in China. There is only one basic innovation required; that the metric of motion should not be meters or inches but rather thread count in the fill and warp directions. (Wovens and leather like materials need a slightly different measure.) This leads to THREE fundamental technical issues that have largely been solved and discussed below as well as more routine engineering development.

“The automation process proposed by Dickerson works something like this. First, an “overhead, pick-and-place robot” grabs the necessary pieces of fabric and places them at the head of a sewing machine. The appliance itself would be equipped with “machine vision” capabilities, specific enough to spot and track individual fabric threads. That intel would “provide fabric location information” to actuators that operate the sewing machine’s needle and thread, and “budgers” — motorized balls, underneath the sewing machine that latch onto the fabric via vacuum seal — that move the material to and fro.”

If such a machine is invented much of the emerging economies of the developing world would be lost because of their very heavy reliance on producing clothes. And that is just one machine. Other basic manufacturing processes currently relying on cheap labour in places such as China and India could and almost certainly will be invented.

What should be done?

Governments should be considering consider the implications of any disruptive new technology and planning to deal with them, for example, by deciding now whether to ban or restrict the use of general purpose robots or to rejig the way a society produces goods and provides services, rather than wait for the reality of the new technology to be upon us..

Dispiritingly, governments are, with the notable exceptions of GM foods and alleged man-made climate change, ignoring the potential dangers they present. In most instances the potential dangers are not even part of the mainstream political discourse, not least because there are no powerful and well funded interest groups lobbying about technologies such as robotics.

The irony is that GM foods and man-made climate change either present no proven danger (GM foods) or have no proven foundation (man-made climate change), while dangers posed by technologies such as general purpose robots and 3D printing pose very real and obvious dangers which are the direct result of human inventiveness.

Why do GM foods and man-made climate change appeal to many while fears over technologies such as robotics and 3D printing lack a public voice? Probably because digital technology has become so much a part of our lives. Most people simply think of the idea of robots and 3D printing as simply a development of what they already use and increasingly interact with on a quasi-human level. Green issues are set apart from such everyday experience. There is also probably an element of people thinking they will be treated as SF addicts at best and unbalanced if they start raising fears about robots, 3D printers and suchlike. They should put aside their fears of being embarrassed and think about the practical implications of such technologies.


  1. One of your contributors previously said:

    “Instead of obsessing over the steady advancement of technology and attempting to thwart its potential at the development level, we should direct our efforts toward abolishing institutions which necessarily and murderously abuse that potential.

    Technology is getting cheaper and cheaper, and more and more useful.

    Political government is getting more and more expensive and less and less tolerable.

    One of the two needs to go. And it’s pretty clear which one.”

    I’m inclined to agree.

    • I also agree. Robert is absolutely first rate on issues of civil liberty. His Luddism is a terrible blind spot. The liberating potential of modern technology is something that continually astonishes me. All else aside, it has come close to levelling the playing field with out rulers. There only response has been ineffectual laws – remember the ban on encryption they tried in RIPA? – and a wall of lies about terrorism and paedophilia.

  2. Mr Gabb. On their own initiative, Google is currently experimenting by launching balloons into near space that could eventually be “diverted to disaster-hit areas to aid rescue efforts in situations where ground communication equipment has been damaged”. I doubt if Governments are doing as much to counter possible future calamities.

    Another layman’s argument would be the internet, which in a short period of time has arguably done more for social reform and advancing humanity than a room full of neo bureaucrats could hope to achieve over a millennium.

    It’s been said that the only limit to technology is imagination – something that apparatchiks tend to lack – unless they are trying to cover their own backs….

  3. You are all missing my two general points: namely, that technology will make free trade and market economies impossible and the possibility of replicating human beings raises the profound question of what it is to be human.

    If you wish to quarrel with my analysis of the logic of inventions such as general purpose robots and 3D printers it is no good simply saying technology is wonderful and will make our lives marvellous by letting us have stuff for free. You need to show how an economy can function if everyone can make most of what they want or robots can do almost all the work a human being can do. If people cannot work because there is no employment they cannot purchase things and keep a consumer society functioning. Just hang onto that point.

    • People won’t be unemployed.

      They will be providing goods and services that are currently uneconomic, but which this new technology will make viable.

  4. Robert’s got the wrong end of the stick here.

    Absent state interference and this kind of technology has the potential to hugely improve living standards everywhere.

    It will free huge amounts of resources to meet an infinite number of needs that are currently unmet.

  5. “People won’t be unemployed.
    They will be providing goods and services that are currently uneconomic, but which this new technology will make viable”

    You are missing the point .Peter – the robots will do both the old and the new jobs.

    • If the robots produce for us, so much the better. If they don’t produce for us, we shall have to continue relying on each other.

      But they will produce for us because they must. And every act of supply is also an act of demand.

  6. Sean – it would be possible to put all the work in the hands of robots, but apart from the obvious dangers of doing that – humans becoming a drone-like race resembling the Eloi and ever more intelligent robots rebelling against their servitude – there would have to be a non-market command economy solution because if humans did not work to earn money how would money or any other means of allocating robot produced goods and services be arranged?

    • Well, in the Utopian economy, we must ask, why do we need to allocate anything? The need for allocation is a consequence of scarcity, and scarcity is a consequence of the limit of human productivity. The robots have no such limits. If they are running out of productive capacity, they can just build another robot.

      Now of course, you may say, humans can do that too. But we only do it very slowly (it may take 20 years to get a new unit into production) and every new human producer is also a consumer, so creating a new human does not raise per capita productivity.

      This not true of the robots. They produce, but do not consume beyond a base subsistence (energy, maintenance, oil) whereas humans consume commensurate with their productivity. Because humans have “wants”, but machines don’t.

      So, robot production can rise arbitrarily and indefinitely, compared to human production.

      It’s an utterly different economic model. You can’t apply our current preconceptions to it.

      • Ian B

        Scarcity would not vanish because materials to make things and energy to power machines including robots would still be scarce. That would mean someone or even something in the shape of an intelligent machine would have to allocate materials and energy.

        In a world in which robots did all or even the large majority of the work money would cease to be money as we know it. Something called money might exist but it would be no more than a token given to a citizen to acquire goods and services by some authority. That would have to be the case because if no one works then no one earns. The amount given to a citizen would have to be decided by some representative body, individual or intelligent machine.

        • Nope. Scarcity is not a shortage of resources. It’s a consequence of low productivity. With our hypothetical robot economy, productivity is unlimited and thus scarcity is abolished.

          To take a current example, Third World Africa has a shortage of goods (compared to the first world) currently not because of a shortage of resources but due to low productivity. Raise the productivity, the shortage is alleviated.

          There is a general fallacy among many people at the moment of a mercantilist view that the economy “allocates resources”; this drives people to presume for instance that central planning can improve this mythical “resource allocation”. But that’s not what the economy is and does. It describes the trading of production, which is why it can grow unboundedly (not infinitely, note) as production per capita improves. In our imaginary future, production per capita is unlimited, because production has been decoupled from human beings altogether.

          If the robots need another power station, the robots build another power station. The cost of which is zero, since none of the factors of production employ any human labour. You’ve basically reached a stage at which you no longer have need of an “economy” any more.

  7. Ian B – There is objectively (1) a finite limit to raw materials including those used to create energy and (2) the raw materials are not evenly spread throughout the world so that access to what exists is not equal. Hence there is scarcity (and hence unsatisfied demand) which cannot be resolved through greater effort or technological advance.

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