The first two digital revolutions — computing and communications — transformed society. Now comes the third, which is fabrication, argues the new book, Designing Reality. The authors say that computerized fabrication such as 3-D printing is the beginning of a trend to change data into objects. But like any revolution, not all populations will benefit equally. The book, which is aimed at helping people prepare for the next tech wave, was written by three brothers: Alan Gershenfeld, president of E-Line Media and former chairman of Games for Change; Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, a professor at Brandeis University; and Neil Gershenfeld, who heads The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. Alan Gerhsenfeld and Cutcher-Gershenfeld talked about their book on the Knowledge at Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the full podcast using the player at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: What started this third digital revolution?
Alan Gershenfeld: It’s actually a continuum. We’ve had a revolution in digital computation, we’ve had a revolution in digital communication, and both have changed the world. We use Gordon Moore’s 1965 paper as a powerful point, where he was looking back 10 years at the doubling of digital computing performance and projecting what would happen 10 years forward if that exponential curve continued. He predicted things like mobile phones and smart cars, not because he was Nostradamus. He was simply observing a past trend of technology doubling and projecting forward.
Well, it’s happened for 50 years with close to a billion-fold improvement. Our middle brother, Neil, who wrote the book Fab that introduced a lot of this technology to the world, has also looked back 10 years and seen the doubling of digital fabrication performance. When we project forward 10, 20, 30 or 40 years and a potential billion-fold improvement in digital fabrication performance, it will once again change the world. That is the third digital revolution.
Knowledge at Wharton: Where will average people be able to see these changes?
Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld: If you’re involved in a community fabrication lab or maker space, you are starting to see it already. Most people barely see it except for press reports on 3-D printing, which is just one small piece of the puzzle. But where this is headed will affect how we live, learn, work and play. Imagine communities being able to design and make what they need locally, cutting global supply chains, still being globally connected but locally self-sufficient.
There are a growing number of communities that are beginning to embrace this rapid prototyping technology as a vehicle to make hydroponics for food, to make furniture, to make other things and, ultimately, to rethink the very nature of who owns the means of production. It started with Barcelona three years ago, and now there are about 14 cities in two countries that have set a goal of being globally connected but locally self-sufficient by 2040.
“The third digital revolution, much like the first two digital revolutions back in 1965, is largely going unnoticed or not fully understood.” –Alan Gershenfeld
Gershenfeld: There are pockets of knowledge, but the third digital revolution, much like the first two digital revolutions back in 1965, is largely going unnoticed or not fully understood. 3-D printing is a very powerful additive technology and one component of a fab lab. But there are some subtractive processes like laser cutters and shop bots, and there’s embedded computing. Right now the fab lab, as an integration of additive, subtractive, embedded computing, with a global network that is sharing a similar footprint of not just hardware but computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), creates a footprint that is interoperable, and you have something of an internet of bits and atoms.
That is partially what enables the exponential propagation of fab labs and global sharing with local self-sufficiency. Amidst all of the hype around 3-D printing, that landscape is misunderstood. The book gives a peek around the corner into the future of the research roadmap for digital fabrication, which goes from community fabrication to personal fabrication to ubiquitous and universal fabrication. In that process, there’s a switch from the materials used.
Now you use various forms of wood or MDF, plastics that are both environmentally friendly and unfriendly. Over time, those materials will become smarter. You’ll have smart digital materials that can form and reform, and that’s also part of the roadmap to sustainability. While there is awareness and press around 3-D printing, fab labs and maker spaces, folks don’t necessarily understand the full capability of a fab lab and the roadmap within the next 10, 20, 30 years.
Knowledge at Wharton: What exactly is a fab lab?
Cutcher-Gershenfeld: If you walk into a typical fab lab, it might be twice the size of a woodworking or metalworking shop. You would see some computers for design, a laser cutter, a 3-D printer, a milling machine, a 3-D scanner. You would see a space where you could do electronics and make circuit boards to make programmable products. It wouldn’t look that different from the rapid prototyping facility that a manufacturing organization would have. The difference, of course, is that it would be open to the community. It might be in a school, a library, a community college, a university or a museum.
The important thing is that the roadmap extends 30, 40, 50 years. But there are things that you can do right now. Let’s take Pittsburgh, for example. It’s a steel city that had fallen on hard times with the decline of traditional manufacturing. About 10 years ago, a series of pancake breakfasts brought educators together because they said kids weren’t learning the way they used to. They shifted to focus more on project-based learning.
Today there are 2,000 educators in that region, which includes western Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio. There are also about 200 fab labs and maker spaces, and they’re connected to the local schools, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. This digital fabrication capability is part of a new project-based way of learning that is integral to that emerging ecosystem.
Knowledge at Wharton: It sounds like education is a major component of the third revolution.
Cutcher-Gershenfeld: That’s exactly right. Fab labs are a great place to design and make things. It also turns out they’re a great place for people to connect and collaborate, both locally and internationally, because people are sharing designs and ideas all around the world through the digital communications connections. So, fab labs turn out to be centers for collaboration that really bridge across generations, across communities, in ways that are very special.
“Could there be a debilitating fab divide that actually makes the current digital divides even worse?” –Alan Gershenfeld
Knowledge at Wharton: Explain the process of writing this book together as three brothers who have complementary skills?
Gershenfeld: It was an interesting experience. Neil has always been on the vanguard of technology and digital fabrication technology and this nexus between bits and atoms. But he is a techno-utopist like a lot of people on the vanguard of technology. One thing that Joel and I do is look at the challenges and tensions in the global fab-lab ecosystem. As Joel mentioned, when you go to a fab lab it’s an exhilarating experience. A well-run fab lab has all of the benefits of experiential learning and community empowerment. You’re connected to a global community that loves to make things. It really is a powerful experience. But digital fabrication is hard.
First, we talk about access. Right now, there are over 1,000 fab labs reaching a couple of hundred thousand, perhaps a few million people, but there are 7 billion people on the planet. Could there be a debilitating fab divide that actually makes the current digital divides even worse? We go into a deep dive as to how to start to think about avoiding a fab divide now. Imagining going back to 1965, reading Gordon Moore’s paper and saying, we need to start thinking about a digital divide now, not 20, 30 years later.
We also look at literacy. Right now, digital literacy is still something we’re trying to define a half-century after Moore’s paper. What does it mean to be fab literate when that’s going to mediate so much of how things are made in the future? We look at things like an enabling ecosystem, how to cultivate fab mentors, how to cultivate interoperability. Right now there’s a lot of friction in the CAD, CAM, additive, subtractive, embedded computing process because they are very different. These traditionally have been different systems that don’t necessarily work well together. Designing standards and protocols is much easier early rather than later when they become hardened.
Lastly, we look at risk mitigation. That’s everything from bad people making bad things in a fab lab, which certainly you start to see press around, to other areas of risk that could emerge in the ecosystem. Again, now is the time to begin addressing those.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is it hard to look so far down the road without being retrospective and almost behind the curve?
Cutcher-Gershenfeld: In society, institutions hold what you might call the rules of the game. Institutions are a product of patterned behaviors that essentially become codified into how we do it. The institutions around digital communication and computation were slow to emerge. As a result, we’re playing catch-up now on all of the online bullying, complicated weaponized information and just the basic digital divides around access and literacy.
What we’re saying in the book is that now is the time to begin thinking about these patterns. Institutions need to do two things: They need to help create value, and they need to mitigate risk. Creating value is all about people being able to design and make what they need. There are serious risks. Probably the most troubling is bio-fab, which is using digital fabrication capabilities to create biological things. It’s beneficial if you can print a new liver, which in labs people can do. It’s not so good if you print a disease that gets out of the lab into the community. We need to create the institutional patterns, the new arrangements, to have conversations, to have advocacy, to have voice, to have agency with respect to the technology.
“We’re playing catch-up now on all of the online bullying, complicated weaponized information and basic digital divides around access and literacy.” –Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld
Knowledge at Wharton: How will the third digital revolution change the way we work?
Cutcher-Gershenfeld: We think of work as getting paid to do a job, going to a workplace, having a supervisor, having a hierarchical structure and having a person who is the boss or owner. In some respects, there will still be services and things that you will need to do for which paid labor will be important in the years to come. It will be a blended economy.
But what’s interesting is that increasingly there are things that you can design and make for barter and exchange. The very notion of work itself may be that you can do paid work less and consume less, and instead create more.
Gershenfeld: For years, indigenous communities have been able to understand their environment, understand their local materials and largely make what they consume. I think a global movement, like the fab cities movement, that is looking back to that sort of true north. How can we increasingly use local materials to largely make what we can consume? As Joel mentioned, that leads to a really interesting blend that is going to emerge. There’s the idea that, with making more of what you consume, with more protections around the gig economy, you can have a more blended lifestyle where it’s not this dichotomy of work and not work.
Knowledge at Wharton: How will all of this affect societal norms?
Cutcher-Gershenfeld: Let’s take a function in the workplace that we know well: human resources. Human resources ensures fair treatment in the workplace, health and safety, helps define career paths, attends to training and development. All of those things depend on there being something called a workplace in the first place. These fab labs aren’t a workplace, so they’re not subject to health and safety regulations, the laws governing fair treatment, discrimination, and so on. Yet people are spending a lot of time there, and those issues and needs are real. That’s a place where the institutions needs to be realigned to match the new realities to protect against the parts of our human nature that are not always the best version of ourselves.
At the same time, the technology itself will eventually move out of the lab as we go along this roadmap into more personal technology, which could be located anywhere. How do we ensure fair treatment, safe conditions and other societal norms that we value in a world where the ability to make things is increasingly mobile?
Gershenfeld: Right now in society, there seems to be this big dichotomy between globalism and localism. Fab labs are almost a boundary object where bits can be global and we can share global knowledge, but atoms can be local and self-sufficiency can be local. I think it’s a way to break down some of those hardened divides.