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Old June 15th, 2005, 01:57 PM   #1
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Star Trek Physics genius plans to make 'Star Trek' replicator a reality

From USA Today:

Physics genius plans to make 'Star Trek' replicator a reality

By Kevin Maney

"This machine makes every man self-sufficient. It takes the stickum right out of society."

That's a quote from a 1958 science-fiction story, Business as Usual, During Alterations, by Ralph Williams. It's about a machine called a duplicator, which aliens drop off on Earth as a test for humans. Put anything on the duplicator's tray and the machine makes an exact copy.

People go nuts, making duplicate duplicators, then making jewelry, clothes, food and money, rendering all products and cash virtually worthless. It's both a dream machine and a nightmare machine, giving everyone what they want but threatening to wreck the economy and the underpinnings of civilization.

So, of course somebody is really inventing one today.

And not some loony in a garage who thinks he's Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This is Neil Gershenfeld, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms and a certifiable physics genius. He's got backing from the National Science Foundation. He's got interest from the Pentagon, venture capitalists and foreign governments. This week, he's in South Africa, where he's setting up one of his creations in Pretoria.

He calls his machines "fabs," and he's just published a book about his work, Fab: The Coming Revolution On Your Desktop — From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication.

Gershenfeld's ultimate goal is to invent home fabrication machines that will be as common as Hewlett-Packard ink-jet printers. They will be able to make anything: custom Barbie clothes, MP3 players, cow-shaped cream pitchers, Barry Bonds baseball cards from the 1980s when he looked skinny — you name it.

"We're aiming at making the Star Trek replicator," Gershenfeld says, referring to the machine on the USS Enterprise that could conjure up a cup of coffee or a toenail clipper on command.

How far along is Gershenfeld? Well, in one sense, not very. His fabs look like a cross between a computer and a high school shop class. The gadgets include a laser cutter and a milling machine, and together they make parts that must be assembled rather than churning out whole finished products. Users have tended to make one-off oddities, including a bag for silencing a scream in case you just have to let one loose in a crowd.

But Gershenfeld argues that his fabs today are the historical equivalent of 1970s minicomputers.

Before the 1970s, only big entities could afford to buy computers, which were room-size mainframes. The first minicomputers cost around $25,000 and could fit in a closet, allowing small companies or groups to own computing power. They were followed in the 1980s by personal computers, which fit on a desk and cost one-tenth as much.

And now, computing power is so cheap it can be in teenagers' bedrooms, working on such mission-critical tasks as instant messaging.

Similarly, Gershenfeld's fabs cost around $20,000 and can fit on a couple of tables. They do some basic fabrication that previously required a factory floor. And, Gershenfeld says, the fabs "can do today what you will do later with a single machine that costs $1,000."

It might be hard to accept that a machine will rearrange atoms into 3D products. But there are precedents. If you go into many research and development labs, you'll find a rapid prototyping machine that can make a 3D form out of plastic powder or liquid.

The other day, I met Thomas Mino, CEO of a nanotech company called Lumera. It can change the molecules in a plastic to give it different properties, depending on whether it will be used in radio antennas, circuits for computer chips or devices for drug research. If nanotech factories can build plastic products one molecule at a time, why couldn't that capability someday sit in your office?

Look at it another way: Back in 1975, anyone would've had a hard time believing consumers would eventually have home laser machines that would make optical disks that could each store the equivalent of 150 books. Yet that's exactly what a CD burner is.

In 2020 or so, you might be ready to play Wiffle ball with your kids but can't find the ball. So you'd go on the Web, perhaps finding a Wiffle ball design that's been modified by a aerodynamics graduate student so the ball dips like a Roger Clemens slider.

You'd download the design the way you download a PDF file today. Then instead of clicking "print," you'd click "fab."

The computer would dump the design into your fabricator, which would spray molecules from a cartridge to form the ball. A small fee for the design would get charged to your PayPal account. Otherwise, the only cost would be that once in a while you'd have to replace the cartridge, which no doubt would cost three times more than the fabricator.

As that example shows, in a fab world, hardware will be changeable — programmable — much as software is today. People could tinker with it and sell their customizations online. As Gershenfeld points out, it truly would become open-source hardware.

Gershenfeld dismisses worries that such a machine would undermine the manufacturing economy — just as home printers have not killed off the printing industry. "There will still be mass production for mass markets," he says. "Then for all the stuff that isn't from Wal-Mart, you make it at home."

Even in science fiction, society adapts to the fab. At the end of Williams' story, the characters figure out that instead of an economy based on standardized, mass-manufactured products, the post-duplicator economy would be one of mass-diversity. Their biggest complaint is that the duplicator didn't change things enough.

"The whole framework of our society has flipped upside down," says one character. "And yet, it doesn't seem to make much difference, it's still the same old rat race."


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Old June 15th, 2005, 05:20 PM   #2
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I remember a similar idea was proposed a while ago for use in space. A machine that could use lasers to carve another tool from raw material should they need it....

Sounded like a good idea, especially sice autonauts can't pop to a hardware shop if they lose a tool. I don't know how far they got with it, but this seems to be a similar idea.......
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Old June 16th, 2005, 05:45 AM   #3
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Very interesting idea.

Thanks for posting it Scifi.
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Old June 16th, 2005, 02:48 PM   #4
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Someone call me when they get the holodeck working!
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Old August 2nd, 2005, 06:24 AM   #5
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The one problem with this wonderful technology (as it is with all technology), is that it may be too premature for humanity to own. What's to stop a 10-year-old from "fabbing" a small explosive device and putting it under his/her teacher's desk for giving an "F" on a book report? Take that up a couple of notches. "Fabs" and terrorists? The worst problem you can have with a printer is a bad paper cut, or getting your tie stuck in the spindles.

Sorry...we're not ready for it.
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Old February 2nd, 2006, 05:29 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by 137th Gebirg
The one problem with this wonderful technology (as it is with all technology), is that it may be too premature for humanity to own. What's to stop a 10-year-old from "fabbing" a small explosive device and putting it under his/her teacher's desk for giving an "F" on a book report? Take that up a couple of notches. "Fabs" and terrorists? The worst problem you can have with a printer is a bad paper cut, or getting your tie stuck in the spindles.

Sorry...we're not ready for it.
Nothing so dramatic. All this thing does is rearrange matter - it doesn't create different matter. Therefore, it cannot "create" explosives, just their containers, and that's a pretty wasteful thing to do, when common pipe is chaep and available.

Explosives are multi-compound chemicals; the single-base formula's are too hot to handle for "Joe Shmucketelli" in his computer room or garage. The chemicals to make those compounds are already tightly controlled, and again, you've got serious overkill, since most multi's can be safely mixed by hand.....
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Old March 22nd, 2006, 06:38 AM   #7
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And they'll make BILLIONS of dollars selling us "fab" cartridges containing the particular "ink" with which to "print" our desired objects. You can't make a hammer out of plastic. You'd have to have a "steel" fab cartridge to make one. You can't make a blender out of paper, so they'll sell us a "multi-material" fab cartridge. Like red ink and black ink and blue ink and yellow ink (CMYK).

In the end, its plain to see that you can't make somethign from nothing. The raw materials must come from somewhere. And I'm afraid the technology doesn't exist to start as low as the atomic level and redefine atoms into whatever you want them to be.

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Old December 21st, 2011, 11:18 PM   #8
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Default Re: Physics genius plans to make 'Star Trek' replicator a reality

Is this how Cylons reproduce???
Populos stultus viris indignas honores saepe dat. -Horace
Fortuna est caeca. -Cicero
"You know the night before was a tough one when even the sound of the fizz hurts your head." -Mike Hammer.
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Old December 22nd, 2011, 06:34 AM   #9
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Default Re: Physics genius plans to make 'Star Trek' replicator a reality

Another 5-year old thread crawls up from the ashes.

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
The night is falling
You have come to journey's end
Sleep now
And dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across the distant shore .

Children are a message that we send
to a time that we will never see.
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