Tuesday, 3 May 2005

Another Harbinger of the Singularity

From the Bath University RepRap Project :
universal constructor is a machine that can replicate itself and - in addition - make other industrial products. Such a machine would have a number of interesting characteristics, such as being subject to Darwinian evolution, increasing in number exponentially, and being extremely low-cost.

The project described in these pages is working towards creating a universal constructor by using rapid prototyping, and then giving the results away free under the GNU General Public Licence to allow other investigators to work on the same idea. We are trying to prove the hypothesis: Rapid prototyping and direct writing technologies are sufficiently versatile to allow them to be used to make a von Neumann Universal Constructor.
More via The Speculist.
Recent research under my supervision at Bath has developed a new additional technique that allows electrical conductors to be simply and directly incorporated in rapid-prototyped components made on conventional RP machines. This permits complete mechanisms to be created that contain their own control chips, electric motors, and sensors, all without any need for printed circuits.

This prompts the intriguing idea that it should be possible to design an RP machine that is capable of making nearly all its own component parts. Such a machine would have a number of novel characteristics. For example, it does not matter how much the first machine costs. The second and all subsequent machines will only cost as much as their raw materials and their assembly.

Once a company (or an individual) had acquired one self-copying RP machine they could make any further number that they wanted for themselves or others. This could make RP economic as a production, as opposed to a prototyping, technology.

In addition to having the capacity to create wealth exponentially (within resource limits), a self-replicating RP machine will also be subject to artificial selection. This is because the CAD designs for the machine have to be supplied with it for it to copy itself. Most people will use those designs as they stand; a few people will improve them. Some improvements will be made public on the Internet and will therefore spread, coming to predominate over less-good earlier designs.
Rapid Prototyping - RP - machines have only been developed in the last few years. CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design /Computer Aided Manufacture) systems have been in common use for two decades, as have the industrial robots they command. But those were large industrial plants. The systems referred to here are "3D Printers", instead of printing a flat image on a page, they "print" a solid object. Printed Brain
For example, the ZCorp 310, which "printed" the Brain model shown on the right :
Z Corporation’s proprietary software accepts solid models in STL, VRML and PLY file formats as input. ZPrint software features 3D viewing, text labeling, and scaling functionality. The software runs on Microsoft Windows* NT, 2000 Professional and XP Professional.
Not that long ago, a really good quality print could only be made by a large offset press or linotype machine. Now a few hunderd dollars will get you a colour laser printer that will do the same thing, and fits on a desktop.

The same thing is happening with MicroFactories. We're close to making ones that can replicate, and when that happens, the price becomes very low indeed. As they grow in sophistication, with the ability to make ever more complex objects, the world will change at least as much between 2005 and 2025 as it did between 1985 and 2005. Probably more, and possibly vastly more.

The Singularity is not something that will happen overnight, or even over a year or decade. It's something that will creep up on us, and may take a century or more to really get going. Just Signs and Portents so far, but with more to come in the next 5 years. I think by 2015 the process will be far more widely recognised than it is now.

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