Impact of Automated Fabrication on Society

Excerpt from the book, Automated Fabrication

Page contents:
        21st Century

Copyright © 1993, . All rights reserved.

Chapter 9 of Automated Fabrication was entitled Economic and Sociological Impact. The introduction to the chapter explained:

     Automated fabrication (“fabricators”) has the potential to have an even more fundamental impact on society and society’s economics than automated computation (“computers”). The introduction and growth of computers have been heralded by some to indicate the dawn of a new era of human history, the so-called “information age.” This idea supposes that the greatest value in our society is now placed on information and the tools and skills for storing and manipulating it. But it is possible that the information age will be short-lived, soon to be superseded by a new age in which man acquires untold powers to manipulate the properties of matter in much the same way that computers manipulate information.

This chapter contains a philosophical section and two practical ones. Section 9.1 is philosophical because it asks more questions than it answers. It is an invitation to the readers of this book to contemplate the overall ramifications of automated fabrication, rather than just the financial advantages it can bring to a single organization. Through such contemplation, it is hoped that we can undertake a more responsible collective implementation of the technology, perhaps recognizing steps we can take along the way to mitigate some sociological drawbacks.

Reproduced below is Section 9.1 from the book.

9.1     Impact of Automated Fabrication on Society

The Growth and Importance of Awareness in Society

A new technology can change the way people and nations interact with each other and with their environments, how they acquire goods and services for survival and betterment, and how they assign value to various sorts of available goods and services. Dramatic changes in these elements of life have occurred with the inventions of (in approximate chronological order)

Hand tools, fire, artificial shelter (clothing and roofing), agriculture, language, the wheel, metals processing (e.g., the “iron age”), numbers, the sail, the telescope, mechanical power (the “industrial revolution”), photography, antiseptics and antibiotics, electric power, automobiles, radio (telecommunications), flight (winged and rocket), nuclear power, plastics, and computers.

The interesting difference in man’s circumstance in the 1990s from the eras of these earlier inventions is our level of awareness of who we are, where we have come from, and how much control we have over our individual and collective destinies. It is only in the twentieth century that we have discovered

The archeological history of life and human culture, the existence of galaxies, the expansion of the universe, the four-dimensional context of spacetime, the atomic basis of chemistry and biology, and the chemical coding which instructs our cells how to build us and determines the colors of our hair and skin.

It is also only in this century that we have

Mapped our entire planet, gained virtually instantaneous knowledge of its goings-on, and become able to easily go almost anywhere on it in the space of one day.

This level of awareness is by no means complete. It seems, rather, to be similar to the awareness of community attained by an adolescent who has finished high school and is ready to go off to college. That is to say, it is an awareness that is founded in the joy and pain of discovery and the attainment of new skills. There is yet much we do not know. For example, we have no knowledge of

The origin and context of the universe itself, the limits of atomism, the fundamental nature of intelligence and consciousness, and how to create political structures without violence and economic disparity while preserving personal freedom.

The impact that a new technology has on the lives and fortunes of people and nations is generally a combination of benefits and drawbacks. The advantage that our substantial level of awareness gives us over previous generations is an ability to anticipate the effects of automated fabrication (and other radical technologies coming along, such as genetic manipulation) and plan for them. Like an adolescent learning to accept new responsibilities, humankind has reached a stage of development that calls for an adult kind of evaluation of our circumstances. We can have the ability to make wise choices if we prepare and equip ourselves with thoughtful consideration of the potential consequences of our actions.

In his essay, Science and Technology: Who Gets a Say?, John M. Staudenmaier, S.J., Professor of History of Technology at the University of Detroit—Mercy, discusses some of the positive and negative effects of technological development. He uses three very different examples: automobile manufacturing, criminal rehabilitation, and television. Staudenmaier summarizes the benefits and drawbacks of these technologies as follows:1

     All these stories abound with instances of the same paradox: Ford’s Model T provides geographical mobility for an entire generation of people with modest means, giving them access to sophisticated transportation technology, both cheap and easy to repair. Meanwhile the much more sophisticated system that produces them encloses Ford workers in prison factories hedged about with enforcers and impermeable fences. Bentham’s Panopticon would free the criminal from torture and dungeon but offers re-instatement into society at the terrible cost of programmed conformity to a mythic, omnipresent, and invisible scrutinizer. Twentieth century citizens break free from the suffocation of minuscule village perspectives through the mediation of global and instantaneous electronic media. At the same time their capacity for active participation in public discourse and the political order erodes.

Automated fabrication will have a similar mixture of benefits and drawbacks. It is too early at this time to know exactly how autofab will affect society, but it is not too early to begin to ask the question. It is hoped that this section will stimulate further thinking on the human dimensions of automated fabrication.

Some activist rhetoric, especially popular in the 1970s, has blamed many of the drawbacks of some technologies on the large corporations that either produce or use them. The activists accuse business leaders of crass disregard for the well-being of their fellow people and the human environment. However, this is not always fair. A corporate leader of the 1970s or 1980s was trained in the 1950s or earlier, when a smokestack was a sign of modernity and the pride of every little community that had one. People, at first, just did not understand the perils attached to our technological development and did not understand the steps that were necessary to live in peace and health with them. To a large degree, we still do not understand these issues, but we are beginning to learn, and we have at least learned that we have something to learn.

This is the major sense in which the human race is analogous to an adolescent. In causing the horrific pollution of our planet during the second half of the twentieth century, we have been like an infant defecating in its crib. We, or most of us, did not know any better. The activists did know better, and the population as a whole has the activists to thank for waking us up to the necessity to “toilet train” ourselves and our industries. Although a child usually learns to use the toilet well before adolescence, this is only as a conditioned response to training from an adult. It is not until adolescence that a person becomes aware of the issues behind that and other aspects of social training and becomes responsible for choosing which aspects of that training to accept and which to reject or modify.

Prior to these closing years of the twentieth century, it was common to look to a Heavenly Father for the rules by which to run the world. But the Bibles of various religions offer no guidance on how to deal with acid rain, worker displacement by automation, or the influence of television advertising on teenage smoking and drinking. On these matters, which can determine the survival of a society worth living in, we have found that we are on our own. Like an adolescent returning home from college for a home-cooked meal, we may still return to a Heavenly Father or Mother for spiritual guidance and comfort, but we have moved out of Their House, and must now make our way by the strength of our own wits and conscience. (Interestingly, in this view one might see the Biblical story of the expulsion from Eden as a prophesy which is only now being fulfilled. There is therefore still room for the belief that our actions are being judged and may be messianically overridden at some point.)

How Automated Fabrication Can Affect Human Society

Individual power. The most dramatic impact of the industrial revolution, starting perhaps with the inventions of the steam engine and the spinning machine in the 1760s, was the increased mechanical power that became available to an individual human being. This led to a new breadth of the distribution of wealth. Automated fabrication has the potential to extend this phenomenon. This will be the cause of the next two items listed below, new opportunities and reduced demand for labor.

Entrepreneurial opportunities. The rise of automated fabrication brings opportunities for participation in the development, manufacturing, distribution, use, and repair of fabricators and related hardware and software technologies. These opportunities are discussed at greater length in Section 9.3.

Reduced demand for skilled labor. Fabrication facilities are already realizing hundredfold and thousandfold productivity increases in terms of output per machine operator. While this influence has been resisted by large American manufacturers and their unions, there is underway a relentless decline in the amount of human effort needed to produce manufactured goods. The ultimate effect of this trend is yet to be determined. It may be one or a combination of (a) displacement of workers resulting in an expansion of poverty in industrial nations, (b) absorption of workers by successful new ventures arising from the opportunities mentioned above, or (c) a global agreement on reduced working hours, causing expanded leisure opportunities for working people and expanded markets for leisure products.

Greater customization. The availability of fabricators and ancillary systems for assembling their output into useful mechanisms will allow manufacturers to tailor their products to suit unique, individual needs. In some types of products, this will replace the modern paradigm of mass production with a new style of customer coconstruction. This idea is explored in some detail in Section 9.2.

Decline of manufacturing giants, return of the “village craftsman.” The reduced viability of mass production may undermine the growth and stability of centralized producers of goods. In a coconstruction environment, the customer may be served better by a local owner and operator of a manufacturing facility. For marketing purposes, these job shops may be united into chains or franchises, but the facilities and expertise will be distributed widely to meet local needs.

Since a great deal of wealth is invested in, and a great many people are employed by, the major manufacturers and their direct suppliers, their decline would cause substantial anguish and suffering in the world. As mentioned above, whether this suffering would persist in an expanded poverty class or would be superseded by well-distributed wealth generated by the smaller local manufacturers is yet to be determined.

Better product quality. The automation of fabrication processes, together with automated methods of inspection and assembly, are improving the quality and durability of manufacturing output. This effect is seen in many industries, as recent cars, televisions, and refrigerators, for example, are lasting much longer than earlier models. The unfortunate irony for manufacturers is the resulting declining need for replacement goods. The useful life of manufactured products, however, will continue to expand, as output quality increases yet more, and distributed capability for generating replacement parts proliferates.

Reduced “desirability lifetime” of products. Offsetting the extended durability of goods is the continuous onslaught of product improvements. This makes older products, while still fully useful, less desirable than the latest models. Since the 1950s, this has been an artificial marketing strategy used most effectively by automobile and clothing manufacturers to induce current owners to buy again. Today, it is a technology-driven process, with rapid real product innovation constantly driving down the price/performance ratio in many product segments.

More recycling. If an older model of a product continues to serve its purpose well, then trading up to a newer model will be harder to justify unless the cost of trading up is minimized. One way to reduce the cost of trading up is to consume the older model in the fabrication of the new one. This is an established practice in the automotive parts industry where the prices of rebuilt parts, including everything from brake shoes to engine blocks, are quoted to include a discount for turning in the old part for reuse. The modern additive fabrication processes, some of which build up objects from melted plastics and metals, may raise the practicality of recycling these materials to new heights. Other processes that require pure blends of specialty plastic resins may take advantage of new chemical degradation and separation techniques.

The ancillary benefits to the community from increased recycling will be a reduction of the impact on natural environments caused by mining natural resources and discarding refuse.

Process-based commerce. Instead of going into a store to buy goods, the customer of the future will probably select designs from a computer simulation. For simple items, such as a new picture frame or new dinner dishes, it may suffice to purchase an attractive design to be run on a simple home fabricator or “personal factory.” For more complex and larger jobs and those that require specialized assembly procedures, such as a new body style for the family car or a computer keyboard with customized size and placement of keys, a local fabricator shop or contractor may be called in. In either case, it is the process of generating the product that becomes the focus of the purchasing decision, rather than the product itself. In fact, any one product may go through several iterations, with each unsatisfactory one being recycled to generate the next until the final product is accepted.

Today’s difficult legal problems of establishing fair practices for the use and protection of software designs and algorithms may become the basis of future practices with regard to design and fabrication algorithms for physical objects. Just as easily as software can be copied and illegitimately distributed now, it will one day be possible to copy and distribute the design of a Rolex watch, a Panasonic fax machine, or a Cadillac automobile. Even fabricators themselves will be able to be fabricated by other fabricators. Possibly, as software is sold today with a license for use on one machine at a time, fabrication designs may be sold with a license for one-time use. Fabrication process algorithms may be licensed for implementation on generic machines, with usage royalties automatically metered for payment to the inventor as ASCAP collects and distributes royalties from radio stations for playing music on the air.

On the other hand, it is possible, though difficult to imagine, that the modern structure of commerce that underlies the concept of royalties may become obsolete. If the world of fabricators turns out to be a world of easily satisfied needs, there may be little incentive for the complex bookkeeping required to calculate royalties. It may be easier, and become popular, to simply share what one has created with the public, as is done today with software distributed freely on computer bulletin boards.

New feasibility of space habitation. The ability to carry tools that fabricate other tools and structures out of locally available materials will increase the feasibility of inhabiting the Moon, the asteroids, and Mars. Some technical aspects of this subject are discussed in Section 10.2. The sociological and economic impact on human life could be as great as those caused by the European and African habitation of the Americas over the past 500 years. A new harsh environment would challenge the imaginations of young adventurers and profiteers to embark on risky voyages. While many of these ventures will fail, some will establish new centers of commerce and new nations.

New medical treatments. The autofab technologies have already found important applications in the medical industry. The first purchaser of an SLA, the first commercial additive fabricator, was Baxter Healthcare, which continues to be a leading user and proponent of this and similar technologies. As the scale of automated fabrication recedes to the nanostructure level, such companies will be able to manufacture medical instruments that are no bigger than a common drug molecule. This will bring along new capabilities for noninvasive investigation and treatment of diseases, reversal of natural tissue decay, and even artificial restructuring of tissue contrary to the ingrained genetic design of an individual. The expansion of life span will continue and accelerate, the health of old people will improve, and people will gain the ability to painlessly redesign their bodies.

How the increased useful longevity of the population will interact with declining demand for human labor, mentioned above, is yet to be determined.

New weapons. There will also arise new opportunities for thieves, police, governments and citizens to express their wills in force. However, the style of combat may become unrecognizable to anyone from previous centuries. Bombs may become obsolete because of their inefficient distribution of destructive force. Likewise guns, which project passive bullets by an explosive impulse, may become outmoded. More useful will be intelligent mechanisms that incorporate capabilities for reconnaissance, locomotion, and infliction of damage or other influence. The most frightening prospects could raise the heinousness of germ warfare to new levels. It will become possible to create artificial, intelligent microorganisms and disperse them in the air to selectively attack the internal organs of identified enemies.

Freedom from need. As automated fabrication improves, it will approach being the realization of the age-old dream of humankind for a magical incantation or genie that can grant one’s wishes for any object of desire without effort. The resulting freedom from need might have the potential to usher in a new golden age of art, music, and scientific discovery. But the open question is whether people want such freedom and will rejoice in it. In life, it is often found that the greatest satisfaction comes, not from getting what one wants but from working for it. Some wars have been fought, not so much for the chance to win a particular booty, but for the thrill of engaging in combat. This is one of the major reasons that new technologies can prove so frustrating for society. Even if displaced workers are put on comfortable pensions, many may be left with the dissatisfaction of not knowing what to do with their days. People need, more than anything else, to feel needed. The greatest challenge facing humankind as we proceed into the age of automated fabrication is to find a meaningful use for ourselves as we allow our machines to take over the satisfaction of our material needs and desires.

Twenty-first-Century Society

The combined effect of these changes could be dramatic. It is conceivable that at some point in the twenty-first century a small mountaintop community will be self-sufficient with a collection of fabricators and a solar power generator. While economically independent, it will be linked by satellite, jet, and rocket to other such villages around the world and on the Moon, with which it will freely trade in specialized commodities, including information. Protecting its territory with sophisticated electronic weaponry, it will express limits on its willingness to support a centralized, tax-collecting federation.

That description entails a fairly radical change from our modern society. If it seems farfetched, take a look back a mere one hundred years in time to the threshold of the twentieth century. At that time, a scant four generations ago, the most advanced populations on Earth traveled by horse-drawn carriage and steam-driven rail coach, read by the light of kerosene, and communicated overseas by cable in Morse code! Now consider not only how different our technology is today but also how much more rapid are its growth and development. It would be an incredible surprise if life at the dawn of the twenty-second century is not very much more different from life today than our lives are different from those of our great-great-grandparents.

Several questions arise about the hypothesized mountaintop community:

  • How is it governed? How are goods and services allocated among its citizens?
  • What do its citizens do from day to day? Do they work at arts, science, and athletics to improve themselves and entertain each other? Do they engage in sporadic battle with each other and with neighboring communities, and if so, are these battles playful or vicious? Are the people satisfied or bored with life?
  • Do people travel and migrate freely among the various communities, or are they segregated and provincial?
  • Do all the people in the world live in such communities in which their needs are satisfied by fabricators, or is this the residence of a wealthy class of people? If the latter, do the fabricator owners take special steps to prevent the others from obtaining the technology? Do they do this in order to enslave them, and if so, for what purpose, or only to enjoy a feeling of superiority?
One might summarize these questions by asking whether fabricators will elevate humankind to new heights of civilization, or render civilization, along with the assembly line, obsolete.

As mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, this section is primarily philosophical, in that its purpose is to ask questions. The reader is invited to ponder the issues raised by these questions and think about what steps might be taken to influence the answers for the better.


1. Science and technology: Who gets a say by John M. Staudenmaier, S.J., in Technological Development and Science in the Industrial Age: New Perspectives on the Science-Technology Relationship, edited by Peter Kroes and Martijn Bakker, Kluwer, Boston, Massachusetts, 1992, p 205..30