Our journey through interesting science fiction, this time we talk about speculative fiction dealing with materials science, nanotechnology and 3D printing. It’s a staple in Star Trek, but what other stories deal with it?
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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
Six Wakes Is a Sci-Fi Murder Mystery That Asks the Big Questions
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
The Bobiverse books by Dennis E. Taylor
The Berserker series by Fred Saberhagen
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
The Fifth Element
Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription
Fraser: Astronomycast episode 470, Modern Sci-Fi for the Science Lover, Part Two. Welcome to Astronomycast, your weekly facts based journey through the cosmos. We help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Director of Cosmoquest. Hey Pamela. How you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing Fraser?
Fraser: Doing great. So we are going to continue on our exploration into some science fiction, and we’re both gigantic fans of 3D printing. And I’ve got a ton of kind of interesting stories of 3D printing in the real world, but you kind of pitched this idea of “Let’s talk about how it’s kind of explored in science fiction,” and I think that’s gonna be a lot of fun.
Anything to recommend, announce, discuss, before we move onto this week’s episode?
Pamela: Do citizen science wheel you’re listening if you’re not otherwise occupied. So, it occurs to me, when I’m listening to podcast, I’m doing laundry, cleaning the house, walking the dog, washing the car, and sometimes I’m doing stuff online.
If you are currently sitting there unsure of what to do to occupy the parts of your brain that we’re not occupying, go to Cosmoquest.org, pick a citizen science project, and do science. Learn science, doo science, do it all at once. This is my goal for all of you.
Fraser: I know you’ve been doing a lot over on Twitch, which is cool, and you’ve been watching Star Wars movies and building Lego sets, have you done just hanging out doing citizen science on Cosmoquest on Twitch and have people just join you and just keep the party rolling?
Pamela: Yeah. We actually have four office hours a week that I and our post-doc, Matt Richardson host. So I’m only every Tuesday night and Sunday afternoon, and Sundays we’re actually working on constructing the telescope that we have that matches the one in your background.
So we got the drive working, well, we sort of got the drive working; I got the drive working late at night last week. It turns out Windows 8.1 is Satan’s operating system. So we’ve been building telescopes on Sundays, I’ve been talking Cosmoquest and programming, things like that, Tuesday nights. Matt’s doing all sorts of different things on Wednesdays and Fridays during the day. So go to Twitch.tv/CosmoquestX, and you can find out all about when we’re on and how you can get involved.
Fraser: And your personal Twitch channel?
Pamela: Is Twitch.tv/Starstrider.
Fraser: Right on.
Pamela: And expect the unexpected. So I’m always talking science, but I’m never sure where I’m gonna go with it. So Saturday I’m actually gonna use a painting technique that I, I learned from our good friend Surly Amy, artist Amy Davis Roth, and it allows you to paint gas giants.
Fraser: That’s cool.
Pamela: So I’m gonna make a whole bunch of gas giants to hang up in this boring office, and you can learn with me how to do it, and hopefully watch me not make too big of a mess with paint, but there’s that gamble. So join me on Saturday, and it won’t quite be Bob Ross, but they’ll be a whole lot of paint involved.
Fraser: That sounds great. All right. So our journey through interesting science fiction continues. This time we talk about speculative fiction dealing with material science, nanotechnology, and 3D printing. It’s a staple in Star Trek, but what other stories deal with it?
Now, as I mentioned, I’ve got a couple of interesting anecdotes. So the first thing is I, as a really wonderful husband, bought my wife a 3D printer for her birthday earlier this year. It’s one of the Monoprice 3D printers. It’s a fairly small little printer, relatively inexpensive, and –
Fraser: Isn’t it Monoprice? Yeah.
Pamela: It has a singular price?
Fraser: No, it’s the name of the company. It’s where you buy cables and stuff from.
Fraser: Yeah. And they make a 3D printer and it’s a great little relatively inexpensive 3D printer. We haven’t made much, and we’ve sort of bought a few more additions to the role of 3D printing supplies and stuff to it, but it’s pretty neat to have one of these little 3D printers, and you start to see the world as like “Well, I could start 3D printing to fix broken pieces,” and things like that, as an interesting project.
And it’s pretty cool, like if you do any roleplaying games, there are a tremendous amount of miniatures out there, but they’re incredibly expensive. Like I can’t believe how expensive miniatures are these days, but you can actually get 3D printed miniature models that you can then print out on your printer and then have something that’s kind of – gets you a lot of the way there, which is neat, and you can paint them and everything.
So the other story that I have, just before we move onto your part, is I was at SpaceX a few years ago, and they 3D print titanium.
Pamela: That’s cool.
Fraser: It’s amazing. And one of the things is really cool is you can’t cast titanium at that right level of density, but you can 3D print titanium. And so they gave me a chunk of metal that had a grill on it, and you can hold it up to the light, and it’s maybe five centimeters thick, and you can see the light coming through. They were able to print these tiny, little holes through the titanium, and that’s the resolution of the 3D printing, which is mind-bending.
So that’s my sort of experiences with the 3D printing.
Well, let’s talk science fiction. What are you liking?
Pamela: Well, it’s – I think the place to start with this particular topic is there’s a short story by Cory Doctorow, and I actually did a reading of it over on my Twitch channel if you want to hear me go read the story, or just go to download it. It’s on his website. And the name of the story is Print Crime. And the idea is “What happens in a future where it becomes criminal to print out the things that you need just to get by such that you get arrested for 3D printing?”
And this kind of an idea is really one of those things that you have to worry about as you think of the future, and I imagine “Well, how do you prevent someone from creating their kid their own Luke Skywalker toy even if that’s breaking copyright?
And where does an idea begin and belong to somebody?” and it makes you think about all of these different repercussions of 3D printing. And I really think it starts to make you aware that the person who made the design originally is the person who owns it and has the right to sell it, but if you can reproduce what they did – this is one of the ideas on how you copyright algorithms, is if it’s something that someone can figure out on their own by thinking hard enough, that belongs to the world.
And so how do we criminalize and let free our content?
Fraser: And, right now, the way we sort of manage and control that is, with, essentially, the manufacturing. Like Lego, for example, Lego is the one who has the manufacturing of the Lego pieces, but if you could buy one of those 3D printers that I was mentioning, you could have it print out all the parts of the Millennium Falcon and just let it go –
And then come back a day later and all of the parts of the Millennium Falcon were popped out into a bucket and then you just grab them and put your Lego together, then Lego’s got a problem, because you would expect that the price of the raw material, the raw plastic is gonna be cheaper than what it’s gonna take to actually have a huge equipment, facilities, employees, marketing, advertising, distribution, etc., and yet you wouldn’t get your Millennium Falcon if they hadn’t designed it in the first place.
Pamela: And this brings me to one of the things that you actually said a lot about years ago, we did a lot of training other people on how to be podcasters, because it was still the early days of podcasting. And I forget who it was that asked you “Why are you training everyone else to do this and making your own competition?” and your response was along the lines of “If someone else starts a podcast and does better than us, that means we’re not doing it right anymore.”
Fraser: Yeah, it’s on.
Fraser: Thanks for the competition, and the inspiration, and now I will have to be better.
Pamela: And so it starts to get to the point that we’re already seeing this, individual Legos are out of copyright. And so there are a bazillion different companies out there doing knockoff Legos, but no one has the quality that Lego has.
And so this is where they’re able to stay that one step ahead, most of the time. And then the other thing that they’re doing is they’re licensing the right to images. So they’re licensing the right to do all of the Star Wars. They’re licensing the right to the Saturn 5. And so it’s from that extraordinarily high quality, and the licensing, creative things, that not everyone can just come up with out of their own brain, that they’re able to stay ahead, even though everyone now has the right to make their own Lego.
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The book that I read, that I really felt kind of took this to the logical nth degree is this book by Neal Stephenson called The Diamond Age. Have you read The Diamond Age?
Fraser: The jist of The Diamond Age is the everything is 3D printed, all the time, everything is made, and because carbon is very easy to get your hands on, and they have figured out how to 3D print things out of diamond, everything is made of diamond, because diamond is sort of the hardest, most useful building material. So build your houses, build your buildings, build your cups, build anything you want, build it out of diamond, because if it’s just as easy to just arrange carbon atoms as it is to arrange iron atoms or anything else that you’re gonna want, everything is built out of diamond.
And it’s this really interesting though about “What does runaway, total accessible 3D printing do to a human society when, as soon as you can imagine, as soon as you get your hands on it, you can print versions of it?” And people have these flying drones that are sort of in constant threat from people trying to assassinate them from 3D printed microscopic drones tipped with poison, all the time, right? And people have defense drones, and it’s a really kind of interesting book.
And one of the things I really like about this is like “What is the logical, final result, of these kinds of technologies?” Like what is this – everything is possible to build, but what will everything be built out of?
Pamela: And one of the great things about looking at all of the different ways that 3D printing comes up in science fiction, is it seems to get used in two different ways. One is a “Let’s look at the socioemotional war implications of how 3D printing has the potential to change society.” The other side is, as a plot device, so that, essentially you’re able to get away with not having a local target to go run to when you need a new pair of pants. And this dichotomy in ways of looking at it is really quite awesome.
And one of the books that actually takes on both of those different things is fellow podcaster Mur Laffetty’s book Six Wakes. Have you had a chance to read this book yet?
Pamela: It’s super good, and I don’t just say this because I helped science advise it, I say it because it’s actually super good.
Fraser: Well, Mur Lafferty’s great.
Pamela: Yeah, she’s really, really good. And one of the things that comes out of it is they figure out not just how to do the Star Trek thing of 3D printing food, using it as a replicator, essentially, but they also figure out how to 3D print humans. And, as part of 3D printing the human, they have figured out how to take regular backups of a human’s neural network, essentially, our brain pattern that is unique to all of our current memories.
And so by doing daily backups, if you die, you essentially lose whatever memories of whatever happened in the moment you died until they can download you into your next body.
Fraser: Oh, and this is the jist of this new book that’s been picked up for Netflix. Is it Altered Carbon, I think is what it’s gonna be called?
Fraser: Yeah. And it’s the same sort of idea that we all essentially will live forever, our bodies will be 3D printed, they will be – if you die, then you move into a backup and you just continue on. I think that fits into the same problem of The Transporter, is that you have a unique system of consciousness, and you die and they run up a copy, that copy is like “Ha ha, it’s like I never died,” but, really, that’s a new person, and the you that was in the old meat suit dies, so – you know what I mean, you hop in the transporter, is it a teleportation device, or is it a suicide booth? I think it’s a suicide booth, but –
Pamela: And what comes up, in Altered Carbon, which is also a good audio book, what comes up in Altered Carbon, what comes up in Six Wakes, what comes up in so many of these different things, is what happens to the you that existed between that last backup, that transporter buffer, and the new you? Well, they’re gone, so clearly there’s a discontinuity in you.
One of the things that comes up in Bobiverse is just the quantum differences between one version and another can lead to massive personality differences down the line, and then there’s all of the complications of – with 3D printing, you can change a person, and is it ethical to add enhancements? Is it ethical to cure genetic diseases?
And then there’s the whole reproduction issues, of “Is it ethical for clones to have children, or does only your original body get that right?”
Fraser: So the Bobiverse, I think, is a great example of what, I think, is one of the most powerful applications of 3D printing, which is that not only can software be a thing that you can transmit to someone else – so, here, on Earth, you can – someone can make, for example, a podcast one time, and then that podcast can be transferred around the world, but you can imagine this future where you transmit the instructions for building anything, and then it gets 3D printed.
And this is one of the things that I thought was sort of a bit of a flaw with, say, The Martian, and things like that, is that I’m amazed that he didn’t have some kind of 3D printing capability there on the surface of Mars with him that, then, the folks back at NASA to send instructions, like “Let’s build some parts that you’re gonna need to be able to survive there on the surface,” and they’ve already build a 3D printer on the International Space Station.
And that is once we have become a true, kind of, solar system, spanning civilization, you can really imagine the knowledge work, the manufacturing, the figuring things out gets done here on Earth, and then you transmit the instructions on how to build the new computer chip and the fabricating device builds another copy of itself.
Pamela: And one of the awesome things that is a regular application of 3D printers is the generationship, where you send out your colony with the stuff it needs to replicate things, this goo of nutritious substance that can then be 3D printed into a food of any choice. The stuff that can go into building your chairs, building your beds, building your walls. Here, on Earth, we can now 3D print houses.
And what’s cool is they’re built on an arm that pivots in a circle, so you have these buildings that are all circular, and they remind me of some – my children’s stories, where the houses were built by, essentially, globbing clay over the spherical creatures in the stories. But, anyway, this is an effective way to build things we’re finding.
So, in the future, we’re able to have those vats of glue, which could include titanium, SpaceX is teaching us, and we can produce everything across the generations. We do, though, have to be super careful about recycling, but 3D printing offers us this chance to reconstitute everything over and over and over.
Fraser: One of those big thoughts about this idea of 3D printing is this idea of self-replication that you build a spacecraft, or a robot, that can build more copies of itself, and that’s sort of what was happening in the Bobiverse, but when you think about, for example, Saberhagen’s ideas of the berserker probes of a spacecraft that goes to another star system, lands, sets up orbital factories, builds more copies of itself, 3D prints more versions of itself, those replicate out to other star systems, they build more versions of themselves, and, really, within a million years, conservatively, you can reach every corner of the entire galaxy, and it’s one of the most, kind of, troubling aspects of “Where are all the aliens?”
Yeah, where – fine, we don’t know where the aliens are, but where are the aliens self-replicating 3D printing robot probes. Those should be out there.
Pamela: Yeah. And this is where we see the use in Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, one of our favorite authors to bring up, I think, where has has, in his generationship, the idea that you can go out and use 3D printers to print absolutely everything you need as long as you can keep the system economy in balance. And you see this again in Seven Eaves by Neal Stephenson, the idea that you have to keep everything completely in balance, but you can use 3D printing.
Fraser: Mm-hmm. Did they do much in Seven Eaves?
Pamela: Not much, but they did have 3D printing.
Fraser: Well, a lot of it was they had those little robots, right? So, one of the main characters had these great little robots that were digging out this asteroid that had been attached to the International Space Station. Then they were bringing in all these raw materials and then turning them into the kinds of things that they needed to do to be able to survive.
Pamela: Which is essentially 3D printing, instead of having the single arm attached to a single robot, you have all these little critters doing the extruding for you.
Fraser: What else has sort of crossed your eye?
Pamela: So jumping from books to movies, I think we have to bring up the amazing way that both Westworld and The Fifth Element, and a few other science fiction series, or movies, rather, have used 3D printing to create both lifeforms that are amazing, and also, in the case of Westworld, all of these robots that are built up layer upon layer, and that’s really the key to doing excellent robots, is you have to have an additive process instead of a subtractive process, which is what so much of our construction actually is.
So, in Westworld, you see them laying out the metal skeleton, laying out the circuitry, and then adding the skin a layer at a time, and adding the paint a layer at a time.
Fraser: Yeah, I really liked the Westworld series, more than I thought I was going to. And apparently, if you binge, it’s better.
Pamela: It’s way better if you binge it. Yeah, I binged it and totally fell in love.
Fraser: Oh, did you?
Fraser: I don’t remember the 3D printing in The Fifth Element.
Pamela: It was the demigod guy, the evildoer, got 3D printed.
Fraser: Oh, really?
Fraser: Huh. Yeah, I haven’t – I mean, the classic one is Star Trek, of course, right? And –
Pamela: The replicator.
Fraser: The replicator. Which is always so weird to me, because, like, on the one hand, they’re replicating tea, Earl Grey, hot, but yet you can make food, but yet there’s all this other stuff that I don’t think really occurred to them to make from 3D printing, but –
Pamela: It’s one of those weird things, like when you’re watching the Star Wars movies and it’s like “Dude, you could have used the force. Why did you not use the force right there?” With Star Trek, it’s like “Dude, transporters. Why did you not use transporters right there?”
Fraser: Yeah, ship to ship transport.
Pamela: Yeah. Exactly. Why are you shuttling about?
Fraser: We were talking about the Orville earlier, and they don’t have transporters in the Orville, and I think it’s very – it’s a very wise move, because it does open up all kinds of plot problems.
So what do you think is the sort of – realistically, how do you think this technology is going to be playing out? I mean Cory Doctorow clearly is thinking about the implications of 3D printing where copyright and manufacturing kind of crash into each other.
Pamela: What I’m really enjoying is the way companies like shape ways are advancing, where you have these companies where you send them your designs and your imagination becomes anything you want it to be, without having to worry about accidentally creating something that looks like it had a bad day in the microwave, which is my personal fate with 3D printers.
And so I’m loving the fact that we have these spaces that allow people to go in and make their own future. It’s going to hit the point where we can customize our reality at every possible level. I don’t know how it’s going to affect things like art though. And this is where I always worry, is you have these artists out there who are doing these amazing things, and then people are like “Oh, dude. I could totally create that with crayon in five minutes.”
And as we have more and more of this technology available it becomes easier for people to say “Oh, I don’t need to buy art. Oh, I don’t need to. I could create that at any time,” but then we don’t.
And so I worry that certain occupations will be lost, but, at the same time, I value the idea of being able to completely design my own reality.
Fraser: Yeah. I mean, just the idea of being able to do a 3D printed house, being able to add – make additions to your house, I mean, these are just amazing, and I think that it is going to cause a tremendous amount of difficulty for people, for sure, and yet it’s the kind of technology and the kind of idea that we have to push forward, and it’s kind of interesting to be right on the cutting edge to watch.
Because, right now, if you go and you buy the 3D printer, like the one that I mentioned at the beginning of the show, it’s a total pain. It’s the worst, right? Like it is clearly still a refuge of the technologists, and requires a tremendous amount of both software knowledge and hardware knowledge, and you’ve just got be careful or else the thing sticks to the print surface and gets out of alignment and all this kind of stuff, but these are fixable problems. You can imagine a time, very soon, where you do have a box, and you tell it what to make, and the thing gets made.
Pamela: And what amazes me is we’re already able to 3D print skin. So burn victims can now get the artificial skin they need through 3D printed processes. They’re getting to the point that they’re able to treat diabetes with 3D printed pancreatic cells. They can’t completely replace the pancreas, but they can get the stuff that you need to get the insulin.
There’s a waiting list of orders of 60,000 people to get a kidney. So if you need a kidney, you’re probably not gonna get a kidney, but we might be able to start making kidneys. And the potential that has to end the suffering of people who are forced to live on dialysis, this is where the power to change everything starts to come from.
Fraser: All right, well, I think we’ve got one more talk about science fiction next week.
Pamela: Yes. We’re going to talk about biomedical side, which I just hinted at, but we’re gonna get to it.
Fraser: Right on. All right. Thanks Pamela.
Pamela: Thank you.
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Duration: 29 minutes