Printing Food…

NASA is funding the development of a printer for food:


Of course, its immediate application is as an experimental technology to feed hungry astronauts in space.

This is getting interestingly close to the fantasies of a Star Trek-style food replicator. Consumers go to the store, buy cartridges of nutrients and flavourings, load them into their printer, download some recipes from the internet, print, and eat.

It may be early to hypothesise about costs, but I hypothesise that 3-D printing foodstuffs may massively lower the costs — both in material inputs and in monetary inputs — of producing food.

For instance, today 70% of water usage is for food-related irrigation. Today it takes 1000 to 3000 litres of water to produce one kilo of rice, and it takes 13000 to 15000 litres of water to produce one kilo of grain-fed beef. So crops and animals take lots and lots of water to rear to the time they go onto human plates. Manufacturing food directly in a 3-D printer cuts out all the resources and energy involved in rearing animals and growing irrigating crops — so could massively cut down on water and resource usage.

Unfortunately, in this era of 2-D printing inks for inkjet printers are more expensive than fine wines. It has been jokingly said that the first thing many of those who experiment with 3-D printing will do is a print a 2-D printer that isn’t such an infuriating moneysucker. So printing at home is by no means guaranteed to lower costs or increase convenience. The technology is still in its nascency, and ultimately the results may be very poor, at least to begin with.

But in the long run, the cost-saving and resource-saving potential may win out. Perhaps 3-D food printing could be the innovation that does for human demand for agriculture what petrochemical fertilisers did in the 20th Century. At the time of Malthus, it was widely recognised that humans were oversaturating the land, that population was growing unsustainably and that it all had to end in starvation, cataclysm. This Malthusian fire and brimstone is once again popular today, with many true believers “doing the math” and declaring that human population growth is unsustainable, and some even suggesting forcible measures to prevent excessive population growth. But the first Malthusians failed to factor human innovation into their calculations. Fertilisers and other innovations in agriculture were black swans that derailed their predictions. In the long run, an innovation like food printing that massively reduces land use, water use and resource use could be the black swan that derails the predictions of modern Malthusians.

And with enough practice, recipes designed for 3-D food printers may turn into as much of an artform as recipes designed for regular ingredients and human labour. There will most likely aways be a niche for human-prepared and naturally-grown food. But music, video, books, etc, distributed via the internet are now of sufficient quality for widespread acceptance. With sufficient innovation, care, thought and experimentation it is possible that food (alongside various other 3-D printed goods) distributed digitally can reach acceptable standards.

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Gun Control? No, Drone Control

The terrible massacre committed by a mentally-disturbed man in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday has prompted lots and lots of calls for gun control in the United States, as well as some calls for more help for the mentally ill.

There are some problems with both suggestions. First of all, the evidence shows that certain “treatments” for the mentally ill — specifically, SSRI antidepressants — are associated with shooting sprees. A 2006 study in the UK showed that antidepressants can cause severe violence in a small number of individuals. It is possible that increasing the screening and “treatment” for mental illness may result in more incidences of severe violence due to adverse reactions to antidepressants. (On the other hand some therapies like psychotherapy, music therapy, and art therapy might help certain individuals, but these are almost certainly less profitable for big pharma…)

But what about gun control? There is little doubt that in the coming years the gun-show loophole will be closed and Canadian-style longer waiting periods will be introduced. Semi-automatic weapons may well be banned. Buyback programs may be attempted. The Supreme Court might well even be stacked to achieve a majority that interprets away individual gun rights.

But America already has huge quantities of guns, far more than anywhere in the world:


The vast majority of America’s 285 million guns are in Republican states, which are unlikely to be disarmed easily, even with an overwhelming Federal consensus. Some might even try to secede from the Union.

And as the experience of many other countries including Britain and Australia shows, criminals and those with violent intent will still be able to get guns (the only people who will be disarmed are the law-abiding majority).

This trend is only likely to grow in coming years as technologies such as 3D printing make it possible for anyone with a 3D printer and an internet connection to potentially print a gun (and eventually, bullets):

Imagine an America in which anyone can download and print a gun in their own home. They wouldn’t need a license, a background check, or much technical knowledge, just a 3D printer. That’s the vision a cadre of industrious libertarians are determined to turn into reality.

Last week, Wiki Weapon, a project to create the first fully printable plastic gun received the $20,000 in funding it needed to get off the ground. The project’s goal is not to develop and sell a working gun, but rather to create an open-source schematic (or blueprint) that individuals could download and use to print their own weapons at home.

The technology that makes this possible is 3D printing, a process during which plastic resin is deposited layer by layer to create a three dimensional object. In the past few years 3D printers have become increasingly affordable, and just last week the first two retail stores selling 3D printers opened in the United States with models ranging from $600 to $2,199.

How is it possible to regulate that away? Ban 3D printing? Ban the distribution of gun schematics? Costly, damaging to liberty, and ineffective. The failed war on drugs makes this very clear — prohibition doesn’t work. Guns — like drugs — are a reality that society cannot just eradicate by passing laws. The mood has changed — America will try gun control. It won’t work — and may just make things worse. I wish we lived in a world without guns, but we don’t.

But there is a way forward. Very many of the mass shooters in the last two decades have a history of antidepressant use. If we want to stop mass shootings, maybe we should look at that.

And if we value life and are opposed to violence against innocents, why do we demand action when 27 innocent Americans die, but not when larger numbers of innocent Pakistanis, or Afghanis or Yemenis die?  One drone strike in Pakistan killed 69 children, dwarfing the impact of the Newtown massacre. With predator drones now in American skies, how long until the “collateral damage” (remember — the NDAA declared the entirety of America as a battlefield) eclipses the Newtown massacre? Or how long until a foreign power or terrorist group hacks into a predator drone (technically feasible) over America and uses it as a flying bomb?  And how many more terrorist attacks against America will be fuelled by anger derived from the civilian casualties of the drone wars?

Obama might cry for Americans in Newtown, but where are his tears for the Pakistani and Yemeni children he has slaughtered? And what about for the many victims who died as a result of thousands guns shipped by the US government to the Mexican drug cartels via Fast and Furious?

America might be ready to implement gun control. I wish America was ready to implement drone control.

The Next Industrial Revolution

Large, centrally-directed systems are inherently fragile. Think of the human body; a spontaneous, unexpected blow to the head can kill an otherwise healthy creature; all the healthy cells and tissue in the legs, arms, torso and so forth killed through dependency on the brain’s functionality. Interdependent systems are only ever as strong as their weakest critical link, and very often a critical link can fail through nothing more than bad luck.

Yet the human body does not exist in isolation. Humans as a species are a decentralised network. Each individual may be in himself or herself a fragile, interdependent system, but the wider network of humanity is a robust independent system. One group of humans may die in an avalanche or drown at sea, but their death does not affect the survival of the wider population. The human genome has survived plagues, volcanoes, hurricanes, asteroid impacts and so on through its decentralisation.

In economics, such principles are also applicable. Modern, high-technology civilisation is very centralised and homogenised. Prices and availability are affected by events half way around the world; a war in the middle east, the closure of the Suez Canal or Strait of Hormuz, an earthquake in China, flooding in Thailand, or a tidal wave in Indonesia all have ramifications to global markets, simply because of the interconnectedness of globalisation. The computer I am typing this into is a complex mixture — the cumulative culmination of millions of hours of work, as well as resources and manufacturing processes across the globe. It incorporates tellurium, indium, cobalt, gallium, and manganese mined in Africa. Neodymium mined in China. Plastics forged out of Saudi Crude. Bauxite mined in Brazil. Memory manufactured in Korea, semiconductors forged in Germany, glass made in the United States. And gallons and gallons of oil to ship all the resources and components around the world, ’til they are finally assembled in China, and shipped once again around the world to the consumer. And that manufacturing process stands upon the shoulders of centuries of scientific research, and years of product development, testing, and marketing. It is a huge mesh of interdependent processes. And the disruption of any one of these processes can mean disruption for the system as a whole. The fragility of interconnection is the great hidden danger underlying our modern economic and technological paradigms.

And even if the risks of global trade disruptions do not materialise in the near-term, as the finite supply of oil dwindles in coming years, the costs of constantly shipping so much around and around the world may prove unsustainable.

It is my view that the reality of costlier oil is set over the coming years to spur a new industrial revolution — a very welcome side-effect of which will be increased social and industrial decentralisation. Looming on the horizon are technologies which can decentralise the means of production and the means of energy generation.

3D printers — machines that can assemble molecules into larger pre-designed objects are pioneering a whole new way of making things. This could well rewrite the rules of manufacturing in much the same way as the rise of personal computing discombobulated the traditional world of computing.

3D printers have existed in large-scale industry for years. But at a cost of $100,000 to $1m, few individuals could ever afford one. Fortunately, improved technology and lowered costs are making such machines more viable for home use. Industrial 3D printers now cost from just $15,000, and home versions for little more than $1,000. Obviously, there are still significant hurdles. 3D printing is still a relatively crude technology, so far incapable of producing complex finished goods. And molecular assembly still requires resources to run on — at least until the technology of molecular disassembly becomes viable, allowing for 3D printers to run on, for example, waste. But the potential for more and more individuals to gain the capacity to manufacture at home — thereby reducing dependency on oil and the global trade grid — is a huge incentive to further development. The next Apple or Microsoft could well be the company that develops and brings home-based 3D printing to the wider marketplace by making it simple and accessible and cheap.

Decentralised manufacturing goes hand-in-hand with decentralised energy generation, because manufacturing requires energy input. Microgrids are localised groupings of energy generation that can vary from city-size to individual-size. The latter is gradually becoming more and more economically viable as the costs of solar panels, wind turbines (etc) for energy generation, and lithium and graphene batteries (etc) for home energy storage fall, and efficiencies rise. Although generally connected to a larger national electricity grid, the connection can be disconnected, and a microgrid can function autonomously if the national grid were to fail (for example) as a result of natural disaster or war.

Having access to a robust and independent energy supply and home-manufacturing facilities would be very empowering for individuals and local communities and allow a higher degree of independence from governments and corporations. Home-based microgrids can allow the autonomous and decentralised powering and recharging of not just home appliances like cooking equipment, computers, 3D printers, lights, and food growing equipment, but also electric vehicles and mobile communications equipment. Home-based 3D printing can allow for autonomous and decentralised design and manufacturing of useful tools and equipment.

The choice that we face as individuals and organisations is whether or not we choose to continue to live with the costs and risks of the modern globalised mode of production, or whether we decide to invest in insulating ourselves from some of the dangers. The more individuals and organisations that invest in these technologies that allow us to create robust decentralised energy generation and production systems, the more costs should fall.

Decentralisation has allowed our species to survive and flourish through millions of years of turbulent and unpredictable history. I believe that decentralisation can allow our young civilisation to survive and flourish in the same manner.

Job Creation 101

How would you spend $50 billion?

Last week I talked about how Warren Buffett got both the American credit rating, and the utility of gold very wrong.

This week, Warren Buffett has made a similarly provocative statement, but one I am more sympathetic to. From the New York Times:

While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.

These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

While I agree that this is a fundamentally absurd situation, and that so-called “progressive” American taxation is now regressive, alas, the economics of the situation are nothing like as simple as Buffett makes out. Namely, if the system is rigged to favour the rich, then the system is rigged to favour the rich. Stating that fact doesn’t change the 20% youth unemployment rate, the record numbers of Americans claiming food stamps, and the simple reality that not enough jobs are being created to fill the supply of people graduating from school, college and being laid off. Tax reform will not directly address any of America’s problems with malfunctioning infrastructure, its dependence on Chinese imports, or its citizens’ addiction to debt: raising taxes on the rich might help pay down the deficit, but so too would cutting spending on wars and the military industrial complex. But while tax reform cannot directly solve these problems, Warren Buffett and his “progressive oligarch” friends can. How?

Job creation.  Investment in infrastructure. Investment in young people. Look at the humungous of levels bank reserves. There is cash just sitting idly that could instead be channeled into real investment in jobs and infrastructure — the kind that Paul Krugman calls for, just without the government involvement (or the Alien invasion). No doubt government has its own role to play. But why run sheepishly into the arms of government when the private sector has the means and resources to solve many of the humanity’s challenges — and at a profit? So without further ado, here’s where I would invest my money ($50 billion), if I were Warren Buffet:

  1. Carbon-Scrubbing Trees:
    While we don’t know exactly what effects climate change will have on Earth, we do know that keeping Earth’s carbon dioxide level as close to the pre-industrial baseline as possible is undoubtedly a good insurance policy. And doing so could undoubtedly create a lot of jobs. Carbon scrubbing trees allow us to do that by removing carbon dioxide from the air and releasing oxygen using a carbon dioxide removal process called “humidity swing.”
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