Almost Teleportation

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 2010

Teleportation has been an enduring dream of science fiction. We’re nowhere near the ”Beam me up, Scotty” stage, but there are already hints of teleportation today. It started, in fact, in the 1970s, when—first with facsimile and then with computer networking—we began to reproduce paper documents at a distance by scanning, transmission, and printing. For all practical purposes, the document has been teleported. Now, what about physical objects?

Transmission of the information necessary to reconstruct an object is not a problem; what we need are 3-D scanners and printers. I’m not sure there are any 3-D scanners, but there is a fascinating open-source effort going on now to develop a 3-D printer, called the MakerBot. The MakerBot works like a computer-controlled hot-glue gun, squirting melted plastic onto a platform moved by stepper motors. Under software control, it can reproduce plastic objects up to about the size of a small milk bottle.
You can buy a MakerBot kit for about the cost of a typical personal computer. When assembled, it looks like a trap for small animals made with an Erector set. No one would confuse it with a consumer product, and I get the impression that it takes an engineer to run it. But then, so did the first personal computers (remember the Altair and Heathkits?). Engineers should find the idea intriguing. When I saw a recent demonstration, one attendee cried out, ”I’m really excited, and I want to buy one, but I don’t know why!” I thought that this perfectly encapsulated the experience.

Photo: Bre Pettis
Meet thy Maker: Inside a MakerBot’s frame, a computer squirts hot plastic onto a platform it controls via stepper motors. The result: 3-D photocopies.


There is already a dedicated group of experimenters out there assembling MakerBots, using 3-D modeling software to describe objects, and using the MakerBot to create teakettles, Darth Vader heads, custom Lego blocks, ornaments, model railroad buildings, and more. While this sounds like a cute hobbyist toy, what it portends for the future could be very significant.

The last piece of the teleportation puzzle is a 3-D scanner that generates data in a form that the MakerBot can use. Such a scanner doesn’t seem impossible. In the meantime, the early adopters are sharing their modeling data; there is a growing library on the Internet of designs for MakerBot objects. These libraries are an inevitable step along the way to widespread use, just as they were in the programming world. (Think of the journey from assembly language to scripting.) Others gradually come up with improvements, which are shared as well. The result is hardware upgrades via e-mail. Eventually, there will come a time when there is little point in crafting your own object models. Someone out there will have already done whatever it is you need.
All this in itself is startling, but looking to the future, there are some fantastic possibilities.

The first possibility is recursion. It is a word that we apply in mathematics and programming, but couldn’t it describe a property of hardware? In other words, couldn’t a MakerBot make a MakerBot? Obviously, we can’t yet render the motors and electronics, but the physical structures of the MakerBot could be made by the MakerBot itself. So you buy one for yourself, and then give duplicates to your friends, who could then make more duplicates for their friends until it becomes a viral MakerBot infection. (Of course, commercial versions of the MakerBot will probably come with industrial-strength copy protection.)

Let’s let our imaginations run even wilder. With modular construction, we could use a MakerBot to make a bigger MakerBot, which in turn could make a bigger MakerBot. The electronics could, of course, stay the same while the physical world grows—or shrinks, for that matter.

As MakerBots proliferate, will they evolve? I imagine they will—not just planned mutations but random ones as well. We might see survival of the fittest, whatever ”fittest” means in a MakerBot world. The possibilities are endless.

But enough dreaming—reality is exciting enough. Beam me up, Scotty! Or if not me, at least a plastic  doll .