These days, a growing number of scientists and social entrepreneurs are hacking society for the good of a better future—one in which the combined possibilities of visual manufacturing and data collection may facilitate a seismic shift in our shared reality. The British Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has dubbed this mindset “the 21st Century Enlightenment”—a revolution in thinking driven by ideals of empathy, autonomy, mastery, and purpose that can greatly enhance our quality of life.
If the movement succeeds we are all in for a very exciting future. But if it does not we will be ill-prepared for the rapid changes 3-D printing, and other emerging technologies are enabling us to achieve.
Creating products using 3-D printing differs from standard manufacturing because there are very few people involved in the process aside from a designer, who uses design software to create the original 3-D design file. Otherwise, software does all the work. Social and economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin refers to this new model as “infofacturing” rather than “manufacturing” in his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society.
With the internet of things, “infofacturing” goes one step further, embedding sensors and onboard computers to create super-cool connected devices. These connected devices actually begin as the very factory equipment itself. For example, 3D printers and other digital manufacturing equipment have embedded sensors that allow the machines to communicate with a human or an artificial intelligence, which can then control the factory remotely. The machines can talk to one another and communicate when there is a problem. By merging hardware and software, the knowledge needed to understand how to operate the factory is greatly reduced, leading to a lot more local manufacturing without the need for expert labor or shipping of parts.
In the connected device world of infofacturing, each product and part can be tracked through its lifecycle. Today we live in a throwaway society. We go to Target and purchase things off of Amazon, and when we are done with them the item gets thrown out with very little understanding of how the product was made, where it was made, what it is made of, who actually had to make it, and when it is discarded. There isn’t a whole lot of transparency. But by embedding cloud-connected tracking information, we can do things such as design modular objects for repair, which can alert the user when a single part might need to be replaced versus the entire appliance. We can also now choose what objects we want to purchase based on our values rather than simply by price, as those suppliers who openly share this information and care most about what’s in our best interest will have the most loyal fan base.
“In the connected device world of infofacturing, each product and part can be tracked through its lifecycle”
These new models of connected products fall into two main categories: those that quantify our world and those that quantify our selves. Products that quantify our world are things like self-driving cars, connected homes or “smart buildings.” But we also now have the ability to augment human physiology in ways that connect to signals in the brain and/or the cloud. Products that quantify the individual in this way might include, for example, a custom exoskeleton that might allow a quadriplegic to walk again, or the “super suits” being developed by DARPA for military use.
We have the ability to create devices that measure mood, movements, hormones, weight, temperature, DNA—basically any biometrics. We can know everything about how we are doing at any given moment as well as tracking changes over time. Soon, the idea of only finding out how you are doing once a year at a yearly physical will seem archaic.
And that’s only the beginning! Measuring our environment gaining access to immediate data feedback can change way the way game of life is played. In any situation, decisions won’t have to be so aimless and uncertain. We can measure our successes by more than just our net worth and have fun and be rewarded for doing so. You have probably heard of virtual reality (VR) worlds being created through devices such as Oculus Rift. Well, all of those “internet of things” objects we’ve been talking about could soon be controlled from the virtual world as well. This is being done already in medicine: surgeons are able to operate in a VR environment to control a robotic device in the physical world to produce tiny, delicate movements not possible with the human hand.
As astrophysicist Carl Sagan said, "If we crave a cosmic purpose let us seek a worthy goal. The democratization of manufacturing combined with the cloud- and software-connected devices allows anyone of us to create the ultimate mash-ups to achieve 21st century enlightenment. I don’t know about you, but I’m prepared for a mind-blowing future of awe and discovery.