by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger
Since the last story on additive manufacturing and plastic guns, there have been a few developments. On June 12 in New York City, Council Member Lewis Fidler (D-Brooklyn) submitted a bill to amend the New York administrative code to make it illegal to use a 3D printer to create any part of a firearm unless the person is a licensed gunsmith and requiring gunsmiths to notify the NYPD and register said firearm within 72 hours. There is additional language in the bill applying to systems to feed bullets, serial number requirements, and regulations against destroying weapons. Also on June 12, a second piece of legislation was also announced by State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), which would make it a felony for anyone to manufacture, sell, or use guns or ammunition magazines made with a 3D printer. Naturally this did not sit well with Defense Distributed’s Cody Wilson whose response to Fidler’s bill in an email interview was “[s]uch legislation is a deprivation of equal protection and works in clear ignorance of Title I and II of U.S. gun laws.” At federal law, it is legal for individuals to manufacture certain types of firearms as long as the guns are not resold, are not fully automatic, and comply with set limits such as barrel length. In addition, in order for a homemade gun to be legal under Federal law, the person who builds their own gun must make at least 20 percent of the receiver (the operative part of the gun containing the trigger mechanism, etc.). The purpose of this is to prevent people from buying the gun parts separately and then putting them together but it allows for prototyping. A recent story out of Santa Monica, California illustrates a problem not only with the 20 percent requirement but laws restricting guns in general. John Zawahri, 23, went on a rampage using a modified AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle during an attack that started at his father’s home and ended at Santa Monica College where police fatally wounded him. He killed five people before he was stopped. Relevant to the laws at hand though, anonymous sources in the Santa Monica Police Department have indicated that Zawahari probably assembled the modified AR-15 himself from purchased components. This shows the inherent problem with this kind of gun regulation (as well as illustrating that guns are a simple technology). Criminals don’t care about laws. They are lawbreakers by definition. Rules of society mean nothing to them. If they are willing to commit crimes involving victims, as the saying goes, in for a penny, in for a pound. Consider the following in light of what is going on in the New York City Council and the events in Santa Monica.
Making plastic guns is the tip of the iceberg that is additive manufacturing. You can print with far more than plastics. Think of the possibilities of printing biological materials. This isn’t a question for science fiction. Bioprinting is right around the corner.
Printing with biological materials is nothing new, but like much of the additive manufacturing technology, it is rapidly evolving. What can be printed today is a small sample of what will be printable tomorrow. Today, food stuff can be printed although it is basically limited in components by what is extrudable through a syringe – chocolate, dough, cheese, batter, etc. – although experiments mixing foods with hydrocolloids – substances that form gels with water, generally used to thicken food products – are underway to create a range of basic liquid ingredients. NASA is currently funding printable foods research as both a solution to hunger here on Earth and as a method for feeding future astronauts. Modern Meadow is a company developing 3D bioprint technology to produce meat and leather products in a more water and carbon efficient manner than traditional means. Google currently serves their employees pasta that is printed. While it may be some time before you can print an apple pie or a steak, it is on the technological horizon. But researchers at Cornell University have managed to fabricate a bioengineered human ear using additive manufacturing technology that looks and acts like its natural counterpart. Like many technological horizons, we may be moving toward bioprinting faster than we realize.
What is even more interesting is the notion of using additive manufacturing to create chemical compounds, a process researchers are calling chemputing, to use chemical inks to assemble a chemistry set similar to those found in professional labs. One of the leaders in this field of research is University of Glasgow chemist Leroy (Lee) Cronin. He’s not printing objects. He’s printing molecules. During a recent TED talk, Cronin discussed the potential boons of chemputing:
Being able to print new drugs quickly (handy in the case of a pan- or epidemic), being able to print drugs directly where they’re needed and avoiding transportation issues, using 3-D printing to create personalized drugs tailored to your own DNA, these are all fantastic benefits to society. Without doubt, this is a technology with world changing potential.
However, as noted in previous installments of this series and by Virginia Tech researcher Thomas A. Campbell, additive manufacturing technology “can be used as a double-edged sword. The same thing occurred with the Internet; the same thing occurred with cell phones.” Campbell should know. Part of his job is to think about the fast-evolving nature of 3-D printing, particularly in the field of counterfeiting, but let’s stay with Cronin’s idea of a universal digital chemistry set for a bit. When you can print custom designed molecules, what is to prevent a criminally minded individual from printing methamphetamine or cocaine? Or worse, anthrax, ricin or sarin? A custom designed shifting antigen flu like Stephen King’s fictitious Captain Trips? The potential downside from additive manufacturing technology could literally be the stuff of horror novels.
But does that mean we should not pursue the technology to its maximum benefit because the risks of misuse could be truly catastrophic? I don’t think so. The benefits could be as or more substantively beneficial to society than the risks, especially since there are ways to mitigate risks. One of those ways is regulation like the above mentioned bills and calls for new laws by lawmakers such as U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), and California state Sen. Leland Yee (D-8th District). However, these efforts are narrowly focused on the issue of plastic guns. The potential problems additive manufacturing presents are far broader. This is largely a political issue. Politicians are loathe to address any issue that either they or the public don’t see as a pressing problem of a present nature. As Dan Lieberman, Yee’s press secretary, said, “We’re not particularly interested in regulating printers; we’re interesting in regulating the firearms that they make.” However, International Business Times reports that “there are some rumblings in Washington of the possibility of registering 3-D printers and restricting the dissemination of blueprints” and reports that 3-D printing industry consultant Terry Wohlers “has said there are discussions going on right now at the U.S. Commerce and Defense departments with the registration of 3-D printers on the table.” Is this a wise approach to the new technology? Maybe not. Wohlers also said, “It’s definitely a knee-jerk reaction in Washington to regulate 3-D printers. It’s only going to cut our own throats.” It certainly smacks of overreaching and overreacting with the potential to stifle innovation, especially when you consider China. America dominates additive manufacturing technology at the moment, but China’s Beijing Longyuan Automated Fabrication System (known as AFS) is a rapidly upcoming competitor. In addition, Singapore just announced in February that they are investing $500 million over the next five years in support of advanced manufacturing techniques including 3-D printing. Concentrating regulation on the machine side could harm our economy in the long run. Campbell further cautions, “We’ve already lost our edge in wireless technology and flat-panel displays. We may be compromised on national security as a consequence if we’re not leaders anymore.” This informs the observation that regulation of the machine side of additive manufacture should be handled carefully so as to not negatively impact trade, innovation and national security but with more responsiveness and forethought than Washington traditionally brings to bear when the law is attempting to adapt to new technologies. This will not just require that industry gets to make their own rules as is so often the case in our PAC driven legislature, but that the Congress take more responsibility for their own technological education so as to make better and more informed decisions regarding a technology that can transform the world in ways beautiful and terrible.
While Lady Justia is blind, that blindness is meant to symbolize impartiality, not ignoring either what science tells us about the world or the capabilities discoveries allow to be engineered to reality. Perhaps the regulatory response to methamphetamines can provide a guide to how government and industry can cooperate to mitigate risks. The once more prolific trend of using over the counter decongestants to synthesize methamphetamine led to Congress passing a law in 2005 putting identification checks, purchase limits and other restrictions in place for such OTC drugs that could be used in the illicit drug’s manufacture. While this hasn’t eliminated that risk, it has mitigated it. With proper incentive and in their own best interests, industry can also work to create solutions that limit the ability to misuse additive manufacturing technology that don’t stifle the potential utility of it. The example provided in the case of methamphetamines is seen in developments by Acura Pharmaceuticals. Last year, they released a new formulation of nasal decongestant called Nexafed designed specifically to thwart attempts to turn it into methamphetamine. The active ingredients of Nexafed turn to a useless gel when mixed with the ingredients commonly used to cook the drug. As 3-D printing becomes commonplace, the government and manufacturers each play a role in oversight and risk mitigation. But both parties need to mitigate risk in smart ways that may not always be the most instantly profitable, but instead focus on the common good. No one can buy printed furniture or foods or houses or medicines or whatnot if they are all dead from printed Captain Trips.
As a species and as a society, can we afford the risks of being blind sided by science? Not to be confused with . . .
Can a society or humanity as a whole survive in the long term once its technological capabilities begin to outstrip our legal systems ability to recognize and limit their risks?
Can humanity reach its full potential without assuming some degree of risk in developing and adopting new technologies?
I don’t think we can survive if our capabilities too rapidly or too greatly outpace our systems of risk mitigation and restraint from both the regulatory and industrial channels, but by the same token, nothing great was ever achieved without some degree of risk and no amount of planning can eliminate the law of unintended consequences.
What do you think?
NOTE: I strongly suggest investigating the 3D Printing Industry.com site if you find this technology interesting. They have a wealth of information across the entire spectrum of what is possible with additive manufacturing.
~submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger