Rebecca Morelle at the BBC reports on a new first from Defense Distributed and Cody Wilson, ironically a law student at University of Texas-Austin, in Working Gun Made with 3D printer. The idea of a printed firearm has been a trope in the press and in the technorati conversation for some time, and it was only a matter of time until someone claimed the mantle with their very own invention. The press has reported widely on the milestone, and the expert responses they have elicited are mostly quite superficial, early reactions: it’s harder to make one than buy one today; 3D printed guns will only come down in price and will proliferate; we need to ban these now; and of course this is impossible to ban effectively because the cat’s forever out of the bag.
There are a few lessons I think we ought to take away both from the fact that Wilson made this gun, and from the ecology of responses in the blogosphere. First of all, I see this not as a turning point but as early evidence of a frontal mass of robot smog, as I label it in Robot Futures. Guns are provocative because they are designed to do damage, and indeed Wilson intends for maximum provocation in this case. But the number of people who will use plastic 3D guns rather than the conventional variety to kill people will be small for the time being. Note that Wilson is a law student- not a dedicated engineer- and this is a good double-whammy to consider. Everyone can become an inventor, and their knowledge of law and society will not necessarily give pause to their considerations. The power of 3D printing isn’t in printing guns; it’s in printing anything – specifically including what you haven’t considered yet, and what you think noone will have the temerity to really build. The unintended side effects are what I find fascinating because, with good intentions, many will enter a complex ethical and legal landscape. When someone publishes the designs for a steering wheel dial that helps a Parkinson’s patient drive, and when that dial fractures and crashes happen because the plastic is just not an appropriate material, where are all the lines of accountability? A plastic gun is not very resilient, but it can be extremely light. When a super-lightweight gun that can do no more than fire a single bullet is mated to a tiny flying drone, then we open up a new frame of reference for remote control violence.
When we respond to new technologies by simply imagining replacement of existing devices with newly manufactured devices, we are not using our imagination nearly well enough. It is the new categories of devices that will be borne of new techniques that will threaten our understanding of law and ethics far more comprehensively- that is where our attention needs to lie. Reactive laws that ban specific devices, always after they’ve been demonstrated, do nothing to provide us with appropriate trajectories forward.