March of the Makers

Earlier this week, I went along to hear Chris Anderson talk about his new book Makers: the new industrial revolution. He’s gone a long way along the Pro-Am path that Charlie and I wrote about back in 2004 since I last saw him. Alongside his role as editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, he’s now part-time CEO of a drone company with factories in California and Mexico. Just so we’re clear that he’s not selling military grade predators, these are small quadcopters that people can use to film themselves windsurfing or to do things like this. His interest started from his kids’ frustration with their dad crashing their radio controlled plane. He wondered whether you could make a hobbyist plane fly itself and set about making a drone using some arduino and basic sensors.

He found that he was becoming a maker and also found that he was not alone. As Paul Graham wrote this week, hardware is getting to the point of being as easy to prototype and develop as software has already become. The analogy that Chris uses is that 3D printing is somewhere between 1977 and 1984 in personal computing terms. Apple has been founded and hobbyists and pioneers are seeing what they can do with this newly democratised technology but we haven’t yet had the Macintosh — taking the computer to the masses.

The potential is pretty amazing but it feels like we don’t see much progress. There is no killer app for 3D printing yet and it’s easy to be cynical about whether there really will be a revolution in the way we manufacture the objects around us. At the event there was also quite a lot of debate about the doomsday scenario of drones taking decisions by themselves or being used by terrorists to wreak havoc. There’s also the potential in the near future for people to 3D print DNA and eventually new organisms — apparently something Craig Venter is working on. Eric Ries (who was interviewing Chris on stage) wondered whether the answer was for the people who are working in this field to embed Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics into the things they produce.

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