E’S nothing scary about having your takeaway delivered by a flying robot. No one lies awake at night because ordinary people are buying ceramic figurines based on their children’s drawings. Yet the extraordinary technologies that make these services real possibilities, drone aircraft and 3D printing, are becoming objects of fear in the public mind. The resulting scramble to regulate is in danger of cutting off two potential consumer revolutions before they even get started.
Drone aircraft have been contaminated by their early adoption for military and state surveillance uses. But the peaceful applications for these rapidly advancing devices is extraordinary, including industrial monitoring, aerial photography and improved delivery networks for firms like Fedex and DHL. If we’re lucky, there’s even the tacocopter, an imagined fast food airdrop service – the ultimate in sci-fi convenience.
Military spending is one way to achieve technological advances, but it can prove a corrupting necessity. Any widespread civilian adoption that follows must overcome the state’s fondness for secrecy and the reputational damage wrought by destructive early uses. Nuclear technology is a classic example. We are reluctant to accept that machinery capable of bettering our lives was first developed to level whole cities.
Innovation by private individuals lacks the terrible focus of a Manhattan Project, but it brings a cascade of peaceful applications for the latest technologies. Crayon Creatures, which uses the 3D printers of Shapeways to turn a child’s doodle into a colourful statuette, is a charming example of how we turn the latest gadgetry to serve our domestic needs and strengthen our bonds of love and affection.
Our common instinct is to make better ploughshares, not more swords. But that point was in danger of getting drowned out this week with the news that someone had used a 3D printer to make a gun. The anxiety the story generated was genuine, but it lacked real grounds. Guns are already plentiful for the criminals who want them. And undetectable guns are nothing new – ask the US, which brought in a law against them in 1998 (except for anyone on government business).
If the 3D-printed gun proves anything, it is that new technologies are running rings around artificial government restrictions and monopolies. That’s a good thing, because it is the government, not the general public, that is most likely to turn innovation to destructive ends.
It is our happy fortune to be making technological breakthroughs too powerful to be restricted to the barracks. The internet is sometimes held up as a proud product of military innovation, but the real lesson the net offers is that its full potential was invisible in the hands of the state. Opened to all, it has released a flood of peaceful, inventive exchange. When we give way to fear, we focus on the exceptions – the perverts and terrorists – and miss the great achievements we can only make by trusting ourselves enough to work together unchecked.
Marc Sidwell is managing editor of City A.M.