“We are heading towards matter becoming software”: Interview with Vik Olliver

“Wealth without money” is one of the mottos in RepRap community. Conscious of the deep revolution that the creation of a self-replicating machine implies, they go beyond the technical issues and promote a new social philosophy based on openness, sharing and creativity. RepRap (abbreviation of replicating rapid prototyper) was born as a project with the clear goal of creating a 3D printer able to print its own components. Founded in 2005 by Adrian Bowyer, it was in September 2006 when a RepRap printed one of its components by the first time, by Vik Olliver. Next, Olliver built the first RepRap “child” –that is, the first completed self-replicated 3D printer in history.

Adrian Bowyer (right) and Vik Olliver (left) with the first self-replicated 3D printer
Adrian Bowyer (left) and Vik Olliver (right) with the first self-replicated 3D printer (First replication – CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was a huge step towards the Third Industrial Revolution. From then, RepRap community increased unstoppably, with around 15,000 registered users now. However, it is not possible to trace all existing RepRaps today, as they can develop by themselves… So when we had the chance of talking with Vik Olliver, we knew that we were talking with the “father” of a long-range movement. The funny thing of it is that he knows, too.

P.N. Even if you are one of the leaders of the RepRap movement, you always emphasize the great importance of community, and specially on the essential role of open source ideology. Do you consider open source a solid business project?

V.O.  Of course. Open source works because if you have two companies working on a project for you, it will be easier for everybody if they do it on an open source basis. It means that you can get more than one company to work on a project and share the benefits and share the experience, and there’s no worry that lawyers will descend upon anyone after the project is finished.

P.N. But on the other side copyright laws are being strengthened…

V.O. Actually, I have no problem with copyright… But I do have a problem with patents. First of all, they are not used correctly: people is patenting things that they should not patent at all.

P.N. Like seeds…

V.O. Seeds are works of nature: you can’t patent works of nature, but people patent it anyway. Things that are obvious like to keep the plastic warm in a 3D printer putting a shelter, this is obvious, human beings have done it for hundreds of thousands of years. Putting a shelter to keep it warm is not a new invention. So a patent like that should not being given. But people would apply for a patent even if they know that they should not. The second problem is that when patents where conceived, the rate of change of technology was much slower, so if you patented an steam engine and you had a patent on the design for 20 years and then everybody could make this kind of steam engine it was not a big barrier to progress. But now, you make a software and in two years it is obsolete, so if someone has a patent and control it for 20 years that’s a long time. The period is too long. And you have people who makes patents to do nothing with them except threaten people with the patent. They hold  the patent, they do not use the technology to make anything, all they do is threaten other companies: that is wrong. Even worse, there is people who use a patent to deliberately prevent an advance or a treatment… that is evil!

P.N. How does open source help people in front of these abuses?

V.O. First of all, open source promotes the sharing of ideas: once one idea is open source it’s very hard to patent it, some people try anyway but it generally doesn’t work. And secondly open source allows people to do things themselves, to explore new ideas, to make their own creations. And if you make a creation of your own by yourself that it’s patented, you don’t need a license, as long as you don’t offer a service or goods based on that patent: you don’t need a license for your own use, so I can make myself a patented water cooler and this is not a problem as long as I don’t sell it. Patent laws allow to do that. So I see open source helping in that way. Eventually we will reach the point where open source technology will be able to create patented drugs, and that point if you then make the drug for yourself you do not need the patent.

P.N. So the point is to empower people to make their own way of living, of making their own solutions… Let’s talk a little about RepRap because in fact this is a key tool to make that: it’s not a way of making things, it’s a way of making solutions, and also a social experiment… Were you thinking about a social experiment when you where creating the machine?

V.O. Yes, very much. We knew that people would try to make three things with RepRap: weapons, sex toys and drugs paraphernalia. We knew this because it happens with every technology. And the way that this can be exposed in people’s agendas is very interesting. In New Zealand there was a Customs Minister called Maurice Williamson and he made lots of noise about being concerned that 3D printers would be able to print guns and drugs and gold and gems… Printing guns: well anybody can make a gun, it is really not very hard. Seriously, if you are thinking about dangerous items, guns are really low on the list of the dangerous things that you can make with a 3D printer: guns are indiscriminate, but you can make really well targeted weapons with a 3D printer if you put your mind to it. You don’t have to worry about the people who are copying guns, you have to worry about the smart people which are thinking about more inventive things. Printing drugs: this is really good: can you imagine the poor families with children who need hospital medications, the old people who need medication… Is a really good idea to be able to print drugs. Printing gold? Well, ok but only if you put gold into the 3D printer. Gems? Well, maybe with advanced nanotechnology it would be possible to print gems, after all diamonds are just carbon, but please tell me what is wrong with printing them? So, this exposes the attitude behind people who are trying to prevent 3D printers from becoming widespread: they wish to keep things the same as they are, they do not wish us to change, create better ways of living our lives. I have not time for them.

An open-minded conversation with Vik Oliver
An open-minded conversation with Vik Olliver

P.N. But this people make the laws, isn’t it?

V.O. Well, laws would have to change, because if they do not, people will lose respect for them. If you have laws that are out of date, people will not respect them. And that will lead to a breakdown in order and this is not a fault of the people, it is a fault of the laws. And the thing is that the rate of change of technology is causing this and it’s not going to slow down: even it’s getting faster! So what we need is teaching people to have a conscience to know what is right and what is wrong rather than to teach them just to behave within the law. We are not going to be able to force people to respect the laws for very long, we are going to have to reason with people to respect the laws. And if the laws are unreasonable that is not going to be possible.

P.N. So this Third Industrial Revolution is not only a Making Revolution, but also a Thinking Revolution…

V.O. It will be a big revolution. What we are heading towards is matter becoming software. Soon we will be able to control matter atom by atom. Lots of this nano-this, nano-that everywhere is all bullshit…but real nanotechnology is closer than most people would think, because it is not just a case of working down to smaller and smaller items until we reach nanotechnology, it also works the other way: people are working bottom up technology, so they are making molecules that are more and more complicated. For instance, DNA origami, making shapes with DNA. Technology like that is making atoms into larger exact shapes, while we have the silicon shape technology controlling smaller and smaller pieces of materials. At some point these two technologies will meet… And when these two technologies meet we will have control from the normal scale world all the way down to the atom. And the people that have been working on this in a theoretical context, creating models, will be suddenly able to implement their ideas. So from  the point when this technology is created to the point when we will have machines that can create machines on a nano-scale would be a very short period of time, and once we have those machines they will not stay in government research. Is like gunpowder, anybody with the recipe will be able to make it. RepRap is just like training for society for this to happen.

PostDigital Node

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