Recent hi-tech expo’s have exhibited some monumental feats, but oddly enough have lost much of their charm. The arrival of the future appears to invoke a rather anticlimactic disappointment, as often happens when a significant milestone is reached. Bits and pieces which would only fit in servers, desktops and laptops several years ago are now common components of a tablet, PDA, smartphone or USB stick. And this doesn’t just concern computers, but all kinds of electronic hardware and within a few years one can have both a camera and a video projector the size of a sugar cube that you can stick on your smartphone and it is kept in place via flux pinning.
This ongoing miniaturization into the ever smaller makes it increasingly apparent that hardware is reaching a stage where the whole collection of individual parts become fungible, maximally interchangeable, although some vendors do try hard to maintain a proprietary whole to fence off their bit of the market. With this widespread standardization of building blocks, one can take functionality that used to run on the fastest supercomputer from the mid-1980s and port it to an emulator on your cell phone. Paradoxically, these breakthroughs in material science reinforced progress causing it to overshoot its aim and land in software.
This shift seems rather odd, but it happens when some construct shifts from a productive function to a facilitating function, like farmland soil facilitates plant life but does not cause it. This happens when a construct’s evolution reaches a phase of self-dual recursion, essentially its next evolutionary stage is more or less a copy of itself and given enough copies of these reusable building blocks it allows for the emergence of a causally open platform. Contrary to normal product design involving embedded and embodied properties these are emergent capacities of which the utilitarian value is defined in relation to a large range of contexts.
Too small to be wired up, we’ll see an interesting mix of wireless communications to coordinate arrangements of instructions, a projective programming language. This may sound more far out futuristic than it is, as this is like a television remote control which you need to point at the right sensor to have its signal picked up. This is wireless projection of some specific instructions, but you can also regard an FM radio signal as sending instructions of how to the radio speakers need to bounce around to reproduce the recorded audio signal ranging from a deejay cleaning out his throat to sharing the original recordings of Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto No 2 in C minor. But that is where it starts… it is a close step forward to mix visuals for television to project the schematic blueprints of complex electronic circuitry onto a general purpose ‘smart canvas’, a canvas with a structural memory so all you have to add are the changes.
Nano-tech is leading to molecular machines, machines in the form of nearly invisible grains, like sand, a liquid, gas, gel or foam. Molecular sterling engines already exist and so do millimeter size rechargers, cameras, etcetera… Hardware is becoming so incredibly small, and because it comes in large numbers it is highly resilient, that you can create a cocktail of nano-LEDs, for nano-camera’s and nano-projectors, dual layer nano-tubes for nano-speakers and nano-microphones, and some other general purpose sensory interaction automata, like smell’o-vision. You just mix it and paint it on the wall and you have a multi-media wall that you can use as a television but also as a professional recording studio… yet all that smarts is offloaded from these sensory end-points and dealt with by a centralized home computer and this one is interacting with this multi-purpose smart paint via spatial projecting of the actualized functionality (e.g. a screen, knobs, speakers, projected circuitry).
Now, this may still be close to existing reality, but it will create some odd shift, beyond the capabilities of 3D printing, but essentially most big machinery will not be needed anymore, such as a washing machine, heating or cooling. You may need a container, for containment and protection, but most machines will become software. You’ll have special purpose nanobots in the piping in the walls, that can co-locate at the place where you want this to happen, and you’d use TeraHertz sound waves for dry washing, or billions of small heating bots for distributed temperature regulation, or billions of cooling bots that act as the air-conditioning you’ve always wanted. And if it makes too much noise, you just cloak it out with a projected bubble of anti-sound. As a weak form of augmented virtuality, quasi-holographic projections of machine parts and circuitry, but it has the advantage that the machine is now a small population of nano-machines, which will likely never break down and, unless they choose to rebel against you, live peacefully inside the piping in your walls.
This is possibly the most bizarre aspect to get used to, the disassociation of thing and functionality, while technologic advances move into the small and before we reach the Planck scale we have several universes of possibilities to fill. The promises of gel computing, where a ‘computer’ is a mixed jelly of different sorts of liquid crystals, offers not only self-healing and self-organization, adaptive compartmentalization and virtualization, but we can also add computing power by pouring in some more gel. And likewise with liquid heating, and a liquid of molecular Sterling engines that heat some water for your shower. And with a liquid of solar nanobots, or liquid batteries made of tetrahedral carbon catenoids where the quantum weirdness of the inner tubing allows for Fermionic condensates, an electricity grid existing on enormous super-electron dealing with both transportation and storage at the same time. Within the timespan of one or two generations we can spray-paint our bicycle with carbon glass so that it is a hundred times stronger than diamond, weave carbon fiber in the tires and the roads so they’ll never wear out again, we can use carbon foam as a building material, making houses which are extremely light, even somewhat elastic, isolated from temperature fluctuations and stronger than diamond. Or we can renovate old buildings by spray-painting carbon foam on the walls. We’ll get gas-based audio speakers for highly accurate morpho-mimetic reproduction of music. We’ll get chemo-mimicry in the sense of chemical signature simulation by general purpose designer molecules, so that one substance can impersonate another. We’ll get smart dust, utility fog, claytronics, programmable matter, directed self-assembly and separation… instead of using chemical-based water desalination we use a mix of electric fields and sound bubbles, so that the liquid crystalline phase of water makes it filter itself, while small sound streams create underwater rivers to wash away the pollution. And we can filter water by using transparent tubes around some rope, so to combine the capillary action of water with this light-induced filtering, so that this can be used to have it move from a water well uphill and irrigate a series of plateaus of farmland, like a reverse qanat.
But before the world is made of software, we will see the effects of things growing increasingly smaller and versatile. This is going to impact not only 3D Printing, but also more immediate with more passive smart materials. In many cases waste material during the production process and after-use garbage accumulation can be dramatically reduced. Home-delivery of household goods is waiting to become our future, mostly obstructed by fierce competition by providers, but when this settles in, there is no need for packaging the way it is done now. For many goods the storage facility itself will provide plenty of the qualities of packaging. With nearly indestructible household utensils, especially if they are self-cleaning, the need for packaging becomes increasingly optional. Even with fruit and vegetables, within the next ten years packaging can be replaced with a shock-absorbing self-cooling foam and like the local greengrocer used to offer you can again buy food that hasn’t been industrialized to the extend it is near toxic. Before we are there, we will see dramatic shifts in logistics as shipping, distribution, warehouses shrink along with these ever smaller things.