Claude Shannon, MOOCs, and nanoassembly: what 3D printing is really about

Neal Gershenfeld, founder of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, has been talking about making digital things physical and physical things digital longer than almost anyone, and his books -- notably FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop -- are visionary and inspirational ways to think about how information technology has changed our species' relationship with the universe; while the Fab Labs he helped invent represent the best and most thoughtful way that a makerspace can be built to suit local community needs.

In a wide-ranging manifesto dictated to Edge, Gershenfeld lays out a clear and exciting summary of his vision for the world, and his way of understanding how the foundational ideas about computer science and information theory are playing out in new domains.

Gershenfeld starts with Claude Shannon, the subject of James Gleick's tour-de-force book The Information, who created the discipline of "information theory," and pinned down what "digital" delivers to communications. Beginning with his MIT PhD thesis and continuing through his professional career in industry and academe, Shannon championed the idea that digital systems allow for precise transmission and processing of information with imprecise instruments. Transmit an analog voice over a faulty analog line and you'll just get noise at the other end -- but digitize the voice and send it over a digital network (albeit one built atop those same dirty analog lines) and information processing can extract the signal and reproduce it faithfully at the other end, so long as even the tiniest bit of data can be transmitted and received.

Gershenfeld applies this to physical manufacturing, and argues that, when we bring the scale down far enough, we end up with building-blocks that are like bits in that they are fault-tolerant, self-correcting, and reusable. This insight has got his lab into a number of interesting lines of research, from fabricating microprocessors to knitting jumbo-jets out of linked loops of carbon fiber to "machines that are like robotic ribosomes that link discrete parts to build geological scale features to make landscape" and creating space-based fablabs that will allow future technological civilizations to bootstrap themselves from the most basic components.

The essay explores some of the implications of this worldview for economics and pedagogy. Gershenfeld sees digital fabrication as a renaissance for the "liberal arts" ("liberal for liberation, humanism, the trivium and the quadrivium... a path to liberation, [a] means of expression"), by recognizing that "3D printing, micromachining, and microcontroller programming are as expressive as painting paintings or writing sonnets," and by giving people access to these tools, "[w]e can finally fix that boundary between art and artisans."

Which brings him around to education. He's skeptical of MOOCs, because a million people sitting at screens is "just not education as I understand's like time sharing" on old mainframes. Instead of this, his MIT classes through Fab Academy spill out into the world as an "educational network" with "peers in workgroups, with mentors, surrounded by machines in labs locally, [connected] globally by video and content sharing."

Gershenfeld sees this radical reimagining of fabrication, information processing, economics and education as a path to a better, more engaged, fairer future. It's an inspiring vision.

To rewind now, you can send something to Shenzhen and mass manufacture it. There's a more interesting thing you can do, which is you go to market by shipping data and you produce it on demand locally, and so you produce it all around the world. There's a parallel with HP and inkjet printing. HP's inkjet division is in Corvallis, Oregon because they had to hide from Palo Alto because they were told that inkjet printing would never scale, it would never be fast enough. But their point was a lot of printers producing beautiful pages slowly scales if all the pages are different. In the same sense it scales to fabricate globally by doing it locally, not by shipping the products but shipping the data.

What is work? For the average person—not the people who write for Edge, but just an average person working—you leave home to go to a place you'd rather not be, doing a repetitive operation you'd rather not do, making something designed by somebody you don't know for somebody you'll never see, to get money to then go home and buy something. But what if you could skip that and just make the thing?

Vicente Guallart was a colleague who started the first fab lab in Barcelona. He's now the city architect, the planner of the future of Barcelona. He's putting fab labs in every district in the city as part of the urban infrastructure. There, they consider IKEA the enemy because IKEA defines your taste. Far away they make furniture and flat pack it and send it to a big box store. Great design sense in Barcelona, but 50 percent youth unemployment. A whole generation can't work. Limited jobs. But ships come in from the harbor, you buy stuff in a big box store. And then after a while, trucks go off to a trash dump. They describe it as products in, trash out. Ships come in with products, trash goes out.

What they want to do is what they call DIDO: data in, data out. The bits come and go, globally connected for knowledge, but the atoms stay in the city. The idea is you have fab labs in every district in the city, then when you want furniture or consumer goods or all of that, instead of working to get money to buy products made somewhere else, you can make them locally. You might pay somebody else to make it, or you might do it, but it all stays there. The cities provide electricity and light and sewers. Now it's this new notion of infrastructure if they provide the means to make stuff as part of the infrastructure of the city.

In Barcelona's case, the attraction is whether or not you make anything any different from what you're buying today, it means you can make many of the things you consume directly rather than this very odd remote economic loop.

Digital Reality:
A Conversation with Neil Gershenfeld [1.23.15]

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(Image: Claude Shannon graffiti, Thierry Ehrmann, CC-BY)