Principle #1: Pick Solutions That Pay off Even if The Crisis Doesn’t Occur by 2040

Today, two sharp policy writers took a whack at each other over the robots/AI-will-destroy-jobs debate. Dylan Matthews confidently wrote that there’s no reason to think that when it comes automation, this time it’ll be different. Kevin Drum wrote with equal confidence, “mass unemployment will start about 2025.”

Here’s the dirty little secret: no one has a freaking clue.

That’s why one of the core principles of Makers All is that our strategy should pay off regardless of whether we get hit by a mass unemployment crisis by 2040. That way, there’s a lot less at stake about whose prediction is right.

This principle is one reason why Makers All focuses so heavily on Make Creativity Work. Regardless of where people come down on the threat robots/AI pose to good paying jobs, everyone agrees that robots and AI are going to become ubiquitous in our economy. So either way, there’s not much downside to making sure that in every community as many people as possible can participate in creating robots and AI.

Obviously, this approach won’t work for every solution. But as a general rule, I think it makes a lot more sense to spend less time arguing about whether we will end up with a massive unemployment crisis and spend more time coming up with solutions that can help build a more prosperous, more just economy either way.

Robot Tech Still Has a Long Way to Go 

Roomba inventor Joe Jones has a new company and a new product he’s trying to fund through Kickstarter: Tertill, “a solar-powered and weatherproof robot that weeds your garden every day.” In an interview about Terrill, Jones has a great quote about what robots can and can’t easily do today:

Robots are deceptively hard. My co-founder at Harvest, Clara Vu, likes to say, “A robot application that a technology grad student thinks they can easily do in a couple of weeks has an outside chance of actually being practical. Anything harder is impossible.”

That’s why assuming that the real threat to jobs won’t arrive until around 2040 makes sense to me; bots and AI are improving at a pretty brisk clip, but they’ve still got a ways to go.

Fab Cities

In my last post, I discussed the amazing work that’s being done in Fab Labs. There’s another part of the story: Fab City. Fab City, which was launched in 2011, is a joint project of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, the Barcelona City Council, the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), and the Fab Foundation. Its goal is ambitious:

Fab City takes the ideals of the Fab Lab – the connectivity, culture and creativity – and scales it to the City. It is a new urban model of transforming and shaping cities

One of the core ideas is to move

from ‘Products In Trash Out’ (PITO) to ‘Data In Data Out’ (DIDO). This means that more production occurs inside the city, along with recycling materials and meeting local needs through local inventiveness. A city’s imports and exports would mostly be found in the form of data (information, knowledge, design, code).

The Fab City project has an ambitious roadmap. By 2054, cities that sign on to the project will attempt to achieve the following:

Cities produce at least 50% of what they consume

A global repository of open source designs for city solutions

Materials are source locally through recycling and digital materials

Although much of Fab City is focused around the world of fabrication, to reach a goal of cities producing at least 50% of what they consume, cities would also focus on growing food.

Urban farming will scale up from experimental practice to large scale infrastructure. Local production of foods at domestic, neighbourhood and city scales will create a closed loop system for food production and harvesting.”

How will Fab Cities pull this off? At this point, it’s really unclear — and as a Fab City blog post points out, that’s understandable given how early they are in the process.

Tomas [Diez, one of the movement’s originators] avoids trying to predict exactly what our cities will look like in 2054 (we all know how wildly wrong technological prophets have been in the past), and explains that there is no fully formed vision of what a Fab City will look like. Instead, he describes Fab Cities as an emerging process of experimentation. “We are flying an aeroplane while we are building it.”

One of these experiments is taking place in Barcelona,

[in] the newly designated makers’ district in Barcelona’s Poblenou neighbourhood. Working in partnership with the council, Fab City enthusiasts hope to create a Fab City Prototype in Poblenou as the area becomes an experimentation playground for trialing new systems of production and interaction…. The prototype sees residents experimenting in three main areas: material production, food production, and energy production. On the most fundamental level, this means manufacturing goods in makerspaces, growing food on rooftops, and storing energy collected via solar panels in domestic batteries. However, if enough citizens become empowered as producers rather than simply consumers, a whole new range of relations and transactions are possible.

I also can’t figure out what the Fab City movement thinks our economy should look like by 2054. Again, not too surprising considering how new the project is — and how mind-blowing some of the tech is. In one of CBA Director Neil Gershenfeld’s talks, he argues that in the future, perhaps instead of having to get a job doing work we don’t want to do to earn money to buy a product, for some of our needs we could just fabricate the product ourselves. Understanding the economic implications of that is no small feat. Hopefully, Makers All could be helpful in fleshing that out.

In the next few months I’m going to reach out to some of the folks involved in Fab Labs and Fab Cities; their work will definitely have a big impact on Makers All. Stay tuned…

Fab Labs and the Future of Makers All

I’ve been learning about Fab Labs, and it’s blowing my mind.

If you’ve ever heard about Fab Labs, you probably have a vague sense that they’re about making a bunch of cool tools like 3D printing more accessible. It’s possible you also remember that the folks who are involved in Fab Labs think eventually we’ll have Star Trek-like replicators. In other words, neat stuff if you’re a geek, but that’s about it. The real story is a lot more interesting.

Fab Labs came out of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). CBA has a far-out mission: to figure out “how to turn data into things, and things into data.” The National Science Foundation has given CBA millions of dollars to pay for tools and research, and at one point they wanted to be able to briefly show off what this money was producing. So, CBA whipped up a demonstration project they called a Fab Lab: a room full of equipment costing a lot less than millions of dollars that an ordinary mortal could learn how to use and build something interesting. It unexpectedly took off, and now there are around 1,000 Fab Labs across the globe.

According to the Fab Lab FAQ, today a Fab Lab consists of the following equipment:

•A computer-controlled lasercutter, for press-fit assembly of 3D structures from 2D parts
•A larger (4’x8′) numerically-controlled milling machine, for making furniture- (and house-) sized parts
•A signcutter, to produce printing masks, flexible circuits, and antennas
•A precision (micron resolution) milling machine to make three-dimensional molds and surface-mount circuit boards
•Programming tools for low-cost high-speed embedded processors

These work with components and materials optimized for use in the field, and are controlled with custom software for integrated design, manufacturing, and project management.

The total cost for all of this equipment: around $50,000 plus materials.

Interestingly, 3D printers, which get a lot of attention in the media, aren’t a big part of Fab Labs. CBA’s director Neil Gershenfeld says 3D printers are the microwave ovens of the fabrication world.

“The coverage of 3D printing is a bit like the coverage of microwave ovens in the 50s. Microwaves are useful for some things, but they didn’t replace the rest of your kitchen,” he said, speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges summit. “The kitchen is more than a microwave oven.

The room full of tools that make up a Fab Lab are pretty cool, but the tools are just the tip of the iceberg. First, according to the Fab Lab FAQ:

Fab labs share core capabilities, so that people and projects can be shared across them.

In other words, Fab Labs aren’t a loose coalition of maker spaces; they are explicitly designed as a network of labs that can build off one another. For example, if a person in one lab comes up with a design, someone in another web should be able to reuse it. Given that the number of Fab Labs has been doubling almost every two years, the potential of this network is impressive.

Second, Fab Labs have a vision of how they will make this technology more accessible. Anyone can go to a Fab Labs and get help in how to to use this new technology. Many Fab Labs also participate in a formal training program called Fab Academy: a five-month course currently offered by 100 Fab Labs around the globe where you can earn a certificate. Unlike MOOCs, Fab Academy combines the best of face-to-face and distributed online learning:

Students with peers are organized in workgroups in Fab Labs, with local instructors and tools, which are then linked globally through interactive video lectures and collaborative project management

The last interesting tidbit from the FAQ is that

[The Fab Lab’s] inventory is continuously evolving, towards the goal of a fab lab being able to make a fab lab.

And that’s what makes the world of Fab Labs so different from 90% of what’s out there. Plenty of people have interesting ideas about what the future will look like. Fab Labs are different: they are part of a well-thought-out strategy for incrementally, iteratively building towards a radically different future.

In this 2017 talk, Gershenfeld compares their work to the history of computers. CBA’s core research facilities are like the old mainframes: a massive amount of machines that cost a ton of money and that were accessible to only a handful of people.

Fab Labs are the equivalent of the 1970’s minicomputers. Minicomputers only took up the space of a few refrigerators, and because they were much cheaper than mainframes, they put a considerable amount of power in the hands of more people.

But a minicomputer is like a horse and buggy compared to today’s smart phones and iPads. And just like computers moved from minicomputers to hobbyist computers to personal computers, he thinks they will be able to do the same with digital fabricators. Currently, their research roadmap says that in 20 years they will have built out the technology for personal-sized digital fabricators.

One of the main destinations on this roadmap is moving beyond 3D printers that spray materials and laser cutters that slice materials to materials that can assemble and dissemble themselves. As a Wired magazine article described it,

For Gershenfeld, the real revolution of fabrication is much more fundamental: it’s bringing programmability to the physical world. He invited the audience to compare the performance of a child assembling Lego and a 3D printer. The child’s assembly of Lego will be more accurate than the child’s motor skills would allow — that’s because the pieces are designed to snap together in alignment. Meanwhile, the 3D printing process accumulates errors, perhaps due to imperfect adhesion in the bottom layers. Lego is also available in different materials, while 3D printers have limited ability to use dissimilar materials. Finally, a Lego construction can be easily disassembled.

Currently, they are exploring this radical new approach in a joint project with NASA on building aircraft.

The NASA/MIT approach is… to fundamentally redesign the structure of the wing so it is capable of bending by itself. The design achieves this by dividing the wing into lightweight, overlapping scale- or feather-like sub-segments. These are supported by tunable and actively deformable modular building blocks, dubbed “digital materials,” that are made of carbon fiber-reinforced polymers that can be quickly engineered and snapped together and allow the wing to deform while maintaining a smooth, aerodynamic surface…. So far, wind tunnel tests have shown the test wing has aerodynamic properties of a conventional wing weighing 10 times more.

In short, Fab Labs aren’t just about putting some maker tools in the hands of folks today. They are part of a larger, bolder vision plus the infrastructure to make it happen. As the Fab Foundation explains,

This community is simultaneously a manufacturing network, a distributed technical education campus, and a distributed research laboratory working to digitize fabrication, inventing the next generation of manufacturing and personal fabrication.

Fab Labs and the broader project they are part of have some striking implications for the Makers All framework.  CBA’s research roadmap estimates that they will have developed the tech for personal replicators in 20 years — in other words, around the time the robots/AI-driven jobs crisis is likely to hit. Even if CBA’s estimate is too optimistic, the tech plus the network of labs, people, and training they will have developed by 2040 will be a game changer, and it’ll greatly expand what Make Creativity Work could do.

There’s a lot more to say here. For example, the educational infrastructure that the Fab Labs Network is building out should allay some concerns about Make Creativity Work’s argument that lots of people from every community could eventually participate in creating robots/AI. But honestly, I’m still wrapping my head around what CBA’s work could mean for Makers All.

But as exciting as this work is, there’s a project to take it to a whole new level. Up Next: Fab Cities