The cost of computing power has decreased exponentially over the last several decades (“Moore’s law”). This trend gets a lot of attention, but its context is not as well known: exponential cost decreases occur in a range of technologies, from wind electricity to polyester fiber production. The exponential trends normally only lasts for a couple of decades before they taper off, and the rate of improvement is usually slower than it has been with computers (see this data set).
Last week I saw a demo of D.I.Wire’s computer-controlled wire-bending machine. It’s a neat tool that bends sturdy wire into shapes defined by computer line drawings -- like a 3d printer for one-dimensional shapes. One interesting thing about it is that, just like 3D printers, wire-bending machines have existed as big industrial tools for many years. 3D printers are getting so much attention now because new desktop versions are small enough and cheap enough that hobbyists and small businesses can use them. But, as the D.I.Wire shows, this trend is not limited to 3D printers.
In fact, for less than the price of a macbook pro, you can buy a small lathe or milling machine, the workhorse machines of industrial production. For less than $7,000 you can even get an injection molding machine, a laser cutter, or an induction melting furnace. Some commentators see these small-scale production tools as a challenge to traditional mass production. But I think that they are more accurately seen as a testament to the success of mass production. Large-scale, global mass production is so efficient that even complicated, niche products like milling machines are now affordable to a middle-class American household.
All of the machines I mentioned so far are commercial products. Hobbyist and open-source hardware projects are using even more complicated and exotic industrial processes at the household scale. Take, for example, these instructions for turning a microwave oven into a smelting machine for melting and forming metal, or this youtube video documenting an attempt at a homemade vacuum evaporation coating machine, or this open-source tractor. There are even DIY versions of hazardous chemical engineering processes like refining biocrude oil and synthesizing Nylon.
Other people (notably Chris Anderson) have written about how digital production tools are making hardware much easier and less expensive to design and build. But it is still remarkable to see this trend play out over such a broad range of tools and processes.
All technologies share a common structure. Recognizing this structure helps to understand what technology is and how it changes over time.
Elon Musk has been hyping an idea for a “fifth form of transportation” that would travel between downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles in 30 minutes and cost only $6 billion to construct – a fraction of the $68 billion high-speed rail project slated to connect those cities. So far he’s been coy about the details, but he’s set to reveal the plans on August 12th. Tech aficionados are trying to predict the design before the announcement. Here are the hints they have to work with: It will travel between SF and LA in 30 minutes (roughly 700 mph, or twice the speed of a plane), an SF to LA version would cost about $6 billion to set up, and it is a "cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table".
In 1855, the world was in the midst of dramatic technological transformation. The first commercial telegraph went into operation 16 years earlier, allowing near-instant communication across vast distances. The railroads were expanding rapidly, driving down travel times and transportation costs. Gas lighting, cheaper and more convenient than earlier oil lamps, was making nighttime illumination much more common, leading to night shifts at factories and musical theater shows in the evenings. So it's strange that the new Chair of Technology at the University of Edinburgh had to begin his 1855 inaugural address by explaining what the word “technology” meant. He didn't do this as a rhetorical flourish; he did it because the audience was genuinely unfamiliar with the term:
The Santa Fe Institute is hosting a big workshop in August to "make first steps toward constructing a theory of technological change". The workshop will bring together economists, biologists, applied mathematicians, physicists, engineers, archaeologists, and anthropologists to take stock of the current state of research and lay out an agenda for future work. This is exciting news, as the workshop gets to the heart of the core interest of this blog. Here is the announcement: