Programming Reality

The most notable scientific news story in 2015 was not obviously about science.

What was apparent was the coverage of diverging economic realities. Much of the world struggled with income inequality, persistent unemployment, stagnant growth, and budgetary austerity, amid corporate profit records and a growing concentration of wealth. In turn, this gulf led to a noisy emergence of far-right and far-left political movements, offering a return to a promised better time from decades (or centuries) ago. And these drove the appearance of a range of conflicts, connected by a common thread of occurring in failing and failed economies.

So what do all these dire news stories have to do with science? They share an implicit syllogism that’s so obvious it’s never mentioned: opportunity comes from creating jobs, because jobs create income, and inequality is due to the lack of income. That's what's no longer true. The unseen scientific story is to break the historical relationship between work and wealth by removing the boundary between the digital and physical worlds.

Some discoveries arrive as an event, like the flash of a light bulb; some are best understood in retrospect as the accumulation of a body of work, where the advance is to take it seriously. This is one of those. Digitizing communication and computation required a few decades each, leading to a revolution in how knowledge is created and shared. The coverage now of 3D printing and the maker movement is only the visible tip of a much bigger iceberg, digitizing not just design descriptions for computer-controlled manufacturing machines (which is decades old), but digitizing the designs themselves by specifying the assembly of digital materials.

Life is based on a genetic code that determines the placement of 20 standard amino acids; that was discovered (by molecular biology) a few billion years ago. We’re now learning how to apply this insight beyond molecular biology; emerging research is replacing processes that continuously deposit or remove materials with ones that code the reversible construction of discrete building blocks. This is being done across disciplines and length scales, from atomically-precise manufacturing, to whole-genome synthesis of living cells, to the three-dimensional integration of functional electronics, to the robotic assembly of modular aircraft and spacecraft. Taken together, these add up to programming reality—turning data into things and things into data.

Returning to the news stories from 2015, going to work commonly means leaving home to travel to somewhere you don’t want to be, to do something you don’t want to do, producing something for someone you’ll never see, to get money to pay for something that you want. What if you could instead just make what you want? In the same way that digitizing computing turned information into a commodity, digitizing fabrication reduces the cost of producing something to the incremental cost of its raw materials.

In the largest-ever gathering of heads of state, the Sustainable Development Goals were launched at the UN in 2015. These target worthy aims including ending poverty and hunger, ensuring access to healthcare and energy, building infrastructure, and reducing inequality. Left unsaid is how to accomplish these, with an assumption that it will require spending vast amounts of money to meet them. But development does not need to recapitulate the industrial revolution; just as developing countries have been able to skip over landlines and go right to mobile phones, mass manufacturing with global supply chains can be replaced with sustainable local on-demand fabrication of all of the ingredients of a technological civilization. This is a profound challenge, but it’s one with a clear research roadmap, and is the scientific story behind the news.