Remember how, in “Star Trek,” Captain Picard could tell a computer “tea, Earl Grey, hot” and, voilà, out of thin air, a hot, Early Grey tea would appear on a tray?
That computer was called a Replicator. What it did was use software made of bits to create objects made of atoms.
Believe it or not, replicators of a sort have already existed outside of science fiction for years.
The truth is, we’ve been turning atoms into bits and bits into atoms for more than a decade now. Music used to be recorded by carving physical groves into records. These grooves vibrated a needle tunefully, and a funnel amplified the volume. Now, that atoms-oriented process has been replaced by software — the creation and reading of bits.
More recently, we’ve seen the advent of gadgets that are almost exactly like the Replicators in Star Trek. They’re called 3D printers. There are lots of different types of 3D printers, but one company, MakerBot, is actually selling them to consumers.
Their brand name?
They aren’t making hot tea yet. But you can download all kinds of objects from the Internet — including toys, tools, and art — and use 3D printers to fabricate them in your home.
Someday you might be able to download your next pair of shoes from the Internet, and use a 3D printer to make them yourself. Someday, most of the physical objects you own might come together this way.
Obviously, that potential has huge consumer and business applications. Mike Maples, an influential early stage startup investor in Silicon Valley, spends a lot of time thinking about how them — and how technology is turning “atoms into bits” and back again.
Here’s a lightly-edited interview with Maples on the topic.
The idea that technology will soon turn “atoms into bits” is one I first heard from you. Could you explain what you mean?
“Atoms to bits” describes a tendency of products to transform from physical and constrained to virtual and unconstrained. The most obvious early example was music. It used to exist as a physical good (LP records), but over time transitioned into a bit-based product when it became possible to capture music in a file and copy and distribute it effortlessly.
We believe that the transition from atoms to bits will occur in a wider range of product categories over the next decade, enabled by new technology breakthroughs like 3D printing.
This feels like something out of “The Jetsons” or “Star Trek.” How did technology have to progress to the point where it’s realistic to talk about all this?
The technology business is magical — it guarantees us a doubling of computing performance every 18-24 months. This exponential curve makes the power of our technology increase a million-fold every generation. For instance, once you could turn a song into bits, it was only a matter of a few years before you could do the same with a DVD movie, and more recently a Blu-Ray movie, or a home movie shot in 1080p from your iPhone.
But the bigger idea is that exponential advances in the next generation will allow an entire range of products to transform from atoms to bits — products that most people do not imagine today. Various industries will be impacted by this, not just the media and entertainment businesses.
When do you think we’ll start seeing consumer application of this technology?
Applications are already widespread in media and entertainment, but they will spread.
When I was spending time at Singularity University, Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, gave a very interesting talk about 3D printing. He described how people are already starting to develop technologies to print in rubber, plastic, and metal.
He gave an example of 3D printing applied to sneakers. Today, Nike makes more than 500 million pairs of shoes a year. Imagine if, instead of them being made in China, they were instead printed on a 3D printer? The process of purchasing a shoe would be like buying an “app” that contained a 3D CAD file for the shoe which could be printed directly. Would this printer exist in a shoe store, a future Kinko’s, or even in someone’s living room? That’s hard to guess.
Further out into the future, I have seen teams at Stanford who are working on the ability to print a human organ, which would be transformational for even more obvious reasons.
Turning objects into software raises serious piracy questions, doesn’t it?
Turning objects into software raises a lot of very interesting questions about industry disruption. Piracy is an issue, but there are even more fundamental structural implications.
For example, if Nike develops the ability to “print” a pair of shoes, what does this mean for manufacturing? Could manufacturing be re-defined and migrate back to the U.S.?
And, as you point out, it raises big concerns about piracy. It’s very counter-intuitive to think that a pair of shoes might one day be stolen from Bit Torrent to be printed illegally in a consumer’s home while nobody is watching.
When Carl was discussing 3D printing, a movie executive was in the audience and he joked “Finally! Someone other than the music and movie industries are going to get ripped off! We’ll see if people take piracy seriously then!”
But overall it seems like a very positive, empowering trend. In the case of music, people forget that the industry used to have to build factories to mass-produce music, with all of their attendant physical costs as well as the externality costs of pollution and waste. In the shoe example, the product could be recycled and re-printed, which could change the carbon footprint of shoe manufacturing along with the core economics of making and distributing shoes.
When Carl gave his talk on 3D printing, he said that technology is like the [parking lot exit] signs that say “Don’t back up. Severe tire damage.” That reminds me of the future opportunities we are likely to see. The task is to keep moving forward with a proactive sense of the possible. The option to move backwards is not really available to us, regardless of who might feel threatened or try to stop it.
What are some exciting consumer applications you envision?
Every physical thing that is designed and built today could be a target. We discussed media and shoes, but people in academia are also experimenting with printing buildings — the opportunities are quite broad.
How are you investing around this opportunity?
Our basic metaphor is that physical products are tending to transition from “ice” to “liquid” to “vapor.”
Taking music as an example, the “ice” phase was when all of the music had to be purchased as a physical LP. The “liquid” phase started when recordable media made it possible to make analog recordings of music on audiotapes. The “gas” phase occurred when it became practical to make high-quality digital copies of music. This is when music became an uncontrollable virtual good that forced the music industry to re-think its entire business model.
We are looking for enabling technologies that allow products to change their “states” and when we find these technologies, we try to ask which product categories are likely to be affected first. But in terms of the specific areas, we are keeping that a secret for now!