09
Jul
11

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves

When I was in undergrad, I spent a little bit of time with the computer graphics research lab — nothing all that exciting, mostly sitting in on their paper-reading group and drinking with the grad students.  This happened in that awkward time when consumer graphics cards like the NVidia GeForce 2 were starting to shoulder their way past high-dollar “specialist” graphics hardware, mostly from Silicon Graphics.  I call this an awkward time because the people who wrote cheques for graphics hardware were used to paying five or six figures for something that ran IRIX, and had yet fully to accept that a three thousand dollar gaming rig could outperform that “serious” Octane they just shelled out for.  Fortunately, by the time I started grad school, this awkwardness had mostly passed and I was able to get things done in a sane computing environment.

I bring this up because the graphics lab had an SGI Onyx2 hooked up to a CAVE, where they occasionally did sciencey stuff.  (I thought of it as the most expensive space heater in Western Canada.)  One day, a “journalist” from the student newspaper came by the lab for a tour and demo, with visions of Holodecks dancing in his head.  The reality, alas, was much closer to GLQuake, and this individual went away disappointed and penned a scathing jaw-droppingly whiny story for the next issue, brimming with righteous indignation that SGI didn’t have access to 24th-century technology.  It was, in modern vernacular, lulzy.

Wanna see a Holodeck, little dumbworm?

With that in mind, I am filled with hesitant caution by this Don Boudreaux post on 3d printers:

Recently I posed this far-out scenario as a means of stimulating careful thought about economic progress and the way that progress is measured using conventional concepts and national-income-accounting categories.

Turns out that my scenario isn’t as far-fetched as I assumed.  (HT to the more-than-a-dozen people who’ve sent me links to this video)  Wow.  Wow!  Wow ten-thousand times over!

So… 3d printers — not to mention CNC routers, mills, and lathes, and even PCR machines — are indeed really, really cool.  I have a big ol’ nerd hard-on for this sort of consumer-level computer-aided manufacturing gear; there’s a lot of great work going on at the small-scale R&D level.  But there’s a lot of distance between 3d printing a pair of Bic nunchaku and “Tea, Earl Grey, hot”.

I had attributed the student journalist’s Holodeck expectations to a simple case of the common stupids, but Don Boudreaux is noticeably smarter than I am.  Is this just what life’s like without a science obsession?  And when I rant about economics — say, about anarchocapitalism with frequent reference to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — do I come across as the naïf who expects to find a Holodeck in a computer lab?  (I suppose to get that naive, I’d have to reference the Foundation series.)

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2 Responses to “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves”


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