Last week the world was introduced to a radically new idea: an ink-jet printer that can produce living tissue. Have I got your attention? Here’s the basic idea. Researchers in Scotland have figured out a way of adapting so-called additive manufacturing technology to the manipulation of embryonic stem cells, squeezing out droplets of as few as five cells in precise patterns to build up biological structures. As the process is refined, scientists may eventually be able to use the structures to generate whole organs, like eyes or brains.
This breakthrough represents the convergence of two emerging technologies, 3-D printing and bioengineering. 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, enables the exact replication of objects in much the same way that an inkjet printer does, only instead of depositing a single layer of ink it deposits many layers of polymers or other materials representing cross-sections of the object being reproduced. The cross-sections are derived from digital files of the objects developed for computer-aided design and manufacturing. Bioengineering is the creation or modification of living organisms through genetic manipulation.
The mere fact these fields exist is proof that the currently fashionable view about innovation slowing is nonsense. The big breakthroughs in contemporary technology may not look like Edison’s light bulb or the Manhattan Project, but they have a similar potential to transform commerce and culture. In fact, they may have more potential, since we have reached the point in human progress where scientists are seriously contemplating reengineering the human “germline.” It certainly tells you something about the unexpected paths innovation follows, though, that the seemingly mundane principles of inkjet printing might have some relevance to engineering biological structures.
Clearly, the world is changing in startling ways. However, if there’s one thing we should have learned from the coming of the Internet, it’s that even technologies with huge potential for making life better can have a downside. Like the virus hidden in the Java program on your laptop that is faithfully relaying every keystroke you tap to somebody in St. Petersburg. It may be that a few years from now, we will be much more concerned about real viruses made possible by bioengineering than we are about metaphorical computer viruses. And if you can use 3-D printers to manufacture high-capacity gun magazines — as reported last week on NPR — you probably can also use them to make parts for weapons of mass destruction. Science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke certainly got it right when he observed that the future isn’t what it used to be.