Printing ourselves

At its best, 3D printing can make us more human by making us whole.

Tim O’Reilly recently asked me and some other colleagues which technology seems most like magic to us. There was a thoughtful pause as we each considered the amazing innovations we read about and interact with every day.

I didn’t have to think for long. To me, the thing that seems most like magic isn’t Siri or self-driving cars or augmented reality displays. It’s 3D printing.

My reasons are different than you might think. Yes, it’s amazing that, with very little skill, we can manufacture complex objects in our homes and workshops that are made from things like plastic or wood or chocolate or even titanium. This seems an amazing act of conjuring that, just a short time ago, would have been difficult to imagine outside of the “Star Trek” set.

But the thing that makes 3D printing really special is the magic it allows us to perform: the technology is capable of making us more human.

I recently had the opportunity to lay out this idea in an Ignite talk at Strata Rx, a new conference on data science and health care that I chaired with Colin Hill. Here’s the talk I gave there (don’t worry: like all Ignite talks, it’s only five minutes long).

In addition to the applications mentioned in my talk, there are even more amazing accomplishments just over the horizon. Doctor Anthony Atala, of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, recently printed a human kidney onstage at TED.

This was not actually a working kidney — one of the challenges to creating working organs is building blood vessels that can provide cells on the inside of the organ structure with nutrients; right now, the cells inside larger structures tend to die rapidly. But researchers at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania are experimenting with printing these vessel networks in sugar. Cells can be grown around the networks, and then the sugar can be dissolved, leaving a void through which blood could flow. As printer resolution improves, these networks can become finer.

And 3D printing becomes even more powerful when combined with other technologies. For example, researchers at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine are using a hybrid 3D printing/electrospinning technique to print replacement cartilage.

As practiced by Bespoke Innovations, the WREX team, and others , 3D printing requires a very advanced and carefully honed skillset; it is not yet within reach of the average DIYer. But what is so amazing — what makes it magic — is that when used in these ways at such a level, the technology disappears. You don’t really see it, not unless you’re looking. What you see is the person it benefits.

Technology that augments us, that makes us more than we are even at our best (such as self-driving cars or sophisticated digital assistants) is a neat party trick, and an homage to our superheros. But those that are superhuman are not like us; they are Other. Every story, from Superman to the X-Men to the Watchmen, includes an element of struggle with what it means to be more than human. In short, it means outsider status.

We are never more acutely aware of our own humanity, and all the frailty that entails, as when we are sick or injured. When we can use technology such as 3D printing to make us more whole, then it makes us more human, not Other. It restores our insider status.

Ask anyone who has lost something truly precious and then found it again. I’m talking on the level of an arm, a leg, a kidney, a jaw. If that doesn’t seem like magic, then I don’t know what does.

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