It’s often said that the milling machine was the first tool that could be used to make copies of itself. I think that distinction goes to the hammer, but the point is not lost: a device of great complexity that can be used to make and modify itself is approaching a life-like complexity that makes the tool exponentially greater as a phenomenon.
Well, since 2005 or so, the RepRap project has been going on, making a machine that could make itself that makes open-source hardware possible. The creators claim that the device, when fully functional, will cost $400 to build. Or, of course, you could have your friend fab you up a copy. Presumably, it’s your duty to fab one for someone else at that point.
What’s interesting to me about this (and the creators) is that this does for hardware what’s happened with software since its inception: replication means that you can make complex things for cheap. So cheap that they asymptotically approach free. The RepRap can’t make a sandwich, as Jeff pointed out, and that’s actually kind of important: what a lot of the world needs is food, not tools and toys. But when food is to be had, the other things in life — transportation, communication, construction, and of course play — become very important. We’ve satisfied that craving over the last few centuries by buying stuff. Now we may be able to make it. And that may mean the re-emergence of a material folk culture. One not defined by Swooshes and Apples, but by a billion proud signatures and trade marks.
(Thanks to Tomorrow’s Trends for the “Caution: Self-Replicating Devices” sign at the post head.)