Futurology, Science, Technology

Bioprinted fairy drones

As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In the case of bioprinted fairy drones, the tech only looks like magic because it isn’t advanced enough.

Bioprinting is the 3D printing of organic material. It’s been demonstrated for years in various different capacities, but the current state-of-the-art suggests that we’re as far from printing a fully-functional organ as a we are from inorganic 3D printers printing a fully-functional car — you can do something that superficially looks right, but doesn’t have all (or even a bare minimum) of the functionality.

Some of the problems bioprinting has are even the same problems that inorganic 3D printing has: There are a lot of different cell (/material) types, and you can’t get away with using the wrong thing. Just as jet engines don’t work too well when 3D printed out of pure plastic, you don’t want to mix up kidney cell types (plural: there are multiple types) with artery cell types.

Other problems are unique to bioprinting: while houses and boats (or rather, the empty shells of houses and boats) are limited only by the range of the printer, organic material has a tendency to die very quickly if it doesn’t get any oxygen, and getting oxygen into tissue without a heart is very difficult. Difficult, but for small things, possible, and that’s where fairies come in.

Fairies, at least in their Victorian-era depictions, are tiny. Not actually small enough to deal with all the oxygen diffusion issues by themselves, but small enough that it’s plausible tissue could be printed in a cryo-preserved state (which does work, just not for human-sized creatures), and then the complete organism thawed out alive when printing is finished. Their diminutive size also makes their wings actually plausible, whereas a human-sized biodrone would need ridiculous wings to fly.

At this point, normal people will be asking ethical questions about their brains and lifespan. As they’ve been printed, this is absolutely the wrong question: you absolutely should not even try to print a brain into them in the first place — and not just because of the ethical dimension! We couldn’t even design a functional brain yet because we don’t actually understand brains very well (if we did, every A.I. question from self-driving cars to social media moderation would already be solved), but even if we understood brains perfectly, the brain and nerve tissues are particularly awkward one to print as axons and dendrites give them pointy bits which go all over the place in ways which directly matter to them being useful.

So, instead of giving them brains, give them WiFi. Instead of eyes, give them cameras. Congratulations, you now have a bioprinted fairy drone.

You may ask: Why?

Fair question. Other than size-fetishists, who benefits from a tiny flying humanoid robot? Well, pretty much everyone. While they couldn’t do any heavy lifting, the entire history of human invention all the way back to the inclined plane, the wheel, and fire, has been to minimise our heavy lifting. What tiny flying human-shaped organic robots can do is not limited to themselves, but part of the entire ecosystem of machines in our world, one of which is swarm robotics that lets them work together much more effectively than a mere team of humans, and at basically the same range of tasks.

So, my answer to “why” is a slight variant on an old meme of a question: Would you rather compete against a single 1.8m tall human, or a thousand pocket-sized fairies all working together?


The near future

Five years ago, 3D printed kidneys were demonstrated live on stage. Teams like that are working on all the other organs in the human body right now, except for the brain.

Brain–computer interface have been around for much longer. Not that you need them if there isn’t a brain in the body, and plenty of research is going on to create silicon brains for robotic bodies — brains that learn from experience how to walk, or see. Naturally, if a robot knows how to walk, it can be given a higher-level order like “walk forward”, or even “walk to the shops” if you add Google Maps.

Put 3D bio-printing and BCI together, and it looks like remote-controlled organic avatars are in our near future.

My first thought was of bodyguards being more willing to (literally!) take a bullet for their employers, because the bodyguards would be using artificial bodies… but then I realised bodyguards would mostly be redundant because many of the people who currently use bodyguards would be able to use remote controlled bodies themselves, and never be in any real danger in the first place.

Then I thought of soldiers… but why go to the trouble of 3D printing a soft, fragile, organic body for soldiers to control when you could, with far less exciting new developments in bio-printing, manufacture a metal and plastic avatar for your soldiers? Or make them in a non-human shape that better suits military needs?

The next most obvious career it could make redundant is prostitution, depending on what it cost. I know essentially nothing about what life is like for prostitutes, only the scare stories that made it into national media — and yet, all of those threats to life and safety would cease to exist if prostitutes didn’t have to really touch their customers, if they could interact via a remote controlled biological robot.

The flip side (or the same side, depending on your views of prostitution), is that it would make crime easier to commit and harder to prove guilt. You couldn’t tell from the outside if you were looking at a real human, or a printed copy that was remotely controlled. It would mean an end to eye-witnessing/DNA testing/fingerprinting criminals, because such avatars could be of anyone, real or imagined. A simple MRI scan or X-ray wouldn’t be enough, because printing a lump of disconnected brain cells in the shape of a brain would fool such a scan, yet be no more of a person than you would get from sculpting a dozen cattle brains into the same shape.