Photograph by Ellen Rogers
Welcome to the new weekly column from award-winning comic, novel and television author Warren Ellis. The column will look at the news stories of today and turn them into a vision of the future that is nothing less than 99 percent accurate.
GOOD MORNING, SINNERS #1 - PRINT YOUR OWN PENIS
Somewhere, in some gilded bunker of the 1 percent, a very old, very rich man is laying plans to print himself a new cock. Perhaps one with cameras in. And maybe a gun.
3D printing’s been around for a little while now, and it's improving in leaps and bounds. On one end of the scale, I was talking to someone from a very famous special effects studio the other week, who was telling me they now have the facility to print cars. One of their wizards took a current-day standard 3D printer (which tend to look like dodgy breadmakers), took it apart to see how it worked, and then used it to print the parts to make a massively larger 3D printer, which he then used to print off a car. Street-furniture set-dressing for movies.
On the other end of the scale, home 3D printers like the Makerbot Replicator now cost twelve hundred quid and can crank out several thousand different objects. It’s a start. (A cheaper machine, the Stratasys, was recently used to print off a gun, after all.)
A start that led to a lot of other people thinking about what else could be printed. NASA have been developing something they call a “bioreactor” since the 1980s, wanting to supply long-haul astronauts with the onboard ability to perform skin and bone grafts by cloning and growing tissue. This has been developed into the idea of printing meat. Printed meat would be ethical meat, as nothing has to die in order to make it. The one drawback being that cultured meats of any kind tend to have textural issues: they’ve not been stuck to anything alive that can flex and secrete into it, so they’re kind of limp and nasty and may have to be artificially “exercised” by mechanical systems or electroshock therapy. A fine printed steak would have convulsed under electrical torture many hundreds of times before it reached your plate.
I don’t actually have a problem with that, but I am a full-on omnivore who is looking forward to being able to print off dolphin-and-mastodon sandwiches. You can, however, understand the reticence of those who gave up meat for ethical reasons being served a pork chop that’s been worked on a rack and then electrocuted for your pleasure.
From bioreactors and printed meat, the obvious next step is printed organs. In 2011, on stage at TED, one Dr Anthony Atala printed a human kidney out in front of the audience. It wasn’t “working”, as such: it was structurally correct, but missing the fine tracery of blood vessels that any human organ requires to operate. A year later, Massachussetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania cracked the printing of circulatory architecture using sugar.
(They printed it with a RepRap, a open-source home 3D printer resembling a weird little loom that they consider a “self-replicating machine”, encouraging owners to first use it to print off another RepRap. Extend that into the future and you get what are called Von Neumann Machines: space probes that land on other planets and moons and use the available materials to print off and launch copies of themselves. A swarm of printers.)
Meanwhile, at Harvard, a team of frightening people have engineered biocompatible robot flesh that can bond with human tissue and directly access the body’s electrical system. In success, the body would treat attached devices as organs to be operated by the central nervous system. An utter blurring of the line between the synthetic and the biological.
Imagine, then, in 20 or 30 years' time, a very rich, very old man, in his dying breath, undocking his penis and releasing it to roam among the stars, where it prints off new copies of itself from lunar soil and asteroid ore, rubbing itself across the face of the very cosmos.
The future’s kind of funny-looking, but it’s probably the future you deserve. Good morning, sinners.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis