04/09/2012 02:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are We Evolved Enough for Replicators?

"Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."

You may recall the clipped tones of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise ordering his tea from the ship's replicator, a device that could reconstitute raw matter into any substance and shape desired. And as the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation is upon us, so, too, is real replicator technology. We call it 3D printing.

While industrial 3D printers have been used for rapid prototyping and research purposes since the '80s, this technology is swiftly advancing and now used to generate replicated car parts, dental ware, bicycle chains and more, as layer upon layer of resin or polymer build these objects.
But what's truly remarkable is that now for under $1,000, you can buy your own desktop replicator and make 3D objects in the privacy of your own home. An adjustable wrench to fix the leaky faucet? Replacement knobs for appliances? A bottle opener for an afternoon beverage? Done. It's a do-it-yourselfer's dream. And we've only just begun.

Imagine the day when you can go to Amazon or an app store and buy the digital model, download it to your 3D printer and create the desired object yourself. It doesn't seem possible. But the day is coming. Which leads me to ponder the implications of this new supply-and-supply marketplace and how our society will handle it. It's something that the U.S. Postal Service and certain brick and mortar retailers ought to be contemplating.

While the main purpose of the Star Trek replicator was to provide food, the concept of it meant that anyone could have anything at any time. If there is no material scarcity, then what possessions does one value? In fact, material possessions would lose their value. It would not matter what kind of clothes you wear, car you drive or how much you get paid. No one lacks the latest fashions or ever goes hungry. As long as they can afford a replicator and the supplies to operate it.

In short, needs are met without money exchanging hands.

How would society react if material possessions lost their value? In a world with replicators, real value would have to be found in who you are as a person and not in the status you derive from your wealth or possessions.

Could we evolve to consider thoughts and ideas among the most valued things? And could people's behaviors, such as replicating for those less fortunate, become what we admire, as opposed to the car someone drives?

If you didn't have to work to live or eat, farmers could grow what they fancied or stop farming at all. Artists would create with abandon. Scientists would innovate ad infinitum. Monetary barriers to higher education would be removed. Gas could be replicated and end our dependency on fossil fuels.

In short, as our unfettered sense of altruism grew, real value would be found in our humanity. That's my vision of the future.

Of course, the world is filled with people driven by money and power -- the kind that might use a replicator to fuel their hate and destruction. We can likely anticipate an era of chaos -- a darkness before the dawn -- as technology takes us to places we haven't been. But we've survived it before. When gunpowder replaced bows and arrows. When Einstein split the atom and his miraculous new energy source was turned into a bomb. When the Internet proffered recipes for homemade drugs and suicide bombs.

Is it possible that history won't keep repeating itself?

Clearly we need to evolve as a species before we can successfully live in a world with replicators. But it starts with redefining what we value. And then we must continue to educate ourselves. To embrace diversity. To seek peace. There's time... but is our technological clock ticking faster than our evolutionary one?