In the new Netflix series Lost in Space, the space-colonizing Robinson family confronts the dangerous and strange, encountering entities like alien robots, fuel-consuming eels, and deceptively inhospitable new planets. However, the Robinsons also face potential threats that very much exist in the real world. Some of the most dangerous things they encounter, arguably, are actually human-made. Danger, dear reader! Spoilers for episode three are below.
In the third installment of Lost in Space, we learn that the 3D printer onboard the Jupiter 2 is incapable of spitting out guns after John Robinson’s failed attempt to print one. Sanctions in this world prohibit the printing of firearms — a key difference between the fictional show and ours that we’ll get into later. Yet by the end of the episode, it’s clear that the printer has been hacked and a gun has been printed, not by the accused John or the suspicious Dr. Smith, but by a morally questionable robot who gives the gun to the young Will Robinson as a means of protection. Though the show takes place 30 years into the future, the problematic scenario it presents is hardly fictional: Technically, we can 3D-print guns now, and it’s already very controversial.
The world’s first 3D-printed gun was successfully fired in 2013, about 18 years after 3D printing entered the mass market. The gun was created by a controversial group called Defense Distributed, which made the gun on a printer the organization bought on eBay for $8,000. At the time, the group’s founder Cody Wilson, then 25, told the BBC that the technology let him see “a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want.”
The U.S. Department of State, however, didn’t see it the same way and ordered Wilson to take down the blueprints for the “Liberator” pistol. Blueprints, technically called computer-aided design (CAD) files, are at the heart of 3D printing and the controversy around it. CAD files, once uploaded into the printer, contain the coding that instructs the printer what to create. Layer by layer of plastic is laid down on a tray until the solid object — the design outlined in the CAD files — is complete.
The State Department claimed that the availability of the gun CAD files violated federal export laws. Wilson, in turn, said the government was violating his first and second amendment. It’s been an ongoing legal battle ever since: Today, anyone with internet access can still download gun CAD files, and it’s legal for anyone to make a gun at home.
Whether or not this should be legal is up in the air. Guns made at home, also known as ‘ghost guns’, are now illegal in California, and other states are considering the same. In January 2018, the Supreme Court decided not to weigh in on whether the banning of CAD files was a violation of free speech, but Wilson says he’s still determined to prove that sharing gun designs online is his right. Meanwhile, in Lost in Space, it looks like that right has been revoked — but the ruling doesn’t carry any weight for a robot.