Edge Case

The man I assumed to be George sits down heavily across the table from me, sighs, and brushes a sweat-drenched lock of hair back behind his ears.  He wears the same exhausted expression as all Americans who come over here thinking the humidity and the smog "can't be that bad", and discover that they are in fact much, much worse.

"Vikram, right?" he asks.  I nod, expecting an introduction on his part, though none is forthcoming.

"So," he jumps straight in with, "you know what the machine is, right?"

I nod again.  "The first 3D printer capable of printing its own parts.  I expect the whole town knows that by now."  Today the town, tomorrow the world.  "But tell me, why here?  Why now?"

George closes his eyes and almost whispers his answer.  "The algorithm."

The algorithm is as much of a success as the machine itself, maybe much more so, and certainly more jealously guarded by the company's lawyers.

"Could you explain what it does, why it is so successful?"

The man looks even more weary now.  Although I'm the first journalist to score an interview, I get the feeling he's explained it to shareholders a hundred times before.

"It started with a couple of Californians, a few years back," he begins.  "They invented this machine, the first one that could build all its own parts.  That was the crucial moment in the technology, their 'singularity', if you will.  They realised that this thing could bootstrap the market, revolutionise the world.  But they were too expensive, and no-one was buying them."

A waiter deposits two beers in front of us, but George doesn't look up.

"So they hit on this idea of exponential growth, economies of scale.  They could set their printer making another one.  Then once that cycle was complete, their two machines could get on with making another two.  Eventually they'd be so quick and easy to produce that the only cost would be the raw chemicals, the plastic, and cheap manual labour."

"So that's why they chose India?"

"Not yet.  Back in the States, they started this website, with the algorithm behind it.  It said:  'Right now, these things are expensive, but eventually they'll be dirt cheap.  Pay us now -- if you pay a lot, you can have one tomorrow.  Pay us little more than the base cost, and you can have one when the economies of scale make them that cheap.'  So they were expecting a few thousand-dollar customers, and maybe a few hundred customers that would be happier paying a hundred dollars if they had to wait a couple of months."

"There's more than a few hundred machines out there," I say, recalling row after row, warehouse after warehouse filled with clacking machines and the smell of hot plastic.  "What happened?"

"China happened.  Brazil.  Nigeria.  India, too.  It turns out that the algorithm had something of an edge case -- the price went as low as thirty dollars, provided you didn't mind waiting years for your unit.  Americans were too rich and too impatient to even consider that.  But it appears that thirty dollars is affordable by a lot of people in the developing world, especially when the machine is pitched to them as a transformative technology."

"So how many of these thirty dollar orders did you get?"

"Two hundred and fifty million."

We make eye contact across the table.  He knows I'm doing the math; there's no way you can't when given numbers like that.

"Seven and a half billion dollars," I say.

His reply is simply, "Yeah."

That simple figure, that immense sum of money, is the one simple reason for the craze sweeping this town and doubtless others like it.  The one simple reason that shops are closing, offering their floor space up to the machines.  The one simple reason that living-rooms have chairs piled up against the wall while these clicking, clattering, self-replicating machines take pride of place.

"Will this craze die out?" I ask George.  "Will it take over the cities too before it's done?"

"I don't know," is his answer.  "I just don't know."

George himself seems sympathetic, though perhaps it's just exhaustion.  But somewhere out there is a faceless body of shareholders, for whom we are not people living in a bustling port town.  We are labourers, living in a ramshackle town-sized factory, generating unimaginable profits, tirelessly fulfilling orders at the edge case of their algorithm.

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