If you've played a popular costume drama role-playing game such as Star Trek, today's object might seem familiar — it's a replicator. In classic science fiction, replicators can instantly materialise more or less any object, exemplifying late 20th-century utopian post-scarcity thought and inspiring countless scientists and engineers — including the people who made this box.
What I have in front of me isn't a real replicator, of course: they’re still complete fantasy. But it is the first portable and high-quality scanner, a metal and plastic box a little over half a metre on each side, with a door on the front. If I open it up and place a toaster inside — also from the mid-20s — and subvoc an instruction to it, then it'll initiate a scan.
It takes a couple of minutes to do a coarse millimetre-level scan and a few hours for a more detailed micron-level scan (along with the necessary tomographic reconstruction from the scanning data), but the principle is simple: the scanner uses high-power X-rays to look through the object inside, slice by slice, and determine the external and internal structure.
Combined with other portable sensors and smart guesswork to figure out the identity of any unusual materials, a user could completely reverse-engineer any moderately complex device or machinery. But this scanner wasn't available for the average person — it was a much more restricted device. So who used them, and who invented this particular scanner in the first place?
In the early 20s, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was investigating tools to destabilise unfriendly countries and organisations, from doctored smart drugs to sentiment-altering generative music and games. One project was informally titled “Insurgency in a Box”. Successful insurgencies have always required, among other things, a reliable flow of materiel and money, but with governments becoming increasingly adept at aerial and online surveillance and interception, it was more difficult than ever to keep insurgents supplied. Better, DARPA thought, to make just a few deliveries — and make them count.
The scanner, paired with a similarly advanced 3D printer, was the solution. With enough feed stock for the printer, insurgents would be able to reverse-engineer and sabotage enemy equipment, fabricate bomb components, weapons, custom electronics, keys, tools, and complex machinery. Generous government funding funnelled into the project under the guise of the 100 Year Starship Study ensured that a prototype was developed within four years.
Unfortunately, while the DARPA researchers managed to miniaturise the components required such that the scanner could be carried, they weren't able to sufficiently reduce the power requirements. Generating the X-rays required a lot of energy — enough to be noticed by authorities, and more than could be supplied by fuel cells or other off-grid generators. The project was a dud, and its researchers moved on to more promising fields.
However, some ideas are like zombies: they never die. The 3D printer eventually found its way into Union Orbital's factories via a NASA PPI programme, but the advanced scanner only saw the light of day through plain carelessness.
During some routine data housekeeping, a DARPA manager wrongly assigned the scanner plans to a lower security level, allowing a junior researcher travelling to the Antarctic to transfer them onto a personal storage device. The researcher fell ill during the journey and had to return home — leaving his storage device behind on his seat, along with his encryption key. By the time he'd realised his mistake, the plans had already vanished.
A few hours later, the unencrypted scanner plans appeared on an anonymous file sharing site for 18 minutes, at which point the site abruptly vanished, never to be seen again. In those minutes, 200 people downloaded the plans, including Lerato Lenabe, a 32-year-old entrepreneur in Durban with a background in rapid prototyping. Lenabe had performed well at university and received a number of job offers from Europe, but decided to stay in South Africa to care for her parents.
Unemployment was rife in South Africa due to a real estate bubble and stock market crash, and so Lenabe hadn't been able to raise capital for the custom medical prosthetics company she'd wanted to set up. Instead, she was forced to work in a series of short-contract 3D modelling jobs — hardly a situation ripe for flourishing. When she downloaded the plans out of curiosity, she quickly realised the capabilities of the scanner and decided to try and build it using her contacts at the university.
This was no mean feat — while many of the scanner's components could be constructed from off-the-shelf parts, some of the X-ray detection components were still state of the art. Lenabe's story would have ended right there, if it weren't for the fact that the Insurgency in a Box (IIAB) had, unknown to DARPA, been deployed in nearby Zimbabwe by the CIA to aid Zimbabwe Liberation Army 'freedom fighters', preloaded with an enormous library of plans for bomb and weapons components.
For four months the ‘Insurgency in a Box’ was powered with energy covertly siphoned from the Batoka Gorge hydropower station, after which the ZLA decided that they would benefit more by selling it to China. It was packed up and sent to South Africa, whereupon the US called up a stealth drone strike on the transport convoy. The drone strike only partially succeeded, and the mostly intact scanner parts eventually made their way to Durban, where Lenabe bought them from a tech market. With some help from some moonlighting engineering colleagues from the University of California, she used the parts, along with the plans she had downloaded, to create a working prototype.
None of this came cheap. Lenabe financed the prototype with a loan from customers who expected to use it to rapidly reverse-engineer (i.e. pirate) toys, medical devices, glasses, and so on. True, there were plenty of other companies around the world doing exactly the same thing, but Lenabe gained a crucial edge with the advanced DARPA scanner. Even a day's head-start in reverse-engineering an expensive device could be worth a tremendous amount of money on the blueprint markets. Soon she was making more than a hundred times her former salary and attracting all sorts of unusual attention.
To throw investigators off the scent, Lenabe made it known that she had received financial support for her scanner from an anonymous wealthy benefactor interested in archaeology and proceeded to invite friends from local museums and galleries to scan items for free, pretending it had been made for that purpose alone. Lenabe scanned thousands of precious and fragile objects at the micron level, revealing microscopic details about their construction and provenance, from Iife sculptures to Bantu relics. More than a few papers were written, and more than a few fakes were discovered.
All good things come to an end. The DARPA scanner's edge over the competition didn't last forever, and three years later, more advanced and energy-efficient scanners were becoming available. Lenabe gave the scanner to a local charity and used her newfound wealth to set up an archaeological technology company, her imagination having being piqued by her museum work. The scanner now sits in the New Library of Malmö in Sweden.