One of the plenary sessions was delivered by Neil Gershenfeld, head of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, what a great name for a department! I was a bit worried at the start, because he was talking about a new model for computer architecture, RALA, Reconfigurable Asynchronous Logic Automata. I suggest if you want to know more you read about it, because it was certainly beyond my understanding of physics and maths.
However, he quickly moved on to a class he began teaching at MIT called How to Make Almost Anything, which looks at how tools can be used for personal fabrication of things by people who have little experience. Some of the things the students make are clever, some funny, complex, simple. This is great example by Kelly Dobson who made a scream body, with very little engineering, electrical or coding experience:
This course and the development of machines for easy fabrication, led to the development of FabLabs, fully kitted out workshops which aim to give communities the chance to manufacture almost anything and turn ideas into reality. Each one has about $50,000 of kit in them, and there were some great examples of what had been done in them around the world, including an 8year old girl in Ghana making a circuit board, and some people in Afghanistan building a wireless network out of junk (imaginatively called Fabfi).
His thesis is that we started with machines in labs, which has moved on to machines made in labs, developing into digital assembly, which we have in the FabLabs, but we are now seeing the beginning of self assembly, where machines will make themselves.
There's a FabLab in Manchester, (why not Sheffield), and Neil reckons we'll have a Star trek replicator within 20 years. Now there's a target!