One of the most interesting science fiction apocalypse scenarios involves the rise of "grey goo," an enormous blob of nanotech-powered self-replicating robots that slowly consume the planet. Thankfully, we're far off from needing to even consider such a situation, but a new patent application from iRobot hints that a smaller scale version of such a scenario could indeed play out in the years to come.
The patent is for a mechanism called a "Robot Fabricator," a device that would allow robots to autonomously construct a wide range of products, from design to final 3D fabrication and assembly, all without any direct human involvement. If one were to take notion of such a device to its extreme and couple it with the open source 3D-printed robots we know are already being made, it's not difficult to envision a robot that creates robots operating in the not-too-distant future.
And while the idea of a robot that can autonomously design and manufacture nearly anything that can be 3D-printed may sound outlandish to some, in truth, what iRobot has patented may actually amount to a 21st century cotton gin. That late 18th century invention revolutionized manufacturing and labor, and eventually led to the rise of the anti-automation group known as the Luddites in 19th century England.
If iRobot's patent eventually turns into a real machine — and there's no reason, given current technology, to think that it won't — we could find ourselves on the verge of yet another Luddite-style uprising from waves of unemployed human workers who no longer have even a toe-hold at major manufacturing plants. So while the grey goo of nanotechnology is probably far off, the "pink goo" of angry human workers around the world displaced by machines is definitely coming, it's just a matter of how long it will take machines similar to one described in iRobot's patent to arrive and take enough human jobs to start the Luddite ball rolling. You can read the details of iRobot's patent application here.