I walked into SITE Santa Fe's recent Digest This event thinking, as one does before Saturday breakfast, about Soylent Green. Digest This is SITE's monthly series pairing the culinary arts with themes from the museum's Future Shock exhibition. Soylent Green is the imaginary futuristic substance fed to the starving masses in the eponymous 1973 film. Spoiler alert: Soylent Green is people.

We were not fed people (as far as you know, says the voice in my head) but, rather, pancakes created by SITE's Pancake Bot. 3-D printed food wasn't the sole emphasis of Extraordinary Structures CEO Zane Fischer's presentation, but one example of the myriad uses for the technology. Fischer, also a Make Santa Fe board member, described 3-D printing simply enough as an additive manufacturing process: The user creates solid objects by programming the printer to create various types of stuff (tools, clothes, art, food, prosthetics) and adding layers of materials (metal, plastic, sugar etc).

Make Santa Fe doesn't currently emphasize 3-D printed food, Fischer told me in an interview in advance of the SITE event, although as a member-based organization (in which members have access to Make Santa Fe's myriad digital and manufacturing tools), that could change based on need and desire.

Attendees at SITE Santa Fe watch The Pancake Bot make their breakfast.
Attendees at SITE Santa Fe watch The Pancake Bot make their breakfast. | Julia Goldberg

Fischer was the person who evoked Soylent Green when I asked him about the potential for 3-D printed food to address nutrition and food scarcity issues. An April 2017 Digital Trends article touted the 3-D printed food's capacity to, for example, replace ingredients in some meals with more renewable algae or insects and/or reduce the fossil fuels associated with the transportation of food supplies by creating "food cartridges" for grocery stores.

"I'm a little skeptical of the mass adoption of more functional food manufacturing," Fischer said. "I could be wrong, we could all be eating Soylent Green any day now. It would come out of a 3-D printer." Instead, he says he thinks the application is more likely to be used "at the cake shop at your local market, which would have a 3-D printer for custom cupcakes and frosting jobs," or at chocolatiers or high-end restaurants.

In fact, Fischer's presentation included a look at Food Ink, a London restaurant that describes itself as "the world's first 3-D printing restaurant," in which not just the food but the utensils and furniture all are made through the technology (and provided to attendees through a series of high-end pop-up dinners, which, judging from the photos and videos on Food Ink's website, appear to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from feeding hungry people around the world—one 12-course meal served in Barcelona included Shakira on the guest list).

My dystopian musings were not remotely on point at SITE's event, where children happily ate rocket-shaped pancakes with fresh strawberries and nobody evoked a desolate future in which the only humans who survive eat dehydrated strawberries while wearing virtual reality headsets (this, apparently, was an actual thing at one of Food Ink's exclusive dinners).

But perhaps my cynicism is at odds with the actual science of existence (how's that for a transitional sentence?).

Digest This began with an entertaining talk by Santa Fe Institute post-doctoral fellow Artemy Kolchinsky, who discussed entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy, Kolchinsky said, is "one of the most important and central but misunderstood concepts in science and life."

At the risk of perpetuating misunderstanding, my take-away was that entropy is the number of ways in which some outcome can occur and that those outcomes will be messy and disordered far more often than not (thus explaining every experience I've ever had.)

To illustrate this point, Kolchinsky showed a sock drawer in which socks thrown in randomly landed haphazardly over and over again, and only neatly one in a billion times. A sock drawer, he said, will always devolve into messiness, never into neatness. Under the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy in the universe increases over time. It also says that if entropy decreases by any amount in one place, it must increase by that amount elsewhere.

Back to pancakes. Kolchinsy showed an image of an Albert Einstein-shaped pancake, noting that the amount of energy required to order batter into Einstein's image was significant and would require "messing up some other part of the universe" to compensate for the amount of expended energy.

Thus, given the universe's propensity to devolve into chaos, "it's amazing how resilient life is," Kolchinski said. After all, life on Earth has survived past the 4 billion year mark. This seems like a more cheerful perspective than mine—so, you know, I'll have what he's having.