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NOTE:Items underlined have links at the bottom of the article.
Last week I began this four part series by declaring the progressive demise of the “Time is Money” paradigm. As we enter an era when an increasing portion of the population will not be able to rely on a job as a source of income, we are also presented with an extraordinary opportunity: to develop a social and cultural environment where you do what matters to you, not what pays you. Although no single magical solution to how the “decoupling” of income from work has yet been defined, the momentum that automation has is such that a tipping point will force the issue, most likely sooner than people realize.
But while we envisage life in a world where work is optional, what else can we expect?
I will do my best over the remaining three episodes to put context around your future life. This context is not a pipe dream. Nor is it so far in the future that you can afford the luxury of ignoring it. This is a context of a world one or two decades into the future, and virtually everything that I put forward here is already a technical reality. What that really means is that however hard I try to make this a “big visionary thing”, the visionary element is massively undercooked. More on that later.
While I have endeavoured to keep things clustered into topics, some crossover is inevitable. Take your time to read this slowly and carefully. And above all, I’d like to invite you to join in the conversation, and encourage you upfront to share your comments by using the comments link below.
Over the last two years of working with Architecture students, their final projects are always envisioned to be delivered ten years into the future. So I will begin with the topic of transport technology, as many other things cascade from those transformations.
Earlier this year Tesla opened in Australia. Welcome to the electric car. While Elon Musk is changing the transport, portable energy and advanced battery technology around the globe (and now taking those batteries and using them on solar-powered houses), this is only a small stepping stone in our story.
The real game-change will come with self-driving cars.
While most people feel deeply uneasy about handing the steering wheel over to a web-connected and GPS-and-sensor-guided learning computer, the reality is profoundly significant. To begin with it eliminates car accidents almost completely, and the fail-safe systems will mean that even in a failure is unlikely to result in death on injury. That alone is a game-changer for insurance and health. consider that in Australia on average for the last decade, every year just under 1% of the population suffered serious injuries car accidents (and one in 20,000 died). Although this number is low compared to death rates from heart disease etc, it is also completely preventable. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Forget taxis (sorry Uber-drivers, this will affect you too!). You can have your car drop you off at the entrance of your favourite restaurant, park itself in a machines-only parking rack nearby, and come at your request (via voice request on your smartphone) collect you and your inebriated party (it knows where you are from your phone request location) and drive you all safely back home. No driving, no taxi queue, this is your car. This also means drivers licenses will be a thing of the past: your teenage kids may have access to safe and reliable transport with tracking and restrictions as may be necessary for personal safety.
It is clear that even before we delve too deeply into the subject, transportation gets a pretty severe upgrade. And it does not stop at personal transportation. Your food gets to the supermarket with self-driving electric – possibly even solar-powered (we’ll come back to this) trucks without drivers that fall asleep at the wheel or are kept awake with a chemical cocktail that makes the most hardened junkie jealous. The trucks go 24-7, day and night, no rest stops needed. Goodbye truckie – a whole industry rendered obsolete. Plug in some automatic inventory tracking, automatic maintenance scheduling etc. and the whole thing starts to look pretty clever without a human in sight. We can keep digging deeper, but you get the picture. This is significant. This is not sci-fi, it’s here and you can find out more in this Ted talk from Google’s Sebastian Thrun. (link below)
So what else does this self-driving car change? For the first time since the horse-drawn cart we can have cars and people share transit spaces in urban centres. Sensor technology on a car does not just see what a driver sees, it can see 360 degrees without ever blinking. It knows exactly who and what is in front, beside and behind the vehicle, which way and how fast it is moving, and what it is. It can see in the blackest darkness, blizzard, rain or fog. And because it knows where every other car nearby is, it does not need traffic lights. Automated flow controllers (where cars share info with each other) ensure that movement is smooth, steady, efficient, and optimised. Wooha! Optimized? What on earth does that mean? It means that through predictive positioning algorithms cars can cross intersections, move safely through crowded pedestrian spaces, merge with other traffic etc. without stopping. It all happens in a smooth, fluid motion. You could sip your latte in the car and not spill a drop on the moisture-repellent self-cleaning upholstery. Good Bye traffic lights, and Good Bye traffic jams!. This is fun so lets keep going: no speeding tickets as cars behave to location specific restrictions. No more carparks as we know them, you get dropped off and call your car when and where you need it. Even halfway across town if necessary (although you may wish to tell it to meet you at your destination at a set time) I can see this being really handy when doing cross-country bush-walks.
Of course this technology has a profound effect on public transport as well. But by far the most profound impact will be on the shapes of our cities, our road network and supporting infrastructure. Your suburban street could look very different, and as a result new social interaction behaviours become possible. No designated pedestrian crossings, no traffic lights. Footpaths can have fruit trees where directional signs once stood. Imagine car-sharing and pooling made possible through a simple request on your smartphone “I need to be at the golf club by 3pm” could cue up a selection of available cars, Uber-style. But being driverless means that cars that are passing you on the way to picking up someone from the golf club at 3:15 don’t make an empty journey.
This is just one thread of a whole complex web of possibility. I said earlier that this vision is “undercooked”. As outrageous and over the top you may think it is, it pales in comparison to what will actually be. That is because every single thing I have listed here is already a technological reality, although notnecessarily a commercial one – yet.
What this vision does not include is the stuff that has not been invented yet, or that has not reached a sufficient level of technical viability.
But rest assured, that many of those things that are currently facing hurdles will be resolved. Some game-changers will come from problems being solved in unrelated areas. In the same way as car-battery technology is being used to store your domestic solar charge for night-time use, other things will have a crossover effect, unlocking that which was previously unachievable. Challenges that crowd-source knowledge such as the X-prize are accelerating both the rate of innovations, as well as the nature of them.
It would be extraordinarily naive not to expect other game-changers to turn entire industries on their head, wipe them out and create new opportunities within the next decade. What those industries are and how they will change is up to us to imagine today.
Here are some fun links:
Next week we will look at food and energy – two closely related areas that are fundamental to an enduring human future.
Please share your thoughts. Agree, add to, disagree or challenge. The share and comments links below are yours to use… I look forward to hearing from you.