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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

No more taxi queues

I got wet last night. Really wet. So wet that my shoes are still sodden this morning. Which is a problem, because I’m in a hotel and I only brought one pair.

I’m at Cambridge University for a panel on the future of mobility, bringing together futurists, designers, energy and policy specialists to understand the direction of travel, if you’ll forgive the pun.

The irony of arriving at such an event, my shirt translucent from the water, looking like I’d just emerged Darcy-like from a lake, because of a lack of transport from the station, was not lost on me. Nor was the evidence it provided for what is wrong with our current mobility systems, particularly when affected by inclement weather.

Walking not waiting

The first thing I noticed when leaving the station was an enormous queue of people waiting to get into a taxi. One that stretched well beyond the available shelter. The queue of taxis waiting to pick them up was relatively much smaller. The line of people was barely moving at all because of the time taken to get people into the taxis and for the taxi to move off was so long.

I quickly decided that I would get just as wet walking as waiting.

Once I saw the traffic down the main street, I was fairly confident this was the right decision. Only bicycles were making any real progress, but with the pouring rain and darkness this felt like a hazardous mode of transport. I could have caught a bus, if I could have worked out which one to board, but again that would have meant waiting: in line in the rain, then inside in the traffic.

As I approached my destination I came across a taxi rank. Full of cars. And with no-one queuing.

By this point it was too late.

Three changes

It could have been so different.

Information about train arrivals and their likely cohort of disembarking passengers, is not difficult to acquire. Provisioning sufficient cars to collect all those wanting them should be relatively straightforward, given the caveat below.

As should creating a boarding system that doesn’t introduce so many delays.

The caveat is that you can only provision cars that can make it back to the station through the traffic to pick up new passengers having deposited their previous fare. How do you solve the traffic issue? Take a lot of the private cars off the road and hand the piloting of all vehicles over to connected intelligences. They will speed flow, eliminate blocking behaviours, and ensure the traffic keeps moving.

Technical reality, human possibility

All of this could be made real tomorrow. Nothing I have described is unfeasible with today’s technology. We are the only barriers to making it happen. Not without good reason, in some respects.

We like control. It’s hard to hand trust over to machines that will, inevitably, fail at some point and cause injury and death. But I can tell you now: they will save many, many more lives than they take.

We like ownership. Of our vehicles, our portable palaces, particularly. Though I think this feeling is in decline. I still love what cars represent but I am less and less attached to the hunk of metal on my driveway, choosing to travel by bike, bus or train at every opportunity.

I don’t think I’m alone.

Even those who love their cars increasingly choose to rent them, in one form or another, rather than buy them outright. This is one important mental step along the way to accepting mobility as a service rather than as a poorly-utilised asset.

There are clear job implications for replacing drivers with machines. There are around 300,000 taxi drivers in the UK. Tens of thousands of bus drivers (I couldn’t find a good figure for this but it’s fair to guess it’s a multiple of the 36,000 buses).

There’s also the issue of a loss of stories. How would I have started this blog post if every journey is smooth, perfect and efficient? It seems a frivolous point in the face of the above, but there’s a lot to be said for the variety and narrative value of our lives.

Slow not stop

These things only affect when the change will come. The future is pretty certain at this point: we will hand control of our mobility over to machines. They will be more efficient. They will be safer. The orders of magnitude improvements in safety, cost, time loss, and pollution, make it inevitable.

Human factors will slow this transition. But they will not stop it.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Automation: will robots take our jobs?

The most common questions I am asked today are about automation in one form or another. Closely followed by questions about whether I have a crystal ball, or if I can share next week’s lottery numbers.

As with jokes about my name, everyone thinks they’re the first to make them.

What’s clear is that there is huge confusion about areas of business that can be automated — robots directly replacing people — and those where augmentation can play a huge role.

Bionic business

Augmentation is about expanding the capabilities of individuals. Sometimes this will mean these individuals can do the work of many. Here the lines between automation and augmentation blur: you can argue that all automation is, in fact, augmentation, since there are usually people remaining in the business and those that remain benefit from operating at an improved profit margin since — at least in theory — productivity rises and costs fall.

But other times, augmentation can make individuals better at their jobs, taking their capabilities beyond the human to the superhuman. All without affecting the employment of their colleagues.

Where things get really confusing is where the augmentation saves time: surely that’s the same as replacing people?

Will robots take our jobs?

Our understanding of the potential impact of automation is undermined by a lack of differentiation between jobs and work. Robots can do work but no robot is a direct replacement for a human employee.

There is one characteristic that is more important than any other in humanising the robots we see in science fiction films. It is not the oversized eyes of Wall-e, or the cute little beeps of R2-D2, or the conversational humour of Johnny 5. It is their ability to adapt to different challenges and situations.

If you augment the capabilities of your AI tools, they will achieve more than one ‘pure’ human normally could. But you are not really replacing other people because their work cannot easily be shared across multiple individuals unless those individuals are operating at the same level in the same market with the same influencers.

Will automation replace jobs?

Automation will not replace jobs entirely. In the real world, we tend to build robots for single tasks. We design them to perform those tasks with incredible efficiency. Inside the bounds of these narrowly defined tasks, they can outperform humans by many orders of magnitude in speed, strength, and dexterity. Beyond these narrowly defined tasks though, they are useless. Unless and until they can be reconfigured for the next challenge.

Building flexibility into robots is expensive, both mechanically and computationally. This is why the robots of science fiction are so different and so appealing. R2 can deliver cocktails, hack space stations, fix your space fighter, and even hold down a conversation, if you speak robot whistle. Meanwhile his real-world counterpart can just move steel pressings from one place to another, over and over again.

How robots will affect future generations?

When we employ a human in a job, we count on a degree of flexibility and an array of complementary skills. This differentiation is critical in understanding the impact of robots on the future workforce. Because there is no robot today that is a straight swap for a human being.

They must be able to:

  • Understand variations in the brief and respond to them
  • Access the task location.
  • Communicate with the other human beings around that task: customers, colleagues, partners.

So, when robots enter the workforce, while they absolutely displace people it is never a one-to-one ratio. Rather, the workload of specific tasks is aggregated from multiple people and allocated to one robot. One machine might do 80% of the work of ten different people. That still leaves work for two full time people, but it is now a pair of roles that look very different to before.

Roles where automation could replace jobs

Sometimes those new roles will be very high value. For example, in a professional services environment, the robot might do a lot of the document processing that has traditionally been the domain of junior members of staff.

What is left is the strategic thinking, problem solving and client engagement.

Sometimes what is left might be less engaging. Picture the delivery driver in a self-driving van who just has to get out at the relevant locations and run the parcel to the door (or as is so often the case, throw it over a fence or put it in the paper recycling bin).

Of course, you don’t have to use a human to round-out the robot’s capabilities. You can always change the operating model. In the delivery example, the robot truck is more likely to park up outside and phone the recipient to tell them to come out collect their parcel. It won’t need to put things in odd places because it is in permanent communication with the recipient’s smart device and knows their location and availability.

New jobs

Though the statistic about ‘65% of future jobs not being invented yet’ seems to be itself, completely invented, there will undoubtedly be new jobs created in the future. But it is hard to see what jobs might be created that offer large numbers of people long term security.

So, will robots take our jobs? Alongside the rising perceived value of human work, it is hard to see anything but a decline in the total number of traditional full-time jobs. Jobs that are a mutual contract between employer and employee, trading commitment for security and personal development.

And how will robots affect future generations? The net result is likely to be that the perceived value of humans in the full-time workforce increases. Because humans do the low volume, high value tasks that machines find difficult. This won’t, sadly, overcome our historical underpayment of those in roles like care and teaching. Though the same automation effects may free more of their time to focus on the aspects of their job where they add the most value and relieve some of the time pressure.

Widening the divide

The jobs that remain will be of higher value and – on average – higher pay. The people who don’t get those jobs? There will be the same spread there is now amongst the self-employed and gig economy workers. Many with high value skills will be absolutely fine. But the size of the ‘precariat’ in less secure, freelance and part-time work could grow considerably.

Robots don’t take jobs, but they do take work. And in doing so, they may widen the economic divisions in society.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Invisible luxury

On stage at the Superyacht Design Symposium this week, I proposed three ways in which technology is going to transform the superyacht in the coming years. You may have no interest in these playthings of the hyperwealthy. But the same trends are going to transform the more mundane world the rest of us inhabit.

Hidden Intelligence

The first transformation is the ubiquity of connected computing combined with highly powerful AIs. The history of computing is a history of shrinking devices with ever-improving user interfaces, taking us from alien mainframes that forced us to communicate on their terms, to sensor-laden devices that try to interpret our behaviours. The next obvious step is devices that vanish into the environment around us and interact by anticipating our needs and responding without any manual intervention.

In a yacht context this likely means smaller crews, as in every other field of work. But it also means much more responsive machines. Spaces that transform themselves, fully autonomous lighting, heating and entertainment — all increasingly normal as part of any smart home. But imagine a boat that automatically orients itself to the sunset based on where you’re sat.

Energy Revolution

My research into energy for a report I’m assembling with the law firm Nabarro, has made it abundantly clear that the future is solar and electric. Combining next generation solar cells with advanced battery technologies makes for incredible changes in the possibilities of yacht design.

Metal-air batteries will have energy densities comparable to fossil fuels. With high performance solar cells, much smaller reserves of energy will be required. And what there is will be much more flexible in terms of layout. No more fuel tanks — sometimes measuring hundreds of thousands of litres. Instead batteries can be incorporated into the structure and distributed throughout the hull. Motors too can me much more efficiently placed, will be lighter, quieter and simpler to maintain.

There are solar yachts right now but they are the G-Whizz’s of the water-born world. What’s coming is more like a Tesla.

New Materials

Perhaps the most exciting opportunity is in new materials. Like other industries focused on high performance, the yacht industry has been fast to adopt new carbon-based materials. But these are a mere first step towards the incredible possibilities presented by various forms of graphene, and other recently-discovered and nano-engineered materials.

Integrated functions like heating, or panel displays, will save huge amounts of space and weight. Exponential increases in strength to weight will enable the realisation of incredible designs, to date unfeasible.

Invisible luxury

Together these three technological transformations will change the perceived impact of technology on the design and operation of superyachts, as it will on the infrastructure of all our lives.

Technology today is intrusive: garish screens, noisy engines, over-sized structures. Tomorrow’s technology is not only finer, lighter, and quieter, it actively works to get out of our way. It doesn’t need manual control to work on our behalf.

Tom Cheesewright