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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Autonomous vehicles and the new ‘Radio Rentals’

Autonomous vehicles and the new ‘Radio Rentals’

You shouldn’t own a car. For all sorts of reasons. It’s a terrible asset that depreciates quickly. It consumes a huge proportion of your income, especially if you buy it on finance as so many people do now. When I was at Autotrader’s offices this week I saw an incredible stat: car buyers spend 68% more on the sticker price of a car when it is bought on finance than when bought outright.

On top of that there is the insurance, tax, maintenance, and the space as well. In a country desperately short of housing we give an incredible amount of land over to storing our vehicles. And they do spend a huge proportion of their time store, rather than in use.

Manufacturing cars to sit on driveways is also terrible for the planet, since a huge proportion of their carbon footprint is in their manufacture, rather than their use.

All-in-all, a future where we order up electric, self-driving cars from a shared fleet, on demand, looks like a pretty good prospect (unless driving is your profession, or you’re Jeremy Clarkson).

Or does it?

Challenging orthodoxy

One friend, Republic of Things’ Andrew Beechener, made me question this whole argument with one simple sentence:

“I don’t know Tom, it just feels like the Radio Rentals model all over again.”

That phrase hasn’t left my mind since he said it a fortnight ago.

If you’re too young to remember Radio Rentals, many of us use to rent our televisions and video recorders. Rather than buy these big assets outright, we used to pay a monthly fee to borrow them. This was before you could pick up a 60in flatscreen for £300 in the supermarket. Cheap electrical goods made the rental model rather untenable.

(People still pay inordinate sums to finance electrical goods of course, from companies like BrightHouse. Buy a 55in Samsung UHD TV from this company on finance and you will pay over £1400, when you could pick it up for £529 at a high street story like Curry’s.)

Andrew suggested the same might happen with cars. Electric vehicles are simpler to build and maintain than petrol vehicles with many fewer moving parts. Because those moving parts are compressed into a slim chassis layer, it’s easier to produce these at higher volume (hence cheaper) and just have different bodies bolted on top. Performance characteristics can be determined by software upgrades rather than extra engine cylinders. The introduction of new materials into the process (cars are increasingly shaped from composites rather than metals) will also potentially make them cheaper over time.

Price comparisons

I struggled a little bit to find good historical television prices to make a comparison, but as far as I can tell, a good quality 22in colour TV in the early 1980s would have set you back around £300. Accounting for inflation, that’s over £1000 in today’s money. Today an equivalent set would cost around £150. That’s nearly a seven-fold fall in price.

This is a hideous methodology, but imagine that all the technology changes above lead to a similar fall in car prices over the next 35 years. That would mean a solid mid-range saloon that might today cost £25,000 would be under £4000.

If you could get a really nice car for £4000 in today’s money, would you still use a fleet service? It’s certainly food for thought.

Reality check

In reality, I think it is unlikely the cost of cars will fall anywhere near this far. Even with new materials, their raw resource requirements remain significant, especially for the power cells. And while renewable electricity generation should provide an unlimited, cheap and clean source of power, I don’t think their running costs will be allowed to fall to their potential lows.

Even with self-driving making road transport more efficient, what we don’t want is even more cars on the road, and taking up space. Legislation will likely be used to incentivise more shared infrastructure as climate change starts to bite more visibly in places like the UK.

As always, there is no one answer to these questions: some people will likely own a car and some people will rely on a fleet service. On balance, I think the latter group will be larger, especially as more and more of us congregate in densely-populated cities where car ownership makes less sense.

I’m glad I was forced to think about it though. Self-driving fleets being the future has become something of an orthodoxy, and those are always worth challenging.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What we want to be true, and what we see to be true, are often very different

What we want to be true, and what we see to be true, are often very different

Last night I spoke at the Manchester Futurists meetup, sharing my experience as a full-time futurist for now more than five years. I explained my journey and my process, and the type of work I now do for clients around the world.

(If you’re interested in seeing that slide deck, I’ve started releasing all my materials to supporters on Patreon — if you enjoy this blog, I’d love your support).

One of the questions afterwards was about the moral imperative for futurists. Do we have an obligation to promote a positive vision of the future and the actions it will take to achieve that vision?

This is not the first time I’ve had this question. For me it belies a very understandable confusion about the role of a futurist — particularly an applied futurist, as I am.

My brand of futurism is rarely about advocacy of my own opinions. I get to do this on my blog and my podcast, because I am the client. But for the most part, I am being paid by clients not to advocate a particular perspective but to do the opposite. To show them not what I would like to be true, but what I believe to be true based on the available evidence.

The moral company

This difference is most acute when it comes to talking about drivers and motivations, particularly those of companies. People want to believe that morality will, or at least should, overrule profit, when it comes to corporate behaviours.

I would like this to be true. But companies, particularly listed companies, have a legal duty to return value to shareholders. This is their motivation. The only real determinant of whether what they do is ‘good’ or not is whether they are focused on short term returns or long term success. The latter is usually more closely bound to ‘good’ corporate behaviour, since the company recognises the need to sustain good customer relationships.

Success factors

I can tell my clients about the factors that might affect their success, over the short or long term. But I am not there to advocate for a particular set of behaviours.

The only caveat to this is in the language that I use when talking about the process of Applied Futurism: I talk a lot about a recipe for sustainable success, and hope that the organisations that engage my services are interested in that, not rapid returns at any cost. There may also be organisations in the future that I choose not to work with because I find their behaviour so egregious.

But in any client engagement, my role, and that of any applied futurist, will be to offer a dispassionate analysis of future realities, not to advocate for the future they would like to see.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The value of imperfection

The value of imperfection

A recent episode of the ever-inspiring 99 Percent Invisible addressed the construction, and failure, of the ambitious Bijlmermeer construction project outside Amsterdam. This was a Modernist architectural dream for future living, realised in huge quantities of concrete, and following the principals of Le Corbusier’s Athen’s Charter. It’s well worth reading the posts on the 99pi website or listening to the two-part podcast.

Bijlmermeer failed for a number of reasons, but part of the problem was over-engineering. Not of the structures themselves, but of the lives of the people who would inhabit them. The architects had very clear intentions for how people would live in their new machine. Architecture can be a tool to shape behaviours. But it can only nudge. Push too far and people push back.

People in boxes

Human beings excel at sorting, not that you’d know it to look at my home. We LOVE to put things in boxes. To create order from chaos. We like simple systems that we can understand.

This desire for neat, tidy and comprehensible often drives us to make things too neat. Like the Bijlmermeer. And this jars with us. It doesn’t feel right.

I think of it in physics terms. Order is the Newtonian model that we apply to a complex quantum universe. We can get our head around Newtonian physics, so we tend to design structures and systems in its (relatively) simple terms. But people are complex — quantum (and not in a ‘woo’ way).

You can approximate for the shape of people’s lives with broad brush strokes. But try to paint them into a corner and they will quickly run outside the lines.

(Is that enough analogies for you?)

Design for life

I can see this need for complexity and imperfection becoming increasingly important in the future. Some of the conversations I have been having about future materials recently, conjure possibilities of ultra-minimalist designs. Of perfect, forever-clean machines, clothes and buildings. These might be stunning and super-efficient. But this would be a cold world devoid of challenge and intrigue.

These objects will need a human touch to bring them to life. To add the imperfection that makes them appeal.

 

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The art of lying is a growth business

The art of lying is a growth business

The narcissistic culture of Instagram and Snapchat has been cause for much consternation amongst parents and social commentators the world over. The winning formula seems to be polished presentations of lives of travel, luxury goods, expensive meals and flaming cocktails, all enjoyed while somehow maintaining a six pack and perfect thigh gap. These are unrealistic goals, at best, for most of the world’s population.

But I’m not sure this artifice is anything new, or unique to social media. For as long as I can remember, people have driven fast cars on finance packages they can’t really afford. If we hadn’t always had a tendency to present a false reality beyond our means, there would have been nothing for the long-running TV series ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ to lampoon. I’m pretty sure Jane Austen’s novels address some of this pretence 200 years ago.

Nonetheless, in an age of ubiquitous media where everyone is a publisher, the level of investment and effort that we go to in order to present these idealised versions of our lives has increased. And that makes it into a big business. Go to the launch of just about any Chinese brand of phone and they will be blunt about it: our selfie filters will do the best job of making you look younger and prettier.

As we transition from the smartphone into the mixed reality era, the business of lying could jump to whole new levels. Imagine if you can digitally alter the way that people perceive you — at least, as long as they are wearing their augmented reality headset. You can change the way you look, and sound.

What would you pay to create the perfect look? Will you have virtual clothes? People already pay tens of pounds for custom Snapchat filters and social stickers. It’s easy to see a booming industry in digital tattoos, cosmetics, hair styling — even prosthetics.

For all my pessimism about future jobs, this is one area I can see absolutely booming. Yes, some of this content could be procedurally generated — endless iterations of the same t-shirt created from a few seed lines of code. And some could be created from 3D scans of real-world objects — and people. But the real creativity that we value is likely to remain human. Shaping our augmented reality presence could be a future boom in the artisan gig economy.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Transparency erodes the need for trust

Transparency erodes the need for trust

One of the major arguments against the threat of automation is the importance of human relationships in business. I don’t deny that these relationships will remain at the heart of business – see posts I’ve written before about the importance of face-to-face communication and the bandwidth advantage it still has over anything more remote. But there are functions of business where the power of this interaction just won’t be sufficient to protect human workers from their robot replacements.

Following my piece about Tomorrow’s Trucker, Ian Mallon of Neon Freight forwarded me a piece on future trends from FedEx. An email conversation ensued and he asked me whether the trust that is today so critical in logistics would be a factor in limiting the introduction of automation. This is an expanded version of my response.

I wish I believed that the relationship model of business was sustainable, but trust is only important when it feels like there is risk involved. The more automated a process becomes, the more data is collected throughout the package’s journey. This data, properly shared, aids transparency, clarifies responsibility, and ultimately diminishes risk.

When 99.999% of all the things you launch blindly into a logistics system, arrive at their destination, in perfect condition, on time, you will stop worrying about who is responsible. Even if you are concerned, liability in the chain will be so well established that recompense will be automatic and largely uncontested.

This reality remains perhaps 10 years away. Even the most sophisticated parcel carriers have huge variance in their performance, in my experience. But the direction of travel is clear. Fewer and fewer human hands are likely to touch any package in transit. Yet more and more eyeballs will potentially be focused on that package’s performance. And with that transparency, and reliability, so the need for trust and the relationships that underpin them, will be eroded.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Will a robot hold your hand? Technology in the future of care

Will a robot hold your hand? Technology in the future of care

This week I gave a short address at a panel debate on the future of care, hosted by frequent client, the rather forward-thinking Freeths solicitors. Here’s what I said. Or at least, what I intended to say when I wrote my script.

When you’re looking to the future, you need to understand two factors. Firstly, what are the pressure points that the sector you are examining is facing today? In my experience, these are always the points of failure or opportunity where change happens first. Secondly, you need to understand what is causing that change. What are the major trends?

For me, the best way to understand those trends is to look at technology. Technology is the means by which we enact change. Described in the broadest terms, technology the application of our understanding of the world. From the first rock a caveman or woman sharpened, through language, to the modern smartphone.

Pressure Points

You’re all familiar with the pressure points facing the care sector today. Rising demand, declining budgets, and a catastrophic lack of skilled permanent staff. The demographic changes we’re facing mean the areas with the most demand often have the least access to staff.

Throughout history, technology has been deployed to address issues like this. If you can mechanise a process, you can repeat it at lower cost and higher frequency with fewer staff. It doesn’t matter if it’s a steam powered loom or a computerised call centre. But can we really apply technology to replace skilled people in care? For me, the answer is a very strongly qualified ‘yes’.

First of all, let me tell you what we won’t see, which is some form of robot nurse, capable of all the things a person can do. Human beings are extraordinarily adaptable, both physically and mentally, and this flexibility is enormously challenging — and expensive — to try to replicate.

Rather, what we will see is a much more distributed and pervasive suite of technologies designed to help people support themselves better, for longer. To smooth their entry into more formal care settings. And to assist them in overcoming their challenges throughout.

Monitoring

I’ll start with the first category — what we might loosely term remote monitoring.

Have all heard the buzzphrase, the internet of things? How about Moore’s Law? What this really means is that the price of adding computing power and connectivity to just about anything has collapsed over the last fifty years — even the last decade. And at the same time, the accessibility of the devices and the knowledge to do this has dramatically increased. You can now, with really only a junior school education, programme a machine to monitor basic environmental factors such as temperature and humidity, and send that information off over the Internet. That device might cost you five pounds.

Scale this up and add some grown-up intelligence, and you can start to monitor more things: activity, energy consumption, carbon dioxide levels, doors opening and closing. You can know if someone is active and what sort of conditions they’re living in.

None of this is new, you might say. We’ve been able to get this information over a phone line for years. Sure. But two things have changed. Firstly, the cost: it now costs less than £5 a month to monitor basic environment factors and activity in someone’s home. The hardware is so cheap that there is no up-front cost. And it’s all battery powered so you don’t even need a specialist installer. It can just be stuck to a wall or ceiling, just like the fire brigade installs smoke alarms.

Secondly, intelligence. Computing power is so cheap now that we can throw enormous amounts at monitoring and interpreting this data for very little money. To find the exceptions, the behaviour changes. To identify the risk factors and intervene early — and cheaply — rather than later when the issue is acute.

Over the next few years I think we will see a massive expansion in the application of home monitoring technologies, not just by concerned children but by the state in a bid to manage the costs of care.

Robots

The second class of technology I want to talk about is robots. This is perhaps the area that has caused most consternation when its application in the care sector is discussed. People don’t like the idea of a warm nurse being replaced by a cold machine. And I understand that, but we shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that all automata in a care setting are bad.

I have a sideline reviewing gadgets for the BBC, and before Christmas I got sent a Cozmo to play with. Did anyone’s kids get one of these for Christmas? Lucky kids. This is a tiny toy that looks a little bit like a cross between Wall-E and a forklift truck. It borrows the incredible processing power of your smartphone to approximate an artificial intelligence. It can recognise your face and play a series of games with you, using some special cubes that come with it.

The most interesting thing about this toy for me was not the level of tech packed into its tiny shell, but the way that my children projected an identity onto it. This shouldn’t have surprised me. It’s a very human trait: we anthropomorphise everything. Just look how much intelligence and personality we ascribe to our pets, or kids do to totally inanimate dolls.

In a very short space of time my kids created a connection to Cozmo and clearly felt a real sense of reward from interactions with it. The same behaviour has been witnessed in adults interacting with automata in a care setting.

Machines can’t care. But they can provide mental support and stimulation. They can answer questions, guide people, control the environment and entertainment, and increasingly, chat. We can even project a level of love and companionship onto them — even when we know deep down that they are not capable of reciprocating. Because this is clearly what the human brain does. We shouldn’t reject that possibility out of hand.

Augmentation: Physical and mental

What these robots can also do is collect information, store it, and replay it. This is something that we all struggle with, particularly as we age or if our mental faculties are starting to decline. There’s a serious opportunity for us to start to augment our minds with technology. In fact I’ve been arguing for a few years that the process has already started: we are all bionic now.

How many people used a smartphone to get here, looking up the time or location, using GPS and maps? I was born with a terrible memory and basically without a sense of direction, so the advent of such technology has been an absolute boon for me.

Imagine if you could make the interface to this information even more natural. So low friction that you barely notice where you end, and the machine begins. Take these inserts for the sole of your shoe, for example, which vibrate to tell you when to turn left or right. Imagine a verbal prompt through a bone-conducting earpiece. Imagine a digital overlay on your vision.

All of these things are real today or within a few years. They are still both expensive and a little rough around the edges, but that Moore’s Law I talked about will make them widely accessible. I’m betting that this technology is what ultimately replaces the smartphone.

This doesn’t help those with physical frailty of course, but here again, Moore’s Law is our friend. Just ten years ago, strength augmenting suits were the stuff of science-fiction and military fantasies. Now they are commercially available, both in commercial contexts and to help the paralysed to walk again. In another decade or two, as battery and motor technology continues to improve, it’s easy to see articulated walking frames helping people to recover mobility. We’ve already seen such a revolution happen: how many mobility scooters do you remember seeing 20 years ago?

Summary

Technology is not the answer to our care crisis. That requires political intervention to raise funding and wages, improve conditions, overcome the looming threat that Brexit presents, and to address the threat to employment and employment quality that technology also so clearly presents. But whether or not these interventions are made, technology represents an opportunity to improve care. To give people more self-sufficient lives for longer, to ensure earlier interventions when they are needed, and even to provide a level of companionship to those who need it. I’d argue that we need to overcome our squeamishness and embrace it.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

How do you make a phone disappear?

How do you make a phone disappear?

Take a look at the icons across the top of your phone. They can be split into three categories. Some represent the different ways your phone is communicating with other devices right now: 4G, Bluetooth, WiFi, and NFC. One tells you about its state of charge. And one or more tell you about the current interface settings — is it set to ‘Do Not Disturb’, for example.

These three functions represent the three main challenges in making our mobile devices ‘transparent’: so natural to use that we forget that they are not just extensions of ourselves.

Connectivity

One of the primary interruptions in the flow of use of our smart devices is lost connectivity, or the interactions required to restore it. Poor mobile reception, jumping between WiFi hotspots — it all diminishes the experience and forces us from near-unconscious interactions with our devices and their services, into conscious and often frustrating steps.

Fortunately, an end to this is on the horizon. 5G (alongside technologies like Hotspot 2.0/802.11u) should start to bring multiple networks together, so that you can roam more seamlessly between low-speed wide area networks and high-speed short-range networks — including Wi-Fi, maintaining the optimum connection at all times.

Wherever you are, your device should be connected, and you shouldn’t ever have to think about how — or how to improve it.

Energy

Charging our phones is a major interruption to the experience. Even with the chunky battery on my middleweight Android device, I found myself recharging this week by the middle of the afternoon. Having to carry around a charger or extra battery pack is not ideal.

Again though, there are signs this could be fixed. Battery tech is improving, but more importantly, there are signs that truly wireless charging could be getting closer to practical, in-home, in-car, and in-office applications.

The ideal is a device that runs for ever. That literally never needs charging, because it constantly charges itself by harvesting energy from radio waves — either from a dedicated charging station or from other communications frequencies, including light.

This is some way off but it’s now a visible possibility.

UI

The third dimension of the transparent device is its user interface. This is perhaps where we have the most work to do.

Voice assistants are starting to allow our tech to communicate with us in more natural ways. But they’re not right for every use case. We will need a completely new visual and physical interface paradigm to replace the touchscreen — probably something in Mixed Reality.

Meanwhile, we can start to offload more of our current manual interactions to automated systems in the background. A lot of friction has been cut out of our transactions — shopping, travel, ticketing — but there’s still more to go. And many of these functions shouldn’t need any manual input at all.

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Tom Cheesewright