Yearly Archives

60 Articles

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Tomorrow’s trucker

Tomorrow’s trucker

In 2050, ‘trucking’ is nearly synonymous with ‘hitch hiking’, and truckers have become one of the most extreme examples of the gig economy.

Technology has transformed the haulage industry through two distinct but parallel advances. Rising levels of autonomy in vehicles, and the move from fossil fuel to electric.

Autonomy has brought predictability. The greater the number of autonomous vehicles on the road, the lower the number of accidents and delays — at least on the motorways and larger byways that are the major routes for the trucks. This has made stock holding practices even leaner, to the point where the average truck size is smaller, standardised around the 20ft shipping container. Automated warehouses hold stock inside vertical stacks of these containers before breaking them out for picking and packing.

Electric drive played a big part in bringing down the sizes. With lower servicing and fuel costs, there’s less need for the efficiency of large loads. And the smaller requirements and different drive technology have permitted a much more streamlined and efficient design, with the load low to the ground between independently steering pairs of wheels. Articulated vehicles are much less common.

There’s still a cabin at the front. But the person inside isn’t driving. The law requires a responsible person to be inside the vehicle in case of incident or breakdown. But the law requires no formal training beyond a simple introductory video and a set of processes that the person can be walked through by a digital assistant.

These truckers use the haulage network as a low-cost form of transport and small secondary income, with the minimum wage rates the job attracts paid only while they are en-route. At their destination, they hop out and use most of what they have earned to journey the last mile via autonomous taxi.

Technology didn’t destroy all of the driving jobs. But it diminished a huge proportion of them.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Life among the stars

Life among the stars

The latest episode of the ever-excellent 99% Invisible podcast tells the story of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse being moved half a mile to save it from collapse. The island on which it stood has been progressively eroded by the tides over the last 150 years and the foundations of the lighthouse were at risk. As an important tourist attraction in a national park, it was felt necessary to preserve the lighthouse and hence, following much intense debate, it was decided to relocate it, a giant feat of engineering.

The podcast uses this story to question how we might react when we have to move more structures away from rising seas. Not just structures in fact, but potentially whole cities. Tides are rising as the world warms and many of our most densely populated areas are along coastlines. Moving a 4800 ton structure will look positively straightforward compared to relocating a whole population and all the infrastructure to support them.

Food, space, population

Compounding the issue is the continuing population rise. The latest UN figures suggest the population will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and clear 11 billion by 2100. Climate change will also have potentially catastrophic effects on some of the world’s most productive farming regions. So, more people, in smaller spaces, with less food and diminished water resources.

Not a happy story.

How do we tackle this? The good news on climate change is that where good intentions have failed to make a major dent in our world-destroying behaviours, science and economics are starting to fight back. Fossil fuels, the cause of so many of our current issues, are looking increasingly unviable from a pure cost perspective. Trump’s efforts to hold back this particular tide will ultimately look rather Canute-like. Wind and solar will win out, balanced with battery storage and maybe backed by some new nuclear.

But these changes will not undo the damage already done, nor will they happen fast enough to avert some scale of disaster.

So what is to be done?

Reality and fantasy

The likely reality is a slow, expensive and reactive response to the challenges. As I often say, I’m a short term pessimist but long term optimist: we will find a way through. But a proactive response might be to look again at the opportunities for living in space.

Human beings are ill-suited to life beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Space rather lacks many of the things we need: air, water, and gravity for a start. And then there’s the radiation. But these issues can be overcome. And space has a few advantages: ready access to solar energy, for example. And zero gravity allows new industrial processes and the production of new types of material.

Enthusiasts at the British Interplanetary Society last year suggested we could build a space habitat for thousands in just twenty years, given the right funding — and desire. We’d have to scale that up significantly to offer an alternative home to many of those displaced by climate change. But pushing out into space has other advantages.

An image of a possible space habitat from the original Usborne Book of the Future, first published in 1979

There’s ready access to materials from the moon and elsewhere, for a start. Manufacturing in space means we aren’t manufacturing on earth, releasing more carbon. Yes, there’s an argument that having spoiled our planet we shouldn’t be moving on like locusts (like the aliens in Independence Day). But we’ve learned a lot: space colonies would likely be run entirely on renewable energy and largely vegan, given the inefficiencies of raising animals in space.

Moving into space might also provide jobs. Lots of them. This would be a new environment, one for which it might be rather complex to build automated systems, at least in the earliest days. Having human potential — both mental and physical — on tap would be critical to the success of these colonies.

Pipe dreams?

This all looks pretty unrealistic right now. But one thing makes it potentially more likely. And it’s a strange side effect of one of the most negative trends affecting us right now: growing wealth inequality.

It’s almost 100 years since the first sketches of a realistic space habitat were made. But back then the only prospect of building them was large scale government, or even international projects.

Today, access to space is increasingly in the hands of private organisations like SpaceX. They might rely heavily on government budgets, but they have demonstrated a willingness and ability to kick-start space innovation, which had stalled under collapsing government budgets and a falling appetite for risk. Billionaires can decide to launch a space colony, not quite on a whim, but with much less consideration than a government might require. As the space race between Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others heats up, they just might.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What’s around your corner?

What’s around your corner?

The future is often discussed as if it is a singular thing. As if everyone will experience the same future. They won’t, of course.

At the most fundamental level, even before you take into account your geographic location, social and economic situation, we all experience the present slightly differently. There are as many worlds as there are people, subtly shifted through the lens of our own interpretation.

For every single present experience, there is an infinite number of possible futures, all shaped by macro factors and personal choices between now and then. We can paint possible futures for the many based on a balance of probabilities, or we can help individuals and organisations to plot the path to their future, understanding the likely external influences that will affect their journey.

Doing this requires a clear understanding of the picture today, both objectively and subjectively: what are the facts and how do you perceive your position? You need to know where A is before you can plot a route to B. We understand this primarily by looking at pressure points: where are the existing stresses — particularly for organisations. Change is more likely to come first at these stress points.

Then it’s a question of understanding the macro factors: what is driving change and how? How will these factors interact with the pressures you already face? Will they create new opportunities or expand existing threats?

We can map these things from the perspective of a single individual, a company, or a whole industry. But the critical point is that it is your future, not a generic future. If you want to know what’s around your corner, you need to plot your own path.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Facebook’s Kodak moment

Facebook’s Kodak moment

I have long predicted the end of Facebook. As always with futurism, predicting ‘what’ is easier than ‘when’, and I’ll admit, I’ve been surprised at the network’s longevity and adaptability.

Through smart acquisitions and constant innovation, Mark Zuckerberg has plotted a route to survival and incredible scale for what remains the world’s number one social network. People questioned the platform’s ability to adapt to mobile, but it has thrived. It has found routes into countries with even limited internet infrastructure. And it has learned to monetise the incredible amount of traffic it receives, and the personal data it collects. Most surprisingly it has recently taken a decision that might negatively affect its short term revenues in favour of building sustainability through greater customer engagement and satisfaction.

But I still say that, eventually, the day will come when Facebook is outpaced. When it fails to spot the incoming changes with sufficient alacrity, and is left to fall by the wayside.

How will this happen?

Facebook has survived by being extremely cognisant of the threat it faces: disengagement from the young. Once this key taste-maker group shifts, the rest of the market will follow within a few years — as will advertisers, keen to reach young spenders. Both anecdote and research suggest this is already happening. Knowing this, Facebook acquired some of the likely destinations for this flight — Instagram and WhatsApp — and adapted their features to replicate the best of the other options. Facebook now owns three of the top four, and four of the top seven social networks by active user.

At the same time, obvious competitors to Facebook have made a series of serious mis-steps: Twitter’s lack of clear direction and failure to deal with abuse; SnapChat’s distraction into physical product and failed interface redesign.

The result is that Facebook as a company has entrenched its hold on the current generation of social media — at least in northern/western markets. Displacing it will require both great timing and creativity, but also an external disruption creating a new opportunity.

The first disruption was mobile: if SnapChat or Twitter had executed flawlessly on mobile, or Instagram chosen to remain a challenger, we could have seen a very different social landscape now. The next disruption will also likely be around the primary hardware through which we interact with our social networks.

It looks unlikely to be voice assistants: it’s hard to see voicemail re-invented as a social network in a very visual age. Though there might be an opportunity for audio-stickers — sending your friends funny sound effects or altered audio through this network of devices.

Instead the hardware shift that might create a crack in Facebook’s defences is augmented reality. The company is well aware of this and has been investing in AR for some time, building up strengths while the phone is still the platform, but aware that one day there will likely be a shift to a wearable system.

But these transitions are always tricky, especially when an established business has a portfolio to defend. New entrants can create a pure, powerful offering that captures the zeitgeist, and if they choose, remain independent long enough to challenge the incumbents.

This is what happened to Kodak. And one day, Facebook will have its Kodak moment.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Creative discipline

Creative discipline

What are we going to do in the future? For those compelled by the arguments for mass technological unemployment, it’s a constant question.

Maslow’s hierarchy presents a useful structure for the two critical parts of the answer.

Without work, how do we earn our safety and security, food and shelter, the bottom tiers of the pyramid?

Even if we can address those issues — driving the debate about Universal Basic Income — how do we fulfil our needs at the upper tiers? Self-esteem is often deeply connected to the value of our work. More practically, many of us meet our partners through work.

Alternative pursuits

The answer often given, is that we are freed for more creative pursuits. This doesn’t mean we become a nation of watercolour artists, with fields of easels at every beauty spot. Creativity has many faces, and freed from commercial constraint we may see the progress of scientific discovery accelerate, as well as cultural advancement.

For this to be true though, and for creative activities to provide the emotional returns that we all require, we need to know how to engage with them. And right now, I’m not sure that we do.

Being consistently creative in a way that rewards requires a great degree of discipline. Not just to keep you focused on a task, but to know when you cannot focus and release yourself to freewheel while the brain recharges.

This is unscientific and vague language — I’m afraid I don’t have the terms to properly describe the process. But it’s familiar to anyone who has to create for large parts of their working life, whatever form that creativity takes. I’ve been writing professionally, in one form or another, for 18 years now. But I still have to wrestle myself away from the keyboard when the words aren’t coming. I have to break the conditioning that says good work is about effort and application, something that even now is deeply embedded.

If we are to be a nation of creatives at some point in the future, perhaps we have to start changing the way we teach people to work. And even if the robot jobs apocalypse never comes, this may just be a positive step anyway.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Conversations with my house

Conversations with my house
This is not my house

“Welcome home Tom. It’s a little cold. Would you like me to put the heating on?

/Yes /No”

My house can talk. And text.

OK, it’s not my actual house. That would be weird. It’s an instance of Home Assistant, the rapidly-evolving open-source home automation software. Following a little configuration work over the Christmas break, I can now converse with my ‘house’ using Telegram, the WhatsApp-like messaging service. My house tells me things, like when people are arriving or leaving, and it can take instructions, like turning on lights, music or the heating.

Over time I can add more services. I’m thinking of a concierge service for visitors might be quite cool: something that sets up their Wi-Fi and gives them access to the house’s services.

What’s the point of this?

For me this is a rudimentary and very small scale example of what I mean when I talk about ‘living cities’. Living cities are what happens when you bring together sensors, actuators and intelligence to start to respond to the needs of citizens. When you go beyond just ‘smart’ to bring some warmth and engagement.

There’s no real intelligence in my system — it’s entirely driven by events triggering certain messages. But even with this very simple technology, the house can start to engage with my needs and respond to them in a much more human way than it otherwise might. It can know that I usually like a certain temperature. That I like a certain playlist when I’m cooking, or the lights a certain way when watching a film. And it can tell me that it knows, in quite a natural fashion, and offer solutions to me at appropriate moments.

To truly fit my definition of a ‘living’ system, my house would need ‘real’ intelligence: perhaps predicting needs I hadn’t explicitly expressed. And it would need to be able to evolve its behaviours — and even its physical space — to better meet those needs. Sadly, I can’t 3D-print walls yet. But it’s easy to see that technology coming.

In the meantime, it’s nice having a house that can look after itself. And me.

Tom Cheesewright