May 7, 2009

Future Proof: Technology is an Accelerant

One of the most common mistakes that people make when looking to "predict" the future is to concentrate on the technology as being the future. In the 1950s, cars and television were the hot new technologies, and the future was filled with cars that could go three hundred miles an hour, would drive by themselves, would fly and go underwater..

Of course, the reality has turned out a little different - Certain cars have certainly achieved speeds in excess of three hundred miles (largely by turning them into rockets), recently a "flying car" - more like a small plane with foldable wings - debuted, and there have been several stabs at cars that could at least go on water, if not necessarily under it.

Yet even after sixty years, the typical car doesn't go that much faster than they did in 1955, still doesn't drive by itself, and is still best optimized for driving on paved roads rather than the airway. So what went wrong? To better understand this, its worth stepping back and looking at what technology is ... and isn't.

People have a historical view about technology. The first automobile was built by Karl Benz in 1885. The first radio was built by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901, the Wright Brothers built the first airplane in 1903, Edison created the light bulb in 1879. History is filled with these kinds of milestones, yet in every one of these cases, there had been innovations, ideas, patents, and unsuccessful (and in some cases successful) trials by many others. In most cases, the information that sparked the "successful" invention was culled from previous theoretical work or the innovation of key subcomponents. Benz's work, which involved the creation primarily of the engine, could only have been accomplished thanks to the efforts of Siegfried Marcus of Vienna, who created an engine to propel a handcart that made use of gasoline. It was in his critical work of building what would eventually become the alternator, however, that proved the key for many people moving forward.

Innovation builds on innovation, and while from the historical perspective it can appear that technology seems to have appeared in a moment of inspiration, this inspiration almost invariably involved improving what was "almost" right by someone else, or by combining two other inventions in novel ways.

One of the key points about such innovations however, is that there is a definite level of diminishing returns on energy investment. For instance, while there were huge numbers of refinements between Karl Benz first car in the 1880s and the cars of the 1980s, most of the critical changes occurred toward the beginning of that period. Why? Primarily because the number of cars on the road expanded dramatically between 1880 and 1950, and each new car offered a new opportunity for innovation. Yet once the basic principles were worked out, the changes became more subtle - eeking out better speed, more fuel efficiency, improving the user experience - and ultimately became little more than cosmetic touches (fins vs. no fins, grills vs. hoods, that sort of thing). The technology had matured.

Yet at the same time, the specific role of the car was also becoming more clearly defined. There were cars that were capable of driving very fast - in excess of 200 miles or more an hour - but with the exception of racetracks, such cars would have been seen as dangerous to anyone who didn't have twitch reflexes to handle it, and even then the practical limitations of city transportation grids made it unwise to try to go even 100 miles an hour in most places.

Similarly the concept of a car that could fly was mitigated by the very real issue of coordinating existing flying traffic, safety issues, noise issues and a host of other problems. If you could only take off and land such a car at an airport, why not simply purchase a small plane for approximately the same price, something that's far more well designed for use within the existing infrastructure.

Technological change thus always emerges only in context, and it is shaped by that context.

Surprisingly enough, the last decade has probably seen far more innovation in automobiles than the last fifty years prior. The reason for that is two-fold - first, computer miniaturization reached a stage where it was feasible to create localized processing at key points within the system, to better regulate fuel consumption, engine heat, electrical systems, and so forth, as well as to provide a better interface with the rest of the world (think about the innovation of the GPS system for cars). By becoming increasingly intertwined with the operation of the car, the computer systems give the car a type of internal intelligence, making it more systemic, less mechanical.

You're beginning to see this manifest in things like early warning systems that can notify a driver of potential hazards in the environment and can even slow or stop the car if it appears that the driver is not responding to these hazards. Cruise control systems are becoming considerably more sophisticated as well, better handling the sometimes seasickness induced surges that older systems ran into. Navigational systems and real time telemetry can notify drivers where congestion is and suggest alternate routes. In short, cars are becoming considerably more intelligent - as one pundit put it, the car is the ultimate mobile computer.

On the other hand, system shocks due to oil disruptions are forcing the development of electric and electric/hybrid vehicles. Ostensibly one of the major reasons for this is to reduce carbon emissions, but while this is a "feel good" reason, the reality of high oil prices, while no longer as dominant a theme, has made electric car investment feasible - especially in conjunction with the increased computerization of such vehicles.

Most technologies are developed in order to make processes more efficient. "Labor saving devices" has been a major selling point for technology since the late 18th century. When you pay a person to work, what you are doing is asking them to commit their energy (and time) to process a particular resource into a different form. You're paying for them to expend their energy and their expertise (their technology) to accomplish a given task. In a factory setting in the 1900s, by creating the assembly line, you could also optimize this process by having people that were more proficient in a given technology do that technology, thus reducing the overall time to accomplish the task, letting you do more of those tasks.

As advances in metallurgy, in electrical systems, and in machine tooling swept the factories, machines augmented this specialization; making it possible for one man to do in a day what two men could do earlier, then what three men and so forth. In doing so, this had two effects - it meant that with the same number of men, he could accomplish far more in the same period of time, or it meant that he could use fewer men but reduce labor costs. In most cases, he could do both, especially as technological improvements came fast and furious. Ultimately, this reached a point where the amount of manufacturing capacity exceeded the available market, and the economy slowed until either the population grew to accommodate the higher demand, the price dropped to make the product affordable (tightening margins), or wages increased (wage inflation) to create new markets.

Technological innovation slowed over the first half of the twentieth century as more investment resulted in more marginal returns. Manufacturing reached a metastable point - until the innovations of the 1970s and 1980s. Robotics is the process of applying machine intelligence to mechanical systems. A contemporary car or truck is a robot. A commercial jet is a robot. Each of these are robots because there are autonomous decision making components that determine certain aspects of a given subsystem's operations.

Whereas before, mechanical systems replaced either the speed or the power with which a given individual could apply to a task, robotic systems effectively replaced the judgement and expertise of that individual, could do the work repeatedly, with little downtime, and could alert managers whenever something beyond its ability occurred. This led, not surprisingly, to the complete downfall of manufacturing as a form of employment.

Not surprisingly, as computer systems become more sophisticated, and processing levels of abstraction continue to climb, this is also destroying the service and management sectors of employment - in short destroying the existing corporate infrastructure. Corporations are using computers as mechanisms to enable the shift to ever higher levels of abstraction, but in the process are also reducing their own energy inputs as the number of people who are unemployed continue to climb, thus reducing the available capital flow to those companies.

Yet there are interesting developments along the margins - as technology becomes more pervasive, it also becomes more accessible. As technology multipliers climb, a handful of people can replace a thousand - so companies shrink, become more specialized, more distributed, more amorphous, more virtual. The energy costs of producing a good or service decline, meaning that while more can use the technology to convert resources into a usable form, , the margins to be gained by doing so eventually reach zero.

What's this mean to the budding futurist? When looking at a technology, examine its potential impact upon society, both in isolation, and in combination with other technologies - technologies that reinforce one another will ultimately beat out ones that don't. Understand that technology follows the curve in which science this year becomes engineering next year and technical maintenance the year after that. Most technology will ultimately end up eliminating more jobs than it creates, but in the process is also reducing the barrier to entry for nearly all fields, meaning that corporations also are forced to become smaller, more distributed and more virtual.This particular meme will play out for the next fifteen to twenty years before we reach a point of stability, and even technology which dramatically increases energy input will now only reinforce these trends.

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