Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Poor Personal Choices & the Coming Machine Era

The other day I was reading an article that claimed robots would be taking over about 95 million jobs from humans in the next 10-20 years.  There were some interesting assertions in that piece so I did some more searching and came across another article that was titled, "Will Robots Make Humans Unnecessary?" From a certain perspective, headlines like these are simply "clickbait".  This term is used to described headlines that draw the attention of people to content that would not otherwise be enticing.

While I don't believe that the world will be ruled by machines anytime soon, I think that the trend is a legitimate one.  Given what I've just said, we might ask ourselves why this shift is occurring.  As the second article says above, why have the number of workers employed in manufacturing jobs dropped 31% over the last 40 years?  The answer lies in the way that humans behave.  Let's look at a few examples of certain types of behavior that most would consider "poor".  Ask yourself if you've either committed or observed any of them.

  1. As you drive in traffic you notice an accident on the other side of the road.  You slow down to see "if anything happened", at the same time causing a ripple effect of slowdowns behind you.
  2. A person goes to bedd too late and comes to work the next day tired.  They proceed to turn in less than top-notch work.  The result is that some of the effort must be re-done or the finished work product is of less quality than it should be.
  3. A person is in an angry state of mind and allows those emotions to negatively impact an interaction with a customer.  The customer decides to move to a competitor.
  4. An airline pilot makes a mistake in routine flying procedures causing an incident with the plane.
  5. A check-out clerk at a store incorrectly prices or fails to scan an item resulting in an incorrect total.  The store loses money.
  6. A package arrives on a person's doorstep that, while properly addressed, was hand delivered to an incorrect house two lots away from the intended destination.
  7. A typo in an accounting entry causes a transaction to be off by a factor of 10.  The person who committed the erroneous transaction blames it on a "system error".
  8. A worker at a famous fast food restaurant decides not to wash his hands after leaving the bathroom.  As a result, an outbreak of e-coli causes tremendous disruption to the business.
  9. A heart patient continues to eat fatty food and smoke after surviving a triple heart by-pass surgery.

Of the nine examples above I believe that all of us can identify with at least three.  Maybe not personally, but we each would have knowledge of them occurring.  They all illustrate examples where humans routinely cause disruption, lower quality results, or poor output - all of which are the result of poor choices.  Is it no wonder then that many businesses have looked for ways to automate processes or remove the "human element" from the equation?

I do not believe that robots and machines will ever replace humans in the sense that they will "take over" our world.  What I do believe is that the inability to remove poor choices from the human experience will continue to drive companies all over the world to find ways to mitigate the resulting problems that arise.

I've recently written about transportation being one of the biggest problems and opportunities of our modern era.  If ever there was stage to illustrate the cause and effect of poor (human) choices, it is in the daily traffic found in every city around the world.  That's why we have already seen the advent of the driverless car.  With computers in charge of moving cars in heavily congested cities, traffic jams will become extinct.  It doesn't mean that people will no longer drive cars, it just means that driving will take on a whole new (streamlined) form, augmented by automated machines.

Just like the Luddites of the early 1800s, humans will adapt in the coming decades to embrace whole new ways of work and play.  Making poor choices is just a part of the human condition and can oftentimes tied to emotion.  With machines more integrated into many parts of our lives, we can become more fully who we are as species.  It may sound scary, but the next era we enter - the Era of the Machine - may be the happiest healthiest time we have ever experienced.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Trillion Dollar Problem & Reward

If you asked your closest friends or colleagues about what they considered the biggest problem on the planet to be, what answer do you think you'd get?  Some might say war, some famine & hunger, others disease, and certainly climate change would be high on the list of many people.

Without arguing against the points of view held by others, I would argue that the world's biggest problem is something much more basic.  I would posit that the world's biggest problem is also it's most lucrative opportunity.  In other words, if a person could solve it, the reward would be worth trillions.

By now I know that most of you who read this blog do not like suspense so I'll get right to it.  The world's biggest problem, by far, is transportation.  The ability to freely, quickly, and cheaply move from one place to another is THE constraining factor on happiness and productivity for anyone who lives and works in the modern world.  Let's take a look at a few factors:

Work

  • In the United States, the average worker spends about 200 hours per year commuting to and from work.  That's about the same as five standard work weeks.  For many people in very populous areas, the commute time almost doubles to 375 hours per year.
  • Making the arbitrary assumption that cars burn 2.1 gallons of gas per hour and there are 63 million commuters: (2.1)x(200)x(63,000,000) = 26.5 billion gallons of gas/year.
  • Many people choose where they live based upon where they work.  This means that the number of choices available to these workers is limited due to distance/commute constraints.
  • Some very desirable areas to work, such as the Bay Area or New York City (for example), are unavailable to workers who live outside a given radius.
If I could summarize this section I would focus on two things.  First, workers in general are wasting an unacceptably high amount of time and money ($53 billion/year in fuel cost) simply moving to and from work.  The second is that labor is constrained from migrating to the best and most interesting employers.  The latter is especially bad because it encourages disconnection between companies and their people based on the belief that good talent is artificially discouraged in flowing to a true "free market".  Thus, because of geography companies assume they will enjoy a built-in advantage to retaining labor.

Life
  • Because of a lack of effective transportation workers are constrained to labor at companies within (generally) a 30 mile radius of their homes.  This lack of mobility leads to social isolation of whole population groups.
  • Cultural exchange between States (in the U.S.) and other countries is generally constrained.  To travel more than a few hundred miles, costly and inconvenient options such as air travel must be used.  Most people cannot travel this way regularly or at all.  Europe and India, due to prevalent rail systems, are the exceptions.
  • Due to a lack of mobility and interchange, great political and social differences develop over time.  (Take a look at the differences between the Northern and Southern U.S. States dating back over 200 years)
This section reads more "dryly" than I usually prefer to write.  The point I'm making here is that because people are unable to travel great distances due to limitations in the transportation infrastructure, large societal differences develop.  If a person could live in Alabama and (feasibly) work in New York City, would the differences in culture and politics be as significant as they are today?

We have some very inefficient modes of travel today.  Going anywhere by car, rail, or especially airplane is costly and highly ineffective.  The ever-present chance for human error only contributes to this situation.  So what could be different?

Many years ago a concept arose that proposed travel by a special "egg shaped" pod which would travel at fantastic (meaning 5,000+ mph) speeds through an enclosed tube.  These underground pods would be moved by computer through a tube that had no air and thus no friction and would be suspended by superconducting magnets.  Imagine something moving that fast with no friction and essentially no moving parts.  A person could in a very real sense live anywhere, work anywhere, and travel to anyplace on Earth in about an hour or less.  And because of the simplicity of the travel, the costs would be exceedingly reasonable.  The change to the entirety of human civilization would be so immense that all known national boundaries would rapidly fade away.

Does this sound too fantastic to be true?  It probably does, however...  Think about a problem like this from the perspective of reward.  Given that the person or people who solve it will become trillionaire(s), there is plenty of incentive to completely reinvent the concept and practice of transportation.  Humans have always proven that when the stakes are high enough the impossible can always be made possible.  

If you are interested in taking on this problem, you already have some competition*.  Get to work!