editorial opinion

Tech revolutions and implications for
transportation and society

Where will all these trends and developments lead us?

Ri-Man is a Japanese robot prototype developed to lift elderly patients from their beds. Equipped with sensors to keep track of a patient's weight and position, Ri-Man can distinguish smells and the direction a voice is coming from, in addition to tracking the movement of a face.

A huge number of Americans do at least some teleshopping—and the numbers are growing rapidly. Selection and availability are usually far better than in the physical stores and often the prices are less, with wondrous price comparisons available at a mouse click. Estimates indicate that teleshopping has less overall climate impact than physical shopping by close to a factor of 50.

Teleshopping currently requires delivery transportation and services, but the outlook is for ever-improving "free form fabrication/printing," or fab labs. An estimated 15–20 years out, initial versions of molecular manufacturing, aka "strong nano," will permit purchase of instructions on the Web and fabrication at home. This latter would greatly reduce several categories of cargo transport.

Obviously, IT developments are changing not only how vehicles are designed but also the transportation markets, what needs to be built and the required functionalities.
There have long been projections that some 40% of business travelers will abandon long-haul aircraft in favor of teletravel before 2020.

The author recently saved himself the better part of a week and many thousands of dollars by giving a virtual brief in New Zealand in real time rather than traveling there physically. Teletravel saves time and treasure—and is much appreciated by significant others. Emerging VR technologies will only make teletravel far better and more competitive with physical travel. And then there are the climate/energy benefits.

Tele-education is developing extremely rapidly and is probably the only affordable way to "fix" STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education in time to recoup US global competitiveness. As VR technologies develop, virtual laboratories will be far better than their current flat screen equivalents. For example, students could discuss physics with a virtual Einstein. (We have been working on a virtual George Washington.)

We are building the motivation into the software, making it irresistible (or more "fun" than anything else). The software is also morphing for the students' socioeconomic background as well as their intellectual capabilities. "Teachers" are the avatars—robots in cyberspace. Students appear to learn much faster virtually and exhibit more creativity.

Some 85% of college students are taking online courses, with some 820,000 available on 20,000 websites. K–12 online/virtual ed is growing at some 30% per year. As Peter Drucker says, "In 30 years the universities of America, as we have traditionally known them, will be barren wastelands." Stanford offers courses on the Web and in the classroom. On-campus students are staying in their dorm rooms and taking the courses on the Web.

Telemedicine is also growing extremely rapidly and, again, may be the only affordable way to execute Medicare and Medicaid entitlements. This started out as robotic surgery but is developing now into prevention, diagnosis and treatment, offering far greater access to health care at decreasing costs. As telemedicine develops, its quality is actually thought to be better than conventional physical medicine, since the machines are potentially far more knowledgeable than individual clinicians. The sensors and software for real-time/continuous health monitoring are developing and deploying in real time.

Telecommerce is now endemic. In the US, the IRS sends out letters asking for electronic rather than physical filing. A major percentage of US Postal Service (USPS) business consisted of monthly bills and checks, most of which is now in electronic form, which is why USPS is "tanking."

Today, many of NASA's human relations activities are run out of a central office, accessed electronically, as opposed to the individual offices that were staffed at each of the 10 NASA centers. Nearly everything is now "online" and executed increasingly by avatars (robots in cyberspace). This will become far more effective with VR.

Telesocialization is also developing rapidly. Initially, this provided an increasingly effective social life for shut-ins, etc, but it is increasingly the interaction of choice. Children will text their friends across the playground rather than walk over to talk with them physically. Studies suggest that our brains are being "rewired" by telesocialization and other teleactivities. The impacts of seriously capable virtual reality on telesocialization are likely to be massive.

Evolving impacts on society

There are several evolving overall societal impacts of tele-everything and IT technologies. Firstly, it is no longer necessary to live near work. Technologies are developing for "off-grid" homes—these are off the energy, food, water and sewage grids. At present there are some 200,000 off-the-energy-grid homes, and the energetics tech revolution will lead to a substantial increase in this number.

For historical reasons, some 80% of the population and infrastructure in the US—and most nations—are located within 200 miles or so of a sea coast. The automobile permitted the growth of suburbs around 18th-century seaports and 19th-century railheads, and largely depopulated core 19th-century city centers. With IT technologies and tele-everything, folks can increasingly live wherever they want. Going forward, they can have—assuming they can afford it—their own "30 acres on a mountaintop."

Then there are the overall effects of IT technologies on employment. We are now in yet another "jobless economic recovery," with some 8 million jobs missing. Some were globalized and outsourced but most are gone forever.

The term (or code word) for where these jobs went is "productivity improvement"—in other words, ever-improving automation and robotization. The Japanese have put robots in nursing homes to tend to patients, and in many cases the patients appear to be happier with the robots than with the humans.

Given the developments in machine intelligence and robotic capabilities outlined in this article, in a few decades humans will have a very difficult time competing with machines for nearly any job. The machines will create—are creating—vast wealth, and are developing to the point where that wealth will probably need to be distributed to the humans who can no longer compete with them. What the humans will do all day is not clear, but there are several options.

Martin Ford's book "Lights in the Tunnel" is an excellent treatise on the future of work in an age in which we are rapidly rewriting the human existence theorem. We humans evolved over the past million-plus years as superb hunter/killer/gatherer groups. In the industrial age we mechanized agriculture and went from having some 90% of the workforce on subsistence farms to feed ourselves to less than 2% of the workforce in agriculture now, due to technology. As we have automated and robotized manufacturing, employment in that sector has dropped to some 12%, heading to 2%.

The service jobs, including the professions, are being automated and/or roboticized now. We are creating a 2nd intelligent entity—one with which, increasingly, we cannot compete. This robotization of employment has "hollowed out" the middle class and, as the technology improves, is eating into the menial jobs. In addition, as machine intelligence improves it is usurping intellectual employment. Employment is one stated major issue connected with the Arab Spring and the "Occupy" demonstrations.

It is not an issue of us versus them. Actually, we are merging with the machines. Humans are rapidly becoming cyborgs, including the increasing use of (and developments in) "brain chips." But, overall, there is no "natural evolution" of much of anything any more, given that humans are changing the planet and the life forms thereon some 10 million times faster than any natural evolution. This includes the hyper-rapid evolution of humans.


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