As if the world wasn’t weird enough, it’s getting weirder. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Luckily, humans evolved to be adaptable, and that adaptability is being tested. The following is a Friday night random list of shifts, changes, and trends that are redefining normal. Watch as conventional wisdom shudders in the wake of modern change.
Driverless Vehicles – Auto Autos
Driverless cars, trucks, trains, planes, drones, and ships. About twenty years ago, driverless vehicles were either incredibly complex and expensive (airplane autopilots), or were expected to require significant infrastructure like highways lined with sensors. Now, artificial intelligence and sensor technology has progressed enough to enable vehicles to navigate and drive so well that truckers may lose their jobs. Driverless cars have accidents, but at far lower rates than human-driven cars. Even pizza delivery is being researched using sidewalk robots. Why use the road when all you need is something the size of a large pepperoni with cheese? The concept can seem trivial or experimental; but cities may prefer vehicles that can find their own parking spots, owners may prefer vehicles that come when you call them, and that can be loaned or rented while you’re at work. Take a person out of the vehicle and it gets smaller, cheaper, and simpler. For deliveries, there’s no need to design crumple zones, airbags, seat belts, or head and leg room. For commuters, just let the car follow all the other commuters until you get near work. Hacking will get interesting.
Renewable Energy – Solar and Wind and
Within the last five years, solar and wind power systems have matured into reliable systems, and are being built in large enough volumes that the price has become competitive with fossil fuels – even without subsidies. Add back in the subsidies and renewables actually look even better. While renewables have relied on subsidies to get started, so do coal, oil, and gas. Fossil fuel subsidies are actually larger than renewable subsidies, especially when the indirect costs of pollution and health care are included. Devices, households, airports, factories, and warehouses are going off the grid. If they aren’t going off the grid, they’re feeding power back into it. In both cases, the reliability of the electrical system is improving without having to build more plants or power lines. Decentralization means people can be less tied to cities. Add in internet access and the recent trend for urbanization may reverse.
Minimalism – Living With Less
Whether by choice or necessity, people are buying fewer things. IKEA has announced that we may have reached Peak Stuff, the point at which there’s less demand for new things. Because of the Great Recession (or the Second Great Depression), people are less likely to buy on credit. The things that they do buy are more likely to be practical. The trend is small enough that Wal-Mart isn’t threatened – yet. But, the Maker movement is emphasizing 3-D printing and repairing old things rather than buying new from the store. Many won’t live in Tiny Houses, like those who find 124 square feet to be more than enough, but they are more likely to hunt for a smaller, rather than a larger, house when they buy; or are more likely to rent an apartment rather than own a house. Cars are large, except for the sudden interest in smartcars, e-vehicles, and a return to bicycles.
Modern Economics – Money Changes
The era of buy low, sell high, invest for the long term, rely on research, has been overtaken by high-frequency trading, artificial intelligence trading, investing for the week rather than the decade. Bonds as a backup are dealing with low single digit interest rates that barely recognize inflation. Outside the US, inflation concerns are being replaced with deflation worries; which is why Switzerland, Japan, and several other countries are loaning money at negative interest rates. Too much money is stagnating, which is stagnating economies, and worrying central bankers. While Bitcoin was considered the currency of choice for illegal activities, the fundamental technology has been recognized as financially efficient, which means the blockchain technology is also altering trading and currency transfers. The drop in oil and other commodity prices have upset countries that rely on those revenues, so places like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela are less stable than they were two years ago when oil was over $100/barrel. Power is shifting.
Graphene – Strength and Power
Graphene continues to amaze it researchers and developers. It is a simple material, just a flat matrix of carbon atoms arranged into an arbitrarily large molecule. Such a simple idea is incredibly powerful. Most things we build and break are built and broken by manipulating chemical bonds. Better living through chemistry has been the norm for all of human history until the Atomic Age when we went to the other extreme. Nuclear power plants and weapons demonstrate the breaking and building of atomic bonds. Between the seemingly strong but relatively weak chemical bonds, and the incredibly terrible and terrific atomic bonds are molecular bonds. Graphene is held together by molecular bonds. Take a sheet of graphene as thick as plastic wrap, and even an elephant stepping on a pencil point couldn’t punch through it. Finally, roofing material that won’t leak, that doesn’t weigh much. Apply a current, and use it to filter seawater. Move it through seawater, and pull out a current, or hydrogen for fuel. If we find a cheap way to make it in bulk, lots of building materials become quaint and obsolete. And that’s just the start as it wades into other industries.
Invisibility – More Than Meets the Eye
As one friend noted when the first stealth fighter was revealed, they effectively made something invisible in a very narrow part of the spectrum. It was inevitable that the effect would be expanded. Add in other technologies and that has become the case. There isn’t one technology that’s working for all wavelengths of light, but put them together and we’ve getting much better at cloaking devices. Aside from the military and wizarding applications, other technologies are now taking the insights into wave behaviour and finding ways to hide buildings from earthquakes and coastlines from tsunamis. Tailor a suite of solutions correctly and something can be seen by some, not seen by others, and able to interact within limits. If we can protect against human assailants and natural disasters, we might find new ways to subtly be secure.
Each of these trends and technologies will change our world. The overwhelming aspect is to realize that their interactions are even harder to predict. Imagine an invisible driverless car operating on renewable energy delivering graphene to someone in a tiny house working for cryptocurrencies. Silly. Probably never happen. But what other mix of these trends will become the norm, something that won’t fit with conventional wisdom, but that will require and benefit from adaptation? Interesting times, or at least weirdness, approaching.