Sunday, April 13, 2014

Two Trends Worth Mentioning...

I usually shy away from predictions, but I think two new trends I am seeing more of recently are worth mentioning: post-materialism culture and self-navigating quadro/multi-copters.


Since about three or four years ago, I've been seeing a slowly strengthening trickle of articles and personal stories on topics like the "tyranny of stuff" and "paying for experiences instead of things". The first well constructed expression of this trend I read was Bruce Sterling's "Last Viridian Note". While such a change in lifestyle in the past was driven by more external reasoning like "save the earth", this discourse has a more personal flavor to it. Up until the Great Recession (and a little after), there was in the U.S.A., and certain other emerging and developed economies, a relentless cultural drive to have luxurious things and, often, more than one of a particular luxurious thing. Doing so signaled high status.

Today, however, in some sub-cultures of the West, owning almost nothing but a few exceedingly high quality items and developing the complete freedom of time and wealth to have endless interesting experiences holds the highest status. This shift is fascinating, because with a little skill, one needs much less wealth to create such a life, vs. the cost of a life of accumulating and maintaining a large collection of possessions. In an era of stagnant real income, eliminating the ongoing costs of possessions is becoming ever more attractive. Experiences happen, often make us happier, and then leave our lives. Unless we suffer some injury or ailment, the costs of an experience stop when it stops. People are starting to notice the "time cost" of possessions. Everything you have must, at some point, be maintained or curated. We lose that time forever. Between the reduction in available real income and the time spent on curation, shifting to a life of interesting experiences that make us happier leaves us with both more money and more time.


Much of the startup chatter today is about disrupting this or that. Usually, either the disruption is of mundane things, or the basic business math does not really hold up in the long run, or the disruption is entirely within our online lives ("We're going to bring 'social' to ordering fast food online"). Actual "in real life" disruption, like horse and buggy to automobile, does not come around too often because of the great costs involved in developing a new technology. Two such technologies are emerging and merging, quadro/multi-copters and self-navigation. I think they will change our daily experience of transportation before 2020. In my understanding, while multi-copters have more rotor units, the whole system is simpler to manage and easier to fix.

Like some past deep shifts in technology, multi-copter technology started in universities and the toy industry. Toys have notoriously razor-thin profit margins, so getting the complex flight behavior, efficiency, and reliability of a multi-copter into a profitable toy-priced package bodes well for future scaling. Toy multi-copters have already been imbued with self-navigation and self-organization behaviors, driven by sharply falling costs of GPS technology, model-based design, and the ongoing concurrent trends of miniaturization and power reduction for computers. This means that a particularly difficult aspect of a new technology, the mathematical models running the technology, are already simple enough and mature enough to sell toys profitably.

Consider a multi-copter harness around a single standard shipping container or around a locked together block of containers. This would enable air delivery of the products inside with much less airport infrastructure - especially if the flight is fully automated. Multi-copters need similarly small infrastructure to helicopters, but their software model driven multitude of direct-driven rotors can have much better recovery characteristics than helicopters in the case of single rotor unit failure. Then consider, with enough safety engineering, the equivalent of an automated aerial train system without the need for the dedication of large land tracts to airports.  It would take less infrastructure to build out such a system than an equivalent rail system. Such an infrastructure is certainly a strong candidate for enabling people mobility in rural areas of the world with limited rail infrastructure, like Africa and Siberia.