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Autonomous-wheels in motion

Tech specialist and futurologist Ben Hammersley (right) elaborates on the emerging technologies set to shape our future over the next 20 years and the impact they’ll have on logistics and delivery

What three new pieces of technology will have had the biggest impact on the world in 20 years’ time?
Artificial Intelligence (AI); Nanopore DNA Sequencing (which enables anything biological to be definitively identified very cheaply, quickly, and anywhere, transforming everything from medicine to food safety to rainforest timber detection); and reusable rockets (which bring the price to launching to low Earth orbit down 10-fold, giving us massive opportunities for satellite monitoring of the earth, and genuine industry in space, heading toward being a multi-planetary species.)

How do you think these could be applied to logistics?
AI is the big one here. It touches every aspect of logistics: better data and analytics means better route planning, better assessment of business needs vis-à-vis stock levels and usage, more just-in-time processes, and more efficient practices all round. But in many ways that’s just a continuation of what’s already happening, just a fraction faster or with more variables.

The real kicker is with AI enabling autonomous vehicles. We’re already very close to self-driving trucks, and with that will come self-driving ships, dock cranes, trains, and forklifts. It’s easily foreseeable to have, say, a product coming off a line in China, and getting all the way to a delivery bay at the back of an Apple Store in Barcelona, Spain, without human involvement at all. Add in something like drone delivery, and we could see the factory-to-user chain being entirely machine driven. Indeed, certain categories of product – made to order 3D printed widgets, for example – could be built, packed and delivered without any biological involvement apart from the person ordering it.

You could go even further, and knock out the human customer too: we already have white goods that monitor themselves, and can order replacement parts as and when needed. One’s washing machine could detect an imminent part failure, order a new one for itself over the internet, triggering a 3D printer in China to squirt one out, to be robotically packed and loaded into the back of a container, which is loaded by an autonomous crane onto an autonomous truck, driven to the high-speed rail depot, transferred by robot crane, driven across Asia by an AI locomotive, unloaded by robot in, say, Hamburg, Germany, onto the back of an autonomous truck, driven to a distribution depot where autonomous forklifts unpack it, and give it to the shelving robots, where it is picked, loaded onto a drone, and flown (autonomously) to your front door. There, I guess, you do your washing machine’s bidding and swap the part out.

The social effects of all this will be radical. Merely replacing human truck drivers will be devastating to many economies, even when it makes savings in other areas. It’s a radically disruptive scenario, and pretty much inevitable too.

What three trends will change the world over the next 20 years and how?
The rise of AI, and the gross inequalities that will come from it – in that people and companies will either have the skills and capabilities to use these new superpowers or they won’t – will lead to a widening of social gaps. The aging population will also become an issue (with their medical needs, lack of contribution to the economy, and overwhelming political power tending toward the conservative and nostalgic), as will climate change, which is about to become extraordinarily awful, in a boiling-frog sort of way.

We’ll being doing some really cool stuff over the next couple of decades, but it’ll be against a background of dire situations. Even a miracle technology, such as fusion power, with the ability to produce unlimited clean power basically for free, would bring with it considerable stress in the realignment of the global political order.

What do you think 2037 will look like?
Just like today, only 3º warmer. So take the weather of somewhere 500 miles south of you, and bring it up to your latitude. You might currently live in a desert, so plan accordingly.

What’s the best course of action?
These are technologies and environmental changes that will affect everyone on the planet. They can only be dealt with internationally, and with a complete understanding and empathy for, not only everyone else’s predicament, but also their skills and opportunities. Anyone, any country, that walls itself off in a fit of nationalism or fearful prejudice is pretty much doomed.

Ben Hammersley is the principal of Hammersley Futures, a Los Angeles based, international futures and scenario planning consultancy, and contributing editor of Wired magazine.

March 21, 2017


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