The 2015 Oscar season honored the heroic but tragic life of Alan Turing who is the acknowledged father of computer science. This year Turing’s handwritten notebook auctioned at Bonham’s for over a $1 million. Forty years ago the ENIGMA code-breaker committed suicide after the inhuman punishment meted out to him for his sexual orientation. April 2015 also marks the 60th death anniversary of another twentieth century intellectual giant who alas like Van Gogh and Turing is appreciated only after his time. Pierre Tielhard de Chardin was born in 1881 in France and breathed his last in New York in 1955. He was a world-renowned scientist and Jesuit priest, a stretcher-bearer for Algerian Muslims in World War I and earnest optimist about the human condition, a curator of Peking Man remains and prescient predictor of technology-mediated human networks, he loved immutable geological specimens and pondered ethereal spiritual questions. His scientific work was precise and rigorous; his musings on the nature of human beings and their spirit was wide, expansive and boldly speculative. There is a Tielhard revival underway as people rediscover his work and predictions on the evolution of super conscious humans who inform, collaborate and co-evolve using technology.
Tielhard maintained that technology is capable of moving us forward – not just materially but spiritually. He interpreted human evolution in more than Darwinian terms. Tielhard reckoned that humans represent a biological evolution with larger brains and capacity for speech – equipment that primed a quantum jump up from the consciousness in other sentient beings on earth. He coined the phrase Noosphere – a mental version of the Geo and Biosphere where human minds interact and co-evolve. A thin technological membrane that serves as connective tissue will mediate the next stage of human evolution. He further argued that the Noosphere involves greater personalization, individuality and interconnection in a continual journey towards the apex of consciousness called The Omega Point. Pretty radical stuff when Tielhard wrote about it in 1922 – when the best distance learning technology invented until then was the printed book.
Humbled by Tielhard’s brilliance yet encouraged by it, let us speculate on some long haul trajectories that might frame the envelope of business activity in the years to come.
We see a business landscape reshaped by three long arcs – the Internet (and its many facets), 3-D printing and unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones as they are incorrectly but frequently referred to).
Its 45 years since Intel invented the 4004 microprocessor – the first integrated circuit that started us on the first of the three arcs. We have lived through every layering atop the microprocessor – pcs, operating systems, applications software, browsers, portals, search engines and social media. We layered and we turbo charged the underlying microprocessor plus peripherals – more capability, small size, less power consumption. This arc has dramatically and irrevocably altered every aspect of business from R&D to after sales service. A staggering amount of change considering that it took about the same amount of time (nearly 50 years) for the typewriter to go from lab bench to office desk.
Many suggest that we are at the tail end of Moore’s Law – that processing power per unit cost cannot double every eighteen months interminably. Some point to advances in optical computing and bio computing will continue the onward march of Moore’s Law. Be that as it may, many evolutionary changes are anticipated – faster, more ubiquitous, more mobile networks, less expensive reliable storage, more useful apps. This arc will continue to evolve and its ripples are unlikely to abate any time soon.
The second arc is just beginning. Today’s 3D printers remind you of computers before the microprocessor. They are large, slow, clunky, error prone and in the domain of technical specialists who futz around with it like first time parents. It makes an agonizing twenty minutes to print out a simple toy figure. Remember noisy dot matrix printers? As you are reading this there are teams of researchers, doctors, scientists and students at the Cardiovascular Research Institute in Louisville, KY watching a machine print out an artificial human ear! Its slow, awfully expensive and with plenty of bugs to be worked out. But some very bright people are working on it and they will succeed. The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda has a 3-D Print Exchange for researchers, scientists and engineers to trade “printer drivers” for 3-D biological models. Even pop culture has cottoned on to the possibilities afforded by 3-D printing. A recent episode of The Good Wife featured a plot line where a 3-D printed handgun misfires and kills someone. Who is responsible? The software designer? The hardware maker? The person who hit “print’? Made for interesting TV drama. More significantly tho’ – This arc of technological change will accelerate and manufacturing is going to change forever. Mass-customization will morph to mini-customization. When the coffee machine at home starts leaking we will simply download some software to print out a new part. We will not throw away the entire coffee machine, just the part that needs replacement. The local landfill will diminish too. A couple of really bright talented auto designers will manufacture small batches of cool cars tailor-made for niche markets; and they won’t cost a lot. Economically depressed areas can reinvent themselves into guild-like enclaves of specialty product manufacturers. 3-D printing could usher in more economic dynamism, more product variety, lower costs and less waste. It’s not a question of whether it will happen; it is a question of when. If you are not convinced take a look at this short video from Cornell University…
The third arc is about democratizing air transport and enabling inexpensive, quick air delivery of physical goods and material to any location. Unmanned aerial vehicles are a classic swords-to-ploughshares technology story like the Internet. Developed and deployed extensively by the US Military in the Middle East, this technology is about to go mainstream, or should we say Jetstream? By now most readers would have seen videos of Amazon Prime Air delivering packages to suburban doorsteps. This week the Federal Aviation Authority approved Amazon’s application to test commercial drone deliveries in the United States. An Australian company called Flirtey is testing UAV delivery of your favorite fast food in New Zealand. Imagine that! A Fortune 500 company is betting it might become cost-effective for UAVs to deliver a $5 product to your door. It is going to be a be a while before Aviation authorities in most countries craft rules, approve sense and avoid technology and set reasonable standards that balance safety, privacy and innovation. Meanwhile the aerial (re)evolution in gathering momentum in less glamorous sectors. Japanese farmers use UAVs to monitor crops and soil conditions, micro targeting fertilizers and pesticides; yields have increased by 15%! We have read reports that over 10% of Japan’s agricultural output can be attributed to UAV usage. UAVs are used to monitor wind turbines and power lines at a fraction of the cost of manual inspections. UAVs are safe, cost effective in an increasing array of applications at current market prices. With stiffer competition among suppliers, more volume production and improved designs this technology will prove irresistibly attractive. UAVs will radically alter industry supply chains as the effects drift upstream – the locus and shape of distribution warehouses, retail outlets and service centers will have to change. UAS industry watchers claim new that in the first three years after favorable FAA rulings the US economy will add nearly 35,000 manufacturing jobs and$13 billion in economic value added. That is real jobs and real money!
The BIG question is how are firms preparing for this emerging future? Are they thinking of the dramatic changes that are underway in every aspect their industry’s value chain? We hear the challenge “can you swim with the sharks?” That is old school. The future is about being able to swim with a school of piranha. If you are a large volume manufacturer – your competition is not another large volume manufacturer. It is a thousand small volume manufacturers – none of whom can kill you but each one will make you bleed just a little. Same if you are a retailer, tech giant, airline, restaurant chain, toymaker. The future heading is towards us from three directions raising big thorny questions that every firm needs to answer. Soon!
Tielhard and Turing were great minds that saw the future well before anyone else. The rest of us are just regular Joes trying to stay afloat. But if we learn anything from them it is this…question the norm, look for a different way, let your imagination guide you and to heck with naysayers – they are predictably reliable defenders of the status quo. Isn’t it simply crazy that we fail to recognize great minds when they push human beings to think differently? Instead we ignore, ridicule and often persecute them. What a pity. Makes you want to cry and then go out and do something to change the status quo. Doesn’t it?