An Autonomous Future

Amazon made headlines a few weeks ago by announcing that they want to deliver your orders directly from the warehouse to your door in as little as half an hour using autonomous drones. After a few years of Google successfully testing their self-driving car, this probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Computing and robotics have gotten cheap, small, and powerful enough to enable these kinds of futuristic applications. And they’re going to completely change the world.

I know it’s really easy to say something like “change the world”, but hear me out. Let’s fast-forward a decade to when self-driving cars are the norm and drone delivery is commonplace. Now let’s step through what could be a typical day.

I wake up in the morning and see that we’ve run out of milk. We’re also a little low on bell peppers and I remember that we need a new nylon turner. I pull out my phone, open the Amazon app, and place my order within a minute or two. Meanwhile, at the Amazon distribution center, a 3D printer starts making that new turner for my order while a drone flies around the warehouse picking up the other items I asked for. About 45 minutes later, I get a notification that the drone is there. I go to my back door, my preferred delivery location and pick up the items without even changing out of my pajamas.

I have lunch plans with some co-workers later that day, so I make sure to order a car for the trip. About five minutes before I need to leave, it pulls up into my driveway. I undock my laptop and continue working while it makes the 15-minute drive to where we wanted to meet. Once we arrive, I use the built-in console to tell the car that I plan to leave in about 45 minutes. It takes off to pick up the next person, and I go inside to order some food.

I walk up to a touchscreen terminal and pick out my food, paying right there. I go take a seat and 10 minutes later, another drone drops off my food. It was freshly prepared by an automated system that now occupies the back of the house, kept company by a couple of people whose sole purpose is to load it with ingredients and do the occasional quality check. The restaurant is kept clean with a bunch of robots that handle cleaning floors, tables, and seats. Once I’m done eating, I go outside to the waiting car and telecommute for the drive home.

The most unbelievable part of this scenario is that almost all of the technology I described currently exists. A 3D printer can make a basic kitchen utensil, but it can also print artificial limbs or, with the right size, an entire house. Quadracopter drones are available on toy shelves. Uber and Lyft do on-demand car hailing, and Google has half a million autonomous miles under its belt. I use a self-service ordering machine at the movie theatre. The robot that makes food? It’s been churning out 360 hamburgers per hour for almost a year. The Roomba spawned robots that scrub tile floors and clean out rain gutters.

These advancements are going to come at a serious cost of disruption. If I can reliably have a car show up at my house and drive me where I need to go, why would I own a car or employ a driver? If a retailer will deliver goods to my house in about the amount of time it would take to make a trip to the store, why would I ever set foot into a retail operation? If durable household goods can be created on-demand, why would you need to ship crates of those items all over the globe? Heck, imagine a public transit system where riders punch in their travel schedules ahead of time and the routes dynamically adjust to get everyone where they’re going on-time with minimal waste!

Personally, I’m excited that such a future is not only possible, but likely in such a short time. How about you?

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2 Responses to An Autonomous Future

  1. The unions are going to scream out: “BUT THE JOBS LOST!!”

    Health nuts will decry the lack of exercise.

    I wonder why you don’t have a 3D printer at your home.

    And, of course, there’s SkyNet. But really, let’s be honest: that’s a pretty dang cool looking future.

  2. Kristi says:

    Yeah, my first thought was, “you don’t have your own 3D printer?”
    I’m a cynic who watched too much of The Jetsons, but I’m still ticked our cars don’t fly. I suppose self driving is a small improvement. But I’m afraid of terrorists hacking into the system and making all our cars drive us off cliffs.

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