Bryan Caplan  

Soonish Success!

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soonish.jpgI'm delighted to report that my co-author - Zach Weinersmith - and his co-author - Kelly Weinersmith - have hit the New York Times Bestseller list with their Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything.  It's a fascinating work, packed with scientific insight, humor, and spot-on comicking.

Substantively, my main reaction is that most of the technologies they explore are still a long way off.   Space travel in general, and asteroid mining in particular, won't improve or ruin anything for decades - or centuries.  Robin Hanson might find some cause for hope in the chapter on brain-computer interfaces, but even that's not clear.  Augmented reality is the only technology on the Weinersmiths' list that's making the world more exciting without delay. 

Needless to say, the remoteness of radical technological change is not the authors' fault.  They are only the messengers.  But their analysis strongly reminded me of Zach's earlier (and also excellent) Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543.  Science dashes natural hope as readily as supernatural hope.

Personally, the one future technology I'm excited about is the driverless car.  It didn't get its own chapter in Soonish, but probably should have.  Saving tons of time, boredom, and frustration on Earth lacks the romance of soaring to the stars.  But I firmly expect to see a world transformed by driverless cars in my lifetime - and for me, the stars are forever out of reach.

That said, my heart continues to skip a beat whenever I hear about a new exoplanet.  Space opera is coming, though perhaps not for a few millennia...




COMMENTS (9 to date)
PaulS writes:

I'm not so sure about those headless cars - they don't excite me at all.

"Saving tons of time, boredom, and frustration on Earth" - not so much. In order to gift trillions in patent and copyright royalties over to the Silicon Valley rentiers for the 'brain boxes', those cars will be fantastically expensive to buy once they are truly headless. Most of us will be forced instead to pay a fare on a meter of some kind, and for affordability will be forced into shared rides. In other words, the darned thing will function as a miniature bus or subway, with all the disadvantages that already put people off using those.

It will be absurdly time-consuming, partly because sharing leads to stops and circuitous routing, and partly because the vehicle is never available just when you need it. Something like public transit. So much for "saving tons of time". Ugh.

Taxis already have the "vomit problem", but at least the driver can look after it. Headless cars, who knows? The transaction costs of checking and cleaning after every ride will be unsustainable. Yet nobody is talking about the 'brain box' having a nose. So you may well be picked up by a norovirus-infected vomitmobile. Since it is also likely to be small and cramped, partly for the sake of battery life, contact will be unavoidable. Ugh.

Shared use also tends to imply busy-hour price-gouging, as with the infamous Uber. With traditional vehicles, and thus competition, abolished, sociable people will be gouged mercilessly. Headless vehicles will ultimately be affordable only at what European labor agencies refer to as anti-social hours. As if the US of A really needs even more decline in social cohesion. Ugh.

So the car will be cramped, shared, costly, and only intermittently available. Where, then, is there any opening for "saving tons of time and frustration"? Does anyone need to spend even more time staring at a screen the size of a slip of paper (about the only activity possible in such conditions)? Really? Does anyone need to spend endless time in logistic planning and app-tapping for a short trip that used to be as simple as in "just get in and drive five minutes"? Really?

For now, experimental headless cars seem to get into an awful lot of fender-benders. That doesn't bode well for what happens once they become numerous, with no one at all supervising them, and with poor maintenance as with current taxis and buses, which often break down. Ugh.

That also implies that for the sake of both safety and "safety", they will need to drive like your 112-year-old grandparent on a very bad day. (No "artificial intelligence" is involved for now, despite the hype, it's all Big Data and trackless trolley, which is why billions are being spent to map every litter basket and sewer grate.) Possibly the whole system will just shut down and strand you at the first appearance of a snowflake or even raindrop. There's a reason they like to test them in the relatively arid US Southwest. So much, yet again, for "saving tons of time". Ugh.

The only consolation might be an improvement in safety in the very far future, once enough people have been killed to work out myriads of details (as with current aircraft, there will be hardly any simple accidents, just complicated ones. The response will be complicated computer code.) On the other hand, despite all the hand-wringing and virtue-signaling, traffic deaths now are somewhere around a mere 0.7% of the total. So it will be a fairly minor consolation, almost lost in the noise.

So what positive is there to get excited about?

Mark Bahner writes:
Personally, the one future technology I'm excited about is the driverless car. It didn't get its own chapter in Soonish, but probably should have. Saving tons of time, boredom, and frustration on Earth lacks the romance of soaring to the stars. But I firmly expect to see a world transformed by driverless cars in my lifetime - and for me, the stars are forever out of reach.

Yes, driverless cars (and buses and trucks) are going to change everything. But not in a good way for everyone:

1) Brick and mortar retail are going to be devastated, as goods are delivered by robotic vehicles from warehouses in which humans could never shop. I expect that fully 90% of the brick-and-mortar Walmarts, Targets, Krogers, Rite-Aids, Lowes, etc. etc. to be shut down or repurposed to warehouses before the middle of this century. So imagine every one of those stores you drive by is closed, and that all the people working in them need to find new jobs.

2) The tax value of all those stores will disappear. So imagine every town without the taxes from retail establishments.

3) Truck driving jobs will vanish. That's one way someone with a very limited education can make pretty good money. They'll need to find new jobs.

4) It's likely that far, far fewer cars and trucks will be built in the U.S., because the autonomous cars will be owned by fleet owners, so the cars can be on the road 12+ hours per day, rather than

5) Virtually all gas stations will likely vanish, because fleet owners will just need one refueling point.

Don't get me wrong...the savings will be tremendous, and overall autonomous vehicles will likely be a very good thing. But we shouldn't be blind to the fact that creative destruction includes destruction.

Thaomas writes:

Driversless cars and busses do seem to hold out the promise of reducing a lot of the external costs of congestion. Combined with technologically enabled pricing of rod and street use, driverless vehicles could overcome much of the problem of exclusive zoning and NANBYist opposition to residential and commercial development in cities like NYC, San Francisco and Washington DC.

Glen Smith writes:

@Mark

Driverless delivery is probably the only way brick and mortar retail stores survive.

ChrisA writes:

I think the impact of driverless cars will be much less than deliveries by drone on the shopping experience. I initially dismissed drone deliveries as typical silicon valley hype, but having seen them develop over the last few years I am changing my mind. Automated drone technology is advancing fast, and actually the problem is easier than driverless cars since airspace relies more on GPS and there are significantly less obstacles. I can easily now imagine ordering something on Amazon and the entire delivery process happening automatically via drone from a centrally located warehouse in 10 or so minutes, almost like instantaneous, with some kind of smart phone app like Uber to track the drone and anticipate arrival at the exact spot where you are. Amazon already has pretty good technology for forecasting demand, so keeping popular items in stock won't be too much of a problem, and the warehouse will be automated from shelf to delivery making the logistics extremely cheap.

Fred_PA_2000 writes:

(1) It seems to me that one obvious attraction of the driverless car is for us old folks who would otherwise be banned from the streets as unfit to do it ourselves any longer.

(2) I suspect many brick & mortar stores will migrate toward being showrooms for merchandise the buyers want to experience before buying. (E.g., "Does this dress make me look fat?")

(3) Some of the commentary seems to assume that cost will be high and critical and/or that these changes will work greater poverty upon our population. And yet . . . (a) Moore's Law (and other versions of the experience curve) imply that costs are likely to start below the costs of current alternatives and keep falling, and (b) history says we seem to just keep getting richer.

Mark Bahner writes:
Driverless delivery is probably the only way brick and mortar retail stores survive.

I don't think driverless delivery helps brick and mortar stores. Brick and mortar stores are designed to have customers come to the store. For example, they have parking lots, well-lit and air conditioned stores, displays designed for customers (e.g. frozen food freezers with glass doors and internal lighting), and checkout sections of the store based on customers coming to the store.

Rather than retrofit those stores, I think it will be much easier to build warehouses from scratch...probably with robots doing a significant portion of the internal movement of goods.

And with driverless delivery, there's no need to have a store at the nearest corner. The number of warehouses will be far less than the number of stores. For example, within a 5 mile radius of my house, there are at least four drugstores. Plus at least 5 more grocery or big box stores that sell over-the-counter drugs (and many of them have a prescription capability). So that's about ten stores selling over-the-counter drugs just within a five mile radius of me. I could easily see all those being replaced by 1-2 warehouses (or even zero, if the warehouse happens to be more than five miles away).

So I think driverless delivery vehicles will bury brick-and-mortar, not save it.

Mark Bahner writes:
I think the impact of driverless cars will be much less than deliveries by drone on the shopping experience. I initially dismissed drone deliveries as typical silicon valley hype, but having seen them develop over the last few years I am changing my mind.

I still view them as Silicon Valley hype. I agree with you that "airspace relies more on GPS and there are significantly less obstacles."

But the huge problems I see with drones are energy consumption and noise. I can easily see a delivery vehicle loaded with groceries for 10 families having 300-500 pounds of cargo. That's going to take a huge engine to get airborne. And it's going to be very loud.

The only situation I see drones as a possibility is high-priced, low-weight items. Especially delivered to mountainous, remote locations. Like serum to Nome.

Mark Bahner writes:
(1) It seems to me that one obvious attraction of the driverless car is for us old folks who would otherwise be banned from the streets as unfit to do it ourselves any longer.

Absolutely. I hope to not even own a car beyond 75. But it will also be a boon for kids under 16, and parents of children 16-19, who know they shouldn't be driving. And disabled people. And for people who simply hate driving, or have better things to do in cars.

(2) I suspect many brick & mortar stores will migrate toward being showrooms for merchandise the buyers want to experience before buying. (E.g., "Does this dress make me look fat?")

Unfortunately for the brick and mortar stores, I don't see this for clothes, shoes, and most other things. The delivery vehicles can deliver many sizes of the same shoe or piece of clothing, and the delivery vehicle can simply come back for the clothes/shoes that didn't fit.

(3) Some of the commentary seems to assume that cost will be high and critical and/or that these changes will work greater poverty upon our population.

I agree that's clearly wrong. The situation at present is that people own cars, but most cars are parked ~22 hours per day, and drive about 30-40 miles per day. Plus, most cars have a single occupant, even though they're typically designed for four or more occupants. This makes for an extremely high cost per passenger mile driven. Autonomous vehicles purchased as a service will be *far* less costly. Government reimbursement rates are currently about 55 cents/mile. I expect autonomous vehicles delivering transportation as a service to cost under 20 cents per mile.

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