Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eleven Groovy (or Not So Groovy) Disruptive Technologies Coming Soon to a Future Near You . . .

I’m writing a new novel these days, and as I research I’m stumbling across all sorts of interesting disruptive technologies that are just a matter of time before they reach a town near you. Some I find pleasing; others less so. As they arrive, inevitably some things (and jobs) will go away. My prognostications:

There's must be an app for that
    1) Self-ordering at fast food and even chain sit-down restaurants.  This is just too easy because the technology already exists and doesn't cost much. So at fast food places, we'll soon be seeing  kiosks that take orders and payments faster than cashiers (who basically punch the same buttons). At sit down restaurants, we'll see an ipad-type device on every table for people to both place their order and self pay. This will not only reduce server costs, it will turn over tables faster. Even though I’m pro pushing up the minimum wage, a higher minimum wage will inevitably expedite this technology and reduce the number of minimum wage server jobs. I expect self-ordering to be widespread within three years. What will go away: millions of food service cashier and waiter/waitressing jobs. What will stay: Waiters/waitresses at high end restaurants for the “bespoke” customer experience. (Also at restaurants run by small businesses that can’t afford the tech.) Cooks, table clearers, food bringers. (Robot trolley servers are still a ways off.)

Leave the driving to the pros
      2)   Autonomous cabs. It will turn out they’re safer, not to mention more energy efficient than human drivers, and will require less fuel costs and insurance. They will also be smaller than current cabs, taking up less space on the street, and be electric (no fumes and quiet). Expect to see them first in cities where there are already  a lot of cabs. What will go away: big city cab drivers, even Uber and Lyft drivers. Asthma and lung cancer will be reduced. What will stay: Electric car repair technicians. Uber and Lyft drivers in areas with less dense populations. 

There used to be a gas station . . .
      3)   Urban Infill. Ok, this is only a technological change if you consider urban living a technology in and of itself, but it’s significant just the same. It’s already happening in spades in some US cities (San Francisco, NYC, parts of LA, Boston, Washington DC, Denver, St. Louis) but will spread to smaller, regional ones as well. Expect just about every surface parking lot to disappear (they just don’t produce very much value) along with most gas stations, car dealerships, auto repair shops, etc. They will be replaced by multistory residential. (Lucky neighborhoods will get residential over ground floor retail/offices/light manufacturing.) This will cause many cities to join the 10,000+ per sq mile population density club within 10 years: Seattle, Portland, San Jose, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Oakland, Minneapolis, and Honolulu. Urban infill is even increasing (or will increase) the density of such cities as Houston, Dallas, Columbus, Charlotte, Sacramento, Omaha, and Atlanta. What will go away: much car-related infrastructure in the cities mentioned. Much street parking. (It will be turned to other uses to accommodate all the new people.) Many suburbs. What will stay: car-related infrastructure where real estate has lower value (suburbs). Urban construction-related jobs. Urban shoe repair shops and bicycle repair shops, for all the city pedestrians and bicyclists who will be walking and biking so much more.

Waste not, want not
      4)  Heating Districts. I’ve become enamored with waste heat, or, more precisely, how to make use of it in the United States. Two thirds of the energy of the fossil fuels we burn—to make electricity, for industrial process, to run our cars--we get nothing out of. It all just dissipates into the atmosphere. In fact, if all homes in America were sealed and insulated to just 1990’s building standards, the US currently has enough industrial waste heat available to heat every one of them. In Europe they are much better at using heating districts to capture and utilize the low-grade heat from electricity production and industrial processes. Heating districts do take a significant upfront investment--a lot of trenching and piping—but then they’re good for 50 years. Although, because of cost per mile, they may never pencil out economically for diffuse suburban sprawl, there are already a few dozen heating districts in the US in cities, on college campuses, and in a few small towns. (Check out Stanford’s nifty updated heating district with a new heat recovery system that meets 93% of their campus heating load with waste heat from their cooling load.) What will go away: much use of natural gas, electricity and fuel oil for space heating. Natural gas fracking jobs. What will stay: Heating district construction jobs. Heat pump and control system manufacturers.

Our hovering friend
    5) Widespread video and drone surveillance. Not a fan of this, I just see it happening. The technology is already available, highly effective, and widely used. Voiceprint recognition and facial recognition means any city street you walk down, any store you go into you can be identified and your activities recorded. License plate readers mean everywhere you drive you can be tracked, even without GPS. Combine this with how easy it is for your computer and purchasing activity to be monitored, and there isn’t a lot left to know. Security drones (operated by police? other government agencies?) will start to get into the act soon. What will go away: a heck of a lot of privacy/anonymity. Maybe some human security guards. What will stay: easier to solve crimes, keep neighborhoods secure. Drone, surveillance, and big data processing companies.

A package deal
    6) Package Pick up lockers. These already exist but will become more widespread because they have the potential to save delivery companies so much money. Less employee time, less fuel burned, no multiple attempts at delivery. At first you’ll probably get some kind of discount if you select to pick up your package at a locker. In dense cities these lockers will likely be within walking distance at a currently dead storefront. In the suburbs they’ll probably take over a dead strip mall. When your package arrives, you’ll get an email with a code and three days to retrieve it. The locker area will have video security and no lines, (unlike at the post office.) Later, shipping costs to your home will be precisely based on how much it will cost the company to send someone to your location. This will give further incentive to use the lockers. What will go away: many UPS/FED Ex drivers. What will stay: automated locker manufacturers and software programmers.

Pure is pure
       7)   Recycled Water. Yes, I know, all water is basically recycled constantly. What I mean here is that eventually all water used in households and by commercial businesses will be captured, processed, filtered and reused. Only toilet flushes will go directly to the sewer. Why? As cities grow denser, sewer systems won’t be able to keep up. The cost of new sewage treatment plants will make the economics of recycling water on site attractive. At first new apartment buildings will adopt this, then all new construction, then everyone else will retrofit. (Already in Washington DC, not a place I associate with drought, high-end new apartment buildings are capturing shower water for toilet flushes.) It will turn out that the filtered recycled water will be purer (less contaminants) than city-supplied water and people will prefer it. What will go away: some water bills. What will stay: plumbers and water recycling engineers. 

Can I get a latte with that?
     8) Starbucks of funeral homes. Okay, turn up your nose, but a heck of a lot of Baby Boomers are set to pop off over the next decade. Consider that this generation is largely tech and social media savvy, and consider that funeral homes are creepy and have fat, fat profit margins. This creates an enormous disruptive business opportunity for someone to create a joyous LifeEnd Ceremony franchise (hey, can I trademark this?) that combines the comfortable, transparent, I-know-what-I’ll-get-experience of Starbucks with the controlled self-display/sharing gratification of social media. Imagine designing your entire funeral service on line, at any hour of the day or night. Select your urn and flowers. (Sunflowers and daisies? No problem.) Upload the prayers, music and photos you desire for the service. Heck, even narrate the service yourself. Select the site for your ceremony, any one of 2000 LifeEnd franchises across the country. Upload an invite list (with email or text contact info.) Leave instructions for what should be done with your ashes. (Scatter at sea with biodegradable confetti; ensconce in a birdhouse to be scattered by birds; shoot them over a mountain pass in a rocket, etc.) Prepay with a credit card. There, all taken care of, everything exactly as you want it. No trouble for your loved ones! All this for just $1000, payable in installments. (I imagine the price would be higher if you wanted a burial that actually involved real estate.) Look folks, this is a plum opportunity just waiting to be picked. Maybe someone is writing an app for it as you read this. What will go away: many overpriced funeral homes. What will stay: Baby boomers will leave this world in control and much more cheaply.

Freight future
    9)Electrified rail freight. There is some talk about autonomous trucking, but I see that happening mostly just for the last mile (or the last five) of deliveries. The long hauls will happen by train because rail is far more energy efficient. It’s true that the current freight rail system is fairly dysfunctional, but there is enormous opportunity to streamline the whole thing with computer systems that control both tracks and cars. This would increase the speed of long distance rail delivery five-fold (heck, just fixing the rail mess around Chicago would double the speed) and reduce costs by the same amount. In addition, it’s far more possible to electrify rail than trucks. I am guessing 50% of trucking jobs will go away in five years, 75% in ten. What will go away: millions of trucking jobs. What will stay: rail jobs, automated transportation control manufacturers and engineers.

Store the heat
      10) Seasonal Thermal Storage. Take the heat of the summer, use a heat pump to stuff it in the ground or in some water, and use it in the winter, perhaps via a district heating system. This is already entirely possible, and, as you might imagine, extremely energy efficient since it doesn’t involve creating heat, just moving it around. Even better, this technique can be used to pull blistering heat from under asphalt or concrete in the summer, save it in underground boreholes, and reuse it in the winter to melt snow on the same stretch. (This is not to be confused with current snowmelt systems that use vast amounts of newly-created heat.) This would not only reduce use of salt brine (wicked bad for the environment and wicked cause of pot holes) and snow plows (wicked cause of street and curb damage), it would extend road surface life, it would make sidewalks that rarely get shoveled walkable in winter, and, get this, it would reduce the urban heat island effect that makes many of our cities sweltering misery all July and August. This is not cheap, so it won’t happen everywhere, but where it goes in, people will love it. What will go away: salt use, snow plows, natural gas and fuel oil for heat, some electricity consumption for air conditioning. What will stay: Seasonal thermal storage engineers and construction companies.
Use it in winter

   11) Automatic Body Activity Managers. Imagine a wristband that monitors your caloric intake, calories burned, steps you take, distance you travel, your stress level, how you sleep, hydration level, your heart rate, and your blood pressure, all via just three sensors--a pressure sensor, an impedance sensor and an accelerometer. (It counts calories by monitoring the body’s glucose curve via the impedance sensor.) No way, you say? Maybe someday, in the age of Star Trek? It already exists. This device could have an enormous predictive impact on heath care costs, in that anyone who both maintains activity levels above a certain threshold and consumes only as many calories as they burn are going to be vastly cheaper to insure. I predict that companies will adopt it first by giving financial incentives to employees who wear the wristbands 24/7 (the wristbands can tell if you cheat!) and meet the threshold measures. Then health insurance companies will get into the act. I am not personally anxious to wear such a device, but given that health care costs are close to consuming 20% of our nation’s wealth, something’s going to give on this front. Food consumption and activity levels are the number one and two predictors of both one’s health and one’s ultimate health care consumption.  What will go away: yet more privacy, probably a lot of empty calories. What will stay: treadmill desks?

So there you have it. For better or worse, a future coming soon!