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Bull Session

The Autonomous Auto Industry

February 16, 2017          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we chat about Ford's recent billion dollar investment in self-driving cars and what that might mean for the future of the auto industry. Ford Motor recently announced their $1B investment in Argo AI, a start-up developing autonomous vehicle tech in Pittsburg with former Google and Uber experts at the helm.

Ford is a the latest major American automaker to throw their hat in the autonomous vehicle ring. The field is already a crowded one: GM, Chrysler, Uber, Google, Tesla, and Apple all want a piece of that market. But, as the race heats up, the industry will need to consider questions of infrastructure, regulation, insurance, and policy. What will the government’s role and investment be in this burgeoning industry? How will the laws governing self-driving cars shape up?

Resources:
Ford to Invest $1 Billion in Artificial Intelligence Start-Up

Jon:
Welcome to episode 194 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Greetings listeners.

Jon:
On this episode of the Digital Life we’re going to discuss Ford’s recent billion dollar investment in self-driving cars and what that means for the future of the auto industry. Ford Motor recently announced a $1 billion investment which is going to take place over the next five years in a startup out of Pittsburgh actually, and the startup is called Argo AI and they’re developing autonomous vehicle tech. They just got going in December, so this is a fresh organization and it has technologist formerly from Google and Uber that were focusing on these self-driving technologies who are going to be leading the effort for Argo.

Pittsburgh is the place of choice because it’s a robotics hub. We know that they have a great university system there and a burgeoning hub for robotics and self-driving vehicle research. It will also have some satellite offices as you might expects, there’s one on San Francisco and also one in Michigan which makes sense given the car industry’s dominance of that region.

I found this particularly interesting because there’s an inflection point coming here with the autonomous car technology. I think we’re starting to reach it or are very close to that. The reason I say that is the level of investment has increased from both technology companies, so you’ve got your Ubers, your Googles, possibly Apple. Of course Apple is not saying anything, and then sort of the company that’s straddling tech and the auto industry which is of course Tesla.

On the other side you have your mainline manufacturers of cars who have been in business for decades and decades, folks like GM and Chrysler. Now Ford is throwing their hat in the ring. What this says to me is that the autonomous vehicle race is on, it’s not quite a moonshot but there’s a lot going on there, there’s a lot of things to sort out. This is a technology race that is heating up for sure. Based on that, I’m very curious as to what are the enabling technologies, what are the governmental regulations and insurance, sort of guidance that’s going to make this all happen.

Because we have a lot of those regulations in place for managing cars that we drive ourselves and now we’re going into this period of transition, and I think it’s going to get really complicated really quickly. With that preamble, Dirk, what are your initial impressions of this fairly sizeable investment from a major American automaker in AI and autonomous vehicle technology? Do you see this inflection point coming at least in terms of investment?

Dirk:
Yes, I mean it’s interesting to see. It reinforces that they’re not completely buying the times and clueless, they’re making an effort. I don’t know much about Argo specifically as a company, so whether they’re betting on the right horse or not, who knows? Maybe not. Superficially, their eye is on the right ball. You mentioned the self-driving vehicle is sort of a moonshot. To me, the self-driving vehicles are more of the, I want to say short-term but I’ll call it medium term.

In the 2020s we’ll start shifting over in quantity to self-driving vehicle. To me that’s sort of a known and it’s within our current field of vision. Where I think the moonshot lies is the future of transportation. Somewhere between now and 2050 there’s going to be significant consolidation of transportation types. Right now there are all these distinct things that are distinct structurally and they’re also distinct in the technology they use to power them. Whether it would be motorcycle, car, bus, train, subway, airplane, among others, right now these are super fragmented and they’re treated as though like their own thing where it’s different manufacturers who are making the thing.

We as citizens we see them as sort of inhabiting almost different ecosystems even if they’re sharing the same roads in some cases. What is going to happen is this consolidation where single companies are going to produce vehicles that cover multiple of those use cases, they’re killing some sub sections of the different transportation technologies and moving them into a more technologically advanced, a more modern, a more appropriate for where we are intact as well as the green considerations that we’ll need to be making in the future things.

For me when I see Ford invest in Argo, that’s a signifier to me that maybe Ford will be one of the companies left standing at the end. It’s trying to sort of plan ahead, it’s probably more likely that a true tech company would buy Ford and just gobble them along the way. I think Ford is at least positioning itself to have that happen in a meaningful way as opposed to just being left behind and have its value go precipitously down and either be bought for a very little or die.

Jon:
You’ve piqued my interest in terms of the consolidation paradigm there that you outlined. What kinds of consolidation do you see happen? One can imagine horrible sci-fi visions of hey, this vehicle can fly, and that can also become land transport as well. Do you have any examples of areas that you think will become merged into one as this consolidation happens?

Dirk:
I think it’s really use case based. If we look for example currently our cars, how we use our cars, there is some percentage of that. I’m not an expert so I’m not even guess, it’s some harebrained percentage. There are some percentage of that where it is necessary that I as an individual enter a vehicle and go to a specific place. There’s another percentage where I as an individual could get into a larger vehicle of some kind and be part of a group that is taken to a place. Right now the car covers a bunch of use cases, some of which should, into the foreseeable future given and it’s focusing in the United States, given the physical infrastructure here, it more or less has to be that way. A lot of it can be part of more mass transportation.

Jump to a different vehicle, jump to a bus. Right now a bus is serving a function of taking people to places all in a mass vehicle, there are some of those use cases that would be better … I don’t know if better is quite the right word, but would be more appropriate assuming the financial ability to pay for it to be an individual vehicle or a more private vehicle whereas some of the use cases are better to all be together. We could say the same thing for a subway. That’s talking about more consumer transportation.

I think in those use cases where it’s about vehicles that are using wheels, they’re on the ground that are primarily focused on taking people to the different things that they need to be taken to hither and yon, that there’s going to be some crunching and consolidation there. I don’t know what it’s going to look like because if we go back decades even, there’s always been this push like the high speed rail, like high speed rail is where it’s at.

There’s been lots of investment in that in the US, in different places, and it’s almost uniformly a failure. Even though logically people like, “Yeah, this is the right solution for the right thing. It’s the most efficient. It does the job”, it fails for a whole bunch of reason. I’m not going to stab at a solution, I haven’t researched this area enough and I don’t feel qualified to do it in a way that it isn’t silly, but I think that’s where it’s going to happen.

It’s going to be new forms of moving individuals around and those use cases will become more refined, and it’s going to be more refined ways of moving groups around that are more use case dependent. The big unknown of course is just one about money. One of the reasons people take public transportation now in some cities like New York it’s very convenient, I mean Boston to a lesser extent as well where we are, but often times it’s just money. Cars are expensive, like there is the car, there’s insurance, there’s the gas, there’s the parking lot. It’s just cost, and cost and cost and cost. Whereas public trans, it’s really affordable. There are socio economic issues here as well.

The other thing I’ll comment on Jon is on our last episode we talked about drones, and I think we’ll start to see not just in citizen, sort of citizen reorganization of how we’re getting around, but we’re going to see just logical decisions made around moving boxes, moving stuff. The example I talked about was with drone home delivery. I actually kind of expect drone home delivery to be a real thing and not just silly, and I think it’s because at this point Amazon and companies like it are sending a lot of boxes around that are basically air.

I don’t know what proportion it is but it’s certainly more than 10%, I’m going to say more than 20%. When I order on Amazon I get a box, it’s taking up a fair bit of space but it’s light, I mean there’s something like a little notebook, or an air freshener or just some random thing. It’s both really expensive to put that box that’s taking up cubic meters, cubic space into a truck. Whereas if you have a drone technology similar to the Facebook drone we looked at can be more solar powered so the green cost is very low, and it also can be more right to the door. Just send the drone out, you don’t need to wait for the next truck, it cuts the whole supply chain down.

Sorry if I’ve been a little long-winded here, but those are a couple of different ways in which I think it’s just the use cases are going to find their way to the tech right solution.

Jon:
Dirk, that’s a great breakdown and the drone certainly engenders visions once again of people moving drones and things like that. So transportation is definitely an area right before, as you said, consolidation and innovation. One area that I think goes a little bit unnoticed as we have these tech discussions is the infrastructure that’s required to support these new forms of transport whether they’d be autonomous vehicles or in the future, people moving drones, or your aforementioned sort of combination public transport/private transport however that manifest.

The infrastructure I’m talking about is not just the roadways of course but also the legal and insurance realms that are so important to enabling these technologies to happen. An example of what people are struggling with right now is sort of the insurance responsibilities for something like an autonomous vehicle. If you get into a car accident you weren’t driving really, it was the software, right? So are you responsible now? Who’s supplied the autonomous vehicle, are they responsible? Is the other vehicle and its AI responsible? Who knows. That needs to be worked out.

Additionally, we have at the same time this new forms of energy sources that are being used to power our vehicles. One can imagine the … Everything’s battery operated and electric in the future which means that the petroleum based gas stations are going to need to be changed into or at least modified to include charging stations. Right now all of these charging stations take awhile. You’re going to need a parking lot, you can’t just pull into a charger … At least so far and just plug it in and it’s immediately totally charged, and I’m sure that technology will come but it’s not here at the moment.

These infrastructure questions were answered very definitively by the US government when it came to the auto industry. There was nationalization of the federal highway system is a huge accomplishment. It enables people and goods to move freely across the US and that was all built on tax payer dollars. These questions like how do we enable these technologies, those things haven’t been answered even remotely yet. I am thinking there is going to be some bottlenecks here, and those bottlenecks are going to be where it comes to passing laws and to figuring some of the stuff out. I’m always surprised at the difficulties of getting smart regulation done in Washington. I think that’s going to be a bigger challenge than the technology side, I can almost guarantee that.

Dirk:
Yes, it’ll certainly be slower when it needs to be fast that’s for sure.

Jon:
I do think that there are interesting competitive issues that arise if the government is not able to facilitate companies to develop technology in a rapid way. It’s a global economy now, what’s to say that the Chinese equivalent of one of these companies make a big splash first. The playing filed is much broader as we outlined. There’s tech, there’s car companies and you broadened it even further to include other companies that are involved in transportation and might start consolidating some of these areas.

I think this is an area that we need to continue to watch, and I’m pretty excited to see it play out although I can’t imagine that it’s going to be all that smooth. I see a bumpy ride coming for the autonomous vehicle market.

Dirk:
Yes, and I think the specific ways in which it ends up manifesting will probably surprise us.

Jon:
That’s for sure. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to this show you can follow along with the things that we are mentioning here in realtime. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player Fm and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. Thanks so much for listening.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 194 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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Jon Follett
@jonfollett

Jon is Principal of Involution Studios and an internationally published author on the topics of user experience and information design. His most recent book, Designing for Emerging Technologies: UX for Genomics, Robotics and the Internet of Things, was published by O’Reilly Media.

Dirk Knemeyer
@dknemeyer

Dirk is a social futurist and a founder of Involution Studios. He envisions new systems for organizational, social, and personal change, helping leaders to make radical transformation. Dirk is a frequent speaker who has shared his ideas at TEDx, Transhumanism+ and SXSW along with keynotes in Europe and the US. He has been published in Business Week and participated on the 15 boards spanning industries like healthcare, publishing, and education.

Credits

Co-Host & Producer

Jonathan Follett @jonfollett

Co-Host & Founder

Dirk Knemeyer @dknemeyer

Minister of Agit-Prop

Juhan Sonin @jsonin

Audio Engineer

Michael Hermes

Technical Support

Eric Benoit @ebenoit

Brian Liston @lliissttoonn

Original Music

Ian Dorsch @iandorsch

Bull Session

The Next Wave of Drone Technology

February 12, 2017          

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the next wave of drone technology. Most of the country saw the massive swarming drone light display that was part of Lady Gaga's Super Bowl halftime show. The Intel Shooting Star drone system created effects not unlike sophisticated fireworks.

Have we entered the age of the drone? The possibilities seem endless: search-and-rescue missions to assist emergency crews after natural disasters, crop inspection and fertilizer / pesticide distribution for agricultural producers, delivering humanitarian supplies and medicine for NGOs, or even land surveys using heat-sensing cameras for scientists and archaeologists. Facebook is even preparing to deliver Internet to underserved areas using drones.

 
Resources:
Lady Gaga's Halftime Show Drones Have a Bright Future
Facebook Takes Flight: Inside the test flight of Facebook’s first internet drone

Bull Session

AI Goes Mainstream

February 3, 2017          

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the high-powered Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society, an initiative whose founding members include Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Apple. Apple was just recently added as a founding member.

The mission of the group is to educate the public about AI, study its potential impact on the world, and develop standards and ethics around its implementation. Interestingly, the group also includes organizations with expertise in economics, civil rights, economics, and research, who are concerned with the impacts of technology on modern society. These include: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the MacArthur Foundation, OpenAI, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, Arizona State University and University of California, Berkeley.

Will AI build upon our society's biases and disparities and make them worse? Or does it have the potential to create something more egalitarian? Join us as we discuss all this and more.

 
Resources:
Apple joins Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft in AI initiative
Partnership on AI
A massive AI partnership is tapping civil rights and economic experts to keep AI safe

Bull Session

Automate

January 26, 2017          

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss workplace automation and the technologies that will make it happen — from robotics to artificial intelligence (AI) to machine learning. The McKinsey Global Institute released a new study on the topic this month, "A Future that Works: Automation, Employment and Productivity", which contains some interesting insights.For instance, almost every occupation has the potential to be at least partially automated, and it's likely that more occupations will be transformed than automated away. However, people will need to work in conjunction with machines as a part of their day-to-day activities, and in this new age of automation, learning new skills will be critical.Add to this the fact that working-age population is actually decreasing in many countries, and we can see how the story of automation is multi-faceted. The path to automating the workplace is a complex one that could raise productivity growth on a global scale.

 
Resources:
Report - McKinsey Global Institute: Harnessing automation for a future that works

Bull Session

The Future of Retail

January 21, 2017          

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss Amazon Go and the future of retail. As e-commerce continues to rise in popularity, retail stores are taking a huge hit, losing billions of dollars in transactions which have migrated online. What should physical retail look like then, in the 21st century? Ironically, Amazon, the e-commerce giant, might have the answer.

Amazon Go, the company's new retail offering being beta tested in Seattle, is a IoT-enabled grocery store which forgoes the checkout line. Customers can walk in, grab what they like from the shelves, and just walk out again — no waiting in line required. How does Amazon Go work? When customers walk in, they tap their mobile phones on a turnstile, which logs them into the store's system. It connects them to their Amazon account via an app. Amazon Go uses machine learning, sensors, and AI to track the food items that a customer selects and adds them to the app's virtual cart. If the customer picks up an item and puts it down again, the item is likewise removed from their cart.

Amazon Go is just one of a host of ideas for retail store formats that re-define that experience: product curation, showrooms (a la the Apple Store), immersive environments, etc. Join us as we discuss the evolution of the retail store.

 
Resources:
Amazon just opened a grocery store without a checkout line