Friday, January 25, 2013

Disruptive Technology

A recent series started by Chunka Mui on Google's driverless car is looking to be somewhat a vindication of a few previous posts I made including Hang On, Get Ready, and Go and Riding the Exponential.  In the first story of the series Chunka lays out the case for why a driverless car is far more than just some science fiction novelty. With sweeping impacts like reducing accidents, wasted time and energy, and the total number of cars all by 90%, the driverless car is certain to be just as disruptive as the original automobile. Cost savings on this scale may seem unbelievable at first blush, but Chunka does a great job of breaking down the numbers in some "back of the envelope" estimates.

The second story, The Ripple Effects, is where it starts to get even more interesting. The impacts of broad adoption of the driverless car could turn many industries on their head if they aren't prepared. From car manufactures to emergency rooms, insurers to ambulance chasers, huge revenue streams would dry up within years. Yet, one industry's loss is another one's gain. By freeing up all this capital locked up in mitigating risk and compensating inefficiency we could not only improve the quality of life for individuals, we could create whole new trillion dollar markets.

Sounds great, right? Well reading the comments yields some interesting insights into how people perceive change on these scales. While most are generally intrigued, many have significant reservations with some downright trolling to say that such an endeavour is hopeless. I was impressed to see Chunka responding to each argument with calm clarity when I felt like asking; how can you be so blind?!

It's true that I'm an eternal optimist, yet at the same time when I look at mankind's remarkable history this optimism isn't just some baseless belief. I'm not sure when we became so impatient with progress. Perhaps it's because some things turned out to be much more complex than we expected. We have yet to find a cure for cancer, robots have yet to take care of our every need, and we still find many massive problems growing only worse with no clear way forward. Does that mean they'll never happen and that we should simply give up?

I've argued that these setbacks and delays should only motivate us further, because we now have the tools for taking on problems of every scale. From exploring the most fundamental of particles to looking across the entire universe back to moments just after all of creation, mankind is capable of many seemingly "impossible" things. To say that we will never have driverless cars is just as short sighted as those that said we'd sail off the edge of the earth if we sent our ships too far or that we'd never get man to the moon.

I suppose we've always had our naysayers throughout history. I just thought that as progress marched on at its ever faster clip that we'd get over the pessimism and realize our true collective potential. Perhaps time will still tell. I just hope there are enough optimists to keep us going until then.