Showing posts with label WWCF. Show all posts
Showing posts with label WWCF. Show all posts

Sunday, May 22, 2022

WWCF: War of the Future

Which will come first?

Intentional detonation of a nuclear weapon as an act of war


A battle with robots fighting robots as the dominant form of combat


The basic terms are fairly straightforward in the first case--a nuke blows up on purpose designed to hurt targeted victims. But I guess there could be some ambiguity like if a bomb detonation is attempted but somehow fails or is thwarted or if it melts down rather than properly explodes. In the interest of specificity I will stipulate that the device must be truly an intentional nuclear explosion. 

In the second case there would seem to be a lot of room for interpretation. Let us stipulate that it would need to be a significant engagement with at least a potentially meaningful affect on a larger conflict if not be the entire war by itself. This must be a major conflict in terms of world events. It must involve at least one nation state with the opponent being at least a major aggressor (significant terrorist group, etc. if not a state-level actor itself). To be robot-on-robot it must mean that humans cannot be directly targeted in the robot versus robot fighting--collateral damage notwithstanding as well as other human involvement/risk as a secondary part of the combat. I will allow that the devices doing the fighting can be "dumb" devices like drones fully controlled by humans remotely, but extra credit to the degree these are autonomous entities.


Tyler Cowen has been thinking a lot about nuclear war and nuclear device detonation recently including before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. His latest Bloomberg piece discusses just how thinkable the "unthinkable" has become. This is a bigger part of a much needed rethinking of MAD

Tyler's partner at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok, is in the game contributing this overview of the related probabilities

Thankfully, Max Roser has done the math for us. Relatedly, he argues that "reducing the risk of nuclear war should be a key concern of our generation". Before we get too excited about a white-flash end to civilization, consider as gentle pushback this piece arguing that nuclear weapons are likely not as destructive as we commonly believe--make no mistake, they are still really bad.*

If Roser is roughly correct, then within a decade we are at a 10% chance of nuclear war. I am not sure if his "nuclear war" would be a equal to or a different level of what would qualify in this WWCF. Suppose it is a higher threshold. Let's make the probability of nuclear weapon use as defined here slightly higher each year such that there is a 20% chance within 10 years (basically equal to his 2% annual risk curve). This gives us a baseline for comparison.

Turning to Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots it is not as farfetched as I think most people believe. In fact we may be quite close to it as defensive weapons like Israel's Iron Dome prepare to confront adversaries like drones and Saudi Arabia battles against drone counter attacks from Yemen. As Noah Smith writes, "the future of war is bizarre and terrifying".

It does sound terrifying in one reading, but in another there is a glimmer of hope. A proxy war using robots to settle disputes could be vastly better than any conflict humanity as known before. Imagine a world where the idea that a human would be actually physically harmed from combat was unthinkable. This is not too many steps away from professional armies, rules of engagement, and norms, laws, and treaties against harming civilians, et al.**

Back to the issue at hand, once we consider that dumb, remotely driven/released weapons might soon be battling smart, sophisticated devices with either of these being on defense from the other, we quickly relax how hard it is to foresee it all happening. The hardest hurdle might only be if the conflict big enough to qualify.

My Prediction:

I think nuclear risk is a lumpy, non-normal risk that follows a random walk (i.e., it can all of a sudden get a lot more likely but that likelihood can get absorbed away if conditions improve). It is not as linear and cumulative as Roser suggests. At the same time play the game long enough and anything will happen.

Robot battles seem more like a cumulative progression, an inevitability. We almost cannot escape it eventually happening and probably soon. So, this comes down to how likely a nuclear pop is in the very near term as it tries to out race the tortoise of robot warfare. Just like in the fable, the turtle is going to win.***

I'll put it at 75% confidence that we see this one resolved robot fights robot.

*Of course other future potential weapons that are not nuclear can be extremely scary too--"Rods from God" doesn't just sound very ominous; it truly is. 

**Then again, maybe not:
As a result, conflicts involving AI complements are likely to unfold very differently than visions of AI substitution would suggest. Rather than rapid robotic wars and decisive shifts in military power, AI-enabled conflict will likely involve significant uncertainty, organizational friction, and chronic controversy. Greater military reliance on AI will therefore make the human element in war even more important, not less.

***I know they aren't the same thing

P.S. When I first conceived of this WWCF, I thought I'd be comparing robot wars to lasers as prolific, dominant weapons. I changed it as laser weaponry seemed to be consistently failing to launch. However, great strides have been made recently in this realm. Perhaps I was too hasty. However, thinking about it more I would guess that robot war will go hand in hand with laser weaponry. The development of one spurs the development of the other such that there isn't much room for a WWCF.

P.P.S. The ultimate tie would be an AI launches a preemptive nuclear strike on a rival nation's AI or other robot weaponry. Let's hope if they do this the battle is on Mars.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

WWCF: First Contact

Which will come first?

Aliens Contact Us


We Contact Aliens

How quickly you dismiss this question on its very premises is interesting in itself. Let's start with the basic assumption that there have been, are, or will be aliens (intelligent life with origins beyond Earth). Now that we have that out of the way . . .

Where are you on the Fermi Paradox and The Great Filter? For this question to have meaning we have to additionally assume it is actionable because there will be a determination of contact made. So . . . 

Here are the terms:

Aliens contacting us would include the obvious spaceship lands on the White House lawn, but also signals deliberately sent that we detect/decipher even if they are not aimed directly for us. Add to this discoveries of artifacts here on Earth of past alien civilizations if those were exploratory or communicative in nature. So a deliberate message sent by aliens and received by us through passive discovery or active looking by us is the first condition met.

The second condition, that we make first contact, seemingly has a lot of hurdle to it. We have to discover aliens keeping to themselves to the extent they don't find us and make contact or we see one of their signals sent out prospectively, and then we make the first engaging move. Yet there is another way. If our signals we have been sending out unintentionally/sloppily since the time we have been aware that we've been transmitting to the cosmos or sending out deliberately to "is there anybody out there?" are received by aliens, then we have made first contact. Another feather in the cap of us first is what qualifies as "intelligent" life. While I am open to revision, right now I would allow anything at or above the minimum threshold of animal cognition. So Martian mice count, but Martian bacteria do not. As impressive as space monkeys would be, there is no chance they contact us first.

Robin Hanson has already been putting in the heavy lifting on this one. And don't tell me that it is already settled--dis ain't ova

My prediction: Perhaps I allow the Fermi Paradox to overly influence me or perhaps I'm too optimistic in regards to The Great Filter. Nevertheless, I come down on the side of the second case, we contact aliens first. To this I will assign a respectable but still negotiable 65% probability.

Monday, May 10, 2021

WWCF: Sensors in Football or AI Calling Balls/Strikes in Baseball?

Which will come first?

Sensors in the NFL (determining touchdowns, etc.)


Artificial Intelligence Calling Balls & Strikes in the MLB

Basically, which of these two professional leagues will first adopt a replacement for human officiating judgement? The Hawk-Eye system has been finding wide adoption in many sports with tennis being the most substantial example to date.

For decades now we have had greater and greater use of replay review. NBA basketball is perhaps the most developed version of this even if it is imperfect. And despite the old-fashioned nostalgia and general complaints ("they still don't get it right!" . . . "it takes too long to be worth it" . . . et al. ad nauseam), I don't think the trend of trying to get it right with the help of technology is reversing.

You don't have to look far for examples of meaningful mistakes in both sports all of which are painful for fans and damaging to the brand. But vested interests (unions and fans who fear change, to name just two) hold back improvement*--slowing us down from where we are otherwise going. 

Here are the terms: 
  • Football - in the least having sensors used to determine touchdowns when the officials on the field are in doubt. It would qualified if these are used to overrule upon challenge or if the officials can use them similar to how every score is reviewed by rule.
  • Baseball - in the least the calling of balls and strikes by an autonomous system. To be clear this is not overruling the umpire but autonomously determining in the first place. 
Baseball would seem to have the clear lead in this evolution. However, football would be less disruptive since this would only be employed at critical plays like scoring (the criterion for this WWCF) as well as potentially first downs and out of bounds. 

My prediction: The MLB has more to gain as that sport is much more at risk of losing fan share. It also has obviously been making more moves in this direction. Therefore, they will opt to make a leap out of a greater sense of urgency thus being the first mover.

*One could argue that there is some art involved in catchers framing pitches as well as potentially some game improvement by umps having degrees of freedom in the strike zone. However, the spirit of the game is probably not in how sly a player can deceive, and it takes ~25 umpire "improvements" to negate one obviously blown at bat. Likewise in football I fail to see anything desirable about referee mistake.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

WWCF: Ultra-Luxury Shopping Malls or Widespread, Pervasive Free Samples?

Which will come first?

Ultra-Luxury Shopping Malls


Widespread, Pervasive Free Samples

We've been hearing about the death of malls for some time.

Evolution of shopping: It used to be an expensive luxury to go shopping--imagine Christmas shopping downtown in the big city in a black and white movie. The economies of scale both in production (better machines allowing low-cost labor to be more productive) and marketing (a big umbrella venue in the form of the traditional mall) worked for decades to make shopping more and more affordable. Malls couldn't exist until these factors reached a critical threshold. Then they became prolific. But something funny happened on the way to the Ridgemont Mall stereo store. 

Now shopping is again becoming too expensive for malls to provide it but not because of resource limitations but because of better alternatives. In both cases (the pre-mall and soon post-mall eras) opportunity cost are high (remember, opportunity cost is the only economically meaningful way to look at cost). It used to be that one needed to purchase a lot and purchase wisely given one's time investment in going shopping along with the goods offered for sale being a relatively big sacrifice. In steady progression the falling cost of goods and the improved experience meant that malls could command our shopping attention because they lowered the opportunity cost. Malls generally offered a more efficient alternative; although, the entertainment value of the mall cannot be overlooked. The mall was a big tent, bundled package much like a newspaper. It had a little bit of everything and could afford to accommodate nearly every taste because of the volume. Certain high-margin sales, which translated into profitable leases for the landlords, created opportunities for many low-margin sales--the marginal cost of adding costume jewelers and Orange Julius is pretty low once the mall is built and being paid for by anchor department stores.

However, today we have reached a state in which the alternative method of shopping, ordering online, dominates the efficiency of physical shopping by many orders of magnitude.* Compounding this problem for malls is the fact that there are many alternative forms of entertainment that make hanging out at the mall seem fairly dull. Hence, today the resource limitation is the ever-growing value of our time.

Are malls dead? Only malls as we knew them and in such numbers as we knew them. I predict a resurgence of destination shopping with and because of vastly enhanced luxury experiences. The retailer or landlord who masters this will enjoy rewards some will find surprising. These may not be the one-stop shop where "this mall has everything" and "the people of today's world hang out," but they will attract our time and wallet in a way that today's shopping malls cannot. I am thinking the magnitude of these differences will approach the differences between a day at Harrod's versus a trip to Wal-Mart and the experience at Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's versus the local bait shop. 

To be clear a qualifying "luxury mall" would have the following qualities:
  1. It would be a destination unto itself not just a shopping trip--many customers would go for the experience with no expectation of buying anything.
  2. It would offer a large variety of goods rather than a single theme.
  3. It would have a significant common space independent of any particular retailer.
  4. It would make past generations of mall goers feel completely out of the shopping league.

That was a long way to go to get to the first half of this WWCF. The second half will come quicker. Goods are getting fantastically cheaper as is shipping. Our time and attention continues to be scarce--in fact, it grows more scarce as our options of what to do with our time improve. One solution for marketers is simply giving the goods they wish to sell away for trial. Instead of targeted advertising to demographically attractive households, how about targeted distribution of the goods themselves? I am thinking a $100 purchase of household items from Amazon will come with a curated box of complementary items for free. The first of the month brings an unsolicited trial supply of "things you never knew existed and cannot possibly live without." Eventually, many households will come to expect this as the primary way to discover new, perishable goods. 

Which comes first? The adaptations to the mall experience have a bit of incumbency advantage being that the mall has a more symbolic and established position in our shopping lives. However, the sampling idea may have a faster ramp up. To make the competition more determinable I'll say the creation of the fifth luxury-type mall (new construction or massive renovation of existing space) competes against the regular delivery of unsolicited free sample goods to >500,000 households. These thresholds hopefully capture an established trend rather than a one-off beta test. I predict the free sample idea to come within 10 years and just before the luxury mall idea can qualify, but I believe both will spur along the other making it a quick finish. 

*Don't be misled by statistics that show only a small effect coming from online sales. I contend that heterogeneous-consumer, high-fixed costs businesses are generally very sensitive to small decreases in demand because they rely on a diverse, network-effect customer base that is harder to understand (hence, harder to regain once it begins to slip) and they cannot scale downward effectively. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

WWCF: Sea To Shining Sea - Pot Freedom or Marriage Equality?

Which Will Come First?

50-State Legalization of Marijuana


50-State Licensing of Same-Sex Marriage

Let's be clear: both of these are coming and soon. Let's be clear as well on our position: it is a good thing. The magnitude of the first is substantially larger in terms of causing good. Ending this significant front in the evil War on Drugs will bear much fruit. The magnitude of the second is substantially larger in terms of indicating good. That society and its institutions are nearing a point of accepting and dare I say celebrating the choices and joys of others says volumes about where we have arrived morally and intellectually. Before we move on to the prediction side of this post, let me lay one more point down: one does not have to morally agree with either the use of marijuana or the act of homosexuality to still reach the moral conclusion that we (individually or through the government) have no right to use force to disallow either one. The first-best solution is for the government to play no role in either one of these peaceful activity/association.

It may seem obvious to some that a U.S. presidential candidate will campaign on legal pot for every chicken quite soon giving marijuana the upper hand. After all, the New York Times now supports it. Indeed as their new series puts it 37 states representing about 76% of the U.S. population current have liberalized marijuana laws. But in order for this race to declare a winner, the subject must be fully legal and recognized both within each state and federally. It is just a matter of time before Colorado or Washington residents see just how illegal marijuana still is within their borders. Oh, wait, it already happened...

Still, the trend is undeniable on the marijuana front. And when one looks at the state-by-state prohibition of state recognition of same-sex marriage, one sees significantly more opposition (see the chart at the bottom of the link). Yet, the trend here is both certain and strong. 

What really puts same-sex marriage ahead of the game is the fact that it has been scoring victories in the courts, and that really gets to the heart of this WWCF including why this isn't a fair fight. Marijuana is still the outcast. It is the humorous back story in the R-rated movie. Same-sex marriage is the lovable story line in the family-TV comedy

The ultimate force driving same-sex marriage ahead in this race is that while it literally needs governmental approval to exist, marijuana only needs governmental tolerance (or impotency in the face of economic forces more powerful than puritanical desires). The fight for marijuana legalization relies much on the unseen (the benefits of ending prohibition). The fight for same-sex marriage relies much on the seen (the people denied benefits).

I give the edge to same-sex marriage and I predict we'll have both realized (nation-wide, state and federal) within a decade. Freedom wins! Freedom wins! Freedom wins!

Cross posted at

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

WWCF: 3-D Immersion TV or Live Wallpaper?

Which will come first?

3-D Immersion TV


"Live" Wallpaper

Let me start by defining some terms. 3-D immersion TV means a television experience that transcends the current "I am watching something projected before me" to be more "I am in the middle of something occurring around me". I don't know exactly what it would look like other than think of the difference between watching a stage performance of Les Miserables on television versus actually being at the performance seated down front. Now imagine stepping on stage. 

The 3-D immersion experience (3-D I-TV) would have the action truly happening about you rather than just with depth in front of you. Perhaps it would be holographic from a device(s) located on the ceiling and floor. I think it will start with sports and then reality shows with scripted programs in large part to follow. I imagine multiple camera locations/angles such that watching the football game from home will be much like having the best seats in the house where your perspective changes as the action dictates. Imagine multiple Skycams where perhaps you choose your vantage point following the action as best suits you. There would be little worry about an important part of the play going out of screenshot--just turn your head, and you can watch the quarterback getting late-hit as the ball sails down field. 

As for "live" wallpaper (Live-Walls), this is a combination of two ideas I've had for a very long time. When I was young, I dreamed of a spherical room you could step into and suddenly be looking at a 360' x 360' view of some impressive landscape like the Grand Canyon. The camera system driving this video would be mounted on a tall, thin tower. Holding onto this dream, I was then influenced from the early Web's webcams. Molding my concept into a more practical form, I now want walls that will project whatever desirable vista I would like to surround myself with: the beach in Hawaii, Broadway in NYC, the Champs-Élysées, etc. 

Imagine what this technology does for the elderly trapped in their hospital/nursing home/prisons. Imagine how this can transform schools. Imagine how much more enjoyable your current, drab office would be. Sure this will put Big Picture Frame out of business, but the rest of us will be Soarin' Over California from our living rooms. 

The limiting factor for 3-D I-TV is probably technological, but we are getting closer and closer to holograms. The limiting factor for Live-Walls is probably more economical related to the business plan--getting to a critical mass to make the investment using existing technology worthwhile (e.g., using just flat-screen HDTVs). The ultimate desire to have entire walls that act as video screens puts technology as an additional hurdle for Live-Walls. 

I think the critical point for which has come first will be once one of these technologies is common in middle-class homes. The first may seem to face more obstacles, but this might be what "saves" TV. Imagine shopping from your home in a 3-D environment. Imagine the demand for sports and hence sports advertising. The business case for 3-D I-TV may drive its advancement. Of course there is a third possibility: that these two ideas converge in one large step toward Nozick's Experience Machine.

My guess is Live-Walls is coming first and will be within the next 10 years. 3-D I-TV follows within 5 years of Live-Walls' critical mass achievement.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

WWCF: Robot Surgeons or Robot Firefighters?

Which will come first?

Autonomous Robot Surgeons


Autonomous Robot Firefighters

Here the critical consideration is autonomous. Robot-like machines today assist in surgery and firefighting. But they are guided by set routines and humans running remote controls. And while there are autonomous elements to these actions, we are not yet to the point where we need to insure Asimov's three rules are being followed. With surgery it will probably be harder to define when that line is crossed. The simple concept would be turning the power switch to "On" and telling the robot, respectively, remove this patient's appendix or go into that building to find any trapped people.

Obviously, we need a high level of comfort that the robot is up to the job. So perhaps the desire for robot autonomy in these cases comes down to figuring out where the benefits from autonomy are greatest relative to the costs. At first blush the benefit would seem highest in the somewhat random and uncontrolled environment of a fire. Likewise the cost would seem to be lowest--if the robot fails to get you out of the towering inferno where no human could have saved you anyway, the opportunity cost is nil, but not so for a robot botching your nose job. But it is not just the cost of robot error that is a factor. The surgery robot can be reused over and over. The firefighting robot may have a much shorter use life. Recent developments are taking this point into consideration.  

Critical still is what I'll term the "devil you know" factor. Surgery may not always be elective, but generally the patient does exert some discretion as to who performs it. And firefighting technology doesn't have to pass through the death-causing gauntlet that is the FDA. The discussion below this post indicates these issues well.

My guess is that we are 10-20 years away from these technologies, which actually seems close I think. I'll give a slight edge to robot firefighters largely driven by the devil you know factor slowing robot surgery down.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

WWCF: Balls/Strikes Called by Machine or Professionalized College Sports?

Which will come first?

Pitch tracking technology in baseball displaces umpires as caller of balls and strikes


Separation of college sports into professional and truly amateur

Don't tell the traditionalists we are even discussing this. I believe we are headed to a brave new world where consistency in baseball's fundamental point of interaction is equalled by honest treatment of college athletes. Many sacred cows are nervous. And some time-honored institutions will change and in some cases they will crumble. 

Supporting the baseball half of the question are recent developments in furthering the use of technology such as this. The demand for and acceptance of instant replay shows in baseball as it has in other sports that true and rightful outcomes matter to sports fans--even above the cost of tradition, even above the cost of delay of play. If the technology is highly accurate (it is but there are flaws such as in tennis and when human eyes and judgment are involved such as in football) and reasonably quick, seeing an inconsistent outcome on the television replay is seen as unjust and intolerable. Notice that a call by a ref isn't necessarily unjust if it is wrong. It takes it being sufficiently bad for it to be unjust. 

Giving the baseball side some pause is this article in Grantland. It seems the accuracy isn't quite there yet, but I expect it could come pretty quickly. More likely the hold up will be fan/owner/player approval. The article points to how robot and man could team up. That is probably the first step. Yet I am interested in where the machine is making the calls and a human can only intervene to overrule in specific instances--think today's challenge system in football and soon to be baseball. For the baseball part to have come first, this is the threshold.

The article does discuss a point I find important. Namely that standardization of the strike zone would remove a nuance of the game that might be more important than realized at first blush. 
However, standardizing the zone would remove a level of interplay between batter, pitcher, catcher, and umpire that many fans find compelling. No longer could a savvy pitcher with pinpoint command annex extra territory off the corners, like Tom Glavine or Mariano Rivera, or learn how to tailor his approach to each umpire’s personalized zone. And catcher receiving skills — the impact of which has only recently been recognized — would become obsolete overnight...
While these changes might make the batter-pitcher confrontation fairer, they would also sap it of some of its nuance, leaving less to analyze and discuss...
McKean offers another argument in support of keeping umpires around: Removing them, or reducing their role, might make baseball more boring. The former umpire makes the case that the controversy generated by incorrect calls — or at least the perception of incorrect calls — generates excitement.
These are important considerations.

For the other side of the question, it should come as no surprise to readers that we at MM favor a major overhaul in the structure and nature of college athletics. We optimistically believe it is inevitable. There are two changes here under consideration either of which would constitute success for this side of the question: separation of amateur sports from professional, revenue sports (perhaps tennis, rugby, field hockey, etc. from football and men's basketball) and separation of amateur college-level football from professional college-level football (perhaps Harvard, Air Force, Tulsa, et al. from Oklahoma, Notre Dame, et al.). The which comes first threshold here will be once most current NCAA institutions make the first change or the current FBS football and D-1A men's basketball schools make the second change.

There has been a glimmer of hope for change in this direction from within the castle, but it is overwhelmingly likely that this change comes from without. The discussion on this evolution continues. And for good reason.

There are two driving forces for this side of the question at hand: there is too much money involved for the charade of amateurism to continue and there is too much money involved threatening the institutional integrity of the parent organizations.

My take is that technology is ready for umps to be replaced 5-10 years before baseball is institutionally ready while those challenging the institutions of the college sports' status quo are 5-10 years away from being legally and culturally capable of forcing change. Reading between the lines, it is just the technology in baseball that is different. I give the edge to the separations in college sports and say both changes (baseball and college sports) come within a decade.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

WWCF: Self-Flying Plane or Self-Driving Car

Which will come first?

Self-flying aircraft commonly used over American airspace
Self-driving cars commonly used on American roads

This post is inspired from conversations with a colleague. We agree that these innovations are coming and that it will probably be in stages. I believe our ultimate predictions are in alignment as well.

The technology will likely be out in front of the legislation as is commonly the case, and the legislation will probably be waiting on public and special interest opinion as it commonly my contention. Yet encouraging signs have been seen. The FAA has approved test sites for aerial drones (a step toward but still shy of the subject here since today's drones are piloted albeit remotely). Similarly, Nevada, Florida, California, and to some extent Michigan have approved autonomous car testing on their public roadways. 

As for advancement coming in stages, my thinking is that regarding both public opinion and legislation there are fewer hurdles for package transportation than there are for human transportation. The first stage will be the delivery of cargo via self-guided vehicle. This might mean one method paves the way for the others and the other three follow suit together (e.g., a self-flying plane delivers packages for FedEx and then sometime after that self-flying planes for commercial passengers comes about just as self-driving delivery cars and personal cars/taxis are made available). 

That last example lends itself to my ultimate prediction on WWCF. Large-scale cargo shipments via plane have perhaps the most to gain with the least to risk in the self-guided future to come. Among the advantages are the economies of scale offered (routes no longer limited to pilot availability and scale in both vehicle and network), the limited natural enemies (taxi unions and personal-injury lawyers are more formidable than are the pilots potentially displaced), and the concentration of benefits (a few package delivery firms). 

I think self-flying planes will be with us to some significant extent within a decade and cars will follow ten years after that. The planes will carry cargo only for the first five years. 

So I predict we will soon be saying, "Look! Up in the sky. It's a bird! It's a plane! Yup, that's exactly what it is. A plane that self flies like a bird."

Update: I am reminded by the colleague mentioned above that there is another facet of self-flying planes that might in fact precede cargo delivery. That would be crop dusting. Search and rescue would be another use. The low risk of danger to bystanders might help these types of uses be the first mover.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

WWCF: Computerless companies or Flipped companies?

Which will come first?

 Most major U.S. corporations do not have company-owned personal computers 
Most major U.S. corporations have "flipped" the work week

Here is some explanation. My prediction is that at some point in the future many firms will find it unnecessary and undesirable to have the firm own and maintain computer hardware for individual employees. Instead the firm will just have some company servers hosting software/apps/websites that employees can tap into to do their job using a computer device(s) they own themselves. With technology ownership comes the burdens of keeping the technology running and safe. And increasingly employees use the technology for personal purposes blurring the lines between who that machine really serves. In fact many if not most are already practicing BYOD(evice) through smart phones and tablets. It seems it is just a matter of time before a company's technological connection with employees is more like the current connection between companies and customers. 

For this half of the WWCF to come first, we need to see a majority of major U.S. corporations adopt this policy on near company-wide scales. And this might be close at hand. IBM is offering advice on the idea. And reading between the lines of a few studies suggests we all but may already have a winner. These seem premature. I think for this to be fully achieved we would need a bit of a cultural change--employees will need to see not having their own computer/device(s) used as the way to connect to the firm and do their jobs as an antiquated concept. We are not quite there yet.

As for a "flipped" work week, I am referring to the idea that workers have fewer days in the office than days out of the office. This might mean workers would do the bulk of their work away from the office, or this might mean just a few highly concentrated days of uninterrupted work surrounded by multiple leisure days. In any event less time spent in the office leads economist David Levinson to believe we are nearing the end of auto traffic (and while we're off on this tangent, here is Reihan Salam's take on Levinson's vision). But back to the point. While I agree this indeed is a trend, I'm not sure Levinson's quick timeline is accurate. All the more so since a majority of major U.S. corporations is the benchmark. 

Getting there in either case means fighting against culture, bureaucracy, and conventional wisdom not the least of which includes that which has worked should not be hastily disregarded. In my estimate these inertial forces push back our winner until after 2033 (20 years from today). And I think BYOD will be the winner. Both the firm and the employee will tend to like this outcome. As for being at the office, it's an increasingly nice prison. And from the firm's perspective, the power of "being there" is real and difficult to replace. You can ask the gardener to bring his own shovel, but you can't ask him to weed from home.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

WWCF: Gridless Power or Wireless Power?

Which will come first?

Gridless Power (household power commonly generated on site)
Wireless Power (batteries or battery-like power sources that largely self charge)

Both of these would be very big advances as respective cords are cut. For gridless power the aesthetic benefits would be dramatic gains all by themselves. Imagine a world where we are nostalgic for overhead power lines. The telephone pole as romantic as horse-drawn buggies. But don't forget the benefits of blackouts and brownouts being as foreign as breadlines are to us today. Whether the target of terrorists or ice storms (take a guess which one has taken out more power supply in the past 10 years), the centralized power system creates a dependency and hence vulnerability that we would certainly like to avoid.

In wireless power this could include simply batteries with life something like 100x greater than currently available. But imagine your iPhone actually charging from the motion it undergoes while in your pocket. Or perhaps from heat in the air. Or moisture--maybe water isn't the kryptonite of the mobile phone. 

Gridless power doesn't have to be solar; although, that is a big likelihood. You don't have to be a super genius like Tesla to imagine wireless electricity. And yes, these two overlap quite a bit--it seems. Sometimes things similar in concept end up being quite different in practice.

My WAG is wireless beats gridless in terms of large-scale affordability and consumer penetration by at least a decade. The economies of scale at work in the grid are quite powerful forces. The abundance of natural gas strengthens the inertia for the grid considerably. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

WWCF: Social condemnation of hunting or human combat?

Which will come first?

Social condemnation of sport hunting
Social condemnation of human combat sports

By social condemnation I mean when will we be past the point where being a hunter or being a fan of a human combat sport is acceptable in polite (general mixed) company. Yes, there is an underlying assumption here that the long-term trend is toward these ends. At some point the argument over rabbit season versus duck season will be moot--it won't ever be either. 

I think these come in degrees as they are long-term developments with stages for each. We need some ground rules on which will represent the true tipping point. First let's look at the levels we must consider.

For sport hunting I see it as a gradual outlawing by the spot an animal represents on the food/intelligence chain:
  1. Apes, monkeys, dolphins, whales, dogs, cats, . . .
  2. Elephants, lions, tigers, bears, oh my, . . . 
  3. Deer, ducks, turkeys, fish . . .
For human combat I see it as a gradual abandonment if not outlawing by the apparent brutality of the sport:
  1. Olympic-style wrestling
  2. Boxing
  3. MMA, cage fighting, etc.
We are already somewhere between 1 and 2 for sport hunting and nearly past 1 for human combat. Consider point three in this list in regard to sport hunting (this would represent a proxy as noted in the next paragraph), and consider how wrestling continues to be on the ropes. Here is my test for WWCF: when five state legislatures outside of New England pass broad legislation outlawing or highly limiting most items of the third type. We've already noted how politicians follow rather than lead. I feel it safe to say if this legislative test is passed, the overwhelming majority of voters must agree with the position. Alternatively, we might get to WWCF through other means such as the market for selling human combat evaporating. 

Note that sport hunting does not include harvesting of fish, lobster, elk, or other game for mass consumption on a secondary market. Hunting a deer and eating it, though, is sport hunting still whether or not the deer's head ends up on the wall. 

I think the key here is considering when does general public opinion pass what I will term a social acceptability threshold. At some point activities that were once common (e.g., smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco, sexual harassment in the workplace, etc.) become beyond the pale. In the other direction eventually behavior once thought uncouth (e.g., interracial marriage, tattoos, etc.) become acceptable. I believe a large driver of this is the number of people engaging in the particular activity. 

In 1955 about 55% of men and 28% of women smoked. By 1990 the rate for men was equal to the 1955 rate for women while the rate for women had fallen about a fifth to about 23%.

For sexual harassment in the workplace note that female labor force participation may be the critical driver. Positively correlated with the LFPR trend would be female advancement in the workplace--probably with a lag due to the time it takes for the greater numbers of women to be experience-eligible for advanced positions as well as both active and institutional discrimination factors. When Don Draper was running things, the female portion of the labor force was about 33%. By 1990 it was nearly half (45%). 

Perhaps at some point I will have to awkwardly admit I do not have a tattoo. 

As for my prediction, I say that human combat has a shorter shelf life than sport hunting. This despite the fact that in the former behavior the participants are willing and compensated whereas in the latter behavior this is the case only on one side--and the other side doesn't just lose but dies. Alternative methods for population control of pest animals such as deer might accelerate the trend for outlawing sport hunting. But as we get wealthier and healthier, dangerous activities like human combat sports become more costly. This trend I believe dominates.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

WWCF: Solar power or passive heating and cooling systems?

Which will come first?

Economical solar power
Economical passive heating and cooling systems

The key here is the leading term economical. It is not enough to develop the technology--especially not in simply a proof of concept form. We are interested in when we can truly use these technologies. In some limited cases we are already there for both types, but those are indeed limited. The essence of this puzzle is when can we expect to see these things widespread including in average households. And while these are related in many cases, I don't think I'm splitting hairs here to make the distinction.

A passive heating and cooling system (or either one alone to satisfy the achievement) would be something akin to geothermal but not necessarily limited to such. The roof and attic of my house are exceptionally hot in the summer. Once the sun goes down, my attic cools a lot faster than my garage because the soffits work air through the attic accelerating cooling. There is an opportunity in this greenhouse effect. Similarly, my brother's basement has a more moderate climate (albeit more humid) than the ground floor and upstairs of his house. To qualify a passive system would rely on a minimal amount of catalytic energy to initiate a system that would use these energy properties to the effect of a desired cooling or heating result. To be clear, using my attic heat in the summer to run a generator to cool my house counts.

Solar is the great, green hope. The power the sun rains down on us continually during the day, which is obviously a big impediment to solar energy, is fountain of youth and El Dorado all rolled into one. The future society that can economically use this energy will be quite rich. It is important to note that the there is a bit of chicken and egg here as the society may be rich enough to develop the technology as much so as the technology makes that society rich.

The trends in the economics of geothermal look less favorable as compared to solar (note: the links here are not supposed to be a comprehensive look at the economic trends affecting these technologies). Geothermal capital costs are exceptionally high since the target tends to be on the large scale as opposed to the household level. In the larger consideration of all passive-type, non-solar solutions, many of those potential technologies probably fall into the category of those in need of a happy accident (we aren't specifically looking for these breakthroughs). Because solar is thought of and more so developed for the individual end user, that probably gives it the edge in this WWCF. The other leading factor is that solar is a more politically attractive cause resulting in a lot more "investment" using the best kind of money, OPM. 

My guess is that solar edges out passive systems by less than a decade, but both are 30+ years away. The standard error is large in these estimates; so I have very little confidence in my guess about solar winning. I'm sure others have a firmer grip on this, and I will follow up with new information as I discover it. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

WWCF: Immunity to venom or immunity to food allergies?

Which will come first?

Immunity to deadly venom (snakes, spiders, wasps, etc.)
Immunity to life-threatening food allergies (peanuts, shellfish, etc.)

Since these share the root problem of anaphylaxis, an immune system response to allergen exposure, they may be solved together. I'm not sure which one is the most breathtaking in terms of a media response, but from the standpoint of fatalities, animals top food. However, both are fairly small in absolute magnitude. While cases of anaphylaxis seem to be on the rise, it is important to note this is not the low-hanging fruit of death prevention. 

Of course, it is not all about dying. Living with a food allergy as many do is life under constant threat knowing that something many people enjoy as a small part of everyday life is potentially your death sentence. And if you don't die, it is a very agonizing medical emergency. To an allergic person, hearing you've just eaten lobster-filled eggs can be as shocking and unforgettable as hearing that your baby is ugly. Similarly, most of us go through life with a primordial fear of that which hisses or buzzes. So, don't discount too steeply the long-term benefits from immunity to these problems. 

Keeping in mind that I am asking about immunity rather than developed tolerance through incremental dose therapy (i.e., not just a shrinkage of the problem), these both seem more distant especially in light of the better living through prevention (avoidance) option. I would count any sure-fire, immediate result therapy that stops anaphylaxis in its tracks as "immunity". 

My guess is that because children are most at risk with food allergies and we can kill or avoid venomous animals with increasing ease, food allergy immunity comes first. But I'll add that it will probably be 30+ years away, and I would guess it will be the serendipitous result of other research/developments. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

WWCF: Driverless cars or 3D printers in the average household?

Which will come first?

50%-household penetration for driverless cars
50%-household penetration for 3D printers

News about both of these technologies of the future are in vogue right now. I've talked a bit about them here and here. The economic possibilities are quite promising. In fact, I see the factors slowing the progress of each to be more political in nature rather than technological. Regulators will be the first to cry, "Jane, stop this crazy thing!" Some of the very serious people are already sounding alarms about robot cars. Expect them to be joined soon by all those millions, and don't doubt for a second that it is indeed millions, of people whose livelihoods are threatened by a driverless future. For 3D printers the fears begin with guns and end with patent infringement run amok. Nevermind the fact that I've already solved the patent problem, et al

But back to the question at hand. While the Makerbot is selling like hotcakes, John Deere is already selling a driverless lawnmower. I say the driverless car edges out the 3D printer by less than five years, and I expect the 50% mark to be hit by the winner before 2033.

PS. With driverless cars you effectively don't need compulsory insurance or state licensing just as you don't have those conditions for guns, chainsaws, swimming pools, or outdoor grills. Good luck with that logic, though.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The first of Which Will Come First?

I am introducing a new theme on the blog: Which Will Come First (WWCF)? This could alternatively be called "Can you believe people used to? . . .", but I wanted to make it more predictive with a comparison. Here is the first in the series.

Self-cleaning, style-programmable clothing
Fractional jet ownership for the middle class

The first negates the need to haul a sufficient portion of one's wardrobe around when travelling. The second is NetJets for the hoi polloi, a democratization of high-end air travel, which potentially ends most of the hassle costs of flying commercially. 

Thinking back to Mark Perry's post, which was the inspiration for this post of mine, we see that the real cost of air travel per passenger mile has fallen from about $.31 in 1980 to about $.14 today. 

The cost of a G5 per passenger mile is about $1.67. Using the decline rate in the curve above (about a 2.5% reduction in cost per year), we would very simply extrapolate that I'll be in a G5 in about 90 years--when the $1.67 cost has decline in real terms to $.14. But that is probably a big oversimplification that understates the realistic decline expectations. It is leaving out income growth (not me personally, but for the middle class) and increasing returns to scale as we get closer and closer to the destination.

Let's assume real disposable income growth is below the historic trend and is 2.5% per year. Now Malcolm in the Middle is circling Fantasy Island in less than 50 years. And we have still not considered how as a new innovation becomes closer to reality the cost curve spirals downward spurred by a virtuous cycle of investment and breakthroughs. Just think about the Walkman for 20 years followed by the iPod for 10. 

Unfortunately, I don't have anything substantive on high-tech clothes. I'll add it here and in a follow-up post when I stumble upon it.

My guess is that the clothing will be widely used about a decade before fractional-jet-ownership will commonly used by the middle class.