In yesterday's article on future shopping I outlined a concept I called a local depot. I want to expand more on that concept. The basic idea is web shopping from an urban warehouse complex with fast delivery not to your home, but to a depot within walking distance of your home, where you can pick up items on your own schedule that you bought at big-box store prices within hours. A nearby store that, with a short delay, has everything, cheap.
In some ways it bears a resemblance to the failed company Webvan. Webvan did home delivery and initially presented itself as a grocery store. I think it failed in part because groceries are still not something people feel ready to buy online, and in part for being too early. Home delivery, because people like -- or in many cases need -- to be home for it may actually be inferior to delivery to a depot within walking distance where items can be picked up on a flexible schedule.
Webvan's long term plan did involve, I was told, setting up giant warehouse centers with many suppliers, not just Webvan itself. In such a system the various online suppliers sit in a giant warehouse area, and a network of conveyor belts runs through all the warehouses and to the loading dock. Barcodes on the packages direct them to the right delivery truck. Each vendor simply has to put delivery code sticker on the item, and place it on the conveyor belt. It would then, in my vision, go onto a truck that within 1 to 2 hours would deliver all the packages to the right neighbourhood local depot.
Towns lament the coming of big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. Their cut-rate competition changes the nature of shopping and shopping neighbourhoods. To stop it, towns sometimes block the arrival of such stores. Now web competition is changing the landscape even more. But our shopping areas are still "designed" with the old thinking in mind. Some of them are being "redesigned" the hard way by market forces. Can we get what we really want?
We must realize that it isn't Wal-Mart who closes down the mom'n'pop store. It's the ordinary people, who used to shop at it and switch to Wal-Mart who close it down. They have a choice, and indeed in some areas such stores survive.
When I watch the boundless energy of young children, and their parents' frustration over it, I wonder how high-tech will alter how children are raised in the next few decades. Of course already TV, and now computers play a large role, and it seems very few toys don't talk or move on their own.
But I've also realized that children, both from a sense of play and due to youthful simplicity, will tolerate some technologies far before adults will. For example, making an AI to pass the Turing Test for children may be much, much simpler than making one that can fool an adult. As such, we may start to see simple AIs meant for interacting with, occupying the minds of and educating children long before we find them usable as adults.
Another technology that young children might well tolerate sooner is virtual reality. We might hate the cartoonish graphics and un-natural interfaces of today's VRs but children don't know the interfaces aren't natural -- they will learn any interface -- and they love cartoon worlds.
Alan Turing proposed a simple test for machine intelligence. Based on a parlour game where players try to tell if a hidden person is a man or a woman just by passing notes, he suggested we define a computer as intelligent if people can't tell it from a human being through conversations with both over a teletype.
3-D printing is getting cheaper. This week I saw a story about producing a hacked together 3-D printer that could print in unusual cheap materials like play-doh and chocolate frosting for $2,000. Soon, another 3-D technology will get cheap -- the 3-D body scan.
A highly superior being from another part of the galaxy presents you with two boxes, one open and one closed. In the open box there is a thousand-dollar bill. In the closed box there is either one million dollars or there is nothing. You are to choose between taking both boxes or taking the closed box only. But there's a catch.
In the 90s, when I had more money, I did some angel investing. One of the companies I invested in, Sierra Sciences was started by an old friend and business associate, Dan Fylstra, who had also founded Personal Software/VisiCorp, the company that sold VisiCalc.
Sierra Sciences was also founded by Bill Andrews, who had done important work on Telomeres at Geron. Together, we hoped to follow promising leads on now to safely lengthen the telomere.
Yesterday I attended Seth Shostak's standard talk about the work at the SETI institute. I know others from the institute such as Frank Drake and Jill Tarter who inspired the Jodi Foster character in the movie Contact. I wanted to see what was new. (Once, by the way, I went on an eclipse cruise where Drake and Tarter were passengers. On a dive boat, somebody talked about the movie Contact, so I told them that Tarter was on the ship, and she had inspired the character. The woman was amazed and asked, "You mean she met an extraterrestrial?")
I have a lot of sympathy for this cause, for the search is important and the payoff extremely so. But I must report a serious lack of optimism. Read on to find out why...
In recent times, I and my colleagues at the Foresight Nanotech Institute have moved towards discouraging the idea of self-replicating machines as part of molecular nanotech. Eric Drexler, founder of the institute, described these machines in his seminal work "Engines of Creation," while also warning about the major dangers that could result from that approach.
Recently, dining with Ray Kurzweil on the release of his new book The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology, he expressed the concern that the move away from self-replicating assemblers was largely political, and they would still be needed as a defence against malevolent self-replicating nanopathogens.
I understand the cynicism here, because the political case is compelling. Self-replicators are frightening, especially to people who get their introduction to them via fiction like Michael Chrichton's "Prey." But in fact we were frightened of the risks from the start. Self replication is an obvious model to present, both when first thinking about nanomachines, and in showing the parallels between them and living cells, which are of course self-replicating nanomachines.
The movement away from them however, has solid engineering reasons behind it, as well as safety reasons. Life has not always picked the most efficient path to a result, just the one that is sufficient to outcompete the others. In fact, red blood cells are not self-replicating. Instead, the marrow contains the engines that make red blood cells and send them out into the body to do their simple job.
There's a lot of talk about the coming threat of Avian H5N1 flu, how it might kill many millions, far beyond the 1918 flu and others, because of how much people travel in the modern world. Others worry about bioterrorism.
Plans are underway to deal with it, but are they truly thinking about some of the tools the modern world has that it didn't have in 1918 which might make up for our added risks? We have the internet, and a lot of dot-coms, both living and dead, created all sorts of interesting tools for living in the world without having to leave your house.
In the event of an outbreak, we'll have limited vaccine available, if there's much at all. Everybody will want it, and society will have to prioritize who gets what. While some choices are obvious -- medical staff and other emergency crews -- there may be other ideas worth considering.
Today, a significant fraction of the population can work from home, with phone, computer and internet. The economy need not shut down just because people must avoid congregating. Plans should be made, even at companies that prefer not to allow telecommuting, to be able to switch to it in an emergency.
Schools might have to close but education need not stop. We can easily devote TV channels in each area to basic curriculum for each grade. Individual schools can modify that for students who have internet access or even just a DVD player or VCR. For example, teachers could teach their class to a camera, and computers can quickly burn DVDs for distribution. Students can watch the DVDs, pause them and phone questions to the teacher. (However, ideally most students are able to make use of the live lectures on TV, and can phone their particular teacher, or chat online, to ask questions.) Parents, stuck at home would also help their children more.
Delivery people (USPS, UPS etc.) would be high in line for vaccination to keep goods flowing to people in their homes. You can of course buy almost anything online already. Systems like Webvan, for efficient grocery ordering and delivery could be brought back up, with extra vaccinated delivery drivers making rounds of every street.
Of course not everybody has a computer, but that need not be a problem. With so many people at home, volunteers would come forward who did have broadband. They would take calls from those who do not have computers and do their computer tasks for them, making sure they got in their orders for food and other supplies. Of course all food handlers would need to be vaccinated and use more sterile procedures.
Here John Dunn suggests sending an AI to negotiate with any aliens we discover via SETI.
This raises an interesting question. If SETI worked, and we got a signal from an alien intelligence, and the signal was understood to be a description of a computer architecture and then a big long, and undecipherably complex computer program -- possibly an AI -- could we dare run it?
Vernor Vinge (Vin-GEE)(whose 1993 novel "A Fire Upon the Deep" I published in hypertext form) coined the term "singularity" to refer to a future social and technological shift so profound and vast that those who come before it are actually incapable of understanding it.
This is an important concept, one that plays out in his novels and the writings of many others, and it needs a term. But this term has ended up not being ideal.
Back in June I did a short experiment nomading. A trip that was just a change of home but not a vacation. My sister was going to Rome to shoot a war documentary for a couple of weeks, so we flew to Toronto.
She had the main things I needed. A house, a car, and of course a DSL connection. But could I get my home environment? I brought a wireless access point, and the ATA for my Vonage phone account. The Vonage account has both a Silicon Valley number and a Toronto number, so it moved quite easily. People could still call me on the regular numbers, and I could make calls without concern for the cost. I borrowed a local cell phone since my efforts to get my own spare phone unlocked and with a local NAM didn't work out.
Also vital for me was a big screen. I'm used to a very nice 1600 x 1200 21" screen and that's not portable. I was able to borrow a 19". My servers at home kept running and in fact I did a lot of things on them remotely 2500 miles away. At one point the DSL flaked out and I had to find a friend to come in and reboot it, but otherwise that was fine.
Toronto is a town I've lived in, so this is cheating, but I haven't really lived there since I was young, so it's halfway to a foreign town in terms of knowing my way to things. At your own base, you learn a lot about your area. You learn all the traffic patterns, and you know where all the shops are that have the things you want at the prices you like. It takes a lot of time to duplicate that.
I've also learned that as I've gotten older I've gotten too dependent on stuff. I think back to the first time I moved cross country, putting everything in the back of my hatchback and feeling great. The last time, I used 20 linear feet of Transport truck.
Emory University scientists, taking one species of vole that is one of the extremely rare animals to be actually monogamous, found a gene to boost the effect of Vasopressin, one of the love hormones. Inserting this gene into other voles made them more socially monogamous.
I had heard of this before, and there has been science fiction about couples taking love drugs, but this story made me wonder about how people might try to alter the concept of marriage.
In 1965, Gordon Moore of intel published a paper suggesting that the number of transistors on a chip would double every year. Later, it was revised to suggest a number of 18 months, which became true in part due to marketing pressure to meet the law.
Recently, Intel revised the law to set the time at two years.
So this suggests a new law, that the time period in Moore's Law doubles about every 40 years.