The Rise of the Machines

Advances in AI, supported by incredible advances in mechanics, have brought us seemingly to the brink of two huge milestones in the history of the human race –  the automation revolution and the adoption of renewable (bottomless, not limitless) energy.  The 20th century saw us harness machines to leverage our physical capabilities thousandfold, capped by the internet age which has made worldwide communication instantaneous and made all of man’s knowledge and experience ubiquitous.  Now we are about to step into a new age in which technological advances make manual labor and low-level human control obsolete, and bring plenty to all.  This will be a time when the lowest two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – physiological and safety – will be, by default, satisfied.

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/33/MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg/2000px-MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg.png

The two tiers at the bottom mainly consist of the basic supply chain activities – production, sales, and delivery.  When machines replace us humans in carrying out these activities, we should enjoy an exponential improvement in performance.  On the other hand, we will need even more copious amounts of energy to power the machines.  Amazingly, it seems that we have reached the point where we have figured out all the pieces, at least in principle.

Production – Automated factories are not new, but they are becoming ubiquitous.  Especially with the advent of 3D printing, the precision of computers and robots is the enabling factor for modern mass-production.  Hopefully, there will always be a role for the human to play, perhaps in esthetics-related areas such as finishing and quality control.  On the other hand, did you know that you are the first human being to see a LEGO block when you open the package?  And it’s not just factories that are automated; robots and drones are becoming commonplace on traditional farms, and state-of-the-art greenhouses and hydroponic facilities need perfectly-tuned computer management to function at their ultra-high efficiency levels.  Even in your own home, when it comes to something like cooking a great cut of beef sous vide, who needs ya!

Sales – Once you make the gizmo or grow the carrot, you need to get it into the hands of the consumer.  The front-end, profit-making part of this is the retail business.  Amazon and eBay have demonstrated that the web is the best salesman in town.  Automated self-checkouts are common in modern supermarkets and are even set to squeeze out the legions of students and senior citizens manning the counters at McDonalds and all your other favorite fast-food joints.  I’m generalizing but not exaggerating when I say that I can make a better buying decision by spending 15 minutes on the internet than by spending 2 hours with 98% of salespeople that I run into.

Delivery – Amazon and drones.  Say no more.  Actually, I’m still not too comfortable with the drone thing, mainly because I believe that low-altitude flight is too complicated to leave to machines, at least for now.  I’m not talking about getting a cruise missile to hit within a 1-meter target zone, but rather getting a drone quadrotor to maneuver around my neighborhood airspace and safely drop off a package on my front doorstep without crashing into a tree, my roof, my dog, or my kid – and just try and get my signature!  Yet, I suppose that it’s only a matter of time until they figure out how to control and maneuver the drones with the required amount of precision.   And as for rail and road transport, I’m all in favor of letting the robots drive.  I’ve had a couple of near-miss experiences involving motor vehicles and stupid drivers and that’s plenty to convince me.  As an aside…  I’m not a big fan of Uber as an alternative to taxis, but wouldn’t I love it if I could simply summon a robot vehicle to deliver something (whether it be human or non-human cargo) at the press of a button.

Energy – The ongoing shift away from fossil fuels towards solar and nuclear power will eventually reach the point where the cost of energy is, for all intents and purposes, insignificant.  Some estimates indicate that the amount of terrestrial surface area needed to power the world solely by zero-emission solar is, simply, no big deal.  Of course, the huge challenges to installing world-scale solar generation facilities are economic and political.  That said, massive solar farms are becoming quite a thing.

The Human Factor – Many are hopeful and optimistic that the human factor will continue to be essential, possibly in areas such as design, planning and management  However, it may not be unwise for us to take a prudent approach in preparing to take our places in the future economy.  How likely is it that a machine will be able to do the job better/faster/cheaper than me?  The answer may be shocking!

So, the stage is set for the Rise of the Machines.  Will humanity face an existential crisis?  Let us hope not.  But certainly, and shortly, we are going to witness some incredible changes to the mode of human existence on planet Earth.  Among the possible developments may be a fundamental change in the cost of things… in fact , the cost of everything, including money.

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Microsoft Surface Book – the Ultimate Form Factor ? (…almost)

Source: Microsoft online store

Note:  The below post is based on published information, as I have not had a chance to use the Surface Book personally.

At long last, we have finally reached what I believe to be the ultimate form factor in the personal computer sector.

The just-announced Microsoft Surface Book, running Windows 10, looks like a true “one device fits all” personal computer.  While Lenovo’s Thinkpad Helix was the first device to combine a tablet with a powerful keyboard/dock and spawned several competitors from Acer, Sharp, etc., they all were handicapped by hardware limitations and suffered from bulkiness, lackluster performance, poor battery life, and/or OS constraints (you simply cannot do real work on a smartphone OS).

The new Surface Book ticks the boxes in all of the absolutely necessary areas:

  • handy size (in the 10″-14″ range to do “real” work) and light weight
  • excellent screen (13.5″ PixelSense 3000×2000 !!!) and input quality (keyboard and pen)
  • excellent performance specs (CPU, memory, storage)
  • great battery life (if as claimed)
  • (perhaps most controversially) a highly functional and efficient touch-capable operating system in Windows 10
  • flexible form factor among laptop, tablet, and easel modes
  • excellent build quality
  • fair pricing, considering what you are getting

They say you should never buy version 1.0 of anything, and I generally agree wholeheartedly, but Microsoft’s first Surface (and updates since) have been impressive enough to show that Microsoft’s hardware team has both the talent and luck to shock and awe as they take the fight to Apple and Google.

Microsoft obviously had a solid vision for Windows being the convergence OS among among full-size computers, mobile computers, and embedded computing.  However, Windows 8 (version 1.0 of the current-gen OS) was crippled by a dodgy feature set and Microsoft’s insistence on putting the widely-despised Modern UI front and center, as well as inadequate hardware (both in terms of technology and design).  On the other hand, Windows 10 masterfully delivers the ideal experience depending on what the user wants and needs at the time.  The Modern UI is sleek and efficient in tablet mode (especially in landscape orientation) and is highly usable in easel mode or with a desktop touchscreen.  Meanwhile, the full Windows desktop is still accessible when the user needs to use fully featured applications for document creation, email, spreadsheet, media creation, database, and technical/scientific use.  Underneath it all is a state-of-the-art operating system with a featureset meeting all the requirements of corporate use, running on hardware that is fast, energy efficient, and ergonomic.

It remains a big question mark whether Microsoft will eventually grow to be a significant hardware maker.  This will be critical in terms of after-sales service and support.  Lenovo is the segment leader with its Helix and could easily and quickly release an upgraded model with specs to match or rival the Surface Book.  Dell has recently been on a tear with its latest crop of XPS models and they could also release a viable competitor.

Meanwhile, the Surface Book is at the top of my gadget wish list.