We are all rightfully preoccupied with the pandemic that we have not started to notice that the future outlined in science fiction stories has begun to arrive in bits and pieces. There was a time when the world would turn its eyes towards Silicon Valley to find what’s next. But these days, the vision of our future comes from faraway places. I was reminded of the change when I read that Didi’s robot taxis had started picking up riders in Shanghai. As a rider who took a Didi robot-taxi ride describes his experience:
A spinning radar unit on the roof with half a dozen cameras certainly looked curious. I got in and, for the purposes of immersing myself fully into this test, I ignored the two Didi employees sitting in front and pretended they weren’t there. It’s not just Didi out here developing tomorrow’s technology: more than 90 AI vehicle-related companies have set up shop in Jiading, all taking advantage of the 5G networks in the area which help such massive amounts of data transfer in real-time from vehicles to the network and back again. By 2025 they reckon these types of vehicles will truly be fully driverless, so you have about five years to get used to the idea if it’s something that scares you.
Alright. So they have Didi-employees sitting in the front, but they are already going down the road of commercialization of an idea that is still under development here in the US. Of course, Uber is retrenching its technology efforts. I find it all very exciting because I distinctly remember that it was in 2004 that DARPA launched the Grand (later Urban) Challenge, which helped jump-start a lot of activity around self-driving cars that use machine learning and algorithms. (Jane Metcalfe, Wired co-founder astutely observes that “What we imagine becomes what we build.” )
“That first competition created a community of innovators, engineers, students, programmers, off-road racers, backyard mechanics, inventors and dreamers who came together to make history by trying to solve a tough technical problem,” said Lt. Col. Scott Wadle, DARPA’s liaison to the U.S. Marine Corps. “The fresh thinking they brought was the spark that has triggered major advances in the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicle technology in the years since.”
China also is also looking to aggressively rollout virtual reality in their classrooms and transform how children are educated. We are still at the hobbyist stage here in the US. Whether it is VR or self-driving taxis, the experiments and early experience will lead to learnings, and in turn, lead to a sustained understanding of the commercial opportunities of those technologies.
The pandemic has opened up many conversations about drones and drone deliveries. I was talking to my friend Star Simpson (who co-founded a startup focused on Autonomous Aerial Delivery) about the current pandemic and needed for new logistics chains. And we ended up talking about Africa, where lack of roads has pushed the adoption of autonomous delivery via drones and their variants. For example, in places like Tanzania, drones are already delivering medicines.
William Gibson was right when he said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”