robot ponies for everyone

Suppose you’re a company with squillions of dollars in cash and boundless ambition, developing technologies that rely to some degree on small-scale concentrated adoption to propel future success: how do you make that happen? You identify a target market that fits certain criteria, make a pretty compelling opening offer in terms of up-front and ongoing costs, and then hope for buy-in and cooperation.

How much, then, would it cost Google to replace a small city’s entire personal transportation network with autonomous vehicles, overnight, on condition that everybody bought into using them?

I wrote a little while back about the bootstrapping problem here: while it’s easy to imagine an autocar taking over whatever driving task annoys you the most, everybody’s desires and needs are just different enough, and the technology itself better suited to certain early uses than others, that the transition is going to be uneven and messy and will change the questions we’re asking of it along the way. But given how Glass and particularly Fiber have been offered to the public, it’s equally easy to imagine Google trying to skip the transition, by setting out the conditions for a municipal beta test and finding out who’s prepared to dance.

the physiognomy of the startup

I’ve spent most of my adult life looking for significance in patterns and tropes, whether in words on a page or tailed logfiles on a terminal, motivated by a common goal: what is going on here?

In that spirit, I present to you the six-customer coin-arbitraging borderline-self-parody Washboard, apotheosis of laundry revolutionaries; the Bostonian meatpuppet haulage service Bridj; and the peer-to-peer tarmac tout Monkey Parking.

A few examples don’t make a trend. These companies are minuscule: the internet magnifies them, and fleeting attention turns them into the Thing of the Day. But there are patterns in the shared web templates, the Vimeo promos, the notable quotables from the people in charge.[1] It’s a sense of performance, of self-conscious or semi-conscious adaptation to perceived norms, the kind of thing we’ve seen before on a smaller scale with the dutiful homogenisation of Kickstarter project pitches.

It reminds me of the late eighteenth-century study of gesture and posture, the Age of Sentiment’s attempt to construe a universal language of raised eyebrows and bent elbows, grounded in a Newtonian sense of concordance between outward expression and inward emotion. Smile yourself happy; learn how you’re feeling by looking in a mirror; bring tears to an audience by projecting the appropriate gestures from the stage. That interest ultimately evolved into the pseudosciences of physiognomy and phrenology, where the flexibility of gesture gives way to a notion of character carved into the body.

If you think you know what a startup’s founder should look like, and have power and money behind you, then you might make a truth of it. If you think you can divine a company’s character from the way it sells itself, and believe that it represents the future because there’s a smartphone app, then you have the capacity to make it so.

Action slips into enactment: emulation, in the name of disruption.

[1] Douglas Wolk wrote somewhere (and I badly paraphrase) that bad records reveal more about musical genres than good ones, because they’re attempts to produce a successful example of that genre or movement or mood, and their failures lay bare the assumptions about those templates.

and a robot pony

The MetaFilter discussion of Google’s people-sized LOGO turtle offers up plenty of scenarios for where and how self-driving cars might be most useful once they get outside their Mountain View test track:[1]

  • a way to reduce the horrific number of deaths and injuries on the roads
  • a way to make car-sharing the norm and reduce congestion
  • a replacement for taxi drivers [2]
  • a replacement for long-haul truck drivers
  • a replacement for paratransit services
  • a source of liberation for those currently confined by sprawl and inadequate transport options: the young, the old, the poor, the disabled
  • a last-mile connection to public transit networks
  • a replacement for public transit networks, leaving the last mile for individual drivers
  • a reinvention of urban transportation
  • a reinvention of rural transportation
  • and so on

All well and good, but we’re not going to wake up one morning to find all our transportation devices turned sentient and electric.[3] Horses were still used for road haulage decades after carriages went horseless. So right now there’s a lot of ‘better horse’ thinking, often at cross-purposes, when you’d assume that the future will, as always, be unevenly distributed. Completely autonomous vehicles will come to small, tightly-controlled environments first[4] and the second-order effects of those deployments will shape subsequent use, by which time partial implementations that trickle down to existing vehicles will have already changed the conditions under which we might want them to take full control.[5]

In broader terms: a potentially disruptive technology has to succeed at doing some of the things before it can set its sights on all of the things, and those first implementations and instantiations lay a foundation for what follows, not just by what they do but in what they choose not to do. They establish focus. That we can come up with so many different applications right now may actually be an impediment compared to technologies that emerge with simple goals and expand through the discovery of further applications and iterative enhancement to accommodate them.[6]

The gap between minimum viable prototype and maximum imaginable future is a hard one to cross.


[1] Perhaps with the aid of a Boston Dynamics bulldozer that will intelligently render cities more like Mountain View.
[2] That will need to address the Bodily Fluids Problem, i.e. when someone summons an Ubermatic to take them home after a night out and they throw up en route. Or worse.
[3] SF writers, you can have that one for free.
[4] Big Amazon-style warehouses, obviously, but I can also imagine airports rapidly deploying self-driving vehicles to shuttle passengers, luggage and equipment across the tarmac: it’s another private space with highly schematised routes driven at low speed, and it’s a good way to get the public comfortable with the tech in a controlled environment. The Dulles mobile lounge, an artefact of the future-in-the-past, may well have a second life.
[5] Your average eighteen-wheeler is now a kind of Taylorised cyborg, thanks to GPS navigation and tracking and telemetry and anticipatory gear selection and traffic monitoring and a couple of decades of logistics work that calls for specific routes hitting specific waypoints at specific times; we’re long past the days of the CB-era ‘open road’ where the bosses didn’t care too much about the journey as long as you reach your destination on time.
[6] For some reason I think of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu here, versus the CERN or Mosaic-era web.