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It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.
In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?
This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”
In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.
Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.
Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.
Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.
Such are the dreams, anyway.
But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”
Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.
For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.
One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.
Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.
Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.
In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.
You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).
Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.
Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.
Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?
We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.
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Exponential technologies (AI, VR, 3D printing, and networks) are radically reshaping traditional retail.
E-commerce giants (Amazon, Walmart, Alibaba) are digitizing the retail industry, riding the exponential growth of computation.
Many brick-and-mortar stores have already gone bankrupt, or migrated their operations online.
Massive change is occurring in this arena.
For those “real-life stores” that survive, an evolution is taking place from a product-centric mentality to an experience-based business model by leveraging AI, VR/AR, and 3D printing.
Let’s dive in.
Last year, 3.8 billion people were connected online. By 2024, thanks to 5G, stratospheric and space-based satellites, we will grow to 8 billion people online, each with megabit to gigabit connection speeds.
These 4.2 billion new digital consumers will begin buying things online, a potential bonanza for the e-commerce world.
At the same time, entrepreneurs seeking to service these four-billion-plus new consumers can now skip the costly steps of procuring retail space and hiring sales clerks.
Today, thanks to global connectivity, contract production, and turnkey pack-and-ship logistics, an entrepreneur can go from an idea to building and scaling a multimillion-dollar business from anywhere in the world in record time.
And while e-commerce sales have been exploding (growing from $34 billion in Q1 2009 to $115 billion in Q3 2017), e-commerce only accounted for about 10 percent of total retail sales in 2017.
In 2016, global online sales totaled $1.8 trillion. Remarkably, this $1.8 trillion was spent by only 1.5 billion people — a mere 20 percent of Earth’s global population that year.
There’s plenty more room for digital disruption.
AI and the Retail Experience
For the business owner, AI will demonetize e-commerce operations with automated customer service, ultra-accurate supply chain modeling, marketing content generation, and advertising.
In the case of customer service, imagine an AI that is trained by every customer interaction, learns how to answer any consumer question perfectly, and offers feedback to product designers and company owners as a result.
Facebook’s handover protocol allows live customer service representatives and language-learning bots to work within the same Facebook Messenger conversation.
Taking it one step further, imagine an AI that is empathic to a consumer’s frustration, that can take any amount of abuse and come back with a smile every time. As one example, meet Ava. “Ava is a virtual customer service agent, to bring a whole new level of personalization and brand experience to that customer experience on a day-to-day basis,” says Greg Cross, CEO of Ava’s creator, an Austrian company called Soul Machines.
Predictive modeling and machine learning are also optimizing product ordering and the supply chain process. For example, Skubana, a platform for online sellers, leverages data analytics to provide entrepreneurs constant product performance feedback and maintain optimal warehouse stock levels.
Blockchain is set to follow suit in the retail space. ShipChain and Ambrosus plan to introduce transparency and trust into shipping and production, further reducing costs for entrepreneurs and consumers.
Meanwhile, for consumers, personal shopping assistants are shifting the psychology of the standard shopping experience.
Amazon’s Alexa marks an important user interface moment in this regard.
Alexa is in her infancy with voice search and vocal controls for smart homes. Already, Amazon’s Alexa users, on average, spent more on Amazon.com when purchasing than standard Amazon Prime customers — $1,700 versus $1,400.
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the future combination of virtual reality shopping, coupled with a personalized, AI-enabled fashion advisor will make finding, selecting, and ordering products fast and painless for consumers.
But let’s take it one step further.
Imagine a future in which your personal AI shopper knows your desires better than you do. Possible? I think so. After all, our future AIs will follow us, watch us, and observe our interactions — including how long we glance at objects, our facial expressions, and much more.
In this future, shopping might be as easy as saying, “Buy me a new outfit for Saturday night’s dinner party,” followed by a surprise-and-delight moment in which the outfit that arrives is perfect.
In this future world of AI-enabled shopping, one of the most disruptive implications is that advertising is now dead.
In a world where an AI is buying my stuff, and I’m no longer in the decision loop, why would a big brand ever waste money on a Super Bowl advertisement?
The dematerialization, demonetization, and democratization of personalized shopping has only just begun.
The In-Store Experience: Experiential Retailing
In 2017, over 6,700 brick-and-mortar retail stores closed their doors, surpassing the former record year for store closures set in 2008 during the financial crisis. Regardless, business is still booming.
As shoppers seek the convenience of online shopping, brick-and-mortar stores are tapping into the power of the experience economy.
Rather than focusing on the practicality of the products they buy, consumers are instead seeking out the experience of going shopping.
The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and computation are exponentially improving the in-person consumer experience.
As AI dominates curated online shopping, AI and data analytics tools are also empowering real-life store owners to optimize staffing, marketing strategies, customer relationship management, and inventory logistics.
In the short term,retail store locations will serve as the next big user interface for production 3D printing (custom 3D printed clothes at the Ministry of Supply), virtual and augmented reality (DIY skills clinics), and the Internet of Things (checkout-less shopping).
In the long term,we’ll see how our desire for enhanced productivity and seamless consumption balances with our preference for enjoyable real-life consumer experiences — all of which will be driven by exponential technologies.
One thing is certain: the nominal shopping experience is on the verge of a major transformation.
The convergence of exponential technologies has already revamped how and where we shop, how we use our time, and how much we pay.
Twenty years ago, Amazon showed us how the web could offer each of us the long tail of available reading material, and since then, the world of e-commerce has exploded.
And yet we still haven’t experienced the cost savings coming our way from drone delivery, the Internet of Things, tokenized ecosystems, the impact of truly powerful AI, or even the other major applications for 3D printing and AR/VR.
Perhaps nothing will be more transformed than today’s $20 trillion retail sector.
Hold on, stay tuned, and get your AI-enabled cryptocurrency ready.
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