Category

Mobility

Crowdsourcing morality for autonomous systems

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
February 25, 2021

With the advent of autonomous machines, such as autonomous vehicles, robots and even weapons, comes a need to embed some kind of morality into these machines. By definition, autonomous systems have to make choices of their own accord, to go left or right, to kill or not to kill, and we want these choices to reflect our own values and norms. One way of achieving this is for developers to translate explicit normative rules into code. Another way, arguably more democratic, is to crowdsource morality. For instance, by asking the public to “vote” on all sorts of moral dilemmas (e.g. the well-known trolley problem) or to let autonomous systems learn from our actual behavior (e.g. from observing how we drive). Interestingly, such forms of crowdsourcing could actually result in autonomous systems whose behavior aligns with local values and norms, instead of some kind of desired universal morality. The downside, however, would be that those systems, especially those that mimic our behavior, would not be able to make “better” decisions than we humans can.

Burning questions:

  • Would these forms of crowdsourcing morality lead to increased public trust in autonomous systems and allow for greater societal acceptance?
  • Is the end-goal of moral AI systems to have them align with our norms and values, or is there potential for robots to behave better than we do?
  • Could machines ever become morally superior to humans and what would this mean for the future of humanity?

Retroscope 2019

The end of the year is a time for contemplation. In this Retroscope, we look back and reflect on the ideas and insights we have published in The Macroscope throughout 2019. We have covered a wide range of events and developments in technology, global politics and society. The Macroscope is marked by our team’s diversity of perspectives, ranging from philosophy, economics, history, sociology, political sciences to engineering. Combining this interdisciplinary approach with scenario thinking, we aim to assess current affairs from a comprehensive and long-term perspective. Our retrospect of 2019 is therefore about how this year’s events tie in with or deviate from larger trends in technological, hegemonic or socio-cultural cycles. Our mission is to unlock society’s potential by decoding the future.

We hope you enjoy our reflection!

FreedomLab Thinktank

Click here for our Retroscope of 2019.

 

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Hegemonic cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Technological cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Socio-cultural cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Disruption in the making

Retroscope 2019: Disruption in the making

Disruption in the making

In 2019, we have written about how four domains of our daily lives are being disrupted by digital technology: mobility, health(care), food and education. In all these cases, digital technology does not only change the competitive field and reshape value chains, it also changes consumer preferences and creates new social and ethical challenges. As digital technology, regulation, consumer practices and business models co-shape each other, disruption is a process continuously in the making.

1. Mobility

Despite all stories about new generations not caring about cars, very little is changing in our travel behavior. Youngsters have less money and study longer, but as soon as they earn a living and start a family, they display “adult travel behavior”, just like their parents.

For now, we should not expect too much of technological change either. Even though chipmakers are getting ready to build a chauffeur-on-a-chip, it’s been a challenging year for self-driving cars and it will take many years before truly autonomous vehicles hit the road for real. Until that time, they will operate in trials to collect data for training purposes and possibly, within limits, for last-mile solutions. Most of all, they will be learning about the difficult-to-predict behavior of other, human, road users. Even if self-driving cars eventually come to work perfectly, it is still questionable whether we will welcome them wholeheartedly. For now, technology developers encounter quite a bit of resistance and even technology vandalism that reminds us of the Luddite protests in the early 19th century.

On a different note, the push for electrification of road (and waterborne) transport continues, because of climate change and in response to growing awareness about the deadly impact of local air pollution. Next year, we will see a surge in the number of electric vehicles on the market, but demand remains highly dependent on local subsidies for consumers and ethical concerns over natural resources (e.g. cobalt) could dampen enthusiasm about EVs. For this reason, and because battery technology will not progress fast enough, hydrogen as a fuel-of-the-future made quite a comeback last year.

2. Health

We are in the midst of the transition to a more personalized, preventive and participatory healthcare system. Changing disease patterns and aging societies demand a different organization of the system. Naturally, all eyes are on digital technology when it comes to enabling the transition, but, as we’ve frequently noted, digital technology is not a solution in itself. To illustrate, smart home care could relieve pressure and reduce unnecessary and costly hospital visits, but we expect socio-cultural dynamics, such as the coming generation of self-conscious and tech-savvy “elastic” elderly, to also play a big role in the sustainable management of aging societies.

Furthermore, ubiquitous digital self-tracking practices empower citizens to take responsibility for their own health, keep patients better informed on their health and could thus help democratize the doctor-patient relationship. Unfortunately, the rise of self-tracking might also lead to coercive practices and exploitation of the more vulnerable groups of society and government policies could be perceived as patronizing.

On an existential level, we don’t really know what the impact of the datafication of life will be. The emergence of the quantified self might improve measurable health, the amateur athlete is starting to look like a pro and the widespread adoption of mindfulness apps might help us get rid of the self-destructive and easily distracted “ego”. At the same time, the lack of spiritual legacy in mindfulness could increase self-centeredness or lead to alienation from our very own bodies.

For these reasons, socio-cultural reflection on the role of technology in health care is indispensable. Clever algorithms are already able to outperform doctors on specific and limited tasks (e.g. diagnosing tiny lung cancers), but we don’t expect doctors will be replaced altogether. The decision-making process of doctors requires moral reflection, practical wisdom and they have an important “healing role”.

3. Food

In 2019, food became a pressing geopolitical matter. We saw how the trade war between China and the U.S. disrupted food trade flows, how several conflicts around the world caused food insecurity (e.g. in Venezuela, Yemen and Sudan), and how countries increasingly looked to secure their future demand (as shown by China’s investment in agriculture in over 100 countries).

Unsustainable pressure on earth’s resources is further threatening food security. We are urged to look for ways to produce food in a climate-smart way: by adapting to climate change (e.g. saline farming, climate-resistant crops or regenerative farming practices) as well as reducing the ecological footprint of the food sector (e.g. fighting food waste or reducing food packaging). Drawing most attention this year were alternative protein products, as the plant-based protein transition is gaining speed in developed countries. Yet, since middle classes are rising across the developing world, demand for animal protein is bound to increase, as is illustrated by the rising popularity of milk in China.

Global obesity levels continued to rise in the past year and, in response, we are increasingly in search of more healthy lifestyles. What we eat is key to our health, attempts are emerging to biohack our diets and people have sought ways to link diet to our DNA.

As more and more people are moving to cities worldwide, the question is who the next generation of farmers will be, especially on rising continents such as Africa, where the rural youth do not aspire to traditional farming and are rapidly moving to cities. The question is also how growing cities will be able to sustain themselves in the future and what role indoor farming will play in this challenge. Meanwhile, online food delivery in urban centers is disrupting the food chain by challenging the traditional middlemen and sometimes even connecting consumers to farmers directly.

4. Education

Like last year, traditional education systems are struggling to provide students with relevant qualifications for the rapidly changing labor landscape. Consequently, alternative and sometimes radical initiatives to educate future employees are on the rise and companies are increasingly hiring without demanding a conventional degree. Coding, for example, is becoming an important skill for future generations to participate in our ever-digitizing world,but it has not found its way to general education yet. Nor has formal logic, even though it is central to all programming and would help future coders, irrespective of which coding language they eventually come to use. To fill that void, many online apps, programs andgames that offer the possibility to master coding skills are gaining popularity. Meanwhile,EdTech promises to bring about a revolution in traditional as well as alternative education in terms of efficiency, affordability and accessibility. Until now, EdTech has primarily offeredsolutions in traditional subjects such as math, language and geography and not much in the way of the desired 21st century skills.

Click here to see the full Retroscope of 2019

A future for hydrogen after all

Headlines about the future of mobility continue to refer predominantly to battery-electric vehicles. Yet, it is unlikely that battery-powered vehicles will be able to provide a satisfying solution to all of our transportation needs. Hydrogen offers an alternative as a fuel that can provide clean power for everything from passenger cars to heavy duty trucks and ships. Moreover, hydrogen has the potential to play a pivotal role in the energy system of the future as it can be used to store and transport renewable energy for whenever and wherever we need it.

Our observations

  • Several car manufacturers are offering hydrogen fuel cell models. Honda has released a new version of its Clarity fuel cell car (available for lease only in California) and Toyota offers the Mirai (35 of which are used as taxis in The Hague), Hyundai the Nexo and Daimler the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL. These models reflect something of a hydrogen comeback, as many manufacturers worked on hydrogen cars in the early 2000s as well.
  • In public transport, hundreds of hydrogen fuel cell buses are already in use across the world. A new consortium of bus makers and technology suppliers is seeking to deliver 1000 buses to the European market in the coming years. Several hydrogen-powered trains are in operation as well, as an alternative to Diesel-powered trains, and a number of hydrogen-powered ferries are under construction.
  • The biggest market for hydrogen fuel cells could very well be heavy-duty and long-haul transportation, as hydrogen’s weight (hence range) advantage over batteries is most relevant in those applications. Start-up truck manufacturer Nikola Motors is seeking to become the Tesla of fuel cell trucks and claims to have no less than 14k pre-orders. It recently received backing from CNH Industrial (owner of Iveco trucks) and Bosch.
  • Two key components in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the hydrogen storage system (i.e. a high-pressure tank) and the fuel cell (in which hydrogen reacts with oxygen to produce electricity). Both have gone through significant cost reductions; fuel cell costs have more than halved over the last decade and storage tanks have progressed similarly.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles need a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure and vice versa, which makes for a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Worldwide, there are a few hundred refueling stations (e.g. 96 in Japan, 60 in Germany and 42 in the U.S.) and many are planned for construction in the coming years. The lack of stations is nevertheless likely to hold back vehicle adoption and only consumers living or working near a station will purchase a hydrogen car. For captured fleets (e.g. taxis or delivery vans), dedicated on-site refueling equipment is a likely solution.
  • Today, hydrogen is used in the production of fertilizers, in oil refineries and in the production of metal alloys and glass. About 70 Mt of hydrogen is produced annually, three quarters of which is made from natural gas, the rest is mostly produced from coal (both resulting in CO2 emissions). The cost of producing hydrogen varies between regions, but it typically amounts to USD 1-2/kg of hydrogen.
  • To make hydrogen a sustainable energy carrier, it must be produced by means of electrolysis, i.e. splitting water, using renewable power (i.e. the reverse process of what happens in a fuel cell). Currently, this is rather expensive, USD 2.5-4.5/kg, but with further optimization, lower equipment costs (i.e. electrolyzers) and increasing amounts of excess power from wind and solar, costs are projected to drop to below USD 2/kg by 2030. Among other projects, an initiative in West Australia aims to develop a 5 gigawatt hydrogen production plant (i.e. the equivalent of 5 nuclear power plants) based on renewables. Over time, hydrogen exports could become an alternative for oil, gas and coal exporting nations, such as Australia.

 

Connecting the dots

The fight against climate change and local air pollution has resulted in a global push for zero-emission transportation. Governments in Europe, North-America and Asia are forcing car, truck and bus manufacturers to not only develop vehicles with ever lower greenhouse gas, NOx and particulate matter emissions, but to produce and sell zero-emission vehicles as well. In the mid ‘00s, Prius-style hybrids came onto the market in a first step to reduce emissions. By the end of the decade, a modest number of plug-in hybrid full-electric cars became available (e.g. the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi Outlander and Tesla Roadster). Ever since, the costs of battery-electric vehicles (BEV) have come down and their range and charging times have improved considerably. Yet, BEV sales are still heavily dependent on financial incentives for buyers (e.g. tax breaks) and potential buyers are still wary of their limited range. For passenger cars, this problem is often overstated (range-exceeding trips are rare and fast-charging stations are increasing rapidly) and further developments in battery technology may solve it altogether. For other modes of transportation, with heavier loads and longer distances, batteries may never provide a satisfactory solution and hydrogen makes for a sensible alternative as it can offer more range and shorter refueling times.
Hydrogen-powered transportation has a long history of development and it has seen a number of periods during which expectations were arguably inflated. The question really is why the technology would succeed this time, when it has failed in the past. First of all, the technology has progressed and costs have been lowered to levels that are near-compatible with battery-electric vehicles. Second, as described above, the limitations of BEVs have become clear and this creates a window of opportunity for hydrogen as governmental pressure on manufacturers and transport companies continues to rise. This is especially true for freight deliveries in cities

that face Diesel bans from 2025 onwards. Third, and most powerful in the long term, hydrogen has the potential to play a pivotal role in the energy system of the future, which will be dominated by intermittent renewables. Temporary surpluses of renewable energy can be stored as hydrogen and used in transportation or, if needed, to produce electricity for the grid. As such, hydrogen could render nations entirely energy-independent and it is no wonder that countries such as South-Korea and Japan are pushing hard to develop hydrogen technology.
The major recurring argument against hydrogen in transportation (and the energy system as a whole) is its poor energy efficiency. Indeed, to produce hydrogen from renewable electricity, to store and transport it and to convert it back to power in a fuel cell, amounts to energy losses of about 70%. Indeed, when possible, it makes more sense to use renewable power directly (e.g. to charge a BEV directly, which only results in ~10% losses), but in some use cases, hydrogen simply appears the only practical solution to deliver energy to end users (e.g. in trucking or, possibly even, aviation). Moreover, it is better to use energy inefficiently than to “throw it away” when there is a surplus of renewable energy (e.g. shutting down a wind farm). Ultimately, there’s no fundamental shortage of (renewable) energy on our planet and energy efficiency does not have to be our primary concern. Rather, the challenge is to sustain our current and future lifestyles without depleting natural resources or rendering our planet uninhabitable. To this aim, hydrogen could very well prove the most practical and affordable means of storing and transporting renewable energy for whenever and wherever we need it, even if quite a bit of energy is lost along the way.

Implications

  • Hydrogen is already a viable solution in niche applications (e.g. fork lifts) and will increasingly find its way into transportation, starting with captive fleets of companies (e.g. delivery vans), trucking and (possibly) shipping as well.

  • With respect to the automotive space, i.e. passenger cars, the question is really whether enough manufacturers will continue to develop hydrogen fuel cell cars to realize economies of scale in parts (e.g. fuel cells and storage tanks) and to solve the current chicken-and-egg problem of cars and refueling stations.

  • The production of hydrogen by means of hydrolysis requires large volumes of purified water and this could become problematic in the future, especially in sunny and dry regions. Research is currently looking into using sea water and waste water as alternative resources.

Will new generations travel differently?

Many analysts have claimed that younger generations are no longer interested in owning a car and will display rather different travel behavior from their predecessors. While some change is already observable today, they travel less and do so by car less frequently, it is not entirely clear whether this is reflective of an underlying shift in mentality or simply the result of (temporary) socio-economic factors. Because of this, it is still unclear whether they will start buying and driving cars as soon as they get older and wealthier, or whether they will remain open to other, more sustainable, flexible or shared modes of transportation.

Our observations

  • In OECD countries, more than 80% of passenger transport takes place by car. In non-OECD countries this is only 41%, but this percentage will increase, along with growing wealth, to more than 50% towards 2040 (at the expense of public transport and two-wheelers).
  • In the Netherlands, people in the age group 18-24 made 22% fewer trips in 2009 than they did in 1995 and covered 8% fewer kilometers. Also, travel time reduced by 9%, which is quite a significant deviation from the supposedly constant travel time budget. Time, distance and number of trips dropped steadily over this period (i.e. no direct relation to economic growth or decline). It was mostly young men who travelled less (far).
  • The average distance travelled by car, by the 18-24 age group, dropped from 20 to 17 km during this period(and remained more or less stable as a percentage of total distance travelled). A similar drop was visible for the 25-29 age group, although they travel more in general, and much more by car (~50% of distance travelled).
  • More recent data also shows that, in the Netherlands, car ownership is rising in general (from 494 cars per 1,000 inhabitants in 2006 to 530 in 2016). Only the age group 18-30 has shown a decline in ownership (from 308 in 2006 to 284 per 1,000 inhabitants in 2016).
  • In the U.K., in the period 2010-2014, people aged 17-29 travelled 36% less often by car as compared to the same age group in 1995-1999. Driver’s license ownership declined similarly from 48% to 29% for 17-20 year olds and from 75% to 63% for 21-29 year olds (between 1992 and 2014).
  • In the U.S., millennials (i.e. those born between 1979 and 2000) travel less, own fewer cars and have lower driver’s licensure rates. Moreover, the youngest in this cohort (born between 1988 and 1994) spend significantly more time in-home than older millennials.
  • Data from the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S. suggests that the most fundamental trend underlying these changes is an “extended youth” of studying longer, hence having less income available for (ever more expensive) travelling by car (and acquiring a driver’s license). Also, young people tend to live in urban areas more often and this is where the decline in (car-based) travel is strongest. Data from each of these countries also suggests that these changes are mostly temporarily; as soon as millennials find (full-time) employment and start a family, they exhibit similar travel behavior as older people.
  • There is sparse evidence of a changing attitude towards cars. Australian youth still consider owning a car a symbol of adulthood and maturity, but not so much of status, and an American study shows that young Americans no longer see their car as an absolute necessity.
  • The Dutch bicycle-as-a-service company Swapfiets has amassed 100,000 customers in 4 years’ time. Most of its customers are young millennials and older members of Gen Z.

Connecting the dots

The notion that young people no longer care about cars as a status symbol has become somewhat of an urban myth. Marketeers and consultants easily point to this “fact”, and even though solid proof is still lacking, the argument is often used to substantiate the claim that new generations will buy fewer cars and be more open toalternative means of transportation (e.g. bicycles, other forms of micro-mobility or public transport).
Interestingly, millennials and Gen Z indeed show different travel behavior from young people in, for instance, the 1990s. They travel less in general, spend more time at home, and travel less by car. Also, they have fewer driver’s licenses and own fewer cars. Yet, as soon as they grow up, find a (well-paying) job and have kids, they are quick to adopt the same kind of travel behavior as their parents and grandparents. Research provides several interlinked explanations for this postponing of “adult travel behavior”. Most of all, it seems, the explanation can be found in young people having less money and less need to travel a lot. They extend their education to when they are well into their twenties, they stay home with their parents longer and more often live in urban areas, where non-car-based travel is more feasible. On the contrary, evidence for a more fundamental shift in attitude towards cars and mobility is still lacking. In Europe as well as the U.S. and Australia, it appears that young people still want to buy a car and still recognize it as an important means of expressing themselves and their social status. Moreover, environmental concerns are (at least in the Netherlands) no reason not to travel by car.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe that today’s youth and young adults will bring some change to the mobility landscape when they grow older. They are getting used to different forms of non-car-based travel and even though most of them might end up buying a car, they are also likely to remain open to alternatives and, most of all, not to view their car as the only option available. Also, they are growing up using advanced forms of route planning, including options for cars, bicycles and public transport, and understand that different circumstances (e.g. time of day, weather) favor different modes of transportation. Most of all, these people will grow older in a world where there are many more alternatives available; from car sharing schemes to all sorts of micro-mobility solutions and, eventually, genuine mobility-as-a-service offerings.
Gen Z, and Gen Alpha after them, may also show other characteristics that could “prevent” them from buying cars and solely travelling by car. As we have noted before, Gen Z are the children of the Great Financial Crisis and they have been raised by (overly) protective parents. This has made for a highly sensitive and vulnerable generation that suffers severely from mental health issues and prefers to stay at home (and travel less). Also, they have grown up using digital platforms, make far less of a distinction between the “real” and the “virtual” and find truly meaningful experiences in online environments such as Fortnite or TikTok, possibly using them toprofessional aims as well (again, allowing them to stay at home). When they do go out, they expect the real world to exhibit the same kind of frictionless experience as their virtual habitats. As-a-service solutions (for bicycles, like Swapfiets, or mobility in general) tap into that desire and could take flight once this generation has the financial means and need to travel more.

Implications

  • The trends of “extended youth” and postponed “adult travel behavior” are structural, but so far, theseeffects have appeared only to last only until people become “adults” after all. Yet, genuine generational factors (i.e. for Gen Z) may come into play in the coming decade(s), decrease overall travel demand and lead to lower car ownership. Public transport and forms of micro-mobility are likely to profit (at least relative to car-based travel). Clearly, this demand will occur mostly in urban areas with sufficient density for (cost-)effective public transport and last-mile solutions.
  • While Gen Z, according to generational theorists, could really show a different attitude towards mobility, their attitude is only one factor in a complex web of factors that shape practices of mobility. Urban shape, mobility infrastructures, social conventions and other factors also matter and change will likely be slower than one would expect from looking solely at generational characteristics.

Reinventing urban waterways

What happened?

Last week, two entrepreneurs announced they are going to build a new distribution hub on the shore of one of Amsterdam’s main waterways. Goods (e.g. parcels) from different businesses will be collected at the hub and delivered to final customers by means of electric vessels. With varying degrees of success, similar projects in European cities have also sought to reinvent waterborne urban distribution for the distribution of parcels, construction material, restaurant supplies and for garbage collection. The common rationale is that (electric) waterborne transport can be (part of) a solution to congestion and urban air pollution. Yet, the question is why this would succeed today, when we abandoned these practices decades ago.

What does this mean?

Many European cities relied on waterborne transportation until (most) ships gave way to faster, more cost-efficient trucks. Today, ships may be “clean”, but they are still are slow and labor-intensive and they can only reach a limited number of locations. Moreover, urban quays have found new uses, e.g. providing space for houseboats and car parking, and are hardly available for unloading. For these reasons, it seems likely that waterborne distribution, in the near future, will mostly be limited to customers who are willing to pay a premium for green delivery options and those for whom on-time delivery is crucial and waterways offer a more reliable option than clogged-up urban roads.

What’s next?

In the longer term, autonomous vessels could play a significant role by reducing labor costs (and ships may be even easier to automate than cars). The same is true for small (automated) vehicles that could extend the “reach” of ships beyond the immediacy of a quay. Along with technological innovation, additional institutional innovation will be needed as well. Part of this may have to come from municipalities (e.g. discouraging (Diesel) truck deliveries and re-opening quays for deliveries) or from distributors and customers (e.g. shifting to bundled and less frequent deliveries).

The rise of the Asian Aerotropolis

What happened?

Whereas in the western world some people have stopped flying to save the environment and the development of key aviation hubs is being stalled, something very different is happening across Asia, where travel demand will surpass that of North America and Europe combined by 2037. A Bloomberg report shows that as a result, Asian airports are transforming into mini-cities that aim to become destinations in themselves, with apartments, exhibition spaces, and medical centers. It is part of an Asian aviation boom which is being driven by a growing middle class that wants to travel abroad and airports which can still expand significantly (due to geography, political will, and economic incentives).

What does this mean?

In the 2000 book Aerotropolis, John Kasarda showed that airports have become drivers of 21st century urban development in the same way as seaports (18th century), railroads (19th century) and highways (20th century) did. However, whereas highways facilitated fragmented cities (as cars led to growing suburbs), urban development by way of airports facilitates more centralized cities (as seaports and railroads did). The Asian Aerotropolis will therefore boost the emergence of dense Asian megacities (whereas midsized cities are making a comeback in the western world).

What’s next?

The rise of the Asian Aerotropolis will significantly boost Asian economies, but this will be accompanied by huge challenges, such as congestion, (noise) pollution and the urban-rural rift. Indeed, in the coming years these traditional challenges facing megacities could worsen significantly across Asia. Meanwhile, however, the rise of the Aerotropolis will have a positive economic impact across the region. For instance, Singapore’s Changhi airport already contributes 16% to GDP, which could increase to 25% by the late 2020s. Similarly, 19th century railways contributed to rising GDP across Europe.

Reality is holding back self-driving cars

What happened?

Over the last couple of years we have heard both traditional car manufacturers as well as dedicated start-ups promising that autonomous vehicles would arrive soon. In the meantime, it seems that many of those statements were overly optimistic and that truly autonomous still take years to develop, possibly only in 2030. Several high-profile accidents, and some drawing less attention, have made authorities, and manufacturers, reluctant to allow these cars on public roads. Along with the cost and performance of the necessary hardware (e.g. lidar systems and chips), sufficient training data appears the biggest hurdle.

What does this mean?

By now, self-driving cars are capable of detecting and recognizing most objects around them (as long as the weather is not too bad) and navigate their way around them. In other words, autonomous driving is possible from a merely technological point of view. The real challenge, however, is learning cars how to deal with atypical circumstances and unpredictable human behavior. Some training can take place in fully simulated environments, but data from real-life situations is crucial to prepare smart cars for (virtually) everything they may ever encounter. However, in the coming years, fully-autonomous vehicles will be limited to relatively slow rides on fixed routes and mostly so in (semi-)enclosed environments such as airports, gated communities or freight corridors. The question is whether such circumstances will yield sufficient data to train vehicles for more challenging situations.

What’s next?

Because of this, real cars will have to go on “real” roads to collect data and all of them will have human drivers behind the wheel for years to come. Because of this, the question is who will be able to collect the most and most meaningful data and be the first-to-market with a fully autonomous vehicle. Pure technology developers such as Waymo are, mostly, limited to dedicated trials with relatively small fleets of vehicles. By contrast, car manufacturers are able to mount sensors on their production cars and collect data as their customers drive their cars (e.g. Tesla’s “Shadow Mode”). Even though Waymo is still ahead in terms of real miles driven, eventually the data-factor could very well give (traditional) car manufacturers a decisive edge over their digital-first challengers.

Retroscope 2018: Disruption in the making

Dear reader,

The end of the year is a time for contemplation. In this Retroscope, we look back and reflect on the ideas and insights we have published in The Macroscope throughout 2018. We have covered a wide range of events and developments in technology, global politics and society. The Macroscope is marked by our team’s diversity of perspectives, ranging from philosophy, economics, history, sociology, political sciences to engineering. Combining this interdisciplinary approach with scenario thinking and cyclical thinking, we aim to assess current affairs from a comprehensive and long-term perspective. Our retrospect of 2018 is therefore about how this year’s events tie in with or deviate from larger trends in technological, hegemonic or socio-cultural cycles. Our mission is to unlock society’s potential by decoding the future.

The hyperlinks in this Retroscope refer to the underlying Macroscope publications of 2018.

We hope you enjoy our reflection!

FreedomLab Thinktank

Click here to see the full Retroscope of 2018.

Disruption in the making

This year, we have written extensively about four domains of everyday life that are being disrupted by digital technology. Mobility, health, food and education have to adapt to changing consumer preferences and societal challenges and new technologies will shake up existing value chains. Below, you’ll find our take on these changes.

1. Mobility

Many car manufacturers made bold promises, under the pressure of regulators (and Elon Musk) to mass-market their own battery-electric or hydrogen vehicles. One of the questions looming over the automotive industry is, however, whether consumers will continue to buy and use cars to the extent they do today. Policy makers are seeking ways to get people out of their cars (often in order to improve local air quality) and improve public transportation, through Mobility-as-a-Service initiatives, for instance. Insofar as people will continue to get around by car, the question is whether they will still drive themselves. Despite several accidents, both carmakers and tech companies are busy developing and testing their autonomous vehicles. While most analysts have talked about safety and the infamous trolley problem, we have asked how these vehicles may change our everyday lives. Autonomous cars are bound to change the layout of our cities and, in a similar vein, other technologies (e.g. cheaper and faster tunneling) may lead to vertical cities and the comeback of supersonic flight could lead to a handful of hyper-connected, and hence hyper-attractive, global cities.

2. Health

A future in which genetic modifications give us enhanced physical and cognitive capabilities came a bit closer in 2018. Eventually, this will give us the possibility to rethink our human design, but much sooner, genetic data will allow us to unravel our personalities. Along with advanced genetic research, new insights regarding our health have also led to a return to traditional thinking and more holistic approaches to health. The latter related to an increasing focus on prevention instead of care, for example by critically reexamining our diet, the growing awareness of the importance of mental health and the development of digital tools to detect early signs of illness. Even the importance of (urban) infrastructure in stimulating healthier lifestyles was taken into account in 2018.

Despite this broadening perspective, medical care will be needed in the future and it is thus no surprise that Big Tech showed ambitions to disrupt the healthcare value chain. At the same time, a real breakthrough for e-health has not taken place in 2018. Still, initiatives to make e-health applications more user-friendly and introduce gaming elements, could drive its adoption in the coming years and even boost digitalization in other fields as well.

3. Food

2018 has shown growing concerns over food security and ways to feed a growing population in a world of climate change. For instance, rising carbon dioxide levels in the air may make plants grow faster, but it also makes them less nutritious, i.e. the “nutrient collapse”. And, while maintaining biodiversity is crucial to the health of our ecosystems and varied diets are key to our wellbeing, food supplies around the world have become more similar, resulting in expansive monocultures for the intense cultivation of a few select staple crops. Indeed, whether the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will be met depends largely on the sustainability of the global food system. As we have discussed over the year, in an increasingly urbanizing world population, the city is becoming an integrated landscape for both people and agriculture. Moreover, emerging digital technology is not only making cities smarter, it is also enabling the digitization of the food chain. Biotechnological advancements, such as the gene-editing tool CRISPR, and advancements in the field of genetics are leading to possibilities in crop improvements, disease control and other ways to transform selection processes in agriculture and first steps to the holy grail of personalized food and medicine.

4. Education

This year, preparing ourselves and future generations for the Fourth Industrial Revolution has become an even more pressing topic, as a skills gap in future graduates is still on the rise. Education systems are being reevaluated around the world, and Technical skills and a set of “soft skills” are top requirements on the list of future-proof education.  Although we have always thought that at least our emotional and social qualities would be safe from being replaced by computers, A.I. has been shown to carry out many social and emotional tasks. Furthermore, we have seen an increasing acceptance of these systems doing so. As globalization is moving forward, the knowledge and skills that are required become less related to specific cultures and more alike in each community. These developments increase the popularity of tech solutions that transcend country borders, the one-size-fits-all model of current education systems or the limitations of classroom lectures, such as K-12 online tutoring, personalized learning, online education in the corporate sector, YouTube as a learning tool and VR in the classroom. Whether the current changes that education is going through (e.g. schoolification) are taking place fast enough to keep up with new tech-savvy generations is unclear and the looming skills gap seems to remain in the foreseeable future. As a consequence, kids might increasingly turn directly to companies or start their own business instead of pursuing higher education, in order to develop themselves in a way that resonates with their lifestyle and offers a more solid perspective on a job/income.

Retroscope 2018

Dear reader,

The end of the year is a time for contemplation. In this Retroscope, we look back and reflect on the ideas and insights we have published in The Macroscope throughout 2018. We have covered a wide range of events and developments in technology, global politics and society. The Macroscope is marked by our team’s diversity of perspectives, ranging from philosophy, economics, history, sociology, political sciences to engineering. Combining this interdisciplinary approach with scenario thinking and cyclical thinking, we aim to assess current affairs from a comprehensive and long-term perspective. Our retrospect of 2018 is therefore about how this year’s events tie in with or deviate from larger trends in technological, hegemonic or socio-cultural cycles. Our mission is to unlock society’s potential by decoding the future.

The hyperlinks in this Retroscope refer to the underlying Macroscope publications of 2018.

We hope you enjoy our reflection!

FreedomLab Thinktank

Click here for our Retroscope of 2018.