BERLIN — Ocado, an online grocery store in England, prides itself on its delivery of refrigerated foods: When the company says the goods will arrive at a certain temperature, they mean it.Talk To Me, One Machine Said To The Other (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The promise is more than a marketing boast. Aided by microchip transmitters, heat sensors and a fast-growing form of wireless communication, the boast is a measurable fact.
Inside each Ocado delivery van is a SIM-card module the size of a postage stamp that monitors the air temperature. The sensor sends data to a computer used by fleet managers back at headquarters near London every few minutes.
Ocado says incidents of spoilage of goods have declined since the transmitters were installed last year.
“It has saved us time and given us more confidence in our real-time monitoring, as well as being a safety check for the driver,” said Paul Clarke, Ocado’s director of technology, who oversees a 300-person department that develops software and hardware for the retailer.
The drone of low-density conversation between Ocado’s trucks and headquarters in Hatfield is one example of machine-to-machine communication, a stream of consciousness based on semiconductors that is poised to reinvigorate the mobile industry.
Berg Insight, a research firm in Goteborg, Sweden, says the number of machine-to-machine devices using the world’s wireless networks reached 108 million in 2011 and will at least triple that by 2017. Ericsson, the leading maker of wireless network equipment, sees as many as 50 billion machines connected by 2020. Only 10 billion or so are likely to be cellphones and tablet computers. The rest will be machines, talking not to us, but to each other.
The combined level of robotic chatter on the world’s wireless networks — measured in the digital data load they exert on networks — is likely soon to exceed that generated by the sum of all human voice conversations taking place on wireless grids.
“I would say that is definitely possible within 10 years,” said Miguel Blockstrand, the director of Ericsson’s machine-to-machine division in Stockholm. “This is a ‘What if?’ kind of technology. People start to consider the potential, and the possibilities are endless.”
Fascinating article throughout. Several thoughts on this:
1. Yet another form of automation making jobs obsolete.
2. Now we're even more vulnerable to disruptions such as hacking. What happens when a troublemaker or a virus hacks into these systems, say, as part of cyberwarfare? Does food not end up on the shelves?
3. What about a solar Carrington event?
Although it may sound like I'm against these developments, I'm actually not, provided the necessary redundancies and backups are provided (which there probably are not, but that's another story).
No, what I'd like to point out is how these machines talking to each other seems to be pointing toward exactly the kind of automated world futurists were dreaming of, one where we could all do a lot less work if we decided no to.
But the larger point is this. I read a good comment, and I wish I remember where, that the capitalists have achieved what the socialists had only dreamed of - a fully automated, centrally planned economy. I've been scouring my links to no avail for an old article about how Walmart uses advanced computer systems to anticipate and track computer purchases and make sure there are adequate amounts of goods on the shelves of their stores all over the world. This was for an article whose title should speak for itself:
Wal-Mart Is A Planned Economy.
Think about it- from the factory floors where Chinese peasants crank out enough goods for the entire planet, these goods manage to end up on store shelves all over the world just in time and in adequate amounts to satisfy consumer demand with almost surgical precision. They keep track of exactly how many items are on the shelves in every store on earth, and make sure the shelves are never empty, even without items piling up unused in a warehouse. Advanced algorithms keep tabs and make sure that counts never get too low and that there are adequate lead times. Manufacturers are coordinated to make sure that there are not too many or too few goods. Customers' preferences are tracked in stores and online and data mining means that companies they can anticipate the wants and needs of customers in any given location. They are so good at it that one big-box store knew a woman was pregnant before her own father did.
And these stores contain everything you could possibly want, from durable goods like washing machines and blenders, to medicines, to electronics, to health and beauty products, to clothes. Now they're even putting groceries under the same roof. Everything you could possibly want or need can be purchased under one giant warehouse roof.
And think of Amazon.com. Imagine a writer in the nineteen fifties penning a story about people ordering any good they could possibly imagine from anywhere in the world off a computer network attached to everyone's homes, and having those goods delivered in a few days, or even the very next day. They can see images of the goods, and return them if they do not want them.
Doesn't that sound like mid-century socialist fantasy to you? It should. In fact, it's awfully similar to the future depicted in Looking Backward, the Utopian socialist novel of 1887. In fact, it sounds like a lot of Utopian science fiction - a post-scarcity economy where you simply head down to the warehouse, scan your card, and walk away with your items. Mass-production, efficiency and automation means an abundance of consumer goods is supplied with a minimum of work. And it's all managed by computers and advanced algorithms talking to each other behind the scenes.
Walmart succeeded in doing what the Soviets tried, and failed, to do. And it works.
So why is it that with these automation and efficiency dreams almost fulfilled, it seems like society is falling apart in a way it has not for centuries?
Because it's occurring under capitalism. Because the workers in those factories and stores make barely enough for adequate food and shelter. Because six solitary individuals (the Walmart heirs) reap so much benefit from this system that they alone are richer than thirty percent of the workforce. Because suppliers are squeezed to the maximum, and local economies are destroyed, even as everyone is told to save the economy by starting up some sort of business and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and government is cut to the bone because there are no tax revenues. Because commercials encourage mindless consumption of needless items and the need for future profits demands planned obsolescence.
And what happens when those distribution factories are automated? What happens when the checkout lanes are automated and computers "talk to" each other well enough to manage the supply chains on their own? What happens when data mining is reliable enough to know exactly how much of what to put where, so that there is no excess or waste? What happens when the trucks drive themselves? And we haven't even talked about 3D printing.
Imagine of the whole shebang were nationalized and goods were free. Or imagine if it were an employee-owned company and the profits were shared relatively equally. Maybe then it would be easier to be optimistic about these developments.
So the technology is advancing, but as I've said so often here before, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is entirely dependent on forces that are not technological in nature.
I'm not a supply chain expert, so I'm not sure where to go looking for Walmarts management practices, but I would imagine they are what opponents of centrally-planned economies say are "impossible" and "unrealistic." Could the big-box stores be an unwitting stepping stone to a socially-based post-scarcity economy? It's all speculation, of course. In the meantime, I'll keep looking for that article. For now, here are some others that are related:
Before ’73 Coup, Chile Tried to Find the Right Software for Socialism (New York Times)
Project Cybersyn (Wikipedia)
Business turns to ants and algorithms in search for profit (BBC)