Two things that will be obselete soon

I settled into my normal morning routine last Monday.

Up @ 5am, french press coffee for one, news, email, baby up @ 7am, playtime, breakfast, baby playing on laptop. Wait. Stop. As I watched her smacking away at the keyboard, it hit me. By the time she’s able to communicate in English, this thing is going to be a relic. We’ll at some point have the talk where she tells me I’m ancient for using a keyboard. I’ll sigh and agree and tell her that it just took a really long time for voice recognition to get there, so I basically had no choice.

But it got me really thinking about the keyboard. It’s existed for a really long time in current form and is really just v2.0 in terms of written communication, evolved from ink and paper. It’s actually such a weird tool if you take a good look at it. Physically, it takes up ½ of the space on every device and if you’re still using a desktop, it’s still a separate piece of hardware. Aesthetically, it’s an alphabet (and some symbols) thrown together in what any child would tell you is definitely not alphabetical order. Historically, wikipedia tells us that the Querty keyboard design was either the product of some educational research or heavily influenced by telegraph operator feedback. And practically, my fingers and wrists sometimes hurt from texting and typing too much.

Yes, it’s voice-recognition’s day to shine. Machines are finally fast and smart enough to replace keyboards. Give it time to permeate main street, but we will soon talk our thoughts more than we type them. Whispering into your device will work. Using it on a plane will be do-able. This doesn’t mean we won’t ever type. Sometimes, it’s useful to get ideas out of your head and not hear your own voice while doing it. Bypassing your conscious and just writing will still be done for creative work. I just believe that 90% of what we write doesn’t need to be typed by hand.

Sidenote, WSJ just ran a piece about this today http://on.wsj.com/2ekKY8S, but I think they (and Apple) miss the point. The emoji is a fun and useful tool, but the trend is towards better voice usage, not enhanced usage of the keyboard.

This whole conversation in my head got me thinking about what else will be obsolete sooner rather than later. Not things like filler in Chicken McNuggets, but rather something that we take so for granted that we never think about why it’s that way.

I reckon it’s the two-pilot cockpit. Having spent almost 7 years in one, I can speak firsthand to the topic. First, there were three-pilot cockpits (well before my time) that were completely necessary b/c while the two pilots worked to control the beasts that airplanes were before serious automation, someone had to navigate, control the radios, monitor the engines, etc. As technology advanced including autopilot, GPS navigation, FADEC engines, etc, airplanes no longer required a third cockpit crewmember and the economics of running an airline changed.

I believe that we are on the precipice again. It’s nice to have two pilots in the cockpit and certainly necessary given the complex checklists and systems to operate, not to mention having two brains and four eyes to verify, double check and generally keep an eye out for one another. However, with the further advancement of technology and the continuous pressure of a pilot shortage in the US, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a computer takes the place of the first officer.

Now, there are lots of reasons why this wouldn’t happen, such as where are pilots going to get trained if not a ‘live’ cockpit? You can’t just join an airline as a captain. You can’t just learn in a simulator since it’s not real and screwing up has no real physical consequences. That is a job learned over the course of years, not one you just apply for. There’s also the question of what if the sole pilot has a heart attack, how will the airplane land? And what about the idea that the sole pilot is somehow emotionally unstable. Will passengers lives just be disregarded due to the economic advantages to airlines of having only one pilot?

These are all tough questions and that is not an exhaustive list. There are many other challenges to the idea of a single-pilot cockpit. But like we’ve seen with driverless cars, privatization of space travel and a host of other seemingly ‘impossible’ things, reality is that those problems above are solvable. They’re not easy to solve, but certainly there’s a way for technology to enable that disruption.

It’s worth noting that I’m not advocating a single-pilot commercial cockpit anytime soon. I do respect my brethren that fly for a living. I respect the time they spent learning, experiencing and honing their craft. I respect their struggle to see that the profession is not dragged into the gutter along with so many others. However, I do believe in progress and I believe that economics change with good reason.

So, key takeaways. First, we are likely at peak keyboard usage or very close to it in 2016. I anticipate that they will begin to disappear from mobile phones or at very least, appear but see usage decrease significantly by 2020. Second, air transport-category planes (i.e. airliners) will be testing single-pilot cockpits by 2025. That phenomenon may not be widespread by then, but the world will begin to overcome its bias slowly and perhaps accept that one human + one really smart computer can get them from NY to Florida safely.