Can It Do The Ironing?
I have been passionate about cutting edge technology all my life. This has led to all sorts of questionable personal investment decisions. I live this interesting duality of buying gadgets well ahead of their time, and having owned devices no-one else thought worth buying that are, er, quaint today.
When I have to purchase the next gizmo one of the questions my wife, Lucy, always asks is:
“So, can it do the ironing?”
A question of far more importance than meets the eye (ear?). For in that one short statement are a number of deeply significant concerns:
- Is that technology even advanced as to do a mundane task we’ve been doing for centuries?
- Does it have any real practical significance in a world of mundane tasks?
- Does it have any relevance to our family, or me as an individual?
How I’ve managed to get permission to squander the family budget on any devices over the years is a testimony as much to Lucy’s bemused longsuffering as it is to any persuasive skills on my part.
Finally, however, I believe my faith in technology, and the inevitability of Moore’s Law is about to pay off. Affordable gadgets will be able to “do the ironing” or “[insert your mundane task here]” in three ways:
1. Labour Arbitrage & Collaborative Consumption
Actually the Internet has allowed us to do many computer related tasks with cheaper labour than our own for some years. This is the premise behind Tim Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Workweek.” As electrons are easier to shift than atoms, any work that can be done using IT can be done elsewhere. Design, translation, programming, accounting, you name it and you can find someone to do it for you on Freelancer.
That may be great for IT tasks, but it still can’t do the ironing, unless you’re willing to ship your clothes to Mumbai.
Enter “Collaborative Consumption.”
Whilst the Internet has allowed us to offshore IT tasks, Social Media allows us to share possession. The most visible examples of this are ride (e.g. Lyft & Uber) and home sharing (e.g. AirBnB & VRBO). Instead of owning a car, you can simply get a driver online. Equally, instead of depreciating a largely idle asset, you can make money with it.
This concept applies to any area where there is large amounts of idle capacity. How much space is there in your neighbourhoods sheds & garages? Why spend money buying a drill or high pressure gurney or indeed an iron? How many delivery vans have empty space en route to the city, or entirely empty when returning to the depot?
“Yes, darling, this new smartphone (app) can indeed (allow me to) do the ironing.”
2. Robotics, AI & the IoT
The next shift will be smart, connected robots.
No longer is this a figment of Science Fiction. Robots have been mowing the lawn and vacuuming the house for years. Soon they will be caring for the elderly. It won’t be long before they are the extension of the appliances in any house and will do the washing, ironing, perhaps even cooking, homework and bedtime story.
There are a number of technology trends that coalesce to make this reality true:
Advances in mechatronics, energy storage, minituarisation and materials design drive actual robot machines at an unprecedented pace. Already we can afford autonomous, consumer drones with the ability to navigate, follow and film a moving object, whilst avoiding obstacles.
Machine learning is really good at accomplishing repetitive tasks. The complex trigonometry required to iron and fold a t-shirt is surprisingly easy for a computer. And once the machine learns the skill, it can repeat it perfectly forever. As the algorithm is now codified digitally, you can copy it perfectly anywhere in the world. This implies infinite scale.
The final piece of this puzzle is giving everything a voice on the Internet. When the laundry basket can communicate to the washing machine then to the dryer then the butler robot, we close the loop on the technology you need to do these jobs.
“Yes dear, that robot I buy next year can actually do the ironing.”
3. Wearable Technology & 3D Printing
Did anyone see the Nike announcement for their self-tying sneakers? Did you laugh at the clothing in “Back To The Future?” How about “Star Trek?”
Wearable Technology is no longer about the quantified self for prosumer athletes or middle aged neuroses. Rather we’re inventing babygrows that can monitor babies. (E.g. Mimo, Owlet, Monbaby) Materials that can increase or decrease temperature. Clothing that can change flexibility and rigidity. Fabric that will change colour and pattern.
Soon the clothes we wear will iron themselves. Or more likely won’t ever need ironing. And with 3D printing it’s very likely we’ll print these clothes at home.
“Actually, dear, these clothes are ironed”
Of the three options above, option one is already upon us. Even if two and three don’t eventuate this year, it’s pretty likely I’ll change work, and won’t bother with clothes that need ironing.
Actually when you consider AR & VR, both going mainstream this year, I may not even have to change my work.
Written on a Qantas jet en route to Auckland for a 90 minute client meeting. Sigh.
Originally published on Wordpress