Week 7: Logistics

This week’s readings were very enjoyable for me. I’ve already read about Vannevar Bush many times in other classes, but his ideas are always interesting to think about. Gizmos and gadgets are always fun to read about as well; there’s nothing I like more than getting a cool new piece of technology and figuring it out, and reading about gadgets has kind of the same effect. Lecavalier’s piece on logistics was my favorite, probably because it included so many neat pictures. It also raised lot of questions for me about the nature and value of modern logistics systems.

As far as modern logistics discussions go, it seems like the current trending topic is drones. Everyone is talking about how companies like Amazon and Ebay will be using drones for superfast deliveries of many smaller items, starting in only a few years. This seems like an expanded version of the warehouse-organizing robots described in the article, except that these drones will be organizing and delivering to the whole country rather than just one distribution center. Most of the efficiency of this idea comes from letting the robots do the hard work themselves; instead of having people plan out the logistics and delivery schedules, the robots have algorithms that do that stuff automatically. However, as we’ve already seen in the discussion of stock market algorithms, trusting algorithms to work on their own is not always a safe idea. Who knows how these algorithms might go wrong if left to their own devices? Within one warehouse, there’s not much damage that could be done, but if drones all over the country start to go haywire, all sorts of things could get messed up.

One other part of the piece that made me think was the discussion about barcodes. I hadn’t realized this earlier, but in the piece it mentions that the first use of a barcode was in the summer of 1974. I think of automated systems like the barcode as a recent invention, and mostly one that is not well-established. Some of the most common automated systems, like self-checkout lines in supermarkets, are still barely used compared to their old-fashioned counterparts. However, barcodes are part of every product on the market, and have been taken for granted for decades. They work efficiently and effectively and almost never cause any problems. Maybe it’s just because they’re so simple, but if the automated systems being built today can function as seamlessly as barcodes do, then I won’t be so worried after all.