Dear Diary: I am going out for ice cream. Yes, I feel indulgent tonight. I had a pretty insane four-hour day at work. I was on my feet the whole time, and my trackers say I’ve got so many extra calories that I can eat or drink anything I want for the next four hours. So I’m going to The Sweetline.
My ride is plain—a typical U.S. Robots mini three-seater. The car introduces itself. WELCOME. I AM AL-76. WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO GO? Printed and assembled eight days ago at a car fab in Schenectady, New York, I see. Quark, another pop-up factory.
AL-76’s probes seem a bit jumpy. It hiccups as it scans ahead every few hundred yards, devouring information from the GLM like…What did they used to call it? A SPONGE. Thanks AL-76.
(Historical Note: The Global Local Micro Network was created by the mega-merger of Cisco Business Machines and Appltel Corp. in 2021.)
This is a busy stretch, the heads-up shows AL-76 is hyper-tuning for squirrels and stray cats. It is seeking deer and falling branches; and of course other cars, even though no one’s seen a crash since 2025.
I usually like LessTraveled, although their standards seem to be slipping a bit. Cloud car services are getting pretty competitive these days; I should have waved off AL-76 for a real cruiser. Then again you never know who you’ll meet here. Anyone can subscribe to LessTraveled, but mostly they market to people like me: singles under 40. Which means the cars are smaller and you pay for different services. I get a lot of discounts at restaurants via LessTraveled. The transportation service you subscribe to is all about where you are in your life right now. If I was married with kids I would probably subscribe to FamilyVan and then I’d get groceries delivered whenever I want them, for free.
It’s a very pretty, muggy night. The highway is smooth, the road sensors are hardly bleeping at all and we haven’t passed any repair drones. I can’t say I miss the smell of smoothing agent, they spray it everywhere as soon as the sensors report any hint of a crack or bump. I feel the AL-76 drift to a stop. The windshield tells me a squirrel is passing.
Apparently, 50 years ago, squirrels used to fear roads. It was bred out of them. Now they just step right out. Nothing is going to run them over. Cloud-based subscription-driven automotive lifestyle services are good for squirrels.
Off we go.
While various predictions exist regarding self-driving cars—one analyst thinks we’ll all drive them by 2026, but it’s hard to imagine regulations changing so fast—it also makes sense that we won’t own them ourselves. After all, how often do you use a car? Large networks make it possible to be more efficient than ever before, which is why services like AirBnb and Uber are thriving. More automation will yield ever-higher dividends—the CEO of Uber has suggested that the Uber fleet will eventually be all self-driving cars.
I love the Sweetline Ice Cream Manufactory. The ice cream goes from cow, to pasteurizer, to freezer, to your dish or cone along a beautiful little assembly line. It’s enclosed in glass so that you can watch it all happen. I admit that this is part of the fun for me. I like watching machines do their work.
If you want, you can request ice cream by the name of your cow. I do not have a favorite cow. The cows each have news feeds if you are interested. They’re mostly for kids, of course:
BETSY-COW’S DIARY AUGUST 20, 2064 Time for milking! Ate some grass. Ate some more grass! Stomachs 1–4 all working great! Mooed loudly! Had my regular automatic health check. I am a healthy cow! Mooed loudly! A great day!
The cows don’t write this of course. The cows are filled with tiny microphones listening for moos, with GLM trackers, and with floating sensors in their stomachs monitoring acid levels. Bots tend the herd. When it is time to be milked they all get a little milking buzz in their ears and they line up to be milked. The milk flows right into a pasteurization tank connected to the ice-cream machines.
Some people really do get into the cows and you can have a T-shirt printed for you right there where you get your ice cream, with slogans like TEAM BETSY. There is a commercial for the Sweetline chain that shows how one couple met because they each preferred mint chocolate chip ice cream made from a particular Guernsey cow named Ezekiel.
I probably saw that commercial because I’m affiliated with LessTraveled. If I had children I would have seen a commercial about adopting your ice cream cow.
A factory is no longer a big building filled with big machines. Industrial designers are already hard at work on tiny multi-purpose factory-style kitchens — like Swiss Army knives. 3-D printers can solve a lot of manufacturing problems, but not all of them. Textile production, food preparation, and the like will remain the domain of purpose-built machines. Let’s call them VSALs, for “Very Small Assembly Lines.” Specialized devices speaking a similar language. They are a key component of the Industrial Internet.
A New Friend
There is a low boop noise and upon my windshield there is projected a picture of a young woman. It tells me her name is Susan Calvin. She looks attractive to me and I can see at a glance that we share a number of interests in history, technology, and graphic design. She is a cat person while I am a dog person, but I can look beyond that. Since I don’t gesture her picture away the car takes a right, and in a minute we pull up in front of a pleasant-looking modern apartment building. She comes out and the car door opens. She hops in.
Hello, Susan, nice to share a ride with you.
Nice to meet you, Hari.
Susan gives me a big, winning smile. She knows my name too, of course. Like me she is a subscriber to LessTraveled. Since it is an automotive network for young people it often suggests that you share a ride with someone compatible. It saves everyone money and time and means LessTraveled can put fewer cars on the road.
It’s interesting when you scan old history scrolls to learn just how panicked everyone was about total global micro-surveillance. They just didn’t see it as a means of liberation, like we do now. Of course they lived in the era of giant government-run spying computers like Multivac. No one could imagine the upside of having every human interaction observed by penny sensors at all times. I’m glad to live in a world where a young woman can hop into a self-driving car with a total stranger and not feel a bit of concern.
I’m going to go get some ice cream, I say.
Unwevs! I love ice cream. Do you want to go swimming? I’m meeting friends.
Sure. But I didn’t bring trunks.
Sensors are everywhere, but right now they can only measure a few things — heart rate, temperature, number of steps, and the like. But new, more unusual devices are far more sensitive to their surroundings. There is a cup that knows what beverages you are drinking — and devices that count the calories of foods, not by forcing you to select from a list but by actually looking at the foods themselves. Anything that can be quantified, probably will be quantified. And once it can be quantified it can be analyzed and understood.
Swim trunks, I tell AL-76. Please make them red and white and have them cut off below the knee.
That sounds nice, says Susan. Car: I would like a red-and-white one-piece!
We look at each other briefly then shift our attention to the car’s windshield, where we start to see the whole process unfold. Pictures of the swim-trunks float before us, superimposed onto 3-D versions of our bodies. We look nice together.
A few miles away, a strategically-placed assembly line (about three times the size of the one used to make the ice cream at Sweetline) gears up and sews me a pair of trunks. For Susan, it makes a one-piece in the same colors. One machine picks the fabrics, one dyes them, one sews, one finishes. It takes a few minutes and twenty other pieces of clothing are made at the same time.
Now comes the baton toss: A self-driving shuttle car takes our clothes, and the other articles of clothing, out to the highway. It enters traffic (on the windshield we see a map and dots) and begins to go from car to car, extending a tube and shooting articles into the car’s trunk. Then that car will drive for a bit and hand off various articles — clothes, groceries, baked goods, and the like — to other cars.
In my opinion, CarNet is one of the greatest accomplishments of human civilization, the way moving cars deliver items from one to another until they reach their destination — typically another moving car.
Our swimsuits are now six minutes away.
Which is fine because we’re here at the Sweetline and it’s time for ice cream. I tear myself away from the windshield and go in and order. Of course I could order right from the car, and Sweetline could deliver me some ice cream by CarNet. But this is a nice old-fashioned place with blue tile on the walls and people available to answer any questions about the ice cream. They wear white hats. I always wanted to work here when I was a kid.
We are uncovering capacity that we never knew existed. For example, most hotels would be happy with 60% occupancy on a typical night, which is obviously quite inefficient; the hotel industry can do all sorts of things online to dynamically price and market those rooms. Other services—here AirBNB comes to mind—are excellent at identifying new kinds of capacity and exploiting it. This is still a new approach, and some of the early players are winning big. But there are literally hundreds of startups seeking to be the “Uber for X,” and through iteration, over the next few decades, we will find efficiencies that we never imagined.
It’s a nice night so we sit at the picnic tables. Susan’s diet trackers tell her she can enjoy ice cream as long as she swims for 20 minutes later, so she has a small cone, custom-made to the exactly quantities communicated by her tracker to the ice-cream maker. I have a huge cone with sprinkles. It’s pretty great.
We make small talk. Susan builds visualization tools for life coaches and therapists, so that they know everything that’s going on in their patient’s lives. She’s part programmer, part graphic designer, part data scientist. I tell her about my job in battery design and delivery. At first she thinks I design the batteries myself, but that’s basically a genius-level gig. What I do is a lot softer: I keep track of all the relationships between all the companies that go into the real-time battery supply chain. So when your car pulls up to a kiosk and a new battery is installed, that’s all done by robots, of course.
But underneath that are a ton of human relationships — problems of real estate, and who owns what intellectual property. You can’t just step all over that when you decide to insert tab A into socket B. So when a new battery is coming out I go from manufactory owner to kiosk manager and explain what’s needed and what’s new, and how they may need to retool their kiosks, and what raw materials they might need, and how to make sure that waste is transported according to federal guidelines. They’re going to need to spend money, after all. We don’t take that for granted in the battery industry.
I think I love the CarNet baton toss and watching the ice cream being made so much because it isn’t just robots touching each other. I see this grand human orchestration, all these people working together. I know how hard it can be to build relationships that make all of this possible.
We can see our car from our picnic table. After a few minutes a small car pulls up next to ours and two things happen: The car extends a tube and shoots a package into our trunk, so that’s done. Our swimsuits are here! My wrist buzzes to let me know that the money has been withdrawn from my LessTraveled account. And, then, two people get out, and Susan’s wrist beeps, announcing her friends Gaal Dornick and Hober Mallow have arrived. Coincidentally their car was carrying our swimsuits.
Susan introduces us. I can’t tell if they are a couple or not. Of course if they were single I would know that, so they probably are in a relationship but just aren’t announcing it yet.
I just ordered a new swimsuit, says Susan.
Oh cool, says Hober. I should get a new one too. My other pair is a few weeks old.
We all chat a little about how nice the night is and how much fun it is to be out. We all eat ice cream. Then it’s time to go. Susan has the easy option to go with Gaal and Hober — a polite way to signal that this won’t turn into a date, but is just friendly — but she doesn’t. She gets back into our car.
The future is in big, powerful batteries. And batteries are getting smarter: they have smarts of their own, the ability to signal how they are operating, and even keep track of things like humidity. This will allow for many small, tiny, incremental changes. Enormous leaps in materials science and computer technology are going to be pretty rare, but incremental change can happen by analyzing big data and truly working to understand it. The future is probably thousands, or millions, of incremental optimizations as opposed to any one single colossal technological advance.
It turns out a friend of Susan lives on a lake, near Terminus station.
When we open the trunk of our car there are the swimsuits, ready to pull from their travel tubes. There are lots of people here, making drinks the old-fashioned way, with cups and bottles. I let my earpiece guide me to my host and introduce myself. He’s a man in his 40s in great shape, Lawrence Robertson. He must exercise constantly. According to his bio, he created an app that matched people to cats that fit their personal profile. That’s why he can afford this lake house.
I change in his spare bedroom and come out to find that Susan has changed too. I have to swim if I’m going to justify that ice cream, she laughs. She runs to the dock and jumps off. Then she yells: it’s very cold.
I go in too and we both tread water for a while, warming up. Just swimming. The sun is going down. Susan dives and comes up with a smooth stone.
Here, she says. I got you this.
I put it in the pocket of my trunks. I’m grateful they have a pocket. I didn’t ask for one.
A few more people dive off the dock. We all know each other’s names and interests. Susan swims dutifully out and back for ten minutes. I watch the sun drop behind the horizon, enjoying the reflection over the lakefront.
As I get out of the water, Hober jumps in. He’s wearing a tiny inflatable cast around his ankle. Hober yells out, hurt it at soccer! He flops around on his back. The cast glows briefly to tell him to stop moving so much, and he goes still and takes a long breath. This is pretty nice, he says to me.
I spend the night as I spend so many nights: smiling, realizing how much I have in common with people, flirting, talking about our jobs.
But unlike many of the people here I have an early morning. Most of them work in the creative industries. But kiosk and manufactory people tend to be up and to work by 9AM.
I go find Susan and tell her it was nice to meet her. She’s not bothered I’m leaving, of course. I’m not quite sure what she thinks of me. She’s with some friends. She gives me a hug goodbye. My car pulls up on the gravel path outside.
I look around but no one else needs a ride. I’m a little saddened by that. I let the car drive me home.
When the car reaches my apartment I get out and it drives away. My front door unlocks automatically and I walk in.
It’s a very quiet place, my apartment. I like it simple. No screens, just a few chairs. There’s a kitchen manufactory but I hardly use it. It feels a little empty tonight, to be honest. My swim trunks are wet and I wonder why I didn’t just leave them for the car company to deal with. Then I think for a moment about hanging them up to dry, but it’s going to be Fall soon and I probably won’t go swimming again this season, so why bother? They’ll feel weird hanging up in front of the nice white walls. I throw them in the composter and it begins to beep. Something is wrong.
I retrieve them and feel the weight of the lake stone in the pocket. I pull it out.
It’s very pretty, very old, just a rock, of course. But it’s also something solid and permanent. I like that another human being gave me this old, solid, artifact of the earth. It’s a welcome reminder of just how long this world has been here. I like that it came from Susan. I’ll see her again, I’m sure of it. I put the rock on a small shelf above the kitchen units, and it catches some of the moonlight through the window. I am very pleased with the effect. Then I throw the swim trunks away again, and the composter accepts them without complaint.
Illustrations by Clay Rodery