How technology is changing everything

I recently wrote an article for the Houston Chronicle on the future of personal technology. Re-posting it here so I have an easy-to-link-to copy of it:

How technology is changing everything
By Rakesh Agrawal
October 26, 2016

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Late one night in the first days of 2013, a California delivery truck unloaded my new all-electric car, a Tesla Model S, in our driveway. Our then-4-year-old daughter observed the scene and openly wept, saying through tears: “Everything’s changing!”

As a Houstonian, an investor in innovative companies and a technology enthusiast, it’s fun to consider the question: How will technology shape the future? To answer this question, I enlisted the help of a few fellow Houstonians.

Transportation

Among the topics I polled friends about, transportation and self-driving cars came up the most. Between Uber launching self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Tesla’s Autopilot feature and General Motors buying a self-driving car startup, Cruise, for $1 billion, autonomous vehicle technology seems to be at a tipping point.

There is no doubt: Fully autonomous vehicles will radically transform our cities, including Houston. Car utilization will go up and the amount of real estate required for parking will go down. And many commuters, especially those in Houston, will reclaim the one resource that we all have a limited amount of: our time.

John Long, the executive director of Bike Houston, believes that “driving and parking your personal car will be less desirable than other options – including the use of electric, self-driving and ride-share vehicles.” And John points out that this is already happening. “Many of today’s young urban dwellers already eschew automobiles, opting instead for a smorgasbord of transportation options including bicycle, light rail, bus, walking and ride share.”

Christof Spieler, a Rice engineer, a Houston Metro board member and a public transportation enthusiast, believes more information will mean new ways of getting places. “In the future, I’ll be able to find out if there’s an empty parking space or how safe the sidewalk is. This will make it easier to use multiple modes – walk sometimes, Uber sometimes, transit sometimes – as opposed to, say, driving everywhere.”

Education

Education is also poised for transformation. Much of our education system traces its heritage back to the industrial revolution, often referred to as the “factory model of education.”

Tory Gattis, a native Houstonian, Rice University graduate and founder of the Talent Unbound school for children ages 5 to 18, believes education will become “extremely personalized through eLearning technology, allowing each student to progress through the material at their own pace and achieving mastery before moving on to the next level.” Gattis believes this personalization will lead to students spending more time “engaging in project-based learning where students learn real-world skills like collaboration, innovation, and entrepreneurship.”

Money

Money will also change, thanks, at least in part, to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and the technology that underlies them known as the blockchain. Blockchain enables a software-based system for currency and transactions that is decentralized, meaning it does not require any government or bank to uphold or maintain it. As blockchain tools become better and gain more adoption, they could eventually eliminate large financial institutions. Blockchain will also drastically lower the cost and logistics involved with money moving across international borders since it enables a system of money not tied to any government.

Grace Rodriguez, one of the co-founders of Station Houston, a coworking space that focuses on early-stage software startups, had this to say about blockchain: “I think blockchain will change the face of information storage and exchange, and completely disrupt how all transactions are done, in general.”

Food

One thing that will remain the same is the love Houstonians have for eating good food. Yet, the entire value chain of food will change, from farming being affected by data and artificial intelligence to food preparation using robotics, to apps and drones transforming food delivery. Many Houstonians are already enjoying the benefits of apps such as UberEats, Favor, DoorDash and, most recently, Amazon Restaurants.

I recently walked into the Freshii in Midtown Houston at lunchtime on a weekday and heard an iPad behind the counter repetitively making a “ding” sound – it sounded like a slot machine that had hit the jackpot. I asked the server behind the counter what was going on and he told me, “Oh, those are lunchtime orders from UberEats.” More restaurants will optimize around delivery, lowering their costs of real estate and staff for delivery orders and accordingly lowering prices of delivered food for consumers.

Scott Tranweaver, co-owner of Jenni’s Noodle House, cautioned against too much technology at the counter: “You may be able to order and pay for your food from an iPad and have zero employee contact, but do you really want this? Our staff is dynamic, kind and memorable and they make an effort to get to know our customers. At Jenni’s Noodle House, we will avoid technology that gets in the way of making personal connections with our customers.”

Drones

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are another personal technology that will transform our everyday lives. Amazon has been conducting drone package delivery trials for a few years now, promising deliveries in 30 minutes or less. At the same time, drones are getting smarter and cheaper, with computer vision and other algorithms allowing them to automatically navigate from point to point and avoid obstacles. Maybe in the future, when you’re in a classic Houston traffic jam, you’ll deploy your personal drone to fly ahead of you so you can see what what’s causing the back-up.

But like any technology, there are potential negative consequences of drones. When cars became popular people bemoaned the noise and visual pollution of cars. And today, this is something we simply accept about urban life. With an increase in popularity of drones, the same could eventually be true of our skies. While we are used to clear and quiet skies today, in a few years we may look up to a horizon that is dotted with Pizza Hut and Amazon drones.

Conclusion

In 2011, Marc Andreessen, the inventor of the web browser and co-founder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Software is Eating the World.” In the article, he lays out the case for software companies taking over large swathes of the economy ranging from financial services to oil and gas to education and health care. And five years later, we are seeing this play out, with every sector of the economy being altered by software. And with the rise of entrepreneurship in our culture, from hit TV shows like “Shark Tank” to movies like “The Social Network” (about the founding of Facebook) to startup accelerators that focus on different vertical markets, I can only imagine that the rate of change is going to increase.

To conclude the story of my daughter, who had shed tears as I replaced my internal combustion engine car with an all-electric car: One week later, the Tesla was the only car she would ride in because it could play all her favorite music on-demand via Internet radio.