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Designing the future, part 2: Vaughan Rowsell on smart crockpots, blockchain power, flying autonomous cars and New Zealand's big opportunity

In an ongoing series, Vend and OMG!Tech founder Vaughan Rowsell discusses how we can make New Zealand the innovation centre of the world. In part two, he looks at how technology – whether currently in existence or yet to be invented – will change the future.

  • Read part one about the importance of our kids, here

Welcome back to our metaphorical BBQ chat about the future of New Zealand. As it’s winter and a bit too chilly to fire up the Weber, I’ve put on the crockpot instead. It’s a new IoT one, so all I have to do is chop up the ingredients, pop them in, sit down on the couch, reinstall the app on my phone, reset my password, reboot my home automation server and then press the ‘turn on crockpot 2000’ button. The future is awesome.

In this issue, we are looking at how technology will change the future. The Crockpot 2000 may or may not already exist, but how do we take advantage of the changes coming to invent a better future?

Here’s an honest confession. I have no f*#king idea what technology is going to be like in the future. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this column. I would be starting a new hi-tech start-up. I do have an idea for a fridge webcam though, you know, so you can see what’s in your fridge when you’re at the supermarket? [ed: too late]. Anyway, smart devices and IoT is a definite trend, so let’s start there.

IoT means the Internet of Things. What things are these and why do they need to surf the internet? Basically all the bits of internet connected hardware you use in everyday life that talk to each other to collaborate and make your life easier. A kettle or a crockpot you can automatically turn on from your phone has limited appeal, unless it can also fill itself up with contents first, but the lights and heating in your home knowing when your car pulls up the driveway and turning themselves on is more useful.

This is where we are seeing IoT first make its impact: in home automation. A battleground all the major technology companies are staking their ground on. Video doorbells, home security, lighting, thermostats and smart speakers are the first wave. Amazon and Google both want you to pick their platforms to control your life with and have been busy acquiring all the gadgets in this space that do something clever in your home.

Google acquired Nest for US$3.2 billion a few years back and Amazon has just acquired video doorbell and security company Ring for US$1 billion, so at those prices, there is clearly a battleground emerging in our homes. They both have smart speakers you talk to so they can spy on us, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Google Home. Apple is trying to get Siri in on the action, but so far, their smart speaker can only play music and burn a small ring on your wooden furniture.

If you are not sure about the big tech companies knowing your every movement and how often you turn on the toilet light, there are independent platforms like the open source www.home-assistant.io that integrates with over 1,000 IoT devices you can run your home with. Yes, 1,000 devices that automate something, and require a software update or a reboot from time to time. I can’t wait.

When we can delegate the getting from A to B to automation, it changes how we use commuting time completely. Perhaps our homes have detachable autonomous rooms that move about like campervans instead. You kiss goodbye to the family as they kids trundle off to school in one room while you head off to Whangarei for a meeting, showering on the way in another.

There are other parts of our lives where IoT will make a useful impact outside of the home. The network of our future cities will leverage new devices. Smart parking sensors that allows your GPS to reserve and guide you to the nearest available parking spot in the city. Your recycling bin that takes itself out just in time on a Wednesday morning, not Tuesday, because it remembers it was a long weekend. Smart meters that can track the power generated from your solar panels that you feed back into your own virtual private grid you share with your Mum and Uncle Frank across town using blockchain (no, seriously, this is a thing). More and more devices will be trusted to provide day to day transactions on our behalf, like paying for parking or powering Uncle Frank's bitcoin mining rig.

The next paradigm shift is automation. As the devices make more decisions for us, the more we need to consider the impact on our lives. Autonomous vehicles are the obvious starting point. Sure, there is a gap to close between an autopilot feature in your Tesla that you almost trust not to kill anyone and a fully autonomous vehicle that has no steering column and pedals at all. Would we even call them cars when we get to this point? Perhaps they are just glass domes we ride in, or sleep in even. Perhaps you can install a spa pool in yours. When we can delegate the getting from A to B to automation, it changes how we use commuting time completely. Perhaps our homes have detachable autonomous rooms that move about like campervans instead. You kiss goodbye to the family as they kids trundle off to school in one room while you head off to Whangarei for a meeting, showering on the way in another.

Automation and robotics becoming cheaper will take paradigm shifting through a whole new paradigm shift. Yesterday’s Roomba is replaced with a more mobile robot that can vacuum and fling a brush around a toilet rim, as well as chop up the veggies for the crockpot 2000 (washing its robotic hands first, I hope). Manual repetitive tasks are perfect for the next generation of robots. Drones will clean windows. Robots will pull weeds from the garden and the washing out of the machine to dry and fold. These ideas almost sound silly, but these will be as normal as a microwave oven was in the '80s.

We shouldn’t wait for all the Valley’s billionaires to invent them. The ideas are out there and they will need clever people who are good at getting stuff done in innovative new ways to make them come to reality. Coincidentally, this is something New Zealanders and our homegrown brand of innovation is really great at. It’s possibly why we have a space programme and flying cars already – take that Australia.

The biggest impact will be in any industry when robots are cheaper than us. Anything that involves moving stuff, building stuff and doing things with precision at speed will be done by robots. With AI making all these activities smarter and making better decisions, this will massively disrupt how we work. We’ll cover the future of work in our next issue.

But for now, what about the next wave of technology we just haven’t invented yet? This is where the crazy cool stuff is going to happen, and we are just starting to imagine it, and is the biggest opportunity for New Zealand. Some of it is being imagined and created as we speak. While you are pondering self-driving cars, flying cars are being trialled in our own backyard. Google’s Larry Page and his company Kitty Hawk are testing autonomous flying vehicles in New Zealand today. We even have our own flying car start-up, Vickers Wave EVTOL which not only flies, but is amphibious too. Handy for the trips to the Coromandel.

We have a perfect test market with a small population, great infrastructure, low levels of corruption and really clever designers and engineers. The future technologies have not been invented yet, and we shouldn’t wait for all the Valley’s billionaires to invent them. The ideas are out there and they will need clever people who are good at getting stuff done in innovative new ways to make them come to reality. Coincidentally, this is something New Zealanders and our homegrown brand of innovation is really great at. It’s possibly why we have a space programme and flying cars already – take that Australia.

The real opportunity is to attract more big ideas to our shores and be ready to greet them with our smart innovators. But we don’t need to wait, we have big ideas too like the Crockpot 2000! Okay, so there are better ideas, but the sensors are getting smaller, the AI is getting smarter, the cost of production is even cheaper and we have heaps of bright sparks here to piece it all together. The future of technology in New Zealand is us inventing it.

Grab another helping from the crockpot before it starts its self-cleaning routine, and then let’s start making the ideas become a reality.

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