I have seen a lot of change in my lifetime. Thanks to my profession which keeps me in touch with the latest science and technological trends, I think I am fairly well prepared for the even more radical change that lies ahead. I hope that I can give you a sense of the excitement and challenges of the near future through periodic updates here in the blog on some of the more pressing current trends. Some of the technological developments do not have direct applications toward weather and forecasting but they are interesting to contemplate none-the-less.
Let us start with a little history. The disruption by the relentless pace of technological progress over the last couple decades has left many compnies and whole product segments in ruins. One episode I recall in fair detail is the demise of Alden Electronics. Their business dissolved in a blink of an eye in. They were the main providers of the old-fashioned, much-referenced “weather charts” you often see in old pictures of weather forecasters in their offices. We called them “Di-fax maps”. Alden provided the printers and delivered the data to weather offices all over the U.S. and world. We used to have one of these printers in our weather office back in the 1990s. One of the most common sounds was that of the big printer nearly constantly printing new weather maps. We would tear them off the printer and hang them on the wall for analysis. It was a great business for Alden for many years.
They had the market cornered. Of course, when the market for printed weather maps collapsed, so did Alden. I think it was in 1994 that Alden first started providing their maps over the internet. A short two years later and they were laying people off and losing millions of dollars per year. I can remember distinctly, the final days of the company (at that time with that business model). I was working the weekend and our maps were not being delivered. Sometimes the problem was with the printer. Other times the problem was with delivery of the data. I called Alden directly and spoke with a person who was sincerely trying to help me but could not keep up with support requests. The company had fallen so fast that they only had 3 people working there (if my memory serves me right). It was a secretary, the president of the company, and one technician. He explained to me how the Internet destroyed their business. Instead of the NWS and other weather data providers going through Alden, they began distributing the “maps” and everything else, for free over the Internet. The fellow from Alden sounded distraught and I empathized with him. He used to work with hundreds of people delivering a product that people needed and suddenly the company was down to a shell of its former self. Everything seemed ok when the Internet first hit the scene but from 1994 to 1997/1998 time frame, Internet use exploded and everyone could now get the information delivered reliably and for free in most cases. There was no real need to pay Alden thousands of dollars per year for their service.
If you have any similar stories to share, please use the comment section. We would love to hear them.
A few other things I have seen are things that you are familiar with as well:
Typewriters. When personal computers with keyboards hit the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many people could see that typewriters were probably on their way out. However, the last typewriter company manufacturing company (Royal) didn’t stop making them until 1993 (according to some sources). Amazingly, there are some niche areas where typewriters are still in use. The New York City police department was billed about a million dollars as late as 2009 for typewriter repairs. As is usually the case, people are resistent to change, so a few typewriters survive (outside of museums).
The Phone: Raise your had if you grew up with a rotary dial phone. Eventually touchtone and cordless phones came along. Answering machines were a big hit. Then came cell phones and VOIP. Now most people carry their “phones” and “answering machines” in their pocket and can make calls almost everywhere they go.
Film and film cameras. Take a look at this image gallery of film’s past glory. Digital leads the way now.
On to the future.
One disruptive technology I have written about lately is the self-driving car. Just a few years ago, it still seemed like science fiction. Many people predicted that it would be many decades before the technology would be ready for prime time. It is now here and ready to go well ahead of schedule. The technology has arrived so fast that the main barriers holding back autonomous cars right now are legal and regulatory. The cars have performed nearly flawlessly in real traffic tests in the U.S. and many locations around the world. Before the day when self-driving cars prove their worth saving lives (even as some would argue they will take away our freedom), we will have a lot more automated “smart” technology built into the roads and into traffic systems. Even though the automated cars will continue to garner headlines, I think most people will be utterly suprised and few will be angry, when they find such vehicles taking over the roads and they find themsleves paying a lot more (for licensing and insurance) in order to drive a car themselves. Professional drivers should keep an eye on the topic. The day will arrive soon when you will have to adapt to the new reality.
Robots. Robots are rapidly becoming more capable and safe for use outside of highly restricted manufacturing environments. On the personal side, my wife’s former job (camera person and floor director) at the TV station was “taken-over” by robotic cameras just a few years ago. The Jetson’s future of having a robot maid, is not that far off anymore. The Roomba is a successful robot vaccuming millions of floors around the world. The founder of I-Robot (the roomba’s manufacturer) Rodney Brook’s has now moved on to another company Rethink Robotics and is busy developing “safe” robots that are adaptable and can work alongside humans in many tasks. It could lead to another revolution in manufacturing, especially when you notice that 3D printing is coming on to the scene at the same time. Many robotics developers are also working toward opportunities in the home environment and on the farm. I have always wanted to build a weed-picking robot for my garden. Maybe I won’t have to wait much longer and I will be able to order one over the Internet. If you still think robots working and “living” side-by-side with humans is in the far off future, prepare to be surprised.
Some other technologies that used to seem “far out” that I mention once in a while in the blog, like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and cloaking, continue to advance. See here, here, and here for some recent stories.
As I have written before, even I suspect my profession will be steam-rolled by technology. All of this begs the question “what will humans do as the world becomes more automated?”. Who should get the benefits of automation? I suspect there will be some consternation in the beginning, but most likely we will evolve along with all of our technology and things will end up ok. Then again, I am generally an optimistic person. Best to think about these issues and be prepared.
Have a nice Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
Posted under Technology
This post was written by jloew on November 19, 2012