There was Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, doing it again, with a big smile, an easy laugh and another great idea. This time it was on "60 Minutes," and he surprised interviewer Charlie Rose with the unveiling of his Amazon Prime Air delivery concept, complete with autonomous, flying delivery drones. Order something that weighs less than 5 pounds and an Amazon Prime Air drone, tapped into your GPS coordinates, will deliver it--like a stork with a baby--in 30 minutes.
Amazon Prime Time
And there, with the timely precision of a Swiss watch, was a huge media and Twitter backlash--everyone doing their best Eeyore impression and trying to shoot the idea out of the sky. (Eeyore, if you're unfamiliar, is a gray, sad, depressed, chronically pessimistic donkey pictured left in the Winnie the Pooh books).
Seriously. What is wrong with people?
The Amazon Prime Air demo alone is just amazing, even in an era where amazing technology pops up every day. But the concept (video embedded below) is even more mind-blowing. (I've been marveling about the possibilities for two years since we interviewed an engineer at Rockwell Collins on the subject of autonomous freight planes).
And yet the media reaction, the Twitter tizzy skewed pessimistic, even dismissive.
No less than my beloved alma mater EE Times-at the vanguard of covering electronics innovation-cast a wary eye.
As humans, we tend to suffer from optimism bias (believing you're at less risk in a given situation than others) at the same time we tend to think pessimistically. Pessimism in some contexts is understandable, since it protects us from risks that might hurt us. But it also stunts innovation. Avoid risk and you'll never see that amazing invention. You don't learn if you don't fail.
Of course we shouldn't be Pollyannaish, but you'd think we as a culture would get increasingly optimistic in the way we view the world, the way we approach innovation.
Why? Because the technology we create and the rapidity with which we introduce it is nothing short of magic. It's never been seen in the history of the world.
And yet when a technology exists today (autonomous octocopters controlled wirelessly and tied into the Internet of Things) and an entrepreneur offers a vision for exploiting that technology, we have this weird backlash.
We're missing the story. The story is this: Technology's no longer the barrier. The barrier, in this case, is regulatory issues. OK. Fine. Let's figure that out. But the barrier is also the human struggle to embrace change and possibility.
As kids, we'd sit in a summer field and gaze up at the clouds and imagine the possibilities and dream big wispy dreams and wish for magic to enable those dreams. And as adults, now that the magic is at our fingertips, we've lost the ability to dream.
Well, certainly not Jeff Bezos.
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Mark, you raise a good point, which gets me thinking about the cost and power-consumption issues with outfitting these little drones with robust radar systems for collision avoidance. It seems to me that that type of functionality gets us around the collision avoidance problem even if the other (travelling) objects are "dumb" objects. It's not unlike, as a pedestrian for example, avoiding that car when the driver's not looking your way.
I am skeptical about this one because it sidesteps a basic problem - reliable collision avoidance. There is nothing challenging about carrying a package with a drone. But automated steering is a challenge whether in cars, boats, airplanes, helicopters, or anything else that moves. You can say that it is "just a regulatory issue", but that is kind of a red herring. If you gave me 100% exclusive control of all roads in the world, I could implement automated steering quite easily, because I wouldn't have to worry about objects not under my control. So I guess that is also "just a regulatory issue." But it is a big issue, and nobody suggests that we are just a few years away from having cars without steering wheels. Discussing in the context of some cool looking drone doesn't change the basic issue. It is difficult to implement something safe enough that anybody in his right mind would accept liability for it, as long as you are required to avoid objects/people that are not under your control. Drones are not the issue - It is trivial to program a drone to follow a route in an empty airspace. You can buy a toy that does this at any hobby shop. I have several.