General purpose technology is a technology or technology set that has broad implications for a wide variety of factors in human life at any given time. In many ways, general purpose technologies pile on and magnify each other’s power, but new technologies also make us realize the inconveniences of old ones, such as advances in different types of toolmaking, lighting or transportation.
Classical examples of this type of technology are the wheel, fire or stone tools. While we generally think of technology today according to what is patentable, the fact is that once a general purpose technology is discovered, it’s range of applications and variety of effects means that the whole concept in itself rarely gets patented, but the specific instances where the technology principles are applied become both lucrative as businesses and broadly beneficial to society.
Ultimately, one of the best examples is the transition that took place from animal domestication to railroads and internal combustion, and finally the potential that exists for autonomous vehicles and systems as a whole. As we go along, we realize that general purpose technologies are difficult to predict, often because they so fundamentally change the way we live. At the same time, rethinking everything from the ground up is essential to real innovation and to true productivity improvements that make like better.
The Horse-Drawn Carriage
Today, general purpose technology is considered to be a critical factor in future economic growth. The principles behind this technology usually involve a fundamental reduction in inputs or a fundamental magnification of outputs. For instance, horses were a common part of city streets through the late 19th century. So common in fact that substantial portions of grain grown to feed people also had to go to horses to “fuel” their activity. Horse manure was a large contributor to ill health in cities, and horse trampling was a not-uncommon cause of death for urban citizens who may have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At the same time, long distance horse-drawn travel had many pitfalls – namely the need for large wagon trains to retain the appropriate resources to again “fuel” the long distance adventure. At the same time, a horse can travel approximately 25 to 35 miles per day at a sustainable speed. We know that even some of the earliest cars could travel 25 to 35 miles per hour. Hence the internal combustion engine was considered a “general purpose technology” that fundamentally transformed the human conception of time and space.
No longer were the conventional limits of 30 miles per day to be radically imposed. First, with railways and then with cars, infrastructure was also laid down to ensure that fast travel could be realized on a broad basis – first in Europe and North America, but eventually through most parts of the world. While the first transcontinental expedition by Lewis & Clarke traveled 8000 miles over 2 years, the transcontinental railroad itself took 10 days to ride – and took a much straighter path at that.
Autonomous Vehicles as a Next Step
Today, cars and highways can allow a person to cross the United States in a matter of days while still stopping for sleep and the bare necessities of life along the way. Planes allow for it in a matter of hours, with a variety of added safety concerns, inconveniences and predefined destinations along the way.
As it happens, air travel is also considered a General Purpose Technology, but Autonomous vehicles are a further improvement on the cars and trucks that have already provided so much freedom and productivity to the everyday individual.
With Autonomous Vehicles that effectively “drive themselves” travelers can not only conceivably eat, sleep and take care of business without ever getting out of the car, but drive continuously at high speed, but could conceivably do all that in less than 24 hours (if an autonomous vehicle could safely drive at beyond 150 miles per hour).
Obviously, there can arrive a point of “overkill” in the effectiveness of new technology. But it’s also important to think about how much labor and attention is saved with an autonomous vehicle – how much less boring and tiresome it will be to drive across the country, and with a laptop and a network connection, how much more work could conceivably get done while the drive is taking place.
But What If Autonomous Vehicles Are Just the Beginning?
As it happens, Autonomous Vehicles aren’t the only use of AI and machine vision that are going to transform the way we live and work. Autonomous manufacturing technologies – chief among them being robots with autonomous capabilities – are fundamentally transforming the way goods are produced to serve consumers, businesses and society as a whole.
Through the use of autonomous manufacturing robots, manufacturers can already deploy a variety of spray processes without the need for programming or fixturing, drastically reducing the time required to achieve a high quality, highly repeatable, highly reliable process output – even in high-mix or highly varied productions.
Omnirobotic’s Shape-to-Motion™ Technology is the only way to do this today, and by providing a reliable, cleaner and safer working environment, is helping make manufacturers more productive and ultimately helping workers achieve a better quality of life in some of the most challenging industrial jobs around.
Omnirobotic provides Autonomous Robotics Technology for Spray Processes, allowing industrial robots to see parts, plan their own motion program and execute critical industrial coating and finishing processes. See what kind of payback you can get from it here, or learn more about how you can benefit from autonomous manufacturing systems.