Again and again in human history networks spanning physical geography have both enabled and been enabled by the very same innovations. Networks are the catalysts for the innovations and the innovations are the catalysts for the networks. This is autocatalysis at human civilization scale.
The Roman empire brought for people within its expanding borders long distance trade, communication, peace and stability. Key to this was the network of roads, many of which survive as the routes of modern transportation systems, and ports. And the stability of that network was made possible by the things that the empire brought.
The Silk Road, a network of trade routes, enabled many civilizations that themselves supported the continued existence of those trade routes.
In the eighteenth century England’s network of canals enabled both the delivery of raw materials, coal for power, and access to ports for the finished goods, enabling the industrial revolution with the invention of factories. The canals were built on the wealth of the factory owners who formed syndicates to build those canals.
Later the train network enhanced and replaced the canal network in England. And building a train network in the United States enabled large scale farming in the mid-west to have access to markets on the east coast, and later to ports on both coasts to make the US a major source of food. At the same time, a second network, the telegraph, was overlaid on the same physical route system, first to operate the train network itself and later to form the basis of new forms of communications.
As the later telephone networks were built they ushered in the world of commerce and general business became the principal industry instead of farming. And as business grew the need for more extensive telephone networks with more available lines grew with it.
When Henry Ford started mass producing automobiles he realized that a network of roads was necessary for the masses to have somewhere to drive. And as there were more and more roads the demand for automobiles increased. As a side effect the roads came to replace much of the rail network for moving goods around the country.
The personal computer of the 1980’s was not ubiquitous in ordinary households until it was coupled to the second generation data packet network that had started out as a reliable communications network for the military and for sharing scarce computer resources in academia. The pull on network bandwidth lead to rapid growth of the Internet, and that enabled the World Wide Web, a network of information overlaid on the data packet network, that gave a real impetus for more people to own their own computer.
As commerce started to be carried out on the Web, demand rose even more, and ultimately large data centers needed to be built as the backend of that commerce system. Then those data centers got offered to other businesses and cloud computing became a network of computational resources, on top of what had been a network for moving data from place to place.
Cloud computing enabled the large scale training needed for deep networks, a computational technique very vaguely inspired by the network of neurons in the brain. Deep networks are what many people call AI today. Those networks and their demands for computation for training are driving the growth of the cloud computing network, and a world wide network of low paid piece workers who label data needed to drive the training, using the substrate of the Web network to move the data around, and to get paid.
Are we at the end game for AI driving networks? Or when we can get past the very narrow capabilities of deep networks to new AI technologies will there be new networks that arise and are autocatalytic with the new AI?
And what about robotics?
The disruptions to world supply chains from COVID-19 are only just beginning to be seen–there will be turbulence in many areas later in 2020. The exceptionally lean supply chains we have lived with over the last few years (relying on a network of shipping routes that rely on the standardization of shipping containers to grow and interact) are likely to feel pressure to get a little fatter. That is likely to increase the demand for robotics and automation in those supply chains, a phenomenon that we have already see starting over the last few years.
Another lesson which may be drawn from the current pandemic is that more automation is needed in healthcare, as trained medical professions have been pushed to their limits of endurance, besides being in personal mortal peril at times.
So what might be the new networks that arise over the next few years, demanded by the way we change automation, and supported by that very change?
Here are a few ideas, none of which seem particularly compelling at the moment, certainly not in comparison to Roman roads or to the Internet itself:
A commerce network of data sets, and of sets of weights for networks trained on large data sets.
A physical network of supply points, down to the city or county level, for major robot components; mobile bases for indoors or outdoors, legged tracked and wheeled; various sensor packages; human-robot interaction displays and sensors; and all sorts of arms with different characteristics. These can be assembled plug and play to produced appropriate robots as needed to respond to all sorts of emergency needs.
A network of smart sensors embedded in almost everything in our lives, which lives on top of the current Internet–this is already getting built and is called IoT (Internet of Things).
A new supply network of both partially finished goods (e.g., standard embedded processor boards) and materials (seventy eight different sorts of raw stock for 3D printers a generation or two out) so that much more manufacturing can be done closer to end customers, using automation and robots.
An automated distribution network down to the street corner level in cities, with short term storage units on the sidewalk (probably a little bigger than the green storage units that the United States Postal Service has on street corners throughout US cities). Automated vehicles would supply these, perhaps at off peak traffic times, and then smaller neighborhood sidewalk robots would distribute to individual houses, or people could come to pick up.
I’m not particularly proud of or happy with any of these ideas. But based on history over the last 2,000 plus years I am confident that some sort of new networks will soon arise. Please do not let my lack of imagination dissuade you from the idea that new forms of networks will be coming.