When it comes to robots, society spends most of its time thinking about C-3PO and RT-D2 and not on the likely autonomous robotic interstellar trading vessels that must have populated the Star Wars “galaxy”. 

So, for instance, self-driving cars, football-playing robots and even robot journalists have hit the headlines because we can see and imagine them in our everyday lives. But we’re giving much less attention to the rather unsexy world of cargo. Yes, the transportation of objects from one place to another. 

The container revolutionised shipping from the 1950s onwards. It had a negative impact on dock workers’ employment prospects and simultaneously had a massively positive impact on world trade. In the same way, unmanned cargo ships will completely change shipping in the decades ahead. For now, one man or woman might direct these vessels from an onshore location but, very soon, these ships will surely become autonomous. 

As a good piece by Michael Carroll in the most recent edition of Newsweek (which, by the way, is steadily improving since its relaunch and contains some interesting reading) points out:

“The industry estimates that 44% of freighter costs are associated with human crews. The improved navigation, and removal of the habitation space and life support that comes with unmanned systems, will increase efficiency in each ship by up to 20%, says Rolls-Royce. It predicts a corresponding 20% reduction in emissions, as well.”

This got me thinking about the way technology impacts in the wider world. In many areas, we focus on easy-to-notice (or especially easy-to-write-about) innovations at the cost of underplayed, but far more wide-reaching shifts. The seismic changes are often far too subtle for us to notice at the time.  

What do you think are the under-covered technologies and innovations that will shape the next few decades?