What Gets Me Hot & Bothered: Crypto Currencies, Drones and 3D Printing

What Gets Me Hot & Bothered: Crypto Currencies, Drones and 3D Printing

If I weren't so passionate about the ways that mobile devices are changing the world, I'd be spending my time in one of the following three areas: Crypto currencies like Bitcoin, the commercialization of drones, and the rise of 3D printing.

Oh, time is so our enemy. Even a long-lived life only amounts to 750,000 hours or so. And as per my recent keynote at the 2013 Mobile Outlook on a "Framework for Stupid Ideas," one of my guiding principles is to "focus on focus" to maximize the value of each of those hours. Since mobile is my deepest passion, I'm not willing to dedicate the time to dive into any of these other things.

Another of my framework points is to play in a "space that matters." And these three spaces really, really matter -- that much will be obvious to everyone in the span of a few years. So I'm hoping that some other entrepreneur will be as passionate about one of these three spaces as I am about mobile. I figured I'd present a few highlights from each of them to showcase why they're such a big deal.

Crypto Currencies:

Some people liken Bitcoin to the Dainish Tulip speculation and crash of the 1600s. And that's just fine with me, because another one of my framework points is that I love it when others think something is a stupid idea. (The trick is to find a really good idea masquerading as a stupid idea -- that's where the multi-billion dollar opportunities are).

So why is Bitcoin actually a big deal when others think it's a fad? Because a decentralized crypto currency with a built in supply ceiling and a well thought out structure and execution has the potential to create a global currency. And creating a global currency carries with it all sorts of massive disruptions, like:

  • Governments lose their power if they are unable to regulate currency
  • Trade and border protectionism go away with a global currency
  • Humans can innovate more efficiently with a global currency
  • Bitcoin gave rise to the "blockchain," what I believe will prove out to be one of the biggest technological advances of our generation (even outside of Bitcoin specifically)

Those are just several of countless disruptions that have the potential to change the way humans interact as a species. And that's a really big deal.

If you don't know how Bitcoin works, here's its Wikipedia entry, and here's a great article in PC Mag that outlines the essentials. A key quote is this:

The network will increase the money supply as a geometric series until the total number of bitcoins reaches 21 million bitcoins (BTC).
Bitcoin releases a 25-coin reward to the first node in the network that solves a difficult mathematical problem requiring a certain amount of brute-force computation. Everyone in the network is then notified of the solution, and competition for a new block and its 25-coin reward renews. Currently 25 bitcoins are generated roughly every 10 minutes.
As of March 2013 more than 10.5 million of the total 21 million BTC had been created. Theoretically all bitcoins will be generated by 2140, with the last one consisting of fractional parts. To ensure granularity of the money supply, each BTC unit can be divided down to eight decimal places (a total of 2.1 × 1015 or 2.1 quadrillion units).

So about half of all the bitcoins that will ever exist have been mined to date, and it's going to get harder and harder to mine them moving forward, making each Bitcoin more valuable over time (this is exactly why they were created to contain eight decimal places -- it's very possible that one Bitcoin may be worth, say, $10,000 at some point (or way more) and you'll pay for something worth $1.50 with 0.00015000 Bitcoins. One Bitcoin is worth about $120 today -- up from just a couple of dollars a few years ago:

(Note the recent spike to $260 and subsequent crash -- something that Bitcoin naysayers associate with the Tulip crash. The thing they don't realize is that anyone can grow as many Tulips as they like, but the number of Bitcoins has a finite supply, and it's getting harder to mine them every day, as illustrated by this WIRED article on the topic of mining Bitcoins).

If you really want to geek out on Bitcoins, then read this whitepaper written by Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin's anonymous creator. (Some people think that Bitcoin was actually created by a government.) The whitepaper goes into elegant detail on the theory behind Bitcoin, for example showing how a dishonest seller's chances of defrauding a buyer by creating a parallel chain would be thwarted by additional honest blocks in the primary chain, with a Poisson distribution of the defrauder's expected progress, illustrated with the following formula and code:

Commercialization of Drones:

Drones to date have been seen primarily as military hardware, but that will change over time. Currently, it's illegal to fly dones commercially in US airspace due to FAA regulations, but new regulations are due out by 2015 (there's a lot of pressure on the FAA to draft regulations that are more drone-friendly). The regulatory barrier is temporary.

The commercial application opportunities of drones are tremendous. Parody sites like Tacocopter.com and aerial newspaper delivery by drone highlight some of the possibilities. (One side note -- mobile devices will likely play a tantilizingly central role in the world of drones. I have a post here about how mobile apps are super relevant in hardware innovation).

Another example: Here's a video from a company that was taking aerial videos of luxury homes as a service for real estate agents (before getting shut down):

Real Estate Helicam

But aerial photography is just scratching the surface of the possibilities. Drones will disrupt industries like:

  • Logistics & delivery: I'd bet UPS and FedEx will be early adopters of drones -- or if they're not, someone else will.
  • Security: Imagine having a drone give you air cover. Sounds silly now, but I bet some day it won't.
  • Privacy: Having eyes in the sky, able to peek into windows and all sorts of other places will mean lots of changes in the definitions of personal space and privacy
  • Rescue: A drone could find and rescue people in ways that no other device could

Those are just a few examples of a long list of societal, commercial and technological changes that drones will usher in.

If you'd like to dig deeper, a great place to start is this NY Times article and this FastCompany article.

3D Printing:

The thing I love about 3D printing is how obvious yet nebulous it is to people. Existing 3D printers are very primitive today. They typically can only print small objects using injection molded plastic, rendering items that look like this:

And so people say, "yeah, I get it. So I can print out my very own set of plastic shoes. Why would I want to do that?"

But what 3D printing really is all about is the decentralization of manufacturing. Over time, 3D printers will begin printing in all sorts of materials, not just plastic, and they'll become much more sophisticated.

Imagine being able to print:

  • A gun (printing some gun parts is already possible today and it's something that the government is desperately trying to block)
  • Any product you can order off Amazon.com
  • A meal (remember how the Jetsons would press a button and a ready-made meal would pop out? Presto.)
  • Spare parts for your vehicle
  • An ear, nose, or other body part

3D printing has far reaching implications in many of the same ways drones do -- disruptions to logistics and shipping and a slew of societal changes and indeed the very fabric of the way we live our lives. Someday in the not too distant future we may be ordering an item off of Amazon, and then receiving a license to print one qty. of the item at our neighborhood (or at-home) 3D printer.

Hopefully these areas of interest spark some passion in you; I'd love hear what you do with any of these in the comments below.