Americans are obsessed with the technologies of tomorrow. From autonomous aircraft and vehicles to quantum computing, fusion energy, and all the possibilities offered by generative artificial intelligence and advanced robotics–there is much to be excited about in the future. But there is the problem.
We dedicate so much innovation to the future that we completely neglect the problems of today–problems so important that if we don’t solve them soon, we may not enjoy the fruits of tomorrow. Namely, our infrastructure.
Many of the assets in our built world are failing at an alarming rate, without enough skilled labor to maintain them. Despite providing for basic human needs, our energy grid, water systems, buildings, transportation infrastructure, bridges, roads, dams, ports, airports, and many other physical structure does not age well. If—not if—they fail, it will cost communities millions, if not billions, of dollars, and will cause massive loss of life.
Just think about recent events: A the road is broken in Wisconsin on Apr. 2. The largest US The energy grid is shut down nearly 25% of its power plants last Christmas. A nuclear facility in Minnesota suffered a radioactive leak last November. And the people of Jackson, Mississippi had to drink bottled water for two months last fall when their public the water system failed.
Innovators always move where there is opportunity, and the problems in the built world are huge. All over the world, the corrosion of physical assets is costly $2.5 trillion. US customers and businesses lose $150 billion annually due to power outages. The Department of Defense reports backlogs in the continuation of the over $130 billion. Water system failures are projected to cost homes $14 billion per year by the end of the next decade. And who knows what the final cost—direct and indirect—is to clean up Norfolk South train derailment, just a few miles from my office in Pittsburgh. There is so much opportunity here that you would hope that the invisible hand of American innovation would start creating startups dedicated to building solutions for these problems. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the infrastructure.
For example, in 2016, my co-founder and I went through the most successful accelerator in the world, YCombinator. While we focus on robots designed to improve power plant safety today, other founders are focusing on things like self-driving trucks, supersonic planes, and rockets to support a multi- planetary existence. This does not detract from their work in the slightest. As we crawled into the dark bowels of a power plant wearing hard hats, I spent more than a moment thinking we needed to solve another problem. I understand the appeal. Our cohort—and many continue to—are focused on products that will transform society decades from now. We chose to solve a problem for today, and I will forever be glad we did.
Step forward to save the present
In the US alone, there are 600,000 bridges, 25,000 power plants, and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads, railroads, and power lines. To understand the properties, you need to collect and process a lot of data.
Collecting and acting on data on that scale was science fiction even a few years ago. But today’s technologies, including advanced robotics and sensors, are able to scan and capture an incredible amount of data from structures incredibly quickly, while current AI models are always which breaks down the barriers of what is believed to be possible in terms of making that data useful for people. Taken together, these components hold new promise for protecting our built world.
Claiming the right to build for tomorrow
The technology is there to strengthen our infrastructure and prevent failure. We just don’t see enough applications in today’s built world. When I took a quick look at the current 2023 YCombinator class, it showed 190 B2B software companies and 33 fintech startups–and of the seven in the “industrials” category–none were addressing the needs of our aging physical infrastructure. This needs to be changed.
Futurists are needed. So are realists. We all need to work together to solve practical infrastructure problems today with new technology applications. This may be the most important, time-sensitive collaboration of our lives. The opportunity and the market are there, but the cost of failing to act can be devastating.
By focusing on the present, we earn the right to build things for tomorrow. Here’s my pitch: I invite my fellow entrepreneurs and business leaders to look at hundreds of thousands of miles of highways, railroads, and power lines, at thousands of dams, airports, bridges, power plants, and chemical plants, and hundreds of ports, refineries, and nuclear facilities as an opportunity to build products that will change the world for now and in the future. Quickly get dirt (or rust) off your boots. It’s good for our world, and yes, good for your bottom line too.
Jake Loosararian is the co-founder and CEO of Gecko Robotics.
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