January 2000 | Commentary | Checking In

Millennium Musings...

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Standing in the doorway of the 20th century, 19th century scientists and engineers couldn't imagine they lacked a true understanding of their reality. They knew there would be inventions, new developments, but they believed they had a clear picture of their world and its physical limits. "The basic fundamental principles governing the behavior of our physical world are known," claimed noted physicist Alistair Rae.

Just before the 20th century dawned, small hints of discovery presaged what was to come. Roentgen discovered that rays inexplicably passed through solid objects. Not long after, by accident, Henry Becquerel saw that a piece of uranium fogged photo plates. In 1897, the electron, "a small and useless curiosity," was discovered. These discoveries bent the physical realities of the time. Little bangs of our information age, those.

At the same time, in a little hamlet outside of Philadelphia, Frederick Winslow Taylor gave life to the ideas that bent other physical realities of the 19th century—the limits of what business and industry could accomplish with men and machines. He called his philosophy "scientific management" and the convergence of those discoveries and that philosophy is largely responsible for the unbelievable productivity of all that we do today.

If you were to say, in 1899, to a scientist, physicist, engineer or businessman, that 100 years in the future 10,000 airplanes daily would fill the sky, thousands of speedy ships would cross the seas, millions of trucks—all seen at all times, (yet unseen) each moving goods across the world, goods ordered with electrons, followed with electrons, paid for with electrons, goods made by the thousands in factories manned by a small handful of workers by 19th century standards, working with only the exact supplies needed on hand, at blinding speed, with exacting accuracy, delivered to precisely who needs them, at the exact moment of need for the lowest cost imaginable—those 19th century seers would have said you were mad.

We stand in a similar doorway today. Marveling at all that we know, all we have done, it is easy to believe that we have reached the physical limit of what is possible. Consider what some scientists call "quantum technology" where business uses for the fundamental nature of subatomic particles are being sought. What uses? Imagine a global Internet without wires. Meld that with what is called interaction free detection—"finding something without looking."

Wouldn't that truly make the world your warehouse? And on the outer edge—quantum teleportation—"where the quantum state of one entity could be transported to another." Perhaps it will be Roadway, not Scotty beaming things around. Don't worry. Like you, I don't believe any of this. I know it is physically impossible to do these things and 100 years from now our children will be managing supply chains the same way we do.

"Daddy, what's a supply chain?"

"Well a long long time ago, your great grandfather used to..."

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