Interview with Jeff Bezos — The Obstacles to Technological Breakthroughs (to America 3.0) are more Regulatory and Legal than Technological

Delivery Drone

In a recent interview with Jeff Bezos, he notes that drone delivery will be more delayed by regulation than by technological capability.

HB: Drones. You had this amazing “commercial” on “60 Minutes” last year, about this fantastic future when drones are going to fly out and bring me my package, and it’s going to be right there. Immediately, everybody in the country, and probably around the world, was saying, “Great — when?”
JB: That’s a difficult question to answer. Technology is not going to be the long pole. The long pole is going to be regulatory. I just went and met with the primary team and saw the 10th- or 11th-generation drone flying around in the cage. It’s truly remarkable. It’s not just the physical airframe and electric motors and so on. The most interesting part of this is the autopilot and the guidance and control and the machine vision systems that make it all work. As for when, though, that is very difficult to predict. I’d bet you the ratio of lawyers to engineers on the primary team is probably the highest at Amazon.
HB: Is this a situation where everyone else in the world except Americans is going to get drone deliveries?
JB: I think it is sad but possible that the US could be late. It’s highly likely that other countries will do it first. I may be too skeptical. I hope I’m wrong.

It is too bad that the USA is likely to be slow moving in making this — and many other types of new technology — available to the public.

The same will certainly be true about driverless cars, or molecular medicine.

We are going to need entrepreneur and activists and, yes, even lawyers, who are committed to making new technology available to the American people, with the inevitable disruption of existing relationships and expectations.

Getting to a better America is possible, but nothing is inevitable.

There will be many struggles along the way to America 3.0.

17 thoughts on “Interview with Jeff Bezos — The Obstacles to Technological Breakthroughs (to America 3.0) are more Regulatory and Legal than Technological”

  1. It’s been said we could not introduce automobiles today. Or trains. Or airplanes. Or ships. Or rockets. Or nuclear power.

    Alcohol, coffee and tea would all be regulated as drugs.

    We could not build the interstate highway system today. We could implement the Rural Electrification Project today. We could not build Hoover Dam, or Glen Canyon Dam, or Grand Coulee Dam.

    I can’t imagine why the economy has ground to a halt. Or why the standard of living has been falling. Bad luck, I guess.

  2. ” Or why the standard of living has been falling. Bad luck, I guess.”

    Of course !

    “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
    This is known as ‘bad luck’.”

    – Robert A. Heinlein

    I know you had that in mind. I just save those quotes on my blog.

  3. I am pessimistic on molecular medicine for several reasons. I have gotten into two nasty debates on evolution at conservative web sites. One was a Ricochet and was nasty enough that I quit going there. There were something like 250 comments, of which about four were friendly. At Althouse, it was a bit better but still very negative about 4 to 1.

    That doesn’t take into account the antiGMO lefties who seem to be more accepting of human modification than with plants.

    In both cases, I got into it by commenting that I would not write a letter of recommendation for a student applying to medical school who did not believe in evolution. I tried to make the point that I am not the king of medical school admissions but it was no help.

    I spent a year studying molecular biology because it was obvious that, if I was going to talk to medical students, I needed to know something about genetics. I tried to read Lewin’s Gene VII, but quickly realized that I did not know enough molecular biology (which did not exist when I was a medical student).

    I spent the next year reading Alberts’ “The Molecular Biology of the Cell”, all 1500 pages.

    I then went back to Lewin (which cost $142.) and discovered it had come out in several new editions in the year since I bought my copy. Not only were the new editions more up to date but the old edition was wrong on many points because, since the book was published, Craig Venter had discovered the Human Genome and the older ideas were wrong about it.

    I bought the New edition and struggled to understand it. I have finally bought the 2012 edition, which is no picnic to read.

    From a review: The second paragraph of the preface of this text says “This book is aimed at advanced students in molecular genetics and molecular biology.” They are not lying. I am sure that this is a great reference if you are doing master’s or Ph.D. level work, but if this is the text that is assigned for an undergraduate course, as it was for me, then go to your department chair and protest. You will spend $200 plus dollars and unless you are a very sophisticated student, you are going to have a hard time getting anything from this text.

    I am still struggling but the point of this comment is that molecular medicine requires a thorough understanding genetics, which is incomprehensible without evolution.

    One small example. Rickettsiae, which are disease causing organisms sort of like bacteria are also very closely related to mitochondria which are the components of human (and animal) cells that allows us to use oxygen.

    When the Earth was primitive, there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. Early organisms did fine with non-oxidative metabolism. When the Earth cooled and plants appeared, the atmosphere began to contain more oxygen which is toxic to anaerobic organisms. There was, at that time (The theory presumes), another family of organisms, called now “Rickettsiae,” which can use oxygen. They were ingested by the anaerobic organisms and eventually became parasites, or symbiotes if you will, and they made the oxygen that the organisms required for energy. We came along later.

    This bacterium and its relatives represent one of biology’s great ironies. On the one hand, the historical ancestors of R. prowazekii precipitated some of the greatest plagues to afflict the human race (see box overleaf). On the other hand, an evolutionary antecedent of R. prowazekii participated in one of the seminal events in the evolution of eukaryotic (nucleus-containing) cells — the formation of mitochondria, cellular organelles that contain their own DNA and, during oxidative breakdown of glucose, produce the ATP that powers these cells. With the complete genome sequence of R. prowazekii, we can now examine this important genetic blueprint for clues both as to what makes R. prowazekii such a great killer, and what allowed one of its ancestors to contribute so fundamentally to the emergence of eukaryotic cells in the first place.

    Eukaryotic means the cells with nuclei like ours. Bacteria are prokaryotic and Archea, which are the oldest living things, are also prokaryotic. Mitochondria have their own DNA suggesting they were once free living and some Rickettsiae are nonpathogenic, they don’t cause disease.

    Archea may well be found on Mars or even in comets.

    Archaea were initially viewed as extremophiles living in harsh environments, such as hot springs and salt lakes, but they have since been found in a broad range of habitats, including soils, oceans, marshlands and the human colon and navel. Archaea are particularly numerous in the oceans, and the archaea in plankton may be one of the most abundant groups of organisms on the planet.

    They were discovered by Carl Woese who is revered by microbiologists and who should have been awarded a Nobel Prize.

    With regard to Woese’s work on horizontal gene transfer as a primary evolutionary process, Professor Norman Pace of the University of Colorado at Boulder said, “I think Woese has done more for biology writ large than any biologist in history, including Darwin… There’s a lot more to learn, and he’s been interpreting the emerging story brilliantly”.

    Nobody but biologists know who he was. He died in 2012 and his name should be well known but i is not.

    Anyway, evolution is at the heart of molecular medicine and I think medical students should know it.

  4. Well, if Mr. Bezos is concerned about the baleful effects of over regulation and out of control judges, he owns one of the best platforms for launching a counter attack. He should hire editors and reporters at the WaPo who will make the country aware of the costs of the regulatory burden and of the need to combat it.

  5. John Mauldin has a biotech analyst who has written about mitochondria here and here.

    I don’t know much about the subject but have noticed they are very optimistic about the possibilities of mitochondrial treatments and analysis for improving elderly health and detection of diseases.

  6. Eukaryotic means the cells with nuclei like ours. Bacteria are prokaryotic

    A few years ago I read (twice!) a fascinating book by Ron Redfern called Origins. Mr. Redfern, a British biochemist, was founder-chairman of a Swiss-based consulting company specializing in the automation of food and pharmaceutical production. His work took him all over the world and he developed a fascination for the spectacular scenery and land forms of the American Southwest. He was also a highly accomplished photographer who specialized in large format, wide angle panoramas. He was so good a photographer that he was enlisted by the Natural History Museum in London to create panoramas of the Grand Canyon for exhibition. That project – and trying to understand what he was photographing and how it got that way – sparked a lifelong interest in geology and plate tectonics, which he then took up with vigor. He moved to Denver after he retired in 1975 so he could more fully explore the Southwest.

    Origins is a history book unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s an abbreviated history of the Earth, including its plants, animals and geology. In one the early chapter, there’s a discussion of prokaryotic life (Greek pro, before; karyon, kernel, i.e. nucleus) and the emergence of nucleated Eukaryotic life (Greek eu, true; nucleus), which became the foundation block of all complex life forms.

    But it was a prokaryote, cyano-bacteria (formerly called blue-green algae) which beforehand had changed the world. That happened about 3 billion(!) years ago. Cyano-bacteria harnessed sunlight, water and carbon-dioxide and metabolized them for energy, keeping only the carbon from the CO2 and releasing the oxygen as a waste product. Algal mats of this bacteria, growing in primtive coral-like colonies called stromatolites, oxygenated the atmosphere. But first, they oxygenated the oceans which at that time were full of dissolved un-oxidized iron.

    Here’s a discussion of those events from Nova’s brilliant series Australia’s History:

  7. “Cyano-bacteria harnessed sunlight, water and carbon-dioxide and metabolized them for energy, keeping only the carbon from the CO2 and releasing the oxygen as a waste product”

    This is an incredible story and needs to be more widely known and understood. The relationship between Rickettsiae and mitochondria was first proposed by a biologist when he was lying on the beach on a Greek Island (as I recall) but I can no longer find the article that describes how he came to this concept.

    When I was a medical student in 1962, we knew that mitochondria were the source of oxygen metabolism and that the “Krebs Cycle” took place in mitochondria. That was actually very new information. The 1947 Nobel Prize was awarded to the Cori husband and wife for the discovery of The Cori Cycle which was thought to be the origin of ATP and metabolism. It turns out that the Cori Cycle is what happens in anaerobic conditions, like muscle metabolism during exercise, and is not the basic mechanism they thought it was. The Cori Cycle is not powerful enough to supply enough ATP for life in an oxygen atmosphere.

    The Krebs Cycle was finally realized as the real ATP system not long before I began medical school.

    The citric acid cycle itself was finally identified in 1937 by Hans Adolf Krebs while at the University of Sheffield, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1953

    I began medical school 8 years later. All of the structures of the cell, like the Golgi Apparatus were known and we had to memorize all of them but we had no idea what they did.

    This is why I had to learn all this in 2000.

    Part of the mitochondria stoy is here in Nature.

    R. prowazekii is an obligate intracellular parasite — that is, it can only live within other cells. Its gene content, like that of other parasitic eubacteria, has been reduced and tailored to suit its dependent lifestyle. Andersson et al.1 have found that the R. prowazekii genome encodes 834 complete open reading frames, DNA sequences that specify protein sequences. This number is far less than the 4,288 protein-coding genes found in the fourfold larger genome of Escherichia coli, its free-living cousin3. However, R. prowazekii contains ten times as many genes as the most bacteria-like mitochondrial genome described to date, the 69,034-bp mitochondrial (mt)DNA of the freshwater protozoon Reclinomonas americana 4. Surprisingly, the R. prowazekii genome also contains the highest fraction of non-coding DNA (24%) found in any microbial genome so far, much of which may represent inactive genes that have been degraded by mutation, but have not yet been eliminated from the genome.

    This is a fascinating detective story. We may find something like these organisms under the soil of Mars where the environment may be more hospitable. I just wish the public were more receptive to these issues, especially that which shares political philosophy with me on other issues.

  8. In one of the recent Forbes Magazine issues their technical editor had a wonderful column on where we might have been had we not has so much government regulation. It was a sobering piece.

  9. Robert Schwartz–bingo!!. Bezo could help himself, and the country a great deal, by cleaning up the swamp that is The Washington Post. [I’m not holding my breath.]

  10. FWIW, the WaPo is not as bad as the NYT. It maintains a fairly broad spectrum of readers, and you have people from the libertarian right blogging there and writing columns. So there a certain matter of perspective going on here. I know a regular HuffPo reader who considers the WaPo right wing. I think there’s a place for a paper with a spectrum of writers. USA Today seems to try to do that.

  11. The problem is that we do not take the barriers to America 3.0 seriously. Going from America 1.0 to America 2.0 was a big leap forward. America 3.0 will similarly improve the country. This is our sons and daughters having a decent life and fulfilling their own version of the american dream. Nobody is seriously asking public officials are you for or against this and forcing them to commit one way or the other. When we do that, progress will start to happen because the issue will show up on the electoral radar.

  12. “I sit in awe.”

    I decided to expand this a bit on my own blog.

    I include some examples of the controversy on conservative blogs like Ricochet. It is discouraging. This sort of thing is what causes leftists, like some of my children, to describe conservatives as “anti-science.” I have trouble debating this with them.

  13. Taking a contrarian view of these drones now the specter of millions of these things ij the same airspace as aircraft and I think we are right in going slow about this.

    Some years ago I had a tour of Beale AFM – home of th SR-71 and how the Global Hawk – and they were saying for this drone – a wingspan over 100′ I think – it is a problem co-coordinating with the FAA

    Even at altitudes of 500’and less – besides being a danger around airports that is where helicopters spend a lot of time.

  14. I pretty regularly run into the anti-science canard. It doesn’t last very long with me as usually they fail to stay consistent with their own standards. They’re unused to being held to them as a rule.

    The US is positively antideluvian in its ATC system. We could privatize, improve safety, and accommodate drones by following most of the rest of the first world in privatizing ATC.

  15. Mike K,

    I think you’re just dead wrong on the student-recommendation thing. People apply to med school to become practitioners, right? What difference does a theoretical belief make on that level?

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