The tech arms race will never end: Can the rest of us ever catch up?

December 19, 2019, 9:30 AM UTC

Chances are that virtually all of you received a box, or several, at your doorstep this holiday season. And there’s a very good chance that it was put there by a cheerful, brown-clad driver for UPS, which dispatches nearly 21 million such packages to an untold number of doorsteps each day. In which case, it almost certainly passed through a sorting facility like the one in western Atlanta that UPS opened in October 2018—one of six new complexes the company has built across the U.S.

Here, at the Southeast Metro Automated Routing Terminal (a name no doubt designed with acronym in mind), boxes zoom through a spaghetti tangle of conveyor belts at 600 feet per minute, not slowing for a second as they’re photographed on all six sides—traversing from a drop-off truck at one of 104 unloading bays to a new set of exit bays (and waiting delivery trucks) in an average of just seven minutes.

All of this kinetic wizardry—as Fortune senior writer Aaron Pressman explains in his marvelous feature on UPS—is made possible by a wealth of unseen technology. Ultra-high-speed cameras and image-processing computers, for instance, send encoded destination data to one of the most complex route-optimization algorithms on the planet, as smart mechanical “shoes” guide packages through a sorting building the size of 19 football fields. Hogwarts has nothing like it.

UPS’s tech arsenal already includes everything from drones and robotics to self-driving vehicles, and the company is deep into a three-year $20 billion tech upgrade to keep the competition—including Amazon, which is building up its own delivery service—at bay. By every measure, the investment is making an already efficient company all the more so. But the gains don’t come without disruption—there’s that dreaded word again—to UPS’s global workforce of nearly half a million people. It’s pushing some company veterans to face retraining or early retirement, even as the company has brought in some lower-paid weekend workers to handle the demands of online shoppers who want everything the next day.

Fortune has long reported on the technology arms race. And Fortune’s Robert Hackett offers another enlightening take on tech’s relentless advance as he investigates Facebook’s continuing effort to create a financial ecosystem around Libra—a digital currency known as a stablecoin—before another company or country gets there first.

But what seems more and more apparent these days is that the competition isn’t so much among companies as it is between technology and people. Indeed, as we explore in our cover package, “25 Ideas That Will Shape the 2020s,” gracefully shepherded by editors Lee Clifford and Kristen Bellstrom, this is a theme that is sure to play out in myriad ways over the next decade. How will human beings coexist with rapidly advancing technology that is taking away traditional jobs—and creating new digital divides in its wake? How will we rein in machine-learning algorithms that may have built-in biases? Or protect our privacy in an age in which digital identities are as fungible and free-flowing as the Internet itself? How can we turn social media interaction into simply social interaction again? 

For our first issue of the new decade, we’ve tapped a host of the world’s sharpest minds to answer these questions. 

Which brings me at last to Fortune’s own self-disruption, which will be unveiled in January as we launch a new premium website, a robust video portal in which to explore our conference content (and much, much more), and a comprehensive, customizable app—which will make it easier for subscribers to engage with us anywhere. The following month we’re also relaunching our print edition with a brand new design—one elegant enough to celebrate Fortune’s 90th anniversary. And better still, you can get all of the above without ever opening a box.

A version of this article appears in the January 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Pandora’s Boxes.”

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