Seven Technologies that Will Change the World
We live in exciting times. Every year brings new products that not only excite and thrill us, but also change the way we interact with the world, and each other, in profound ways. It was just a few decades ago that the cellphone and the computer became household items; nowadays, your cellphone alone likely has more computing power than all of NASA had in 1969. The Digital Revolution, which drives much of this change, has fundamentally change the way we socialize, do business, govern, provide healthcare, create art – even conduct war. In the coming decade, the development and proliferation of many new technologies will revolutionize the way we live.
In this article, we look at 1) introduction, 2) where this innovation is coming from, 3) what makes it possible, 4) implications of new technology, and 5) overview of new technologies.
The 20th century saw considerable innovation, including the airplane, the automobile, the submarine, antibiotics, television, radio, and nuclear power. The latter is popularly associated with what drove many of the significant technological advancements that occurred during the first half of the last century, namely world wars. Following the Second World War, the pace of new technology development accelerated; this can be attributed to the period of Western and Japanese economic expansion beginning in 1950. In addition to the baby boom, which significantly increased the U.S. labor pool, returning soldiers took advantage of G.I. Bill benefits by enrolling in college in record numbers. The Cold War era, which began soon after the war, was marked by an increased emphasis on mathematics and sciences in American and Russian schools as each country competed not only to be the first to send a man to the moon, but to develop superior military capabilities. Much of the military and scientific technologies developed during this period had far-reaching applications, many of which eventually found their way into consumer goods and business infrastructure.
In the ensuing decades, especially the nineties and 2000s, the spread of open technologies has significantly increased innovation across the globe by increasing access to resources and opportunities to innovate. Further, globalization – particularly the propagation of free market principles throughout the world, has helped foster innovation in developed and developing countries. Businesses exist to make money: large corporations finance Research & Development (R&D) departments charged with developing innovative products and services; and multinational corporations can benefit from the variegated perspectives of its workers, and the demands of new and emerging markets, their very presence in which often lead to innovations. Countries with command economies have been impelled by globalization to pursue economic policies designed to allow their countries to compete economically on the world stage.
WHERE THIS INNOVATION IS COMING FROM
Today, much innovation is still concentrated in developed Western nations. However, increasingly, innovation can be found in Eastern nations such as Brazil, India, and China. In 2013, China became the third-largest filer of international patents (behind the U.S. and Germany). Between 2007 and 2012, government investment in biomedical R&D in each of the following countries: India, China, and South Korea, eclipsed that of spending in the United States. In 2012, the number of R&D employees in emerging markets was greater than that of those in developed countries. It’s no longer easy to predict the location of the next big thing.
Much of the innovation in a particular country comes from a hub of innovation. Entrepreneurs and start-ups tend to cluster in areas that are conducive to creativity and industry. Notable hubs of innovation include:
- “Silicon Valley” (San Francisco), California, United States
- Boston, MA, United States
- Beijing, China
- Tel Aviv, Israel
- Bangalore, India
- Tech City London
- Paris-Saclay, France
- Skolkovo Innovation City, Moscow, Russia
- Start-Up Chile, Santiago, Chile
Many of the aforementioned places were developed through heavy government investment. Elected officials realize that firms, especially startups, are where considerable innovation takes place. Fast Company’s 2014 list of the most innovative companies Apple, General Electric, and Google in the U.S.; Xiaomi, Institute Sarita, BGI, and Rose Studio in China, UIDAI and ZipDial in India, Shazam and Johnnie Walker in England, and iHub in Kenya, among others. But these days innovation can happen anywhere – and not just in private industry. Universities connect individuals, provide them access to information, and afford them time to experiment and test their ideas. Beyond the Ivy League colleges, many universities across the world today have start-up business incubators and entrepreneurship curricula designed to spur start-ups, and foster creativity.
Innovation is popularly associated with tech start-ups and developments in digital technologies, products, and services. However, new and emerging advancements in healthcare delivery/management, robotics, materials, and home appliances, are changing our daily lives. Much, but not all of these advancements, involve the integration of computing capabilities with the physical world (see “Internet of Things, below), a development that begun with the advent of the Digital Revolution.
WHAT MAKES IT POSSIBLE
The Digital Revolution, a period commonly agreed to have begun in the late 1950s with the development and widespread adoption of digital technologies, has changed our world in myriad ways. From the ubiquitous: the cellphones, gaming, and social networks that dominate our daily lives to the transformative: eBooks, mobile payment systems, and cloud computing, the proliferation of digital technologies and infrastructure has facilitated innovation not only in computing technologies, but in other areas as well. This coupled with the Modern Age of globalization – the international exchange of culture, trade, and perspectives, have decentralized and accelerated worldwide innovation in the last half of the 20th century and the first decade and a half of the 21st. And as digital technologies proliferate and transnational collaboration continues (much due to digital collaboration platforms), we certainly have more game-changing innovations to look forward to.
There are several factors that have led to the spread of innovation worldwide. NY Times journalist Thomas Friedman in his seminal tome, “The World is Flat”, outlined several key developments that have led to the technological innovations of the last few decades, including (but not limited to):
- Exponential increases in computing power: advances in manufacturing increasingly complex electronic circuitry have resulted in a doubling of computing power approximately every two years since 1970, an axiom known as Moore’s Law. The speed with which we can transmit digital information has increased the viability of the market for digital goods and services. It has also accelerated the speed at which we interact with each other: whether socializing, doing business, or otherwise engaging with the world; in doing so, connection speed has created new business processes (e.g. high frequency trading), business and consumer products, and markets.
- Collaborative software: the ability of individuals, academics, private sector researchers, military scientists, and others to work collectively on projects in real-time can yield insights otherwise unobtainable. Open source projects can garner considerable participation for intrinsic (and inexpensive) benefits. Corporations can take advantage of global time differences by using project management software to distribute work, so that production is taking place during every hour of the day.
- Open education/Improving education: The access the average individual has to information is unparalleled in human history. With an Internet connection, the fundamentals of science, mathematics, history, and language, are unlocked. Colleges and universities participating in the open education movement are placing course content online free of charge. Further, increasing government investment in education by the leaders of developing countries have increased the quality of education systems in those countries, making them potential hotspots for innovation.
- Increased access to venture capital: The venture capitals, once greatly restricted to the privileged, wealthy class, have been opened by the marriage of digital platforms and financial innovations, such as micro-lending and crowdfunding.
IMPLICATIONS OF NEW TECHNOLOGY
As much innovation is driven by private enterprise and military research, we must take great pains to ensure that we pay heed to the ethical implications of new technologies. Further, we must ensure that laws designed to address these ethical implications keep pace with innovations. Newly developed financial instruments played a significant role in the subprime lending crisis of 2007 and consequent global recession. In that instance, regulators had not kept pace with new developments in the financial industry; this had catastrophic effects on firms, governments, and individuals across the globe. While new technologies may raise questions we might never have considered before, it is critical that government officials in all countries stay abreast of these new developments to ensure new technologies are used safely and ethically. They must work to regulate private enterprise, without stifling market activity. Businesses must participate in this endeavor by self-regulating. Moreover, we as consumers and citizens must advocate for ethical behavior from corporations and governments, using our wallets and our votes.
OVERVIEW OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES
Clearly, innovation will continuously reshape our lives and perspectives. Here are seven of the technologies that are poised to have the biggest impact on our lives:
Graphene is a material theorized by scientists for decades – a one atom thick sheet of pure carbon. This material would be extremely strong (100 times stronger than steel), and conduct heat and electricity more efficiently than most other materials. First produced in a lab in 2004 by Russian physicist Andre Geim, this material’s commercial use is still in its infancy. However, scientists, academics, and corporate researchers see potential applications in medicine, electronics, water purification, energy storage, and water proof devices, among others. Investment in graphene research has come from the European Union, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Nokia Corporation, and others.
The field of robotics is expanding at a rapid pace. Once the province of science fiction, robots have been a staple of manufacturing for decades, automating production processes in a variety of industries. In recent years, scientists have created robots that successfully mimic human and animal motion. The U.S. military has integrated remote-piloted drones into its military operations. There are a number of (expensive) robots commercially available to consumers – as toys, as household implements, and entertainment. Other robots are used for a variety of medical, scientific, and educational purposes. All of these robots are controlled by humans through computer programs or wirelessly transmitted commands. Today, autonomous robots can learn from experience and adjust their behavior accordingly; many of these robots have been adopted for scientific and industrial purposes. In the decades to come, expect commercially available robots to grow in functionality, prices to drop, and the market to grow. Similarly, business will likely incorporate robots more into their operations as robots become more capable.
3-D printers have been in use since around the beginning of the 21st century. These printers were used to “print” a three-dimensional model of an object from a digital file using plastics, polymers or other materials. Manufacturers initially used these printers for prototyping, but advances in the printing technology and printing materials, have led the industry to begin to adopt 3-D printing as a part of their internal manufacturing process. These printers can be used to create objects as varied as dishes, shoes, car parts, dental crowns, and lampshades. They even have been used to create fully functional firearms. This technology will not only improve industrial processing speed and reduce costs, but also allow businesses the ability to offer customers greater customization of the products they offer. Further, 3-D printers are commercially available for personal use. Conceivably, a mature market for personal 3-D printers might result in people designing and “printing” their own kitchenware, parts, toys, gadgets, and other consumer goods. In fact, though 3-D printing technology is still in its developmental stages, there is even talk about 4-D printing: the use of materials in 3-D printing that would respond and change shape based on environmental stimuli (example: shoes that become waterproof when it is raining).
There are many medical breakthroughs expected in the next ten years, powered by innovations in technology and our ever-increasing understanding of the human body and biology. They include:
- Growing replacement organs;
- Increasing usage of robots in healthcare delivery, including surgeries;
- Widespread adoption of online medical records;
- Increasing use and effectiveness of gene therapies;
- Usage of artificial retinas to address vision problems, including blindness;
- Advances in slowing human aging; and
- Use of holographic technology to perform exploratory procedures, such as autopsies.
These are just a few of the breakthroughs, predicted and expected by leading healthcare experts.
Intelligent home networking/home automation
Home automation systems integrate all electrical devices in a residence, and allow users to automate their function from a single input device. Such a system might allow you to use your laptop to schedule your clock’s alarm, turn on your sprinkler system, oven, and stereo, dim your lighting, and turn off your security system. A related term: “domotics”: a portmanteau word combining “domus” (house) and “informatics.” This refers to intelligent home environments, an ideal difficult to achieve because of varied technical standards for the average individuals disparate household implements. However, despite this issue, the market for home automations is rapidly growing. Retailers such as Home Depot, Staples, and Lowes, as well as cable companies like Comcast have been rapidly expanding their inventory throughout 2014. In addition, builders are starting to pre-install home automation functionality in new residential construction.
Wearable technology is the integration of digital technology with clothing. Precursors to this include heart rate monitors and pedometers, but wearable tech’s scope is broader and involves more functionality. The most well known example of wearable tech currently on the market is Google Glass, a head-mounted display that provides users with computing capabilities. Utilizing an android operating system, the device displays apps and webpages, and allows users to control the computing information with voice commands, and a touchpad. However, competing products will surely hit the market in the near future. Commercial applications of wearable tech include integrating computing capabilities with wristwatches, gloves, and even tattoos. Military applications, which currently include exoskeletons for soldiers among other projects, may drive further commercial innovations in the future.
Internet of things
Both of the previous two ideas are aspects of the broader term, “Internet of Things,” which is the concept of connecting everything to the Internet. Beyond household automation and wearable tech, intelligent transportation systems, remote health monitoring, and even completely networked ubiquitous cities (such as Songdo, South Korea), are examples. Integration of the physical and digital worlds will be transforming our lives in the coming decades.
Image credits: Flickr | UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Flickr | Ted Eytan under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic; Flickr | NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Flickr | Creative Tools under Attribution 2.0 Generic