How People Create and Innovate. . .

Technology—from the wheel to the silicon chip—has greatly bent the arc of history, yet anticipating when, where and how technology will alter economic, social, political, and security dynamics is a hard game.  Some high impact predictions—such as cold fusion—have not become realities long after first promised, while other changes have unfolded faster and farther than experts even imagined.  For example, clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) gene-manipulation developments quickly transformed the biological sciences.

Technological development and deployment will be fast where the tools and techniques become widely accessible or are combined to achieve new breakthroughs.  Advanced Information Communications Technologies (ICT), for example, are transforming everything from automobiles to manufacturing, and some technology experts argue that advances in biotechnologies and nanomaterials will have a similar catalytic effect during the coming decades.  Combining new technologies will provide the greatest surprises and most exciting new capabilities, with some spawning developments in relatively unrelated areas.  For example, biotechnologies and new materials technologies may spawn changes in energy technologies.

Major Trends

Advanced Information Communications Technologies (ICT)—Including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Automation, and Robotics.  Development and deployment of ICT can improve labor productivity, business processes, and governance practices that support economic growth and political responsiveness.  As a critical enabler, ICT will influence nearly every new and existing industry.  The emerging Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) will ensure that analytics and Big Data processing enable new business insights, transforming industries and driving advanced machine-to-machine communication.  People’s use of some technologies, such as augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR), will have a transformative effect on society—particularly media, entertainment, and daily life.

  • New ICT is likely to have a significant effect on the financial sector.  Digital currencies; “blockchain” technology for transactions; and the predictive analytics enabled by AI and Big Data will reshape financial services, potentially affecting systemic stability, security of critical financial infrastructures, and cyber vulnerabilities.
  • New ICT is also transforming transportation and energy consumption in profound ways.  Applications that combine data analytics, algorithms and real-time geophysical information, such as Uber and Waze, can optimize traffic patterns, improve energy consumption, and reduce urban smog.  These augment the benefits of semi-automated and self-driving vehicles, which can reduce traffic density and accident rates while producing huge economic gains.

Potential Issues: Increased data reliance—the common thread among these emerging information technology technologies—will require establishing clear limits and standards on data ownership, data privacy and protection, cross-border data flows, and cyber security that could become increasingly important points of domestic and international policy conflict.  Some nations‘ attempts to stem the rapid spread of ICT technologies and control the flow of information might minimize labor dislocations and volatility, but would limit economic and social gains.  Countries less ethically bound might deploy technologies that others oppose or loosen regulations to attract high technology firms and to build R&D capability.

States, businesses, activist groups, religious organizations, and citizens are all trying to manage information to their advantage, fueling an intense and evolving messaging competition that threatens to extend its reach into deeper and more sensitive areas of human cognition and emotion.  The early days of social media fostered hopes that more and freer communication would usher in a new era of democratization, but authoritarian states have proven adept at controlling access to information to maintain social control and free-flowing information in open countries has fueled social divisions and political polarization.  Social media also enable the rapid spread of dangerous misinformation; individuals disposed to believe it are more likely to accept the misinformation uncritically and pass it on to other, potentially naïve individuals.

  • ICT may give rise to new occupations in fact-checking, error-reporting, privacy protection, and legal action against harassment.  Standards of truth-telling in social media are increasingly ambiguous and negotiable—at the limit, every truth claim becomes a piece of propaganda without special epistemological status.
  • It has taken decades or even centuries for people to develop somewhat shared standards by which to judge the veracity of claims, but technology has reframed many issues in interpersonal relations and is creating a new set of challenges for governments that want or need to establish ‘credibility’ for foreign policy or bargaining purposes.

Artificial intelligence (or enhanced autonomous systems) and robotics have the potential to increase the pace of technological change beyond any past experience, and some experts worry that the increasing pace of technological displacement may be outpacing the ability of economies, societies, and individuals to adapt.  Historically, technological change has initially diminished but then later increased employment and living standards by enabling the emergence of new industries and sectors that create more and better jobs than the ones displaced.  However, the increased pace of change is straining regulatory and education systems’ capacity to adapt, leaving societies struggling to find workers with relevant skills and training.

  • Autonomous vehicles, which will eliminate the need for truck, taxi, and other mass-transit drivers, are likely to be the most dramatic near-term example of technology displacement.
  • New technologies and the opportunities they create will require specialized expertise and complex management skills that may not be widely available to displaced workers.  As a result, ICT advances may aggravate the economic divide between those whose skills are in demand with orphaned abilities.
  • New technologies will also increase public awareness of the growing inequality in opportunity and wealth.  To mitigate the adverse effects of this awareness, programmers seek to develop sympathetic virtual worlds often referred to as “empathy engines,” but social critics are concerned that misuse of ICT has already led to civil and social disengagement and that new developments like AR/VR will do likewise.

Biotechnologies and Advanced Human Health.  Biotechnology, recently catalyzed by CRISPR[1] developments, is developing even faster than ICT and promises to improve the global food supply and human health.  The application of biotechnology—to include gene editing—to food production, especially for lesser used crops, could boost agricultural productivity, expand growing ranges, and increase crop resistance to severe weather and plant diseases.  Advancements in gene editing could also lead to potential breakthroughs in human health by eliminating malaria carrying mosquitos or altering genetic codes to cure diseases like cystic fibrosis.  Reducing food insecurity and improving peoples’ health in the developing world will be especially critical as climate change alters agriculture production.

Genetic engineering and other biotechnologies will aid disease prevention by enabling better diagnostics and treatments, helping to overcome antimicrobial resistance, and halting the spread of disease through early detection of new or emerging pathogens with pandemic outbreak potential.  The eradication of some genetic-based diseases and breakthroughs in genetic manipulation of the immune system would improve quality of life and global health and reduce healthcare costs.

  • Nanomaterials are increasingly used for medical-device coatings, diagnostic contrast agents, sensing components in nanoscale diagnostics, and advanced drug delivery.  Digital medicine and other new medical procedures will likely contribute to improved global health.  Improved tools to characterize, control, and manipulate the structure and function of living matter at the nanoscale could inspire biology-based approaches for other technology development and new fabrication techniques.
  • Advances in computation and high-throughput sequencing and culturing technologies will enable understanding and manipulation of the human microbiome that could lead to cures for autoimmune diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and perhaps some cancers.  Certain microorganisms also could supplement treatments for depression, bipolar disorder, and other stress-related psychiatric disorders.
  • Optical monitoring of neurons and optogenetic modulation of neural activity promise to help neuroscientists observe brains in action, with the aim to prevent or curing diseases like dementia, Parkinsonism, and schizophrenia.  The procedures could also yield insights into the construction of brain-like systems for artificial intelligence.

Potential Issues: Many parts of the world still consider genetically modified (GM) food unsafe or inadequately tested and will not accept its development or deployment, which will erode its potential to expand food supplies, lower prices, or increase the nutritional benefits in foods.  Some genetic technologies, like “gene drives” that can potentially alter the genome of whole species, may be difficult to contain if deployed, and species-level genetic manipulation—to render mosquitos incapable of carrying malaria or other virulent pathogens, for example,—may have unforeseen consequences.  Regardless of their potential benefits, such technologies will inevitably attract domestic and international political opposition.

  • By 2035 rapid, “step” changes in human longevity may be plausible, but improving the length and quality of life could increase financial costs to societies, especially where aging populations already burden government budgets.  These costs could be potentially offset, however, by healthcare savings from breakthroughs in treating genetic-based diseases and advanced genomic therapies.
  • Debates over the morality and efficacy of intellectual property rights regimes for life-and-death medical issues and broader technological issues are likely to become more contentious internationally.
  • Technological advances to treat diseases or enhance human capabilities, such as human augmentation, are likely to raise divisive political debates over access—assuming that most early techniques will only be available to higher income people.  Altering fundamental human capabilities to enhanced mental capacity or physical strength could prompt strident domestic and international battles over the ethics and implications of altering the human gene pool
  • Advances in biotechnology, including automation and the development of standardized tools and “programming languages”—for synthetic biology—will give individuals the potential to fabricate virulent micro-organisms for bioterrorist attacks.

Energy: Advances in energy technologies and concerns about climate change will set the stage for disruptive changes in energy use, including expanded use of wind, solar, wave, waste-streams, or nuclear fusion for electrical power generation and the use of improved mobile- and fixed-energy storage technologies.  “Green” energy systems—competitive with fossil fuels—are already being deployed, and the future will see more carbon- and noncarbon-based technologies.  Innovations—such as small-scale distributed energy systems that do not require connection to a power grid, can include renewable energy sources, and can integrate power for homes and transport/farm equipment—are likely to transform current models for energy production and distribution by freeing citizens from reliance on state-provided energy.  Distributed, networked systems for energy generation and storage could improve the resilience of power systems and critical energy infrastructure systems to natural disasters, which would be particularly valuable in areas vulnerable to climate change and severe weather events.

Potential Issues: During the next 20 years, the combination of fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewable sources can meet global energy demand, however, the large–scale, commercially successful deployment of nonfossil fuel energy technologies is plausible.  This would reduce the value of fossil resources reserves for energy-supplier states dependent on energy revenue to fund their budget and provide for their citizens, many may find it hard to reorient their economies.  The commercial impact will also be substantial for oil and gas companies, some of the world’s largest firms.  Without major improvements in low-cost batteries or other forms of energy storage, new energy sources will continue to require substantial infrastructure, potentially slowing their adoption by poorer countries and limiting their mobility and flexibility.

Climate Intervention: Technologies to enable geoengineering—large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate—are in their infancy and largely live only in computer models.  Effective geoengineering would probably require a range of technologies.  One set, called solar radiation management, aims to cool the planet by limiting the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth, possibly by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, chemically brightening marine clouds, or installing space-mirrors in orbit.  A more expensive—and likely longer to deploy—group of technologies focuses on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through direct air capture, ocean iron fertilization, and afforestation, which is the creation of forests in areas previously lacking tree cover.  Carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, is a known technology that seeks to capture carbon dioxide at the point of emission and store it underground. Afforestation also is a known technology, and scientists have conducted limited ocean iron fertilization tests.

Potential Issues: Increasing climate disruptions will boost interest in geoengineering interventions well before the scientific community understands the impact and unintended consequences of such efforts.  With continued research, the advanced industrial countries might be able to develop the technology for solar radiation management quickly and at a cost far smaller than the damages anticipated from climate change.  Without time to assess, however, the research probably cannot  evaluate the trade-offs associated with the distribution of surface solar radiation, variations in temperature patterns, and changes in rainfall and storm systems—or determine the appropriate international regulation of global temperatures.

  • A critical shortcoming of geoengineering strategies is that they do not counter all of the effects of an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, such as unabated ocean acidification.  Carbon-capture technologies also have economic and physical limitations that suggest their implementation would be expensive, slow, and ultimately ineffective if carbon escapes back into the atmosphere.
  • Atmospheric carbon-removal technologies will require significant research and a break-through in nonfossil fuel energy sources.
  • The unilateral deployment of geoengineering technologies—even in small-scale tests—would almost certainly aggravate geopolitical tension.  The intentional unilateral manipulation of the entire global ecosystem will likely alter how people think about their relations to the natural world and to each other.

Advanced Materials and Manufacturing: Materials and manufacturing developments are directly or indirectly the core enablers of most technology advancements.  The uses of nanomaterials and metamaterials are likely to expand given the novel properties of these materials.  More electronics, and health, energy, transportation, construction, and consumer goods already have these materials than most people realize.  Nanomaterials’ ability to exhibit enhanced mechanical and electrical characteristics, as well as unique optical properties, suggest they will outperform conventional materials in many applications and revolutionize most industrial sectors.

Other advanced synthetic materials innovation will alter commodity markets if they prove useful in manufacturing and their relative cost declines.  High strength composites and plastics can replace conventional metals and create new markets.  Developed countries will have an initial economic advantage in producing and using these materials, but they will become more widely accessible over time.  Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is becoming increasingly accessible, and will be used for things not even conceived of today.   4D printing—the construction of objects that can change their form or function over time or in reaction to the environment—will also provide an economic edge to developers of commercially viable applications.

Potential Issues: Advanced materials could disrupt the economies of some commodities-dependent exporting countries, while providing a competitive edge to developed and developing countries that develop the capacity to produce and use the new materials.  New materials, such as nanomaterials, are often developed faster than their health and environmental effects can be assessed, and public concerns about the possible unknown side effects will hold back commercialization of some.  Regulations to protect against such effects could inhibit the use or spread of these materials, particularly in fields such as medicine and personal-care products.

Advances in manufacturing, particularly the development of 3D-printing from novelty to a routine part of precision production will influence global trade relations by increasing the role of local production at the expense of more-diffuse supply chains.  As a result, global labor arbitrage will have diminishing returns, as the margin saved through locating manufacturing in distant factories shrinks relative to the amount saved by using an efficient factory in an area with a lower cost of transportation.  Advanced manufacturing technologies will add to the considerable cost pressure on low-cost manufacturers and their employees, and the technologies could create a new worldwide divide, between those who have resources and benefit from new techniques and those who do not.  This bifurcation might redraw the traditional north-south divisions into new divisions based upon resource and technology availability. 3D manufacturers, however, will still need access to raw materials, electricity and infrastructure, as well as the intellectual property rights to what they produce.

Space-based technologies.  Heightened commercial interest in space and space-enabled services will improve efficiency and create new industrial applications with civil and military purposes.  China is undertaking plans for a permanent manned presence in space similar to the International Space Station, and entrepreneurs plan for manned flights to Mars.  Satellite systems—smaller, smarter, and cheaper than in the past—will bring new capabilities in remote sensing, communications, environmental monitoring, and global positioning.  Low-altitude satellites could bring internet access to the two-thirds of the population that do not currently have online connectivity.  Higher bandwidth will enable and increase availability of cloud-based services, telemedicine, and online education.

Potential Issues: Significant increases in data from remote sensors and spaced-based communications will challenge personal privacy and actors’ abilities to hide their actions.  Some states will seek to block or control data from space to protect their perceived core national interest.  Geopolitical tension will erupt over the use of highly sensitive remote sensors—once reserved to only a few states—and open transmission of data.

Key Choices

Expert opinion remains divided on new technologies’ impact on productivity and growth of measurable economic output.  Some experts argue that the world is on the cusp of a technology-driven productivity revolution, while others believe new technologies will not have a much smaller impact than the second industrial revolution, from the 1870s to the early twentieth century.  These skeptics argue the new digital technologies have had a minimal impact on transportation and energy so far and have failed to genuinely transform measured economic output for many decades.

Technology will unleash an array of positive and negative effects.  As one expert wryly observes:  “technology is the greatest cause for my optimism about the future…and my greatest cause for pessimism.”  History shows the impact of technology varies significantly depending on the user, the purpose, and the local context: geography, economics, infrastructure, culture, security and politics.  Each technological advance bears a cost—sometimes in natural resources, sometimes in social cohesion, and sometimes in hard-to-predict ways.

The ability to set international standards and protocols, define ethical limits for research, and protect intellectual property rights will devolve to states with technical leadership.  Actions taken in the near term to preserve technical leadership will be especially critical for technologies that improve human health, change biological systems, and expand information and automation systems.  Multilateral engagement early in the development cycle will reduce the risk of international tension as deployment approaches, but may be insufficient to avoid clashes as states pursue technologies and regulatory frameworks that work to their benefit.

[1] CRISPR is the acronym for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” which refers to short segments of DNA, the molecule that carries genetic instructions for all living organisms.  A few years ago, the discovery was made that one can apply CRISPR with a set of enzymes that accelerate or catalyze chemical reactions in order to modify specific DNA sequences. This capability is revolutionizing biological research, accelerating the rate at which biotech applications are developed to address medical, health, industrial, environmental, and agricultural challenges, while also posing significant ethical and security questions.