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Research Report

Technology Will Keep Changing Everything—and Will Do It Faster

Banning Garrett
Copyright Date: Jul. 1, 2015
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 20
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 4-6)

    Imagine the world before the Internet. Hard to do, isn’t it? Yet the Internet has been around for only two decades—just one generation—meaning that people in their thirties and older grew up in the pre-Internet era.¹ In that short time, the Internet has become nearly as pervasive as electricity. In much of the world, it is now a ubiquitous utility at home, in the office, and in the entire global fabric of economics, government, and politics.

    Smartphones are even bringing the Internet to people without access to the electricity grid who charge their phones with solar power. It...

  2. (pp. 6-6)

    It is impossible to predict what the accelerating pace of change in technology will lead to in the next twenty years. However, one already can foresee some potential technological developments by building on current technologies and trends, such as faster computers, wider and more advanced use of 3D and 4D printing, more ubiquitous robotics including autonomous vehicles, enhanced mobile computing with the individual at the center, widespread use of virtual and augmented reality, and creation of new designer organisms with biological building blocks. Far more difficult to predict are the second- and third-order, sometimes disruptive, effects of technology—social innovations...

  3. (pp. 6-8)

    Predicting how technology is developed and used—and the impact of that use—is inherently impossible and not a question of improved methods and information. Rather, it is dependent on the decisions of individuals—millions and billions of unpredictable, individual decisions. Thus, in forecasting the impact of new technology on society, the following points are important to keep in mind:

    The future is inherently unpredictable—society is not based on quantifiable and predictable Newtonian physics.

    The pace of technological change is accelerating, much of it at an exponential pace, which is likely to effect accelerated change in society.

    Much of...

  4. (pp. 7-7)

    Envision the disappearance of the Internet from life today. It is not difficult to paint a picture of economic collapse, social disarray, political upheaval, military paralysis, and extensive conflict. The Internet’s disappearance would cripple modern life, including most transportation systems, logistics and food provision, banking and financial transactions, all communications systems, and the infrastructure controlling water and electricity. In short, modern civilization would collapse into an unprecedented crisis. The world would not return to the pre-Internet era of twenty years ago but perhaps to a pre-industrial age.

    The possibility of the Internet’s sudden disappearance is not as farfetched as it...

  5. (pp. 8-8)

    Many efforts have been made to forecast the economic impact of disruptive technologies, most notably by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). In a May 2013 report, Disruptive Technologies: Advances that Will Transform Life, Business and the Global Economy, MGI examined twelve “potentially economically disruptive technologies”:¹

    Mobile Internet—increasingly inexpensive and capable mobile computing devices and Internet connectivity

    Automation of knowledge work—intelligent software systems that can perform knowledge work tasks involving unstructured commands and subtle judgments

    The Internet of Things—networks of low-cost sensors and actuators for data collection, monitoring, decision-making, and process optimization

    Cloud technology—use of computer hardware...

  6. (pp. 9-9)

    3D printing has become a disruptive technology as a result of the coming together of a set of new technologies. Basic 3D printing was invented some three decades ago, but it reached a takeoff point as other technologies combined with the layered-printing capability of a 3D printer. These include computer-aided design, cloud computing, the Internet, new materials, and huge reductions in the costs of all these capabilities, including the printers themselves. Moreover, the 3D printing revolution is the result of a wide range of businesses and individuals pursuing these technologies. Global manufacturers such as General Electric, Boeing, EADS, and Ford...

  7. (pp. 10-10)

    On the horizon is 4D printing or “programmable matter,” in which the fourth dimension is time. This will be a world in which 3D printing produces material objects that are programmed to change their form (shape) and function (capabilities) after they are created. In some cases, they can even be commanded to disassemble into microscopic, “intelligent” particles or “voxels,” and then reprogrammed to become entirely different material objects. The potential of voxels can be understood by analogy to biological life, which is composed of twenty-two building blocks—amino acids—that are directed by DNA to assemble themselves in widely differing...

  8. (pp. 10-11)

    3D printing and forthcoming 4D printing are part of a Third Industrial Revolution that is changing the way the material world is designed, manufactured, and distributed. Another key technology contributing to this revolution is new robotics, powered by a set of technologies, including information and communications technology (ICT), artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, big data, advanced algorithms, cloud computing and storage, and GPS. In fact, the new open-source Robotic Operating System (ROS), which operates sensors and actuators in the robot, relies on computation and data processing in the cloud rather than on an internal computer.

    The new robotics is...

  9. (pp. 11-13)

    Synthetic biology and bioengineering also build on the convergence of a wide range of technologies leading to the development of new, previously unimaginable technological capabilities that likely will have a wide range of second-, third-, and even fourth-order effects on society. Advances in synthetic biology, like those in 3D printing, robotics, and so many other technologies, have been enabled by a combination of a wide range of other emerging technologies. A 2013 report by the National Research Council (NRC) and National Academy of Engineering (NAE) notes that “while synthetic biology arises from a century’s work in biology and related fields...

  10. (pp. 14-16)

    The individual is increasingly the focal point of technology, both as the target of marketing campaigns and surveillance by others, and as a collector and processor of data. The individual wields ever-increasing computing and communications power on mobile devices that provide tentacles of outreach to and input from almost the entire world.25 While such power was unimaginable even a decade ago, it is only the beginning of what is likely to be possible in coming decades.

    Moreover, the individual is increasingly enmeshed in a vast and rapidly evolving milieu of technology. Billions of devices, including computers, smartphones, sensors, machines, and...

  11. (pp. 16-18)

    “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed,” science fiction writer William Gibson famously quipped two decades ago.32 He made an important point: disruptive technologies and their multiple orders of impact on society develop at different paces within societies and globally. Electric vehicles (EV), for example, are already on the road. The all-electric Tesla Model S is the highest rated automobile by Consumer Reports in history.33 Tesla currently produces only a handful of cars per year, and they cost anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000—far too expensive for most consumers. However, the Model S may be the...

  12. (pp. 18-18)

    Experts can foresee the trajectories of some technologies with a certain level of confidence. Computers will become faster, smaller, more connected, and more ubiquitous. Robots, of both the physical and digital varieties, will be increasingly ubiquitous in people’s economic and personal lives. Both the individual and the organization (whether business or the state) will have access to more digital power. 3D printing will empower the individual to become a digital-to-material creator, and the same technology will transform manufacturing and many other industries. Synthetic biology will not only impact health care and medicine but also industry and the environment. Nanotechnology will...