One of the main drivers of economic growth through the millennia has been technology – technologies like seed planting and the plough made the turn to agriculture possible, technologies to harness fossil fuels ignited the Industrial Revolution.
Technology has also transformed healthcare, our societies and families (think birth control pills), and the transformations just keep coming (my iPhone does more than the communicators on Star Trek!).
Looking ahead, it’s interesting to imagine what’s next – Facebook chips in our brains, perhaps, or robotic hands that turn into rocket launchers?
Clearly, I’m bad at imaging the technologies of the future, but happily you don’t have to rely on me for a peek ahead.
Recently, McKinsey interviewed Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, asking him to predict what technologies will have the greatest impact on our world in the near future. He came up with three main ones.
Traditionally, says Schmidt, our understanding of and approach to biological processes has been analogue – that is to say, we have tried to understand biology “as it happens”, and to see what effects our treatments have by testing them on people. In the future, he says, biology will go digital.
The vast amounts of data we have collected (and are collecting) on biological processes, such as the data gathered by the Human Genome Project, will be used to run simulations of biological processes that will enable us to predict how diseases will unfold for particular people, how brains will respond to particular drugs, how particular genes will affect the development of children and so on.
This will revolutionise the way we approach chronic and genetic diseases, and may even help us build better human beings using gene therapies. As populations live longer, changes to how we use data in biology may have a very dramatic impact on the quality of those now-longer lives.
Manufacturing: New materials, new methods
Here, says Schmidt, two trends are combining to transform the face of manufacturing.
First, he says, “a new set of ultrapowerful, ultralight, ultraconductive materials can now be manufactured at scale.” We don’t often think about it, but a lot of what we can do with technology is constrained by the materials we have – no lithium-ion polymer batteries would mean no iPhone.
Innovations in materials are therefore essential to general innovation, and so a lot of emphasis is placed on materials development in rich countries where innovation is key to growth. And as Schmidt says, new materials mean new possibilities for technology.
The second trend reshaping manufacturing, says Schmidt, is “the arrival of three-dimensional printing, where you can essentially build your own thing.”
Together, these two trends “mean that it’ll be possible to build very interesting things from very interesting, new materials, which have all sorts of new properties,” says Schmidt. This will transform the nature and scale of manufacturing.
This may not seem all that revolutionary, but will probably do more than anything else to change your day-to-day life. Essentially, computer processing and storage capacity is growing all the time.
If you have an Android phone, for example, and you let Google Now follow you and gather data about you, it can gather and process a lot of information and store it in Google’s massive processing arrays.
Right now, it can use this information to, say, advise you on a better route to work by monitoring traffic reports and knowing where you are and where you’re headed, but Google envisions it doing much, much more.
With enough data about you, Google (or the next similar thing) could advise you on which job to take or even who to marry – it probably knows more about your blind date than you do, after all.
This is the corollary of what observers call Big Data – when data gets big enough, a computer could “know” and “think about” more facts about you than you can, and thus theoretically know you better than you know yourself.
In the future, says Schmidt, your computer will be more like a friend and a guide than a simple tool.
Should we be afraid?
As technology marches on, there are always people who point to downsides. Digital biology, for example, raises the spectre of designer babies and people discarded for their biological imperfections (remember the film Gattaca?).
New materials mean new worries about carcinogenic chemicals, and 3-D printing means the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs.
And of course, the idea of Google knowing enough about you to recommend a spouse isn’t exactly comfortable.
It’s hard to slow the march of technology, but in democracies, we at least get to make the rules that govern their use. Being informed of what’s out there is the first step in doing so.