Crests and troughs in the market are natural components of capitalism. But sitting at the bottom of a trough can shield future prospects from view. In an Opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Mark Mills and Julio Ottino delineate three technological revolutions (big data, smart manufacturing and wireless technology) with the power to transform the century.
Information technology has entered a big-data era. Processing power and data storage are virtually free. A hand-held device, the iPhone, has computing power that shames the 1970s-era IBM mainframe. The Internet is evolving into the “cloud”—a network of thousands of data centers any one of which makes a 1990 supercomputer look antediluvian. From social media to medical revolutions anchored in metadata analyses, wherein astronomical feats of data crunching enable heretofore unimaginable services and businesses, we are on the cusp of unimaginable new markets.
Engineers will soon design and build from the molecular level, optimizing features and even creating new materials, radically improving quality and reducing waste.
Devices and products are already appearing based on computationally engineered materials that literally did not exist a few years ago: novel metal alloys, graphene instead of silicon transistors (graphene and carbon enable a radically new class of electronic and structural materials), and meta-materials that possess properties not possible in nature; e.g., rendering an object invisible—speculation about which received understandable recent publicity.
This era of new materials will be economically explosive when combined with 3-D printing, also known as direct-digital manufacturing—literally “printing” parts and devices using computational power, lasers and basic powdered metals and plastics. Already emerging are printed parts for high-value applications like patient-specific implants for hip joints or teeth, or lighter and stronger aircraft parts. Then one day, the Holy Grail: “desktop” printing of entire final products from wheels to even washing machines.
The implications of the radical collapse in the cost of wireless connectivity are as big as those following the dawn of telegraphy/telephony. Coupled with the cloud, the wireless world provides cheap connectivity, information and processing power to nearly everyone, everywhere. This introduces both rapid change—e.g., the Arab Spring—and great opportunity. Again, both the launch and epicenter of this technology reside in America.
The American culture is particularly suited to times of tumult and challenge. Culture cannot be changed or copied overnight; it is a feature of a people that has, to use a physics term, high inertia. Ours is distinguished by incontrovertibly powerful features, namely open-mindedness, risk-taking, hard work, playfulness, and, critical for nascent new ideas, a healthy dose of anti-establishment thinking. Where else could an Apple or a Steve Jobs have emerged?
It’s all too easy to get caught in the doom and gloom or rough economic times with less than inviting job prospects. The mechanisms of innovation are running perpetually and as these aforementioned technologies are just waiting to be developed, challenged and extended. Even if the writers are wrong, there seeds of revolutions to come sprouting as we speak.