YOU DECIDE: How will technology shape our future?

Date posted: June 7, 2013

Dr. Michael Walden is William Neal Reynolds professor of agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State University.Dr. Michael Walden is William Neal Reynolds professor of agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State University.

Media Contact: Dr. Mike Walden, 919.515.4671 or michael_walden@ncsu.edu

By Dr. Mike Walden
North Carolina Cooperative Extension

My late mother-in-law loved gadgets. As soon as she could afford it, she had to buy the latest kitchen appliance, hi-fi (remember those?) and TV. Indeed, her family was one of the first to have a color TV. My wife, who was a small girl then, watched an entire baseball game just to see the green grass. She hasn’t sat through nine-innings of baseball since.

Of course, today, we are spoiled by gadgets, especially computers, tablets and cell phones. Most of my college students can’t imagine living without them, and they wonder how their professor (me) survived the pre-tech era.

But the impact of gadgets — or technology, to use a more formal term — goes well beyond entertaining us with music and games and keeping us connected to friends and family. Economists believe that technology along with the skills and knowledge workers acquire really drive the economy and determine our standard of living. Indeed, historians have shown that it wasn’t until the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries that living standards and human well-being began to dramatically improve.

And so too will new technology help shape our future. The gadgets — to use my late mother-in-law’s term — that are invented and used will have a lot to do with how — and how well — we live.

So what can we expect out of the next inventor’s garage or lab? That’s a good question to which there are no sure answers. But there can be some fairly good educated guesses. Fortunately, the smart people at the McKinsey Global Institute, one of the leading consulting and business management firms in the world, recently released a detailed report giving their forecasts for the next wave of gadgets.

The report is comprehensive and detailed, so I can only hit the highlights here. McKinsey sees tech advances in five broad areas: information management and utilization, robotics, genomics, manufacturing and materials, and energy.

In information management and utilization, smartphones will get smarter, data storage will become bigger and cheaper and monitoring of machines, processes and people will be easier and more widespread. These improvements will help farmers monitor the weather, doctors track our vital signs, engineers keep track of road and bridge safety and businesses better predict both what and how much to produce.

Robotics might be the biggest visible change in our future world. Robots have been around for a while, but the next generation will be more agile, flexible, adaptable and probably able to learn and interact with humans. These characteristics will significantly expand their use in the workplace and everyday life. We will see increased use of these modern robots in factories, hospitals, stores and the home.

One big spin-off of the robotic technology would be “autonomous” vehicles — that is, cars and trucks that can drive themselves with no direct human operator. Futurists see big benefits from reduced accidents to better traffic coordination and saved driving time.

Genomics might be the most controversial of the new technologies because it deals with applying scientific methods and technologies to modifying living organisms, both plant and animal, including humans. Applications like DNA sequencing, synthetic biology and genetic decoding are part of genomics.

Genomics has enormous potential in anticipating and fighting disease, repairing the body from injuries and accidents and improving agricultural productivity. Of course, questions have been raised about the appropriateness and possible consequences of intervening with nature.

Advances in manufacturing and materials include 3D production, where a customized product can be built virtually anywhere using a layering technique, and nanomaterials, which are a class of materials of very small scale. Some think 3D production will revolutionize manufacturing by making products more adaptive and specific for tasks and thereby more useful. Molecular-sized nanomaterials have widespread applications in medical devices and electronics.

McKinsey sees two future advances in energy. One is in the storage of energy. For example, improved battery capacity will allow electric vehicles to have longer ranges, and this will significantly increase their usefulness and appeal. Also, electric generating plants today only store 3 to 4 percent of their electricity. Significantly increasing this rate will reduce the need for expensive and sometimes controversial power plants to be built.

McKinsey also sees big advances in techniques for safely accessing non-renewable energy (oil, natural gas) and developing cost-competitive renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.

While these expected technological advances are beyond most of our comprehension (including yours truly), they do have the potential to impact our everyday lives in many ways. The big question is, how? Unfortunately, it will likely be many years down the road before we can decide.

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Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences communications unit provides his You Decide column every two weeks. Previous columns are available at http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agcomm/news-center/tag/you-decide

Related audio files are at http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agcomm/news-center/category/economic-perspective/

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