Commentators seem so locked into the aftermath of the Financial Crisis of 2007/8 that they are in danger of overlooking a series of developments that have the potential to change everything. Historically, economic growth has been fuelled by advances in productivity. As workers became more productive, they could earn higher wages. New technology, now emerging in several areas will spur increases in productivity as well as transform people's lives:
Autonomous electric transport
Self-driving transport powered by electricity will transform most people’s lives. The interiors of cars need not look they have done for decades, with people in forward-facing seats. People might face each other, or have the interiors kitted out as offices or small living rooms, as people choose to do other things than driving. Road crash fatalities and injuries will fall dramatically. Commuting times will fall, and the hassle of commuting will be much diminished.
Commercially the cost of freight transport by road and sea will fall as autonomously driven vehicles become the norm, raising productivity and enabling higher living standards. The same will probably be true of air transport, both freight and passenger, as autonomy and electric power take over. Electricity, powered by fracked gas and solar, will be very cheap. The use of fossil fuels, petrol, diesel, and aviation fuels, will rapidly diminish to near zero.
For almost 3 million years homo sapiens has moved in two dimensions, forward, back, left and right. This is about to change dramatically as people-carrying drones become a reality, and people move in three dimensions. Aircraft did this only to a very limited extent, taking people in groups to pre-set destinations, but drones will achieve it for individuals. Drones will be used for delivery and freight, but the big change will come when they transport people. For decades people have dreamed of flying cars, imagining cars that would sprout wings and take off like planes. Vertical lift drones have changed that, with passengers not required to possess a pilot’s licence since the vehicles will be autonomously driven.
The complexity of controlling traffic in 3 dimensions and avoiding collisions is beyond human skills, but it will be done my machines that react faster and detect potential hazards long before humans could. Traffic jams will be dramatically reduced, as will travel times, and the architecture of city buildings will change to accommodate this development.
Genetically modified organisms have the capacity to transform agriculture and medicine. GM cops can be developed to fertilize themselves by fixing atmospheric nitrogen and to incorporate genes that make them resistant to pests without the need for pesticides. They can be modified to thrive in hitherto infertile lands, such as those afflicted by drought or salinity. They can produce increased crop yields. In short, they herald a second Green Revolution.
In medicine genetic modification has the capacity to remove inherited diseases in the womb, before the child is even born. GM organisms can be used to treat hitherto intractable diseases. CRISPR editing can be used to remove errors in DNA that lead to illnesses or disabilities. It could theoretically be used to alter the genes that cause undesirable traits such as arthritis or dementia to develop.
When the first lab-grown burger, partly funded by Sergey Brin, was unveiled in 2013, it had cost $230,000 to produce. That cost had fallen to $11 by 2017, and is still falling. Cultured meats are produced from a few cells of the animals, fed with nutrients. This technique can be used to generate muscle, fat and blood, and very soon scientists will achieve the means to develop texture, so that the cultured meat will look, taste and chew like the real thing.
This will lead to an agricultural revolution. For 12,000 years people have practiced animal husbandry. As the cost of cultured meats falls below the cost of animal-produced meats, the millions of acres of arable land given over to sheep, cattle and other livestock will become free for other uses. This will change the physical appearance of most countries. It will greatly improve the diet of poorer people across the world, and eliminate the diseases that can accompany meat, as well as the antibiotic resistance in bacteria caused by the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
Machines that can emulate human intelligence, but can apply it very much faster, taking in many times more data, are already with us. Their future development will transform many fields of human endeavour. People have pointed out that data trawling, as in police or legal operations, can be mechanized at a thousand times the speed and a fraction of the cost. This will impact upon medical diagnosis, with machine intelligence sorting through seemingly innocuous symptoms to give early warning of disease.
It will reduce the asymmetry of information to make markets more efficient as AI makes public the information concealed within trading movements. It will enable autonomous, self-driving, transport. A major use will be in education, where intelligent programs will give each child an individual tutor, with a class size of one, to bring each child to the maximum of its potential and at a pace it can cope with. The impact upon productivity will be immense.
These five developments are each game changers. Each one has the potential to transform the economy and society. In combination they will change the world into one where humans are more productive than ever before, can enjoy a lifestyle undreamed of in history, and offer opportunities for people to lead more rewarding and fulfilling lives. The drawback is fear, and the possibility that regulation will be applied by governments to hold back the unfolding future and keep the world back to one they think they can control.
Fortunately there is no world government, and the countries that embrace and encourage these developing technologies will reap the benefits, even if others try to restrain them. We are stepping into an ever-changing river, and new waters are set to flow about us.