Many rea­sons to be ex­cited about Amer­ica’s fu­ture

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Vivek Wad­hwa VivekWad­hwa is a fel­low at Rock Cen­ter for Cor­po­rate Gov­er­nance at Stan­ford and di­rec­tor of re­search at Cen­ter for En­trepreneur­ship and Re­search Com­mer­cial­iza­tion at Duke Univer­sity.

Ev­ery 30 or 40 years, Amer­i­cans be­come in­cred­i­bly pes­simistic. They be­gin to be­lieve the na­tion is fall­ing be­hind in com­pet­i­tive­ness and in­no­va­tion, that their chil­dren will not be as well off as they them­selves have been, and that some other coun­try will own the fu­ture. They fear that the United States will go the way of the Bri­tish Em­pire in the 20th cen­tury.

This may be the coun­try’s great­est ad­van­tage, be­cause it causes it to main­tain a level of hu­mil­ity and to con­stantly rein­vent it­self. But the fears are com­pletely un­founded.

The United States is in fact in the middle of a dra­matic re­vival and re­ju­ve­na­tion, pro­pelled by an amaz­ing wave of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions. Th­ese break­throughs are de­liv­er­ing the enor­mous pro­duc­tiv­ity gains and dra­matic cost sav­ings needed to sus­tain eco­nomic growth and pros­per­ity. And they are en­abling en­trepreneurs to solve the grand chal­lenges of hu­man­ity, the prob­lems that have al­ways be­dev­iled the hu­man race: dis­ease, hunger, clean wa­ter, en­ergy, education, and se­cu­rity.

Through ad­vances in com­put­ing whose rate of ac­cel­er­a­tion Moore’s Law de­scribes, faster com­put­ers are be­ing used to de­sign faster com­put­ers. And th­ese faster com­put­ers, in turn, are mak­ing it pos­si­ble to de­sign new forms of en­ergy, smaller and more pow­er­ful sen­sors, ar­ti­fi­cial-in­tel­li­gence soft­ware that can in­ter­pret the mas­sive amounts of in­for­ma­tion that we are gath­er­ing, and ro­bots that can do the mun­dane work of hu­mans. It is even be­com­ing pos­si­ble to re­design hu­man cells and other or­gan­isms. Al­most all fields of sci­ence are be­com­ing dig­i­tized, en­abling them to start ad­vanc­ing at ex­po­nen­tial rates.

The re­ally good news is that the world will share in the pros­per­ity that this Amer­i­can reinvention is cre­at­ing.

There are 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple with no con­nec­tion to a power grid, for ex­am­ple, and

an­other 2.5 bil­lion who can get power only in­ter­mit­tently and so use fu­els such as kerosene for lamps. Kerosene is a dirty fuel that, ac­cord­ing to The Econ­o­mist, costs as much as $10 per kilo­watt-hour— which is about 50 times more than Amer­i­cans pay for their en­ergy. Worse, kerosene fires are epi­demic in Africa, and their toxic fumes cause res­pi­ra­tory ail­ments that kill hun­dreds of thou­sands per year.

This is all about to change: Within a decade and a half, we will have the abil­ity to har­ness the power of the sun and wind to pro­vide 100 per­cent of the planet’s en­ergy needs. The cost of clean en­ergy will fall to the point that it seems free. We will be able to light up ev­ery cor­ner of the globe and al­low chil­dren in Africa to be able to study when they get home, to equip all homes with heat­ing and air con­di­tion­ing, and to pro­duce un­lim­ited food and clean wa­ter.

De­sali­na­tion plants have so far strug­gled to get funded, be­cause they are power hun­gry. This makes wa­ter pro­duc­tion through de­sali­na­tion pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. When power costs de­cline by 30 to 40 per­cent, de­sali­na­tion will be­come an eco­nom­i­cal op­tion; when they ap­proach zero, which will hap­pen, coastal zones will be­come wa­ter-rich re­gions. We will be able to re­move en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing dams and trans­port wa­ter ev­ery­where.

De­spite the re­cent El Niño, Cal­i­for­nia is still suf­fer­ing from an ex­treme drought. Farm­ers and city-dwellers are fight­ing over wa­ter rights. In Sil­i­con Val­ley, some towns have dra­mat­i­cally in­creased wa­ter rates, af­fect­ing rich and poor res­i­dents alike. The doom­say­ers are warn­ing that Cal­i­for­nia will need to change for­ever and that it will need to stop grow­ing fruits, veg­eta­bles, and al­monds. With al­most free en­ergy and de­sali­na­tion, though, Sacra­mento River Delta will eas­ily af­ford to grow rice, and the San Joaquin Val­ley can grow more al­monds.

Af­ford­able smart­phones are also be­com­ing avail­able world­wide, con­nect­ing the hu­man race as never be­fore. When Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies suc­ceed in per­fect­ing their drones, bal­loons, and mi­crosatel­lites later in this decade, they will be able to blan­ket the Earth with In­ter­net ac­cess, thereby pro­vid­ing ev­ery­one with ac­cess to a sea of knowl­edge. Com­mu­ni­ties across the globe will be able to learn from each other, par­tic­i­pate in the global econ­omy, and up­lift them­selves.

With the ad­vances in ge­nomics and with health sen­sors that con­nect to smart­phones, our en­tire health care sys­temis about to be up­ended. We are mov­ing into an era of data-driven, crowd­sourced, par­tic­i­pa­tory, ge­nomics-based medicine. Just as our bath­room scales give us in­stant read­ings of our weight, devices we wear on our wrists or in­gest will mon­i­tor our health and warn us when we are about to get sick. Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel- ligence-based ap­pli­ca­tions will pre­scribe medicines or life­style changes holis­ti­cally, on the ba­sis of our full med­i­cal his­tory, habits, and ge­netic makeup.

This is a good thing, be­cause health care is a mis­nomer for our med­i­cal sys­tem: It should be called sick care. Doc­tors, hospi­tals and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies only make money when we are in bad health. The tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try, which is cre­at­ing th­ese ad­vances, is how­ever mo­ti­vated to help us pre­vent ill­ness and dis­ease and stay healthy in the first place, so we can surf the In­ter­net more and down­load more apps.

Ad­vances in ro­bot­ics and 3D print­ing will also, over the next decade, change the way in which we man­u­fac­ture prod­ucts that we use ev­ery day. Our home 3D print­ers will pro­duce our tooth­brushes, cloth­ing, and even our food. Ro­bots will soon start driv­ing our cars and stock­ing shelves in su­per­mar­kets, and will care for the el­derly and pro­vide com­pan­ion­ship.

Amer­ica is lead­ing the world in tech­nol­ogy ad­vances, but in­no­va­tion is hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where. It is an un­stop­pable force, one that will cre­ate great op­por­tu­ni­ties and dis­rup­tions. En­tire in­dus­tries will be wiped out as new ones are cre­ated. Jobs such as taxi driver and ma­chin­ist will be elim­i­nated, and a few new ones will emerge. We will find so­lu­tions to the grand chal­lenges of hu­man­ity, and ev­ery­thing will be more af­ford­able, but in­come in­equal­ity will rise be­cause the cre­ators of the new tech­nolo­gies will be the ones most to gain fi­nan­cially.

As Amer­ica turns 250 a decade from now, it is go­ing to be a time to re­flect on how far the coun­try has come and what has made it what it is. But it will be past time too to fore­see the ef­fects of tech­nol­ogy changes and to pre­pare for a fu­ture far dif­fer­ent from any­thing we have imag­ined. Any­thing is pos­si­ble, and that is why we need to change the na­tional dia­log now from one that is bogged down in pes­simism to one in which we dis­cuss how we make the most of the amaz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties ahead.

Amer­ica is lead­ing theworld in tech­nol­ogy ad­vances, but in­no­va­tion is hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where. It is an un­stop­pable force, one that will cre­ate great op­por­tu­ni­ties and dis­rup­tions.” VivekWad­hwa

Things are only go­ing to get bet­ter for Amer­ica— and the world will share in that pros­per­ity. Tser­ing Topgyal, As­so­ci­ated Press file

Res­i­dents of Bhuj, In­dia, stand in line to re­ceive ra­tions of five liters of kerosene for each per­son at a govern­ment dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter for earth­quake sur­vivors in Fe­bru­ary 2001. Kerosene is a dirty fuel that, ac­cord­ing to The Econ­o­mist, costs as much as $10 per kilo­watt-hour— which is about 50 times more than Amer­i­cans pay for their en­ergy. As­so­ci­ated Press file

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