FutureSource



FutureSource

At Scientific American, we take it as a given that science and technology form a key underpinning for human advancement. But all anybody needs to do to be convinced about their importance is to scan today’s headlines about pressing global concerns of our finite world. Consider, for instance, the coming food-water-energy crisis, the ongoing transformation of medical care through technology, how the digital age and new technologies are shifting employment, and the increasing role of megacities as both a source of innovation and a concern as they grapple with the challenges of rapid urbanization.

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While 3D printing is changing the when, where and how of things are made in the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR), the new robotics is enhancing productivity and changing the role of humans in the production process and the overall economy. The development of a new generation of robots that are easier to program and are safer and easier for humans to interact with is making it possible for humans and robots to work alongside each other. It has become possible now to substitute robots for human labor in more manufacturing and service jobs. The new robotics extends far beyond traditional roles and forms of robots. Not only are vehicles from cars to drones to submarines becoming robotic, but digital robots are taking on tasks previously reserved only for humans.

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Synthetic biology and bioengineering are an emerging factor in the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR), building on the convergence of a wide range of technologies leading to development of new, previously unimaginable technological capabilities. While there are a huge number of potentially beneficial products of the synbio revolution, there are also growing concerns about the potential for the bioengineering of deadly viruses by error or design.

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The Revolutionary Impact of 3D Printing

The Economist has hailed 3D printing (3DP) as the foundation of the Third Industrial Revolution. 3D printing is a process of layering to make things rather than carving them out of pieces of material. Although the basic 3D printing technology was invented three decades ago, it has reached a take-off point as computer-aided design, big data, cloud computing, and new materials have combined to enhance the capability and reduce the cost of 3D printing. As President Barack Obama noted in his 2013 State of the Union address, 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

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 Politicians and policymakers understandably focus almost exclusively on near-term problems and crises. They often operate in reactive mode as hotspots and domestic political pressures set priorities. But their “global operating environment” (GOE) is rapidly changing, often in ways that affect national security challenges and choices in the present as well as in the future. To appreciate this, one need only consider the impact on the GOE over the last twenty years. The Internet has changed the personal, social, and business lives of billions of people and has created entirely new opportunities and challenges for governments. Now a new combination of factors is changing the world, possibly with a greater impact over the next two decades than the Internet has had over the last two. This is the “Third Industrial Revolution” (TIR). 

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Cities are fashionable these days, and for good reason. Global demographic shifts have been forcing a much broader awareness of urbanization’s tremendous scope and scale.

As a result, people are discovering or rediscovering the many virtues of city life, helping to spark awareness that when cities function well, they drive economic growth and technological innovation, foster culture and learning, nurture citizenship and participatory democracy, and help solve environmental problems. Recently, scholars have taken the urban case a step further, advancing the argument that because cities have virtues that the nation-state does not, cities might become primary actors within the global governance system. Benjamin Barber argues that cities induce pragmatism, citizenship, and common-sense governance, all in one fell swoop. Mayors want to cooperate with one another across national boundaries because they view transnational exchange as gains to be realized rather than conflict to be managed or avoided. It is an overstatement to claim that the nation-state is fading away as a fundamental global actor. Parag Khanna believes that the center of global politics is already shifting from nation-states to cities. Our age, he writes, “is not the first time cities, rather than nations, have been the pivotal foundations of world order.” Khanna argues that “inter-city relations” constitute the world’s most progressive form of diplomacy, in contrast to international relations.

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We do not have to predict the future in order to plan for it. The core concern of strategic foresight is not a simplistic identification of what technology we will use in twenty years, for example, but what effects technological change will have on our national interests. Understanding geopolitical and technological tides will assist policymakers and business leaders in charting out smart strategies today which hedge against unwelcome storms while capitalizing on innovation and progress. This can only be done by having conversations geared toward exploring a future of unknowable, but unavoidable possibilities and pitfalls.

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According to the US National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) Global Trends 2030 report, the earth’s population will be pushing 8.3 billion (up from 7.1 billion in 2012) by 2030. This population growth, combined with ongoing urbanization and rising incomes, will increase the world’s demand for food.

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Recent advancements in space technology and commercial space industry promise to spur a dramatic surge in space tourism and research in the coming decades. While space enthusiasts might celebrate the news by calculating whether their retirement funds can be made over as space-jump funds, the bureaucratically-inclined have a good reason to worry: the current system of international governance isn’t capable of coping with a congested orbit.

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Faced with deep cuts in its operating budget, NASA has undertaken efforts to broaden international cooperation and establish a domestic commercial space industry. With the space shuttle now retired, NASA needs a way to get large amounts of cargo and personnel into space, and private companies are the only ticket up. 

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