FutureSource

FutureSource

As biotechnology evolves, it’s easier to imagine a future where a steak dinner would be produced in the laboratory and cell parts are replicated via 3-D printerScientific American is constantly exploring these frontlines of science and innovation. And this week I moderated a thought-provoking panel exploring how biotech and ICT (information and communications technology) may reshape the coming years as part of the Atlantic Council’s “2013 Strategic Foresight Forum: Harnessing Disruption” conference on December 9 and 10.

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"...Once it may have been hard to buy the swift collapse of order that is made palpably real in 'Contagion,' if Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath had not already set the stage. ..Yet what's really scary in "Contagion" is how fast once-humming airports and offices, homes and cities empty out when push comes to shove comes to panic in the streets." -New York Times review of 'Contagion'

As if Hollywood biothrillers were not enough, in recent years we've witnessed our government's uneven management of natural and unnatural disasters, from 9/11 to Katrina to a publicly botched roll-out of a government website. On the global stage we watch helplessly as the international community struggles with the basic needs of hurricane victims in the Philippines or refugees of an endless civil war in Syria. As we peer into the future, we have every reason to feel queasy about the profound impact of the second technological revolution bearing down upon us.

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The United States could emerge as one of the biggest winners from the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR). The US is the overall leader in the development and deployment of the new technologies and innovations of the TIR. Its other advantages include relatively cheap and available energy resulting from the unconventional gas revolution in the United States. This “revolution” is providing a competitive edge for US manufacturers and is attracting foreign corporations, especially in petrochemical and other high-energy consuming industries, to relocate to the United States.

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Is the Third Industrial Revolution likely to destroy more jobs than it creates, or will the new technology powering the this revolution lead to creation of more new jobs than those are eliminated, as technology has done throughout history? Will the trend toward increasing concentration of wealth at the top continue as well? There are no certain answers to these hotly debated issues.  As they say in the mutual funds industry, past gains are no guarantee of future returns—trends continue in a linear fashion until they do not.

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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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