Saturday, April 19, 2014

Technology Revoultions, Today and Tomorrow

Timothy Taylor, in this blog Conversable Economist, has an interesting post on the length of the long waves of technological innovation that come from the introduction of major new technological systems. He highlights the replacement of mules by tractors in the United States over a 50 year period. During that long period, tractor designs got better, sales and maintenance networks expanded, fuel became more available, and farmers learned how to use the tractors; mules correspondingly become less competitive on a financial basis. I suppose farms got bigger as mechanized farmers could handle bigger farms. He does not measure the introduction of hybrid crops and continued increases in use of inputs, which also led to higher costs of farming and higher profits.

His second example is the diffusion of electrical power.

He points out that in the Paris Expo of 1890, large scale electric lighting was demonstrated, as were many electrical devices. Still it took decades for factories to introduce electric motors for their many machines, and decades for the extension of the electrical grid to all homes. Part of the delay of course was in the design, development and commercialization of electrical equipment for factories and homes. So too, there was a natural process in which most people waited to see others experiment with the new technology and prove it useful before they too invested in electrification.

Taylor makes the point that the Information Revolution may have some time to run. Computers have been around since World War II, but they continue to become more and more cost efficient. The Internet has been around for decades, but we expect to see the Internet of things provide new growth. Mobile phones are just the most recent aspect of the development of telecom technology, but the linkage of mobile phones and the Internet is creating a huge market for apps and new apps will be transforming traditional sectors. All of course are dependent on the transistors and chips, and the revolution in transistor technology is continuing.
Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
Niels Bohr
What other technological revolutions are going on now, or can we expect to heat up within the next few years.

  • Biological technologies: genetic engineering and other aspects of biotechnology, with the addition of genomics will continue to contribute to agriculture, forestry, and medicine. Indeed, one might expect new industrial applications, applications in mining, etc.
  • Robotics and the application of computer control, computer aided design and computer controlled manufacturing, together with 3D printing should continue to change manufacturing, and should expand into other fields (such as housework).
  • Nanotechnology, exploring the properties of tiny devices and nano-scale behavior of materials should spawn new devices, and thus new industries to produce those devices. Of course, electronics is already heavily committed to manufacturing devices that take advantage of nano-scale devices and nano-scale phenomena.
  • The technology of neurobiology. Of course medicine is already using some scanners and some drugs, but the science is developing rapidly, and I expect to see many inventions arising from our new knowledge of the brain and nervous system that will not only improve mental health, and provide help for people with neurological disabilities, but which may also enhance normal abilities.
  • Remote sensing and space technology: unmanned vehicles in the air, on land and in the sea will be used increasingly to obtain information, and computers will be used to analyze the heavy flow of that information, providing much more information on the world. As space technology improves, new applications will be found.

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