NDRI Pentagon Briefing: Where Will the Technology Revolution Have Taken Us by 2015?

On October 20, 2000, NDRI briefed the Pentagon about some amazing technological breakthroughs that could significantly change life as we know it by 2015. Entitled "The Global Technology Revolution: Bio/Nano/Materials Trends and their Synergies with Information Technology by 2015," the briefing was presented by RAND researcher Philip Antón as part of NDRI's bimonthly Pentagon seminar series. 

Dr. Antón described research that was conducted for a foresight project sponsored by the National Intelligence Council. Researchers engaged in a foresight project that, unlike studies predicting a single future state or timeline, instead examined technology trends and analytical indicators to identify a range of future developments. The objective of this particular project was to take a quick look at global technology trends and their social, economic, political and personal implications for the world in 2015. Researchers gleaned and balanced future trends from existing outlooks, testimonies, and foresights, providing collective opinions and points-of-view from a broad spectrum of individuals. 

They found that, beyond the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the past, a broad, multi-disciplinary technology revolution is currently changing the world. The revolutionary effects on human health may be the most startling as breakthroughs improve both the quality and length of human life. Biotechnology will enable us to identify, understand, manipulate, improve, and control living organisms (including ourselves). Information technology is already revolutionizing our lives, especially in the developed world. Smart materials, agile manufacturing, and nanotechnology will facilitate these impacts by changing the way we produce devices and improving their capabilities. 

The technology revolution will continue well into the future and result in the development of new devices with unforeseen capabilities that previously seemed to exist only in the realm of science fiction. 

Technology Trends 

The researchers found that numerous multidisciplinary trends have a high potential for significant global impacts. 

  • Genomics. The ability to map and manipulate genes is increasing. New drugs and therapies that target disease-causing genes are already emerging from the fields of genomics and proteomics (the branches of science that determine what human genes do). Genetic modification of food could lead to better nutrition in poverty-stricken countries by improving the yield, drought tolerance, and pest resistance of certain crops. Challenges include ethical concerns and technical hurdles in understanding protein regulation and synthesis from genetic codes. 

  • Cloning. Cloning, which manipulates cells to produce genetically identical living organisms, could provide significant medical benefits to humanity, including the use of animals to produce drugs and other medically important substances. Through cloning and genetic engineering, scientists have already produced sheep and pigs with the hope of providing donor organs and tissues to humans. By 2015, cloning may be commonplace if challenges such as developmental and morphological irregularities can be addressed. 

  • Biomedical Engineering. Biomedical engineering is an interdisciplinary domain which links many disciplines such as engineering, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, materials and psychology. Scientists in this field use technology and materials to better understand human biology and create methods and devices to treat and cure diseases. Scientists are already using computer technology to construct simulations of human organs to test new therapies. Eventually, developments in biomedical engineering are likely to lead to the ability to create organic and artificial organs, materials, and bionics that will replace diseased or missing organs, tissue, and appendages. 

  • Smart Materials. Devices that incorporate "smart materials" (materials with intrinsic sensing and actuating capabilities) are already emerging from research labs. Their sensing capabilities are exploited in such commercial devices as automotive airbag controls and miniature blood-pressure devices. Their actuating capabilities extend the functionality of sensors by allowing them to respond, for example, to the environment with applications of force or modified structures. Researchers and scientists are exploring and attempting to develop applications for devices such as self-repairing cars or printers, adaptive clothing, need-based drug delivery systems, toxic material sensors, and other adaptive structures. 

  • Agile Manufacturing. Developments in fast-response product design and "just-in-time" production will revolutionize manufacturing. The integration of computer-aided design (CAD) with rapid forming techniques and agile robots will greatly facilitate conceptualization, customization, design, and global production of products and services while speeding time-to-market. 

  • Nanofabricated computation devices. Exponentially smaller, faster, and cheaper semiconductor devices that have fueled information technology will continue to 2015 as the transistor gate length shrinks to the 20-35 nanometer scale. This trend will increase the availability of low-cost computing and enable the development of ubiquitous embedded sensors and computational systems in consumer products, appliances, and living environments. Beyond 2015, however, serious limitations in these traditional semiconductor techniques will force a turn to other approaches that are currently being researched, such as molecular (chemical or DNA-based) electronics, organic electronics, quantum computing, or completely new, unforeseen computing paradigms. However, significant advances will be needed in these areas to make them globally viable. 

  • Integrated Microsystems. Over the next 5-10 years, chemical, fluidic, optical, mechanical, and biological components will be integrated with computational logic to form low-cost microsystems. Instrumentation and measurement (especially in biotechnology, chemical synthesis, and ubiquitous sensors) will be greatly enhanced. Entire systems, such as satellites and diagnostic equipment, will be built at a fraction of the cost of current macroscale systems, moving sensors and information processing closer together. 

While these technological trends exhibit synergy and are influencing and enabling each other, the maturity and impacts of each trend vary. For example, progress in genetics is already leading to the development of significant applications, many of which are stirring controversy. Materials and manufacturing breakthroughs are less visible but are key enablers of other fields of development. Nanotechnology trends are mixed between well-developing semiconductor and microsystem technologies, and others that rely on more uncertain basic research developments. 

Social, Economic, Political, and Personal Issues and Impacts 

The researchers noted that while the technology revolution will expand significantly by 2015, its effects are not proceeding without issue and controversial impact. Various ethical, economic, legal, environmental, safety, and other social concerns and decisions must be addressed as the world's population comes to grip with the potential impact these trends may have on their cultures and lives. The most significant issues may be: 

  • Bioethics. Biotechnology appears to raise the most controversy. Protests have already erupted over moral and ethical issues surrounding human cloning and the use of stem cells from human embryos to treat disease. Widespread fear over genetically modified foods is spreading across the globe and may suppress further developments in this area. The ability to genetically manipulate species also raises the real concern that human eugenics programs will be initiated. 

  • Privacy. Breakthroughs such as DNA analysis and genetic profiling are already raising privacy concerns. The ability to collect detailed biological information about a person, including their genetic predisposition to certain diseases, invokes certain issues and uncertainties. For example, workers could be denied employment or insurance based on genetic predispositions. 

  • Economic Disparity. New classes and new class disparities are already evident as the economic gap increases between "new economy" knowledge workers and industries, and "old economy" manufacturing workers and companies. Companies and workers that cannot keep up with new technologies will be replaced by those who can. 

  • Cultural Threats and Reactions. New technologies will foster continued globalization. The continued expansion of the Internet and e-commerce (which is currently dominated by English-speaking, Western cultures), will facilitate the current global spread of western culture. Certain societies may perceive this as a threat to their traditional values and cultural identity. 

The technology revolution will not be uniform in its effect but will play out differently on the global stage based on its acceptance, investment, and a variety of other decisions. There will be no turning back, however, since some societies will avail themselves of the revolution, and globalization will thus change the environment in which each society lives. The world is in for significant change as these advances play out on a global stage.