Advanced Countries Will Benefit Most from Progress in Technology, with Lesser Benefits to Other Nations

For Release

June 1, 2006

People in advanced nations will gain the greatest economic and quality of life benefits from major progress in technology in the next 14 years, while people in the least advanced countries will benefit only if they can overcome barriers to technology implementation, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.

“Where people live will have a big impact on how new technology applications affect their personal health and standard of living, and will also play a part in determining the ability of their countries to protect them and their environment,” said Richard Silberglitt, one of the lead authors of the report.

All countries will be helped or hindered by what RAND researchers termed their “science and technology capacity.” This encompasses human capacity (such as the level of education and scientific literacy of a country's people) and physical capacity (including transport and freight infrastructures, schools, hospitals, research facilities and utilities), as well as broader dimensions such as their systems of governance, banking, law, education and health.

The study examined 29 countries selected to represent global variations in size, region of the world, and social, economic and political conditions. Researchers labeled each country's scientific ability as fitting into one of four categories: advanced, proficient, developing or lagging.

The study of the 29 countries found that by 2020:

  • IN SCIENTIFICALLY ADVANCED COUNTRIES: People in the United States and Canada, Germany (representing Western Europe), South Korea and Japan, Australia and Israel will benefit the most from advances in technology, and they will be able to exploit technology regardless of its sophistication. Examples of sophisticated applications include the possibility of: growing tissues to implant and replace human body parts; creating pervasive sensor networks in public areas to accomplish real-time surveillance; providing access to information anytime and anywhere; creating wearable computers; and using ever-smaller computational devices to do things like continuously monitor a person's health.
  • IN SCIENTIFICALLY PROFICIENT COUNTRIES: China, India, Russia and other scientifically proficient countries such as Poland (representing Eastern Europe) could also make significant advances, along with simpler ones. For example, these countries could provide their people with: drug therapies that preferentially attack specific tumors or pathogens without harming healthy tissues and cells; vastly improved medical diagnostic and surgical procedures; and application of advanced security techniques using quantum cryptography in sectors such as finance and defense.
  • IN SCIENTIFICALLY DEVELOPING COUNTRIES: Countries deemed scientifically developing – such as Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, South Africa and Chile – are poised to take advantage of modestly sophisticated technology applications, including: devices to constantly track the movement of everything from products to people; easy-to-use health diagnostic tests that give immediate results for a large range of infections; and environmentally friendly manufacturing methods.
  • IN SCIENTIFICALLY LAGGING COUNTRIES: At the lowest end in terms of capacity to implement technology applications are countries – represented by Fiji, the Dominican Republic, Georgia, Nepal, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, Cameroon and Chad – that are burdened by problem-plagued political systems, a lack of resources or infrastructure, and class disparities. However, when such countries have the will to make changes and make a concerted effort to eliminate barriers and support drivers to technology implementation, they can improve the lives of their citizens. Advances they can exploit include: cheap solar energy for remote or portable applications; ways to purify water that won't require major infrastructure; and rural wireless communications.

As in the past, some scientific advances will be controversial for environmental, cultural, privacy, religious, or other concerns and thus may not take hold even if technically feasible, the study says. For example, radio-frequency identification tagging, which is used to track everything from products to people, has already raised questions of privacy that could limit its use.

After substantial study of the technical and non-technical literature and discussion with experts in the United States and abroad, researchers identified 56 illustrative technology applications that could take hold by 2020. Each of these was assessed in view of its potential influence on critical sectors of society such as food, water, population, governance, economic development, energy, health, environment, and defense. Researchers then came up with criteria to test each country's ability to implement and exploit technological advances.

Other study findings include:

  • China and India are leading the group of “scientifically proficient” countries, yet they need to continue making progress in financial institutions, legal and policy issues, rural infrastructure, environmental protection, research and development investments, rural education and literacy, and governance and stability if they are to advance.
  • Because of the rapid pace of technological development, if scientifically advanced countries are to stay ahead “they will need to ensure that laws, public opinion, investment in research and development, and education and literacy are drivers for, and not barriers to, technology implementation.”
  • The two countries best positioned to close the gap with the scientifically advanced group – China and India – are perhaps the most talked-about nations in terms of growing economic power. The ability to adapt new technologies in these nations supports their emergence as military as well as economic powers.

Other authors of the report are, Philip S. Antón, David R. Howell, and Anny Wong, with additional contributions by S.R. Bohandy, Natalie Gassman, Brian A. Jackson, Eric Landreee, Shari Lawrence Pfleeger, Elaine M. Newton and Felicia Wu, all of RAND.

The report was produced by the RAND National Security Research Division for the National Intelligence Council, which is the U.S. intelligence community's center for mid- and long-term strategic thinking. The council provides the president of the United States and other senior policymakers with analyses of national security and foreign policy issues.

The RAND National Security Research Division conducts research and analysis for clients including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, defense agencies and the U.S. intelligence community.

Printed copies of “Global Technology Revolution 2020, In-Depth Analyses: Bio/Nano/Materials/Information Trends, Drivers, Barriers, and Social Implications" (ISBN: 0-8330-3946-6) and an executive summary (ISBN: 0-8330-3910-5) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.