An uber-optimistic outlook on the future

To his credit, Azhar deserves to be aware of the problems that stem from the rapid change brought about by these technologies, especially what he calls the “exponential gap.” Big tech corporations like Amazon and Google have gained great wealth and power from technologies. But other companies and many institutions and communities “can only adapt at a steady pace,” he writes. “They’ll leave — and quickly.”

But his enthusiasm remains evident.

For Azhar the story began in 1979, when he was seven years old in Zambia and a neighbor brought home a build-it-yourself computer kit. He then recounts the familiar, though still gripping, history of how the first products started the PC revolution (an interesting side note is his description of the often lost-in-history Sinclair ZX81 — his first computer, bought for £ 69 two years ago after his family moved to a small town outside London). We know the rest. The explosion of PCs — young Azeem and his family later graduated with the Acorn BBC Master, a popular UK home computer — led to the World Wide Web, and now our lives are being changed by in artificial intelligence.

It is hard to doubt the argument that computing technologies have advanced so much. Moore’s Law defines such growth for generations of technologists. This means, as Azhar points out, that in 2014 the cost of a transistor was only a few billion dollars, compared to about $ 8 in the 1960s. And that’s changing everything, fueling the rapid rise of the internet, smartphones, and AI.

Significant to Azhar’s claim for the dawn of a new age, however, is that a much broader set of technologies is reflecting this exponential growth. Economists call fundamental developments with broad economic impact “general purpose technologies”; think steam engine, electricity, or internet. Azhar suspects that cheap solar power, bioengineering techniques such as synthetic biology, and 3D printing can only be technologies.

He acknowledged that some of these technologies, especially 3D printing, are relatively immature but argued that as prices fall, demand will grow rapidly and the technologies will evolve and find markets. Azhar concludes: “In short, we are approaching an age of abundance. The first period in human history where energy, food, computation, and many resources could be very cheap to produce. We can meet the current needs of the people many times over, by constantly reducing the cost of the economy. ”

Look. But frankly, such uber-optimism requires a huge leap of faith, in the future power of technologies and in our ability to use them effectively.

Slow growth

Our best measure of economic growth is productivity growth. Specifically, total factor productivity (TFP) measures the role of innovation, including management practices and new technologies. This is not a perfect gauge. But for now, it is the best measure by which we can estimate the impact of technologies on wealth and standard of living in a country.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, TFP growth has been slow in the US and many other advanced countries (this is even worse in the UK), despite the emergence of our brilliant new technologies. That slowdown came after years of U.S. growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when computers and the internet increased productivity.

No one is sure what caused the tragedy. Perhaps our technologies are not nearly as changing the world as we think, at least compared to previous innovations. The father of techno-pessimism in mid-2010, Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon, famously showed his viewers images of a smartphone and toilet; what do you want Or maybe we just don’t get the economic benefits of social media and free online services. But the most likely answer is the same that many businesses and institutions are not adopting new technologies, especially in sectors such as health care, manufacturing, and education.

Technologies that impress us so much, such as synthetic biology and 3D printing, have been around for decades. The pipeline needs constant refreshing.

This is not a reason for pessimism. Maybe it will take a while. Erik Brynjolfsson, a Stanford economist and a leading digital technology expert, predicts that we are at the beginning of a “future productivity boom. ” He argues that most of the world’s advanced economies are almost below a J-productivity curve. Many businesses are still struggling with new technologies, such as AI, but as they improve to take advantage of the advances, overall productivity growth will improve.

This is an optimistic take. But it also suggests that the path to many new technologies is not a simple one. Things are in demand, and markets are volatile. You have to look at why people and businesses want innovation.

Take synthetic biology. The idea is as simple as it gets: rewrite the genetic code of microorganisms, whether bacteria or yeast or algae, so they can produce the chemicals or materials you want. The dream wasn’t exactly new at the time, but in the early 2000s promoters including Tom Knight, an MIT computer scientist turned biologist, helped popularize it, especially with investors. Why not consider biology as a simple engineering challenge?

With large fermentation vats of these programmed microbes, you can make plastics or chemicals or even fuels. Oil is no longer needed. Just feed them sugar extracted from, say, sugar cane, and you can produce whatever you need.

In the late 2000s several startups, including Amyris Biotechnologies and LS9, engineered the genetics of microbes to produce hydrocarbon fuel intended to replace gasoline and diesel. Synthetic biology, it seems, is about to change transportation. But in a few years, the dream is usually dead. Amyris now focuses on making ingredients for skin creams and other beauty products for consumers. LS9 sold its assets in 2014.

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