As the Future Catches You
FUTURECASTS online magazine
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1/1/02.
An educational primer on the technological revolution:
| This primer presents the technological prospects for
the 21st century - primarily in information technology and genomics. The book emphasizes the pace and manner in which
developments in information technology and bioscience are explosively
The primer is designed to attract the interest of the disinterested, alert the unaware and, hopefully, stimulate thought and discussion among students and other readers.
The book provides a wealth of concepts, facts and context with an odd
page format designed to attract the interest of the disinterested, alert the
unaware and, hopefully, stimulate thought and discussion among students and
other readers. Because of its page layout, it is much shorter than its 228
pages, and much snappier than most books on the subject. Coverage is general,
but endnotes provide access to more depth for those who wish to go further.
Juan Enriquez of the Harvard Business School provides a paean to accelerating technological change - with all its economic threat and promise.
Governance, education and technology all must work together for optimum economic results.
The book emphasizes the economic impacts of the
technological revolution, but Enriquez is clearly more interested in the
technological and educational factors than the economic factors. From the start,
he stresses the economic need for technology and education, but leaves until the
penultimate chapter the obvious imperative of modern governance and a commercial
environment that facilitates commerce and encourages entrepreneurial enterprise.
Thus, there is a failure of essential context in the first 200 pages of the
In a typical segment, Enriquez points out that nations like the Philippines and Burma (now Myanmar) that were once the wealthiest per capita in Asia, didn't stay abreast of the digital revolution and today are among the poorest and most hopeless.
Synergy of the digital and genomic codes:
| The digital
revolution has already come and matured, Enriquez points out. The next wave
of progress will be built on the genetic code as added to the digital code. It
is genetics that will be the technology that drives 21st century development.
The author outlines many of the pertinent efforts currently under way, and the commercial prospects already visible as of the year 2000. We are just starting to explore the new map of the human genome - available on the internet since Feb. 12, 2001.
Now, with nanotechnology added to genomics,
proteomics, biocomputing, and standard information technology - and advances in
other fields like lasers, combinatorial chemistry, and robotics - "each
field reinforces and accelerates discoveries in each of its neighbors."
Enriquez points out that many nations - especially China and Japan - that were once among the world's wealthiest and most powerful - and most inventive and technologically advanced - nevertheless eventually fell behind - "Because they did not trust their own people."
The per capita gap between the richest and poorest nations rose to 390-to-1 from 5-to-1 because of the industrial revolution, Enriquez points out. Because of the information technology and genetics revolutions, the gap will soon be in excess of 1000-to-1.
Nevertheless, he dramatically demonstrates the fallacy of
the myth that real wages
stagnated or fell in the quarter century after 1972. He reviews many of the products and
services that were first introduced or that dramatically increased in quality or
decreased in cost - and were far more widely distributed - even in working class
households - during that period.
Economic impact of knowledge industries:
The fast track out of poverty is education, Enriquez asserts. He emphasizes that knowledge industries now create the most new wealth and grow the fastest. He concentrates on education as the key policy factor in modern prosperity. (Here, as above pointed out, he is not wrong, but he overstates his case.)
Already, there is great churning as industries, businesses and individuals rise and fall on the waves of technological change. Enriquez points out that - in the U.S. - only 3 families of the richest 10 in the 1980s are still in that group today (Walton, Buffett, Kluge). In Europe and Latin America, most of the wealthiest people are the beneficiaries of inherited wealth. In the U.S., NONE of the 10 wealthiest people inherited the bulk of their wealth. Yet, 6 of the 10 wealthiest people in the world are - or were in 1999 - American. There were none in 1990.
Africa - with its commodity based economies - is now irrelevant and is being left to its fate. This could happen to Latin America, too, if failed economic policies are not changed.
Enriquez (like FUTURECASTS) expects inequality to vastly increase between those individuals and economies that stay abreast of technological change and those that don't. "In the age of information, hard work, by itself, is not sufficient."
It never really was. Hard work has always been demanded and poorly compensated in nations with poorly run economic and governance systems.
Africa - with its commodity based economies - is now irrelevant and is being left to its fate. This could happen to Latin America, too, if failed economic policies are not changed. Despite soaring populations and consumption rates, commodity prices have declined 80% in the last 150 years. Nations that depend on the production of commodities are in trouble.
"Rich countries no longer need great deposits of gold or diamonds ---
Or an abundance of land ---
Or millions of people ---
They need to educate their people ---
NO MORE ---
They need smart and entrepreneurial people ---
NO LESS ---
They need a government that provides economic and political stability."
He cites Winston Churchill: "The empires of the future are the empires of the mind."
The economic growth rates of nations that obtain less than 100 U.S. patents per year are compared with those that obtain thousands of patents. Major Latin American nations are compared with South Korea. While Korea grew and prospered, the Latin American economies struggled. The Latin American nations had "little new knowledge to sell - and little economic growth." Twelve nations generated 95% of all U.S. patents in 1999. The rest "are going to have trouble keeping up --- as technology and knowledge turbocharge economic growth."
Per capita, the U.S. generates almost 33% more patents than the second best nation - Japan. It generates 60% more than Switzerland, 100% more than Taiwan, 175% more than Canada, 200% more than Germany. Other nations are not even in this ball game. From this, the author asserts: "It is not hard to predict who gets rich --- and who gets poor."
The U.S. produces about 500% more patents per capita than France or England, and the spread with Singapore is even much greater, but these nations are unlikely to become "poor." Wealth through commerce will not become obsolete. Europe will continue to prosper, although rigidities in its commercial and labor markets will slow it down.
The author gets around to some of the commercial aspects of the wealth creation story when he writes about the brain drain. The best researchers and entrepreneurs are moving towards those nations where they find "information - challenges - respect - people - funds." They move to nations with economic systems that facilitate commerce and entrepreneurial enterprise.
MIT alumni and faculty - many of whom are foreigners who have chosen to stay in the U.S. - have founded more than 4,000 companies - generating over $230 billion in yearly sales.
"In a borderless world ---
Those who do not educate ---
And keep their citizens ---
Will lose most intellectual wars."
If a nation depends more on commodity exports than on value added exports, it "remains vulnerable to commodity cycles." (Value added products also have their business cycles - as periodic "tech wrecks" amply demonstrate.)
Japanese companies generated almost 20% of all U.S. patents in 1999 - and Japan has a very favorable trade surplus with the U.S. and maintains very high living standards. (However, its economy remains in deepening trouble - now for a decade. Enriquez is apparently not familiar with the weaknesses of mercantilist policies.)
Enriquez correctly points out that the technological revolution adds unequally to the productivity of various economic and commercial activities - and thus can only generate more inequality even though all can benefit in absolute terms. He frets that this will cause those left behind to abandon the capitalist "economic model."
Where can they go? Most of their problem is due to the ineffective economic policies that already burden their economic systems. Moving further away from effective capitalist practices can only make matters much worse for them.
At any rate, inequality is much overrated as a cause of discontent. Most people are not that envious - as long as they feel their own material conditions are improving over time. They are certainly not as envious as egalitarian ideologues would like them to be. Indeed, no policies can more quickly destroy a favorable environment for technological advance and entrepreneurial endeavor than egalitarian policies.
Data drives empires:
Everything is going digital. TV, pagers, radio, newspapers, telephones, photography: This is the latest evolution of the linguistic capacity to transmit information.
Societies that do not participate in the genomics revolution will fall further behind.
The simpler the alphabet, the more efficient it has been as a transmitter of information, Enriquez points out. Now, a two letter alphabet - consisting of just 1s and 0s - comprises the most simple alphabet ever devised. It is also by far the most accurate and efficient transmitter of information ever devised. It is already the world's main language.
Things change very rapidly in this digital world. Microsoft and AOL are among the youngest - and already among the most valuable - companies in the world. However, even they are not guaranteed of survival in this digital world. (Only the paranoid survive!)
"The power of technology - - -
to build ---
and destroy ---
is such ---
that it is likely ---
few of us have ever heard ---
the name of what will be the world's largest company ---
That's because, as powerful as the digital language may be, the language of genetics will be more powerful still. "Genetic engineering" is so powerful that it has stimulated passionate debate over its use and misuse. However, knowledge of genetics has already made possible the feeding - abundantly for the most part - of a human population now in excess of 6 billion. Enriquez' outlines the current developments, characteristics and prospects in modern genomics. He warns that societies that do not participate in the genomics revolution will fall further behind.
Biosciences and Bioengineering:
The genome is by far "the world's most powerful and compact coding and information-processing system." Vast sums are now being dedicated to harnessing this type of power. Computers are being designed to act as clusters of individual cells - working in parallel to solve problems - and working around or "fixing" their own problems.
"Bioinformatics" and "Biocomputing" are fields experiencing explosive growth.
Biochips using relevant bits of DNA may soon be able to test for over 100,000 genetic conditions. Computer chips the size of quarters are becoming specialized chemistry labs.
The combination of genomics and digital technology is unleashing "an avalanche of knowledge." Gene maps of basic life forms allow us to more quickly learn about them. We are now learning the genomes of some of the most debilitating and deadly diseases. We are going to be able to control the evolution of species - including our own.
Millions of genetic patents have already been issued, as have patents on over 100 genetically modified animals. It requires super computers just to contain and make available the flood of data. Fortunately, computer capacity and capabilities continue to increase geometrically. This formidable capacity is now being harnessed for biological research. "Bioinformatics" and "Biocomputing" are fields experiencing explosive growth.
At Harvard, a brilliant, passionate corps of engineers, physicists, molecular biologists, physicians and graduate students is "trying to make sense of the 100 terabytes of data that come out of gene labs yearly." They attempt to predict in advance what the results of laboratory experiments will find. They provide information about biology - they do not provide the biology itself.
Celera - a private company - started ten years later than the government effort - spent less than 10% as much as the government effort - and beat the government in sequencing the human genome. Celera is also much faster and more efficient in performing the vital follow-on work. The government effort was "trampled by the speed of change." The knowledge economy is different. "It is a scary time for the establishment."
Celera, too, sells information about biology. It doesn't produce the products of biological research. It is riding the wave of digital-genomics convergence.
Another gold rush involves the development of new biochips using relevant bits of DNA that may soon be able to test for over 100,000 genetic conditions. Computer chips the size of quarters are becoming specialized chemistry labs.
Personalized medicine will be able to distinguish in advance the people who can be helped from the people who may be hurt by particular drugs - permitting the use of many drugs with beneficial characteristics that were previously too dangerous to approve. For example, Thalidomide may be helpful in treating such diseases as leprosy, cancer, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bone disease, and tuberculosis. Preventive medicine will become a much greater part of medical practice as people learn about their disease vulnerabilities.
"Medicine is going to change --- fast."
"Most medicine still treats mostly symptoms."
"Today's medicine ---
Will seem like voodoo ---
To our grandkids."
Today, modern medicine still labors under a lot of myths that are going to be exploded. (There is probably no field that is free of the scourge of authoritative myths.)
| Now, examination is moving on to the proteins
coded by the genes. The task is to learn "how tens of thousands of genes
code the million-plus proteins that regulate our lives daily."
Celera is now attempting to code all proteins and their
interactions. They are using newer, vastly more powerful computers to define
about a million proteins and tens of millions of distinct expressions of these
proteins. A process that used to take several man-years for each protein now
speeds along on Beta machines from PE Biosystems which each unravel as many as
30,000 protein structures per day. Celera is procuring 100 of these computers.
Education's failing grades:
| The failure of American education
is highlighted - with special attention to the failures in science education.
That failure is especially damaging to certain minorities - African Americans
and Hispanics - while Asian American minorities do well in science education and
continue to thrive.
The economic future rests with the educated - and especially those educated in science and technology. Without technology, Africa and Latin America fall further and further behind, and all other economic reforms are fatally flawed.
In Latin America, Hispanic intellectuals remain
interested in such subjects as agriculture, economics, politics, Latin American
relations, race, gender, migration, law - - - everything but science. Asia gets
more and more people trained --- Latin America, Africa, the Middle East
The five fastest growing job markets are all computer related.
Education still makes the major difference in
average earnings potential - and an education that bestows expertise - or at
least understanding - of technological developments is more highly valued in the
job market than most of those that do not. The five fastest growing job markets
are all computer related.
The author notes the increasing debt leveraging of
American business and consumers - and attributes this to the nation's trade
deficit. (Typical of many who comment on the debt leverage danger, he ignores the role played by noxious tax incentives in
The most traditional industry is agriculture - currently being transformed by new technologies
The technological revolution affects not only
electronics and genetics, but many traditional industries. The most traditional
industry is agriculture - currently being transformed by new technologies - not
only in the production and distribution of foods, but in creating things like
medicines, plastics, and fuels.
Efforts to maintain a determinedly backwards agricultural policy will become increasingly expensive, disruptive, unsustainable and dangerous.
Most of the world is not participating in this
revolution. Europe spends many tens of billions of euros subsidizing traditional
agriculture - but bans genetically modified seeds. Efforts to maintain a
determinedly backwards agricultural policy will become increasingly expensive,
disruptive, unsustainable and dangerous. (But "organic" farming is one
of the most lucrative and fastest growing agricultural sectors in the U.S. and
The brain drain:
| The U.S. attracts talent from all over the world
by rewarding enterprise and facilitating commerce. Those with
valuable technological skills can pick and choose the places and nations they
wish to live in - and the organizations they wish to work for.
National governments have lost power over their most
valuable citizens. If these people are not happy with conditions in their
country, they can - and do - readily vote with their feet. Increasingly, regions
unhappy with their condition within a larger nation are demanding greater
autonomy or opting to fragment into
February 12, 2001, marked the beginning of a new era - the post-genomic era.
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Copyright © 2002 Dan Blatt