Emerging Technologies – How will they change our lives?

by Ken White

GLOBE-Net, April 30, 2014 – Forward planning by governmental agencies is often criticized for being too focused on short term political mandate priorities.

A recent report by Policy Horizons Canada, a federal government agency, on emerging technologies is a refreshing change from that norm.  The report explored how emerging technologies will shape the economy and our society, and what challenges (and opportunities) they will create.

The Horizons report does not predict the future. Rather, it systematically explores a range of futures and identifies plausible surprises and challenges that may emerge over the next 10 to 15 years. Its objective was to encourage dialogue on core challenges and to develop robust policies and strategies to address them.

The foresight report focused on potentially disruptive technologies, i.e. those that produce radical or abrupt changes that could transform the larger social, economic, environmental and governance systems.

These disruptive technologies impact many domains including artificial intelligence, 3-D printing and their impact on manufacturing, synthetic biology and on agriculture, the resources sector and health care.

This foresight study examines how four emerging technologies (digital technologies, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies and neuroscience technologies) could drive disruptive social and economic change over the next 10 to 15 years.

This study is based on wide research and interviews with more than 90 experts. The technologies in this study are at different stages of maturity and are moving at different speeds. All are expected to have disruptive impacts within 15 years and some much sooner. 

Forward Looking Assumptions

Commonly Held Assumptions

Credible Assumptions Looking Forward

Technological change is disruptive. We will figure it out when things stabilize. We are in a period of transition. The pace of technology driven change will accelerate as new technologies interact with each other.
Most of the technological changes are incremental improvements in information technology and communications. Manufacturing, services and natural resources will all be affected by new technologies. The digital revolution (artificial intelligence (AI), sensors, data analytics) is quite mature and is impacting all sectors of the economy now. Biotechnology, nanotechnology and energy are ramping up with big impacts in 5 to 15 years. And neuroscience technologies could present some significant surprises in that period.
When the economic downturn lessens, there will be more full-time jobs with good salaries and pensions. The new technologies will increase productivity with fewer workers. Non-standard jobs and project work will likely become more common, but they don’t have to be precarious jobs. Driven by technology, the logic of the market is creating a class of workers doing part-time contract work without benefits. They are essential to the operation of a competitive project economy.
Canada is an attractive place for skilled workers. Attracting, keeping and growing talented workers, especially in “the creative class” will require vision and cooperation at every level of government.
Billions of dollars are needed to repair and maintain aging infrastructure, and expansion means more of the same. The new technologies may present opportunities to leapfrog to the next generation of infrastructure and reduce costs over the long term.
The national economy matters. A strong policy framework (responsible fiscal and monetary policy, promoting productivity, investment and trade) is a key tool in navigating a turbulent global economy. An increasingly networked, integrated and interdependent global economy is emerging. Our policy tool kit and institutions need updating. International cooperation to manage a globally networked economy, new kinds of safety, infrastructure and regulatory challenges, mobile virtual workers and a reinvention of health care and income support programs are needed.
Current intellectual property (IP) and research and development regimes promote effective development. Today’s new technologies are going to play out over decades. Allowing private firms to lock down and shape large parts of that evolution in the very early stages of a new technology for their own benefit may not be in our long-term interest. Giving people what they want at an affordable price is proving to be the best protection against piracy in many fields.


 Energy-Related Scenarios

The energy-related scenarios that are discussed in the Policy Horizons report are summarized below. 

Nanotechnologies and Energy Futures – Nanotechnology may improve energy systems in two key areas over the next 15 years. Solar cells, which are cheaper now than they have ever been, are poised for significant improvement due largely to nanotechnology. High-efficiency multi-junction solar cells, infrared energy capture and wavelength- splitting designs may increase high-efficiency solar cell performance by 200-300%. Roll-to-roll printing of solar cells on plastic using photosynthetic inks will allow solar panels to be manufactured at significantly lower costs than even today’s low prices.

Secondly, batteries will improve through the use of enhanced nano-materials and economies of scale. Higher capacities, much faster recharging, and greater longevity and significantly lower prices are expected. Better and cheaper batteries could be the cornerstone technology to displace the internal combustion engine for passenger vehicles and support the transition to renewables in homes and businesses by addressing the intermittency of renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Using these technologies, buildings may become energy independent and solar-powered fueling stations could support the growing electric vehicle market. 

Solar and Wind May Become Cost Effective – Recently, there have been significant improvements in both solar and wind technologies, including cheap printing processes for solar panels. Many science sources suggest that solar and wind energy may become the most cost-effective choice for new electricity generation in many locations within 15 years. As solar and wind have become more affordable, massive research and venture capital has been going into battery storage for homes, buildings and vehicles. Effective and economical battery storage is on the horizon. It is the key enabling technology to ensure that buildings using renewable energy are powered during cloudy and windless days. 

Decentralized Energy Systems – The combination of cost-effective solar, wind and battery technologies are the key building blocks for decentralized energy systems. Buildings could plug into the grid or operate independently. Electric cars could be plugged into buildings where they could act as a supplementary power source. 

More Electric and Hybrid Vehicles – Electric engines will grow in the auto sector as advanced batteries take off. Initial costs of electric vehicles are foreseen to decline to parity with conventional vehicles as battery production rises twentyfold. The cost of ownership of electric vehicles is a quarter of the cost of those with internal combustion engines, which will further promote the adoption of electric vehicles as parity approaches. Advanced hybrid engines using biofuels may create a new market segment. 

Bioenergy Grows – Bioreactors using algae modified through synthetic biology will likely allow firms to produce cheap fuels that use only sunlight and waste CO2 and water as inputs. Production costs for diesel and ethanol through this “green chemistry” could reach $0.30/L in sunny geographies. Since CO2 could become a valuable commodity as an input for bioreactors, carbon-emitting facilities might diversify into green manufacturing plants. Greener ways to process the oil sands are possible.

Moving From Gasoline Engines to Hybrids and Electric – The power behind transportation is changing. Both electric and hybrid engines will become more common. Energy exchanges between homes and cars using smart grids and “smart homes” technologies will become possible. Fossil fuels may be supplemented with diesel or bioethanol produced locally in bioreactors. The use of light, strong nanomaterials, including nanocarbon, in conjunction with more efficient and longer-range engines and batteries, means vehicles will be safer, weigh less and go farther. The availability of stronger and more heat-tolerant nanomaterials may allow higher running temperatures and more energy-efficient engines. Regardless of mode (airplane, rail, ship or personal car), vehicle range will likely increase, operating costs will drop and environmental impacts will decrease.

Enhanced Delivery Systems – The transportation portion of industrial value chains will be dramatically more efficient, timely and automated. AI and robotic loading equipment will coordinate the movement of goods between transportation modes and systems, a factor that may foster a more competitive domestic manufacturing sector and keeps costs low. Lean and efficient business models characterized by “just-in-time” systems means responsive production and delivery of goods. For smaller deliveries, some vehicles may be displaced by programmable flying drones that can carry small packages between local destinations. These changes will have an impact on employment and on the sector’s overall contribution to gross domestic product.

The Autonomous Home – The trend toward decentralization of energy and other infrastructure will make homes more autonomous, but will make the need for coordination among systems even more crucial. Distributed energy systems will result in homes that can both contribute to and draw from the grid, but such innovations will be dependent on advances in energy production and storage. Unconstrained by traditional urban services, new homes could proliferate in areas well beyond urban planning control.

Concluding Comment

 The foresight approach relies upon consulting a wide range of expertise, with the expectation that through our collective experience, imaginative abilities and interactive knowledge of technological development pathways, we can begin to construct a coherent view of some of the major developments that can be anticipated within a medium to longer-term time horizon. Foresight is therefore research that can inform planning, policy and strategic choice amidst uncertainty.

This is the nature of foresight – creating a range of plausible future scenarios that in their diversity should alert readers to the kinds of issues and perspectives they may not have initially considered in longer term research planning and contingency thinking.

The full report is available here

Ken White is the principal of Acton White Consulting and is a frequent contributor to GLOBE-Net. 

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