In 2000 I was telling everyone that would listen, that global oil production would not be able to keep up with demand within the next 15 years. Does anyone doubt this now?
In 2005 I was telling anyone who would listen that within 5 to 10 years cars will be driving themselves like an airplane does on auto pilot. Most manufactures either have driver assist or partial auto pilot coming out by next year. Fully autonomous cars are only a few years away now. (update GM says they will provide sophisticated driver assist mostly for collision avoidance by 2015 and fully autonomous cars by 2020.)
So, what’s my latest prediction for the next decade?
Manufacturing will undergo a transformation so radical that the industrial revolution will be trivial when held up for comparison. Actually a number of new technologies stand at the cusp to revolutionize everything from the ground up.
1. New materials are coming out of Nanotechnology; glass that is stronger than steel, batteries that hold 10 times the charge and can be recharged in seconds, and a DVD disk that can hold 600 hours of video. New delivery for cancer drugs are being developed that will allow them to be carried by robots that are smaller than a blood cell, and can deliver their drug at a specific target site, killing only the tumor. Look for all of these to either be on the market or in trials within 3 to 5 years.
2. Computers will continue to double in power for the foreseable future every 12 to 18 months. A super computer will excede the processing power of the human brain before 2020. The software to create human level intellegence will take another 10 years.
There are two specific areas that will benefit from all other advances to revolutionize manufacturing, reshaping our world in ways we can’t even imagine; robotics and 3-D printing. We have had both technologies for some time now, however both seeing rapid advances due to other technologies that are enabling them.
3. Within 10 years most homes will start installing 3-D printers (a replicator not unlike those we saw on TV shows like Star Trek). Like the Microwave oven, it will be expensive and bulky at first, but eventually no household will be able to imagine life without one. Imagine the ability to manufacture 90% of anything you could ever want in your kitchen or garage. A new pare of shoes, a sweater, works of art, spare parts to fix your vacuum cleaner, or heck a whole new vacuum cleaner. Need a special tool to replace a roofing tile, print one, and then print the roofing tile. There are even plans to build a printer large enough to manufacture whole houses on-site. NASA is very interested in the house printer for off world home construction, and a general 3-D printer to make spare parts in space.
Even printing food is on the table:
4. The field of robotics is currently constrained mostly to special industrial situations like the automotive industry. Until now they were not well suited to work in close proximity with humans because they lacked the required attributes to operate safely around people. A new generation of robots is beginning to show up. Soon, robots will have skin that responds to touch, and have soft bodies so that they can avoid hurting people. Robot vision and artificial intelligence will be able to operate in our disorganized and cluttered world. They will communicate verbally as well as any natural person. Within 10 years robots will be commonplace in such environments as hospitals and nursing homes, helping with patient care. They will also start showing up to replace administrative and secretarial functions; though these latter units may not look like a traditional robot because they may simply exist in a person’s desktop computer. They may in fact show up in your home as a very fancy, and smart answering machine; one that not only answers the phone and interacts like a real person, but also wakes you up in the morning, reminds you of your doctors appointment and not only balance your checkbook but act as a finicial advisor and travel agent. Soon thereafter, as the price point comes down another order of magnitude, robots will start to replace domestic labor and become common household appliances, running around doing the laundry at 3 am when electricity is cheaper, and trimming the bushes in the yard. And yes, even putting the cat out at night.
In summary the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas will be a short lived phenomenon. Manufacturing will become localized to where it is consumed. Robots will fill most other needs for manufacturing where items are either too large or too complex to be made with a 3-D printer/replicator. Demand for raw materials and delivery of raw materials to the site of manufacture will be in high demand, but there again, that industry easily lends itself to automation with the robots coming on line in the next decade. We will once again have to transform our economy to adapt to the new normal.
People need not fear the robot revolution in the next twenty years. After that, if were dumb enough to design them without safe guards then perhaps we need to loose.