Technology's Promise: Highlights from the TechCast Project; an Ongoing Study of Technology Forecasts by Leading Experts Shows Promising Breakthroughs in Energy, Information Technology, Health Care, Transportation, and Other Critical Fields

Article excerpt

Rapid advances in information systems are driving breakthroughs in all scientific fields. The decoding of the human genome, for instance, was made possible by the collective use of a dozen supercomputers to decipher the 3 billion bits of information stored in DNA. For the first time in history, knowledge--the very heart of scientific progress--is being harnessed systematically on a massive scale.

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That's why breakthroughs are appearing everywhere. We can now realistically envision fuel cells that replace oil with hydrogen, medical control over the genetic process of life itself, computer power becoming cheap and infinite, mobile communications at lightning speeds, robots serving as helpers and caregivers, and much, much more to come.

Forecasting breakthroughs that span the entire spectrum of science and technology is the daunting challenge of a major forecasting project conducted over the past decade at George Washington University and my company, TechCast LLC. Working online through a sophisticated Web site (www.TechCast.org), we pool the knowledge of 100 high-tech executives, scientists, engineers, academics, consultants, futurists, and other leading experts around the world. And by cycling through this process every few months, we create a "learning system" for uncovering the best possible answers to tough questions.

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The result is possibly the best forecast data ever assembled, based on trends that outline how the technology revolution is poised to transform life over the next 20 to 30 years.

Forecasts of the Technology Revolution

Figure 1 (page 43) summarizes the forecast results in seven major technology areas. The major conclusion of this work is that breakthroughs are occurring in all fields and will transform industries, the way organizations work, and society itself.

We also use bubble charts to illustrate all three types of data for each field, as shown below for all seven fields. What follows are highlights that strike me as especially interesting or strategic. These projections are for breakthroughs that may have profound scientific implications, big commercial potential, great social impacts, and high confidence, and are immediate enough to take seriously. These are the breakthroughs most likely to affect you and your organization.

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Energy and Environment

* Alternative energy. Global oil production may be peaking at a time when developing nations are starting to use more oil and when concern over the environment is growing, signaling the end of a long era dominated by carbon fuels. Wind power is experiencing a surge of growth because it is now competitive; solar and biomass energies are almost competitive, and nuclear power is seeing renewed interest. Conservation also remains a strong option in the alternative energy picture.

A hydrogen economy is possible in the long term, with potential use of hydrogen as a means of storing, carrying, and delivering energy. Alternatives now comprise about 17% of global energy use and are growing by 30% per year, backed by wide public support and corporate investment. As oil prices continue to rise and the cost of alternatives falls, carbon fuels will no longer be the main energy source in two to three decades. TechCast projects 2020 (plus or minus five years) as the serious beginning of this transition, when 30% of global energy is likely to come from alternative sources.

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* Desalination. The need for clean water is severe and growing in most parts of the world. One analyst said, "Water promises to be in the twenty-first century what oil was in the twentieth century." Desalinized water was expensive but advanced technologies have reduced costs from $20 per gallon in 1950 to now approaching 1cents per gallon. Ovation Products, for instance, claims it can distill water contaminated with anything into pure drinking water for a penny a gallon. …