The Dawn of the e-Revolution

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Thirty years ago, Alvin and Heidi Toffler captured a moment of change with their best-selling book Future Shock that continues to play an important role in how I visualize the future. When it was published, the book cover itself symbolized the changing times because it was the first paperback printed in multiple colors that leapt out at potential buyers. The term future shock became part of the culture. An era of dramatic change shifting from the industrial to the information age was captured in the sense of being shocked by the very experience of living through, and trying to cope with, an unfolding future.

It is important to remember that Future Shock was uncertain about whether the future would be positive or negative. A decade later, in their far more profound The Third Wave, the Tofflers opted for an optimistic vision of a human race riding a wave of change brought on by the information revolution (the “third wave,” following the earlier first wave of agriculture and second wave of industry). In this later work, the Tofflers explained patterns of cultural change at the level of civilizations.

America is not yet prepared for another wave of scientific and technological change. So the top challenge for U.S. leadership in the 21st century may be education reform, not national defense or the military.

So, if we have come a long way since the original publication of Future Shock 30 years ago, it is fair to speculate on where we might go in the next 30. My answer is that we will cover an even greater distance, toward even more decisive change. While no one can predict whether our civilization will seize the opportunities it now has before it, and certainly history is replete with civilizations similar to ours in depth and influence that have died, I side with the optimistic Tofflers.

Of course, today each of us is probably wavering between the shocked, stunned effect of a future shock experience in our own changing reality and a more comfortable smooth acceptance and exploitation of change in a third wave model. On good days, we think we are beginning to understand the Internet, master our e-mail, learn to order our e-ticket online so we can view the new DVD movie in the airplane seat we have chosen. Each step of the way, we use some technology or system the Tofflers had forecast in the shift toward a more mobile, more transitory society.

But beyond the developments affecting our lives on a daily basis, I believe we are currently living through two tremendous patterns of scientific-technological change. Each would be overwhelmingly powerful in itself, but combined the two patterns guarantee that we will be in constant transition as one breakthrough or innovation follows another. I believe that while we often talk about living in an information age, it is much more accurate to talk about these two emerging patterns and refer to them as a constantly changing “Age of Transitions.” The first pattern involves computers and communications. The second involves nanoscience, biology, and information at the supercomputer level. We know something about the former and almost nothing about the latter. But even the next wave of computing and communications alone will carry us four times beyond where we have come so far.

I have spent the past 18 months learning from NASA, Stanford University, the National Science Foundation, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among other institutions, just studying science and technology. While it may appear to many of us that we are riding a crest of the impact that technology can have in our lives, we are only about one-fifth of the way through the technological opportunities inherent in computers and communications. That means that in memory, speed, cost, and communications capability (bandwidth, wireless, etc.) we have four times as much change coming as we have experienced in the past 40 years.

Furthermore, because we have developed a vastly more capable venture capital—entrepreneur system than we had back in 1970, those changes are going to come much faster and be much more rapidly implemented into our lives. Science will be translated into commercial products at a much greater rate than it was in the first phase of this era.

Those breakthroughs alone would mean a virtually universally connected world (not necessarily “wired” since wireless technology, including satellite downlinks, will play a much greater role). In this universally connected world, the average person will certainly have several megabits of data available to them. I believe that by 2030 we can expect every person to have a gigabit of data available to them in some wireless form, with terraflops of memory routinely available to them as well, so her or his use of information will be as automatic as our use of electricity today. Similarly, we can expect embedded expert systems and distributed intelligence to be handling an amazing amount of the normal routine of daily family living. The futuristic world that Disney dreamed of in the 1960s may actually start to come true around 2020 as data become cheaper and distributed intelligence begins to grow into its potential.

But the computer and communications revolution will be dwarfed by an even more profound revolution that combines nanoscience, biology, and supercomputing. The best place to see this emerging future is at the NASA Ames Laboratory near Palo Alto, California.

For example, we may build quantum computers a billion times more powerful than anything we currently have. Combine this with carbon nanotubes, which are 100 times stronger than steel and weigh only one-sixth as much, and with breakthroughs in molecular biology and you begin to understand that these developments will change all of our lives.

People in 2030 will look back at 2000 with an even greater sense of distance than we currently feel toward the world of 1970.

We are about as unfamiliar with nanoscience as we were with the words “e-mail,” “mouse,” “Windows,” “Internet,” and “personal computer” back in 1970. Nanoscience is the world of the very small: nano means one-billionth, and a nanometer is basically four atoms in length. Nanoscience will be powerful for two very different reasons.

First, atoms are the basic building blocks of the practical world. Our growing ability to see, analyze, and manipulate at the level of the atom allows us to develop new approaches with the most basic of building blocks. In many industries, including construction, computing, health, national defense, and environmentalism, we will rapidly discover that nanoscience will immensely expand our capabilities.

For example, it may be possible to grow carbon storage tubes so small that hydrogen could be safely stored without refrigeration, which could lead to the creation of hydrogen fuel cell technology. These new materials might make possible a one-hour flight from New York to Tokyo, an ultralightweight car, and a host of other inventions. This approach to manufacturing would save energy, conserve our raw materials, eliminate waste products, and produce a dramatically healthier environment. The implications for the advancement of environmentalism and the irrelevancy of oil prices alone are impressive.

I am optimistic about what this technology means for our future. But America is not yet prepared for another wave of scientific and technological change. The number one challenge for U.S. leadership in the twenty-first century may be education reform, not national defense or the military. Math and science education will become more important, not less important, than it is today. Yet the math and science ability of our students is diminishing every year. We simply cannot continue to rely on scientists from other countries coming to the United States to work on these projects.

We also need to massively increase the government budget for scientific research. The expedition of Lewis and Clark was a federally funded scientific experiment; the telegraph was built with funds appropriated by the U.S. Congress; and, of course, the Internet itself may stand as the greatest modern example of government research. I believe that we will live through more change in the next 30 years than we did in the last 30. People will look back at 2000 with an even greater sense of distance than we currently feel toward the world of 1970, with its lack of cell phones, Internet, e-mail, personal computers, Palm Pilots, and so on. But we will only realize the promise of this era in the same sense that we now celebrate Future Shock if we rededicate ourselves as a civilization to embracing its full potential. If we do not do that, we will become like Great Britain after 1870 and lose our capacity to lead. But if we do rededicate ourselves, we can ensure that we will continue to lead the world for generations to come.