On a flight from Tokyo recently, my gaze wandered from the computer sitting in my lap to the Pacific 20,000 feet below. As we descended toward Los Angeles, I watched the blue ripples relentlessly marching toward a distant shore. Suddenly I realized it would be possible to calculate from the waves' direction and velocity not only where they would end up but when they would get there. In a sense, I could predict their future. Turning back to my computer, I marveled at how quickly it had become an essential appendage, and it occurred to me that the waves below were not all that different from the waves of technological change that sweep over us. Like waves at sea, waves of technology are always out there somewhere, relentlessly heading for an impact. And they can be detected while still far from shore. We even ought to be able to see them coming when they're 20 years away.
To understand what a wave of the future might look like today, I looked at past technological innovations like iron metallurgy, gunpowder, and antibiotics. I found they all began as ripples of change but soon became steep waves because whatever the discovery involved, it led quickly to extremely useful stuff. Note the abrupt steepening of the curves in the "Historic Waves of Technological Change" graph. Today there are several waves of change still out there at sea. The first headed our way is generated by the fact that integrated circuits are shrinking in size, which tends to about double the speed of computers every 18 months or so. Moore's Law, as this curve is called, predicts that all kinds of digital devices will either perform the same job in smaller packages, or the same-sized devices will do twice as much. So in 20 years a Pentium chip will either fit in a die 1/10,000 its current size, or it will keep its size and have roughly 10,000 times its current processing power. A similar concept holds true for solid-state memory devices. RAM chips double in capacity every year and a half or so, and magnetic disk drives are on a steeper curve, doubling in performance every nine to 12 months. Another big "eureka!" wave headed our way formed from recent attempts to map the human genome. Just as solving a jigsaw puzzle gets progressively faster as the puzzle nears completion, a rush of gene-based therapies is likely to follow rapidly in the next two decades from unraveling the nucleotide puzzle that makes our cells do what they do. In fact, decoding our genes could be the single greatest inflection point in human history because, unlike previous discoveries that perturbed an ocean of stuff around us, genomic science could fundamentally change who we are.
Consider the "Contemporary Waves of Technological Change" graph. It indicates that computer capabilities and genetic medicine are likely to follow exponential growth curves that echo the major technology inflections preceding them, creating an array of high-performance products 20 years from now. But early in this same period, as shown in the "Projected Worldwide Oil Production" graph, half the world's known oil supply will have been used, and oil production will slide into permanent decline. This will not be an ersatz crisis like the oil embargo of the 1970s but a permanent change in the energy landscape, in which plenty of oil will still be available but not at today's prices. Shortly after the downturn in oil production and associated price increases, industrialized nations might face threatened economies, not to mention the growing geopolitical power of countries holding the world's reserves. Energy-efficient innovations will arise from this crisis and alter all of our lives significantly. Indeed, this is an example of technology that must be invented to maintain the standard of living we now enjoy. Perhaps the most interesting thing about change is what it carries with it. So follow me into the future to discover not only what the semiconductor, genomic, and energy-conservation waves will sweep away as they pound the shore but also what surprises they will bring. Victims of Moore's Law 1 Many forms of mechano-electric technology will vanish, leaving in their place more reliable, purely solid-state devices. Storage media— such as CDs, DVDs, VCRs, and cassette tapes— will disappear as continued advances in data compression technology cram music and videos into even less memory space and the capacity of solid-state memories to hold these media grows exponentially. MP3-type storage devices of 20 years from now will store 128 megabytes (today's capacity) times 10,000, which is 1.28 terabytes. That's enough to hold more than 200 feature-length movies. Even high-definition video, with its huge appetite for memory, will not put a significant dent in the ability of solid-state devices to satisfy almost everyone's need for archiving movies. Film movie cameras and projectors will be out of the picture, too, as high-resolution digital imaging and digital light modulators— with no moving parts— replace their counterparts. It's a good bet that still-film cameras and slide projectors will be curiosities better suited to antique stores. Odds are that mechanical push buttons on a wide range of appliances from TV remotes to telephones will go away as voice-activated controls, made possible by inexpensive, high-performance signal processors, take over. 2 Writing your signature on a legal document will be considered quaint because of ubiquitous biometric IDs, including iris, fingerprint, and voice-recognition systems. In effect, you'll become your own irreproducible ID. 3 Film scores played by real orchestras will be found only in archives as computer-synthesized music, which has already made major inroads into motion pictures, completely drowns out the real thing. The majority of choral music in movies will also arise from electronics, not singers. 4 Nielsen ratings will be gone, because most TVs will be linked to broadband two-way network connections that tell broadcasters how many viewers are watching at any given instant. In addition, biometric ID technology could make it possible for broadcasters to find out exactly who is watching and what they do with their remotes (scary, huh?). 5 Many analog devices will vanish as more powerful digital devices replace them. Analog TVs and radios will join the vacuum tubes on the shelves of electronic surplus stores. Digital broadcasting, providing over 10 times the channel capacity of the analog spectrum, will be the norm. Digital TV and radio will also have much better quality. The market for analog cathode-ray tubes will implode as various sorts of more compact, power-efficient flat panel displays come to dominate. Ditto for incandescent lightbulbs, which will give way to much longer-lived LED lighting sources that consume little power. Analog cellular phones and phone modems will be disconnected forever as high-performance digital systems replace them. Although it would be great if mobile phone service got more reliable as a result, the likely scenario is that cellular services will be as flaky as today, only they'll move a lot more data, including video. Unfortunately, decreased reliability seems to be a pervasive side effect of progress, which explains why your PC crashes a lot more often than your TV. 6 We'll wonder why we ever patronized video, record, and software stores. Broadband connections will be a much simpler way to distribute movies, music, and software. Network distribution of content will also be considerably cheaper: no manufacturing, no middleman, and no inventory to stock. 7 Wires on headphones, even for the cheapest portable stereo devices, will be gone because low-cost radio links will replace them. It will also be hard to find anyone who holds a cell phone to his ear because it will be much more convenient to put the guts of the phone on a wrist or waist and have it wirelessly link to a small earpiece and microphone. 8 Getting lost will take real creativity in an era where an embedded GPS receiver will enable personal electronic devices such as cell phones, personal digital assistants, and wristwatches to know where they are to within a few yards. 9 Junk mail will no longer show up. Advertisers will print their messages in your home or office using your online connection without troubling themselves with postage and printing costs. You won't call it junk mail because advertisers will know so much about you from monitoring your purchase patterns and online behaviors that the advertisements will be for items you probably will want to buy anyway. Postal meters will also be stamped out in an era in which secure remote printing of postage in homes and businesses becomes commonplace. 10 Stunt doubles in action-packed TV shows and motion pictures will have ridden off into the sunset because incredibly realistic computer animations of actors will be much safer and cheaper to produce. Similarly, the Screen Actors Guild probably won't have extras on its roster in 20 years. Victims of Gene-Based Therapies Genes express themselves by causing cells to manufacture proteins that form the building blocks of life. Various therapies will probably come on the market in the order of the complexity of these proteins, with simple therapeutic proteins (such as growth hormones) arriving first, followed by antibodies, then whole cells, and finally entire organs. Doctors will administer these new therapies by turning genes "on" to grow therapeutic proteins, by placing healthy genes in diseased cells, or by tricking the genes of one class of cell into transforming those cells into other types of cells, which can then be used to replace diseased tissues.Predicting which medical treatments will be replaced by gene therapies is both easier and harder than making guesses about digital electronics. It's easier because the long clinical testing cycles of up to 10 years dictate that new drugs introduced a decade or more from now must already be in the early stages of development. It's more difficult because discoveries in biology have never obeyed the orderly laws of progress shown by engineers working with semiconductors. 11 Hemophilia medicines that now come from limited supplies of donated blood will be replaced by safe proteins synthesized outside the body or by coagulation factors produced by genetically modified cells within the body. 12 Baldness treatments will thin out dramatically as dermatologists learn how to make scalp tissue grow hair follicles. Antigraying formulas may also fade away as gene therapies restore melanin pigments to older scalps. Although genetic baldness treatments are in the very early stages of development, the revenues that could be generated from effective treatments will no doubt guarantee that significant research dollars will be focused on getting to the root of the problem. 13 These days more than 600,000 coronary bypass procedures are performed annually, but such painful and debilitating surgery will be passé when cardiologists begin to use their genetic arsenal to grow new blood vessels in place of those that are blocked. Promising early results from clinical trials of vascular endothelial growth factor 2 suggest that stimulated blood-vessel growth may be a viable treatment option both in the heart and in the limbs well before 2020. 14 Diabetics will finally be able to say good-bye to insulin injections. The better alternative: Doctors will routinely implant healthy islet of Langerhans cells into the pancreas. 15 Genetic diseases can arise from mutations of either single genes or multiple genes acting in concert. The first genetic diseases to be eliminated will most likely be the single-gene variety because doctors can more precisely target the locus of the disorder. Illnesses falling in this category include cystic fibrosis, familial hypercholesterolemia, Huntington's chorea, sickle-cell anemia, Duchenne (a form of muscular dystrophy), and Tay-Sachs disease. To some extent genetic research has already provided a type of treatment for these cases, in that individuals carrying the mutations can be identified and counseled on the risks of passing on the disorder to their offspring. 16 Immunosuppressants to prevent rejection of transplanted organs won't be needed in a world where doctors grow new organs from a patient's own tissues. 17 Chemotherapies that are toxic to both healthy and malignant cells are likely to become less important for attacking cancers when more precise gene-based treatments emerge. Techniques in development include: infecting tumors with recombinant viruses that make cancer cells vulnerable to antiviral and antibiotic agents; designing antibodies that attack cancers; and taking tumor cells out of the body, genetically altering them, and injecting them back into the body as vaccines that stimulate the immune system. Drowned in Oil 18 Internal combustion engines won't be found on any sales lots because cars and trucks will be powered by battery-driven electric motors, hybrid gas/electric engines, or gas/fuel- cell engines. Even with improved fuel efficiency, long-haul trucking in the United States is likely to dwindle as it has in Europe, where gas prices are already high. 19 Cooling towers on industrial buildings will be eliminated because they throw off too much waste heat. They'll be replaced by natural-gas-powered absorption chillers similar to technology found on old gas refrigerators. Radiated energy will be recaptured to warm water and generate electricity. 20 Plastic wrap and many plastic utensils will be found only in landfills. Replacing plastics will be an entire family of biopolymers made from cornstarch. Some are already available but still too costly compared with compounds made from temporarily cheap petrochemicals. Beyond 2020 Let's ride our wave metaphor out to sea, past the swells of Moore's Law, genomics, and oil prices to longitudes where tomorrow's tsunamis are but today's gentle undulations. In these waters we'll find disturbances arising from nanotechnology, optical computing, bionics, and nuclear fusion, giving us glimpses of a future more interesting than we can guess.