Pace Robert Gordon’s argument that the Second Industrial Revolution — the period from 1870 to 1900 during which internal combustion, petrochemicals, and instantaneous communication first made their mark — did much more to enhance productive potential than the more recent Third Industrial Revolution — the more recent period during which information technology has been deployed across various sectors — Eli Dourado maintains that the Third Industrial Revolution is entering a new phase that may well prove more transformative than the industrial innovations of the late 19th century:
The most obvious example of this new kind of kinetic computing is the autonomous car. Rather than simply gathering information and displaying it to the driver, like a GPS mapping system, we are empowering an onboard computer to make decisions about driving. These decisions have consequences, and it is difficult to program a computer to get them right—much harder than, say, inventing Facebook. But despite the difficulty of the problem, we have made a lot of progress in the last decade, and most of us can look forward to one day owning a robotic car or ordering a robotic taxi to come pick us up.
The point is that computing innovation is going to shift, and is already starting to shift, from the virtual to the physical world. The products that IR #3 has brought us so far are great fun, but because they only really display information to us, they leave a lot for us to do. The main benefit of iR #3 is going to arrive when new innovations make and do things for us.
Apart from autonomous vehicles, Eli notes a number of technologies that are on the horizon:
(a) ambient intelligence, i.e., products and services that we empower to make decisions for us “in the background”;
(b) a radical increase in the efficiency of transportation as intelligence shifts from vehicles to the network, e.g., the possible rise of commercial drones that could make low-cost deliveries (the TacoCopter was a mirage — but one day it will be a reality);
(c) chemical printers that could allow households to manufacture their own drugs;
(d) synthetic biology;
(e) and online education, which will enable a wide range of new innovative instructional models, many of which will be blended models that incorporate an online component and a high-touch human component.
I’d say that Eli’s case for optimism is strong. What is particularly striking about it, however, is that the technologies he describes will tend to empower individuals and small groups at the expense of centralized bureaucracies, with the possible exceptions of (a) and (b). One assumes that (a) will require common standards and protocols as will the emerging transportation networks referenced in (b).