For those who feel that the technological marvels foreseen in the 1950s have failed to materialize, the heartfelt cry is “Where’s my flying car?”
Well, yes, the Terrafugia Transition is here. They’ll cost around $300,000 when they’re in regular production. And they’re more accurately called roadable airplanes, because the air aspect takes design preference.
But still, they’re not common lifestyle features, and they have to take off and land at airports, not from your driveway.
Year to year, things don’t feel like they’re changing that radically. A better phone comes out. A new medical procedure comes available. An interesting skyscraper breaks height records. Private companies are getting interested in space programs. (What happened to the US space program, anyway?)
The Apollo guidance system for the Moon landings had the computing power of today’s kitchen appliances. The Moon landings were magnificent, but they outran practical applications because all the supporting technologies were still being developed. They were like Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for helicopters, submarines and tanks. He was a contemporary of Columbus. You couldn’t do anything useful with da Vinci’s concepts until you developed several new technologies: electricity, combustion systems, lubricants, precision engineering, and so on.
The mid 20th century vision of technological improvement is indeed coming about, and in a richer way than anyone at that time imagined. Consider these current developments:
- 3D printing and the era of “mass customization”
- 3D printing of jet engine parts
- 3D printing of skin (Wake Forest University) and of knee cartilage, heart valves and bone implants (Cornell University)
- 3D printing of living organs (still a few years in the future)
- 3D printing of meat (being developed by Modern Meadow, backed by Peter Thiel)
This list affects not just worldwide manufacturing processes because of high knowledge content, falling costs, automated mass customization – but it also shifts the appropriate production countries from centralized cheap labor areas to local high skills areas, impacting global competitiveness, economic development, and transportation networks.
It also affects food production. Printing meat will compete with agriculture, and with sea-farming as well as the fishing industry.
And of course it impacts the medical industry, and standards of health, and longevity.
Beyond the merely mechanical 3D printing, simultaneous revolutions in the fields of genetics, robotics, information technology and nanotechnology are merging in areas that will give indefinite lifespans some time this century (Ray Kurzweil posits as early as 2035). Indefinite lifespans upset all demographic forecasts, all social security and pension planning, and change the dynamics of family planning and urban planning.
Half the world is already embracing the movement in this direction: secular, liberal, gay-friendly, progressive, science-oriented – use what labels you like. And half the world is concerned about the loss of traditions, of social cohesion, of culture, of stability, and (often) of privilege, and is resisting change.
But technological change is an unstoppable global event, not that different from global warming in its inevitability and its rising tides.
And as in any time of change, those with the clearest business acumen will not only make the best use of the opportunities, but will also be seen as prescient heroes in a hundred years’ time.
(Business acumen needs: planning, analysis and decision-making skills; rapid and accurate information flows; cash flow monitoring; and flexibility in the face of the unexpected. We teach it!)