In an earlier article I provided extracts from the McKinsey report on four disruptive technologies – mobile Internet, automation of knowledge work, Internet of things, cloud technology – that will transform, life, business and global economy. In this article I go into the next four technologies – advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles, genomics and energy storage.
For the past several decades, industrial robots have taken on physically difficult, dangerous, or dirty jobs, such as welding and spray painting. These robots have been expensive, bulky, and inflexible—bolted to the floor and fenced off to protect workers. Now, more advanced robots are gaining enhanced senses, dexterity, and intelligence, thanks to accelerating advancements in machine vision, artificial intelligence, machine-to-machine communication, sensors, and actuators. These robots can be easier for workers to program and interact with. They can be more compact and adaptable, making it possible to deploy them safely alongside workers. These advances could make it practical to substitute robots for human labor in more manufacturing tasks, as well as in a growing number of service jobs, such as cleaning and maintenance. This technology could also enable new types of surgical robots, robotic prosthetics, and “exoskeleton” braces that can help people with limited mobility to function more normally, helping to improve and extend lives.
Next-generation genomics marries advances in the science of sequencing and modifying genetic material with the latest big data analytics capabilities. Today, a human genome can be sequenced in a few hours and for a few thousand dollars, a task that took 13 years and $2.7 billion to accomplish during the Human Genome Project. With rapid sequencing and advanced computing power, scientists can systematically test how genetic variations can bring about specific traits and diseases, rather than using trial and error. Relatively low-cost desktop sequencing machines could be used in routine diagnostics, potentially significantly improving treatments by matching treatments to patients. The next step is synthetic biology—the ability to precisely customize organisms by “writing” DNA. These advances in the power and availability of genetic science could have profound impact on medicine, agriculture, and even the production of high-value substances such as biofuels—as well as speed up the process of drug discovery.
Autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles
It is now possible to create cars, trucks, aircraft, and boats that are completely or partly autonomous. From drone aircraft on the battlefield to Google’s self- driving car, the technologies of machine vision, artificial intelligence, sensors, and actuators that make these machines possible is rapidly improving. Over the coming decade, low-cost, commercially available drones and submersibles could be used for a range of applications. Autonomous cars and trucks could enable a revolution in ground transportation—regulations and public acceptance permitting. Short of that, there is also substantial value in systems that assist drivers in steering, braking, and collision avoidance. The potential benefits of autonomous cars and trucks include increased safety, reduced CO2emissions, more leisure or work time for motorists (with hands-off driving), and increased productivity in the trucking industry.
Energy storage technology includes batteries and other systems that store energy for later use. Lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells are already powering electric and hybrid vehicles, along with billions of portable consumer electronics devices. Li-ion batteries in particular have seen consistent increases in performance and reductions in price, with cost per unit of storage capacity declining dramatically over the past decade. Over the next decade, advances in energy storage technology could make electric vehicles (hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and all-electrics) cost competitive with vehicles based on internal-combustion engines. On the power grid, advanced battery storage systems can help with the integration of solar and wind power, improve quality by controlling frequency variations, handle peak loads, and reduce costs by enabling utilities to postpone infrastructure expansion. In developing economies, battery/solar systems have the potential to bring reliable power to places it has never reached, helping to lift out of poverty the 20 percent of the world’s population currently with no access to grid electricity.
Next article in series
In the next articles in the series of disruptive technologies we will look at 3D printing, advanced materials, oil and gas technology and renewable energy.