A New Message of Hope

Vivek Wadhwa blogBEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—As the rich, the powerful and the merely brilliant gather here this week for the renowned Milken Global Conference, a surprising message of hope may emerge:

That America’s best days are far from over, that a new revolution in technology is at hand—bigger and more sweeping and also more destructive than anything before it—and that this will benefit the U.S. most of all.  Asia Schmaisa.

“This is the most innovative period in history, when we will not only develop solutions for humanity’s grand challenges, but also disrupt almost every industry,” says Stanford University fellow Vivek Wadhwa, a leading proselytizer of this new take.   “If the Fortune 500 companies don’t rapidly reinvent themselves, they will become toast.”

Wadhwa is a member of the three-person panel I will be moderating at Milken at 2:30 p.m. PST on Tuesday.  We will debate the Internet and the creative—and indiscriminate—destruction it has wrought.  The other two panelists are impressive enough:  Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, the Great Disuptor of the enterprise software business, and Steve Case, the Greatly Disrupted architect of the disastrous AOL-Time Warner merger.

But the views of Vivek Wadhwa may warrant even more attention.  He is a fellow at Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, and the research director at a Duke entrepreneur lab, and a distinguished scholar at Emory and at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, who ahas taught at Harvard Law School and Berkeley.  Time magazine recently added him to its 40 “Most Influential Minds in Tech.”

For over 50 years now, Moore’s Law, by which computing power doubles, exponentially, every 18 months, has roiled the information-technology industry.  Now Wadhwa sees “a new era where the precepts of Moore’s Law can be applied to virtually any field.”

Wadhwa sees a plethora of tech-tectonic plates conspiring to unleash this next wave.  Wireless technology, social networking, DNA-targeted drug design, individualized medical therapies, remote webcam medical care, robots-making-robots, drones on parade, surging nat-gas production in the U.S., algae-based energy supplies in the future, 3D printing that one day will obviate much of manufacturing (not to mention overnight FedEx shipping), the long-awaited nano-tech revolution—all these factors and still more.

Also driving this: Another three billion people, basically the rest of the world, will newly join the Internet in coming years, speeding the transfer of technology, information and knowledge.  “While the world will benefit from these changes, the United States is uniquely positioned to lead this sea change,” Wadhwa says in an article he co-wrote for the Washington Post in January.

In fact, the U.S. “stands on the cusp of a dramatic revival and rejuvenation, propelled by an amazing wave of technological innovation,” Wadhwa notes. “A slew of breakthroughs will deliver the enormous productivity gains and the societal dramatic cost savings needed to sustain economic growth and prosperity.”

But ya gotta show not tell.  And Wadhwa has plenty of examples:

  • “Manufacturing in this country will rebound,” he declares.  Computer-assisted design and fabrication will reduce waste and “replace nearly all conventional manufacturing with more environmentally friendly and cost-effective additive manufacturing run with robots and computer programs,” he writes.  Big Data and crowdsourcing will let us streamline complex systems that, previously,  couldn’t be modeled.
  • India’s much-feared IT industry—projected to siphon away millions of U.S. jobs—is “doomed,” Wadhwa argues.  Disruptive tech will let Latin America and the Caribbean leapfrog India’s IT sector, he says.
  • China’s booming manufacturing sector, feared even more than India’s IT, “will be toast,” Wadhwa tells me (he uses this phrase a lot, as in burnt toast).  As he has written: “The economies of scale that benefited cheap labor and cheap locations overseas”—Chindia, he’s talking about you—“will be stood on their head” as labor continues to decline as a percentage of total manufacturing cost, thanks to more automation and “mechanization.”
  • Sequencing the first genome (a full map of all 25,000 human genes) cost billions of dollars.  Today it costs a thousand bucks.  In five years, it will cost less than the cost of a blood test.  This will spawn new, customized therapies.
  • “We are moving into an era of data-driven, crowdsourced, participatory, genomics-based medicine,” Wadhwa writes.  Wearable devices and smartphones will monitor our health and warn us we are about to get sick, while IBM’s Watson and other supercomputers will use artificial intelligence to tailor and prescribe customized, individual therapies.
  • We will “write” new strings of DNA in the new field of “synthetic biology.”  This will yield designer drugs, new vaccines, and new beneficial (or intentionally harmful) microorganisms.

Some of the effects will be severe and destructive (especially to incumbent companies), but much of the fallout will be beneficial, Wadhwa says.  “Expect faster change over the next decade,” Wadhwa tells me in an email.  “Expect disruption, more amazing technologies, more changes in the way we work, live, connect.  In this decade, three billion more people will come online.  Never before has all of humanity been connected.  Watch and see how rapidly it evolves.”

Am looking forward to hear more on this from Wadhwa on our Internet panel tomorrow afternoon.  Should be quite a ride.

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