Photo: AP Images
In my last post, Doing the Undoable, I discussed the rapid development of genetics, particularly genetic engineering. Having the video presentation of Juan Enriquez available helped get the point across. Today, I’m going to look at a related area that also raises the possibility of “sudden and unexpected” change in the not-so-distant future (anytime from tomorrow on).Once again, I’m assisted by the work of another commentator who, like Mr. Enriquez, provides a good overview of other changes that are already underway, but whose impact has yet to be felt by most of us, at least knowingly.
I am referring to an article in Foreign Policy magazine by Dr. Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the centre for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University and fellow at the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock centre for Corporate Governance at Stanford University.
Published on July 17th of this year, it is titled, “The Future of Manufacturing Is in America, Not China”. That’s a nice provocative title. I will provide a link to the full article (it’s not that long and free of most technical jargon), but first I’ll use his words to briefly summarize four important areas where advances have led him to choose that title.
- Robotics – “Robots are now capable of performing surgery, milking cows, doing military reconnaissance and combat, and flying fighter jets. Several companies, such (as) Willow Garage, iRobot, and 9th Sense, sell robot-development kits for which university students and open-source communities are developing ever more sophisticated applications. One of China’s largest manufacturers, Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group, announced last August that it plans to install one million robots within three years to do the work that its workers in China presently do. It has found even low-cost Chinese labour to be too expensive and demanding.”
- Artificial Intelligence – AI is “software that makes computers, if not intelligent in the human sense, at least good enough to fake it…Neil Jacobstein, who chairs the AI track at the Silicon Valley-based graduate program Singularity University, says that AI technologies will find their way into manufacturing and make it ‘personal’: that we will be able to design our own products at home with the aid of AI design assistants. He predicts a ‘creator economy’ in which mass production is replaced by personalised production, with people customising designs they download from the Internet or develop themselves.”
- Additive Manufacturing – He focuses on “3D printing”. This is a technology that uses, “powered metal, droplets of plastic, and other materials — much like the toner cartridges that go into laser printers. This allows the creation of objects without any sort of tools or fixtures. The process doesn’t produce any waste material, and there is no additional cost for complexity.”
- Nanotechnology – This new branch of science and technology, already well-advanced, includes a “new field — ‘molecular manufacturing’ — will take this one step further and make it possible to program molecules inexpensively, with atomic precision. ‘Over the next two decades,….molecular manufacturing will do for our relationship with molecules and matter what the computer did for our relationship with bits and information — make the precise control of molecules and matter inexpensive and ubiquitous.'”
It all sounds very exciting, full of potential for good things. Dr. Wadhwa’s summarizes his argument reflected in his article’s title when he says, “All of these advances play well into America’s ability to innovate, demolish old industries, and continually reinvent itself. The Chinese are still busy copying technologies we built over the past few decades. They haven’t cracked the nut on how to innovate yet.”
Yes, it sounds great, but hold on a minute. Like all things human, the potentially good comes coupled with the potentially bad. I have two very basic concerns.
The first is true of so much that I read these days, including a lot that is written on what the Eurozone has to do to deal with its problems. Oddly enough, those varied European “solutions” have something in common with the idea that Foxconn “plans to install one million robots within three years to do the work that its workers in China presently do. It has found even low-cost Chinese labour to be too expensive and demanding.” Too many commentators on the Eurozone today forget that all the zone’s nations are functioning democracies.
China obviously is not, but even casually following China’s internal political and economic trends provides plenty of evidence that non-democratic states also have to consider the feelings and fears of their citizens. We are continuously told that the Chinese Communist Party fears uprisings among the people. There is more than one way to “vote” and get your voice heard.
So Foxconn will replace Chinese workers with robots. Great. That ought to make folks happy in China. But hold on, there’s good news. We can do the same in the US! Wonderful, now we have a means of massively increasing US unemployment too! Pardon the sarcasm. I’m sure Dr. Wadhwa is well aware that robots will replace human workers who may not be able to find replacement jobs easily or at all. His relatively short article is focused on the good news, so he doesn’t try to address problems that might result.
But one sentence stands out as unacceptable to me. “The Chinese are still busy copying technologies we built over the past few decades. They haven’t cracked the nut on how to innovate yet.“
Good lord, not again. Please excuse me while I roll my eyes and stare to the heavens for succor. Folks, I’m old enough (67) to remember very similar comments about the Japanese and their products in the late 1960′s and into the 70′s. They started in the US with cheap copies of everything from Christmas tree ornaments to plastic garden pails. They were very popular, but at that early stage, if you had mentioned that someday soon they would do the same thing with automobiles, the reactions of others would likely have ranged from disbelief to amusement. Everyone knew the Japanese could copy, but Americans never expected them to be able to innovate. I don’t really know. No one ever said it in those early days. A few years later, the US automobile industry was brought to the edge of bankruptcy thanks in great part to the success of Toyota, Datsun (now Nissan) and other Japanese automakers. You know, the cars made by the people who could only copy, not innovate?
Does anyone in their right mind think the Chinese people are any different than the Japanese or any other human society? We all can sleep well tonight (except perhaps Dr. Wadhwa). Don’t worry. The Chinese will “crack the nut” too. In fact, they have. This report by McKinsey, Three snapshots of Chinese innovation, is just one example. I would argue that the future of manufacturing lies neither in the US nor China, but wherever businesspeople choose to do business. The US is guaranteed nothing, nor should it be otherwise. Like everyone else, we have to earn our success by what we do in the future, not by what we have done in the past.
Enough. I digress. I clearly have a problem with statements like that, but Vivek Wadhwa has done you and me a favour. He has summed up some major shifts already underway that promise to have a huge impact on society in a couple pages that most commentators take a dozen or more to describe. I encourage you to take a moment to read his full article at Foreign Policy.
They may not be quite as dramatic as those promised by genetic engineering, but they are profound. Although different, they hold certain things in common with genetic engineering: 1) they are not science fiction, they are fact; 2) they are already having an impact, if limited compared to what is likely to come; 3) most people are only vaguely aware of them, if at all, thus unaware of their potential; 4) what we know about them now is based on research that is already completed, not on the research currently underway that promises even greater impact; and 5) nothing short of a planetary disaster will stop their research, development, and implementation continuing.
I will leave it at that today. As with the last post, I am simply introducing subjects for your and my serious consideration. I will continue in future posts.
For the moment, let it suffice to say that I believe without doubt that what is happening now and what is coming down the road rapidly will make the Industrial Revolution look very pale in comparison.
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