Market watchers like to follow trends because they are often a good indicator of what will happen next. The near future usually does look like the recent past, but not always. Sometimes we hit an inflection point. That can make things veer sharply from the trend and that change things in a way that can be truly transformational.
For example, for the first two decades of the 20th century, electricity and the internal combustion engine had limited impact, but around 1920 they became transformative and drove a 50-year productivity boom unlike anything before or since. Something similar happened with digital technology around 1995.
Today, we are likely on the cusp of three major inflection points in energy, synthetic biology and computation that will have that kind of transformative power. The impact of any one of these is hard to foresee, but when you take all three in tandem it raises the possibility of entering a completely new era. The future may be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
1. The Energy Revolution
When President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels at the White house in 1979, it was largely seen as a public relations stunt. The technology was far too expensive to be practical and more in the realm of a tree-hugger’s pipe dream than a real alternative to fossil fuels. When President Reagan took office in 1981, one of his first moves was to take the solar panels down.
Yet the price of solar energy has plummeted over the last decade by more than 90% and, as the World Economic Forum reports, wind and solar now produce energy cheaper than coal and gas in North America. In fact, in some sunny parts of the world, solar costs less than half as much as coal. That’s a major shift.
What’s more, we can only expect renewable energy to get cheaper in the future as a revolution in materials science allows us to build more efficient solar panels and wind turbines. That will mean that we can not only benefit from cleaner energy, we will also be able to get it much cheaper than fossil fuels, which will be a boon to productivity.
The one sticking point continues to be battery technology, which is still far too expensive. If we can’t store…