Sunday, May 2, 2010

From Planet to Person: The Third Wave of Technology

The history of mankind and industrialization helps us to understand how technology has, over the years, impacted human life, of course overwhelmingly in a positive manner. The first wave of technological revolutions comprised electricity, telephony, printing, radio transmission, transportation, imaging and curative medicine, as well as sadly nuclear detonation, to name a few. The second wave of technological revolutions comprised computerization, television, internet, cellular telephony, software and diagnostic and surgical medicine, again to name a few.

If the first wave was supported by mechanical and electro-magnetic devices, the second wave was primed by electronic devices and the ubiquitous chip. In the first wave, devices were designed to perform as per laws of science. In the second wave, devices were instructed to perform as per human needs. If the first wave of technology was characterized by fundamental enablement, the second wave was characterized by transformational enhancement. How will the third wave of technology be different from the previous ones? What will support the third wave and how will it be characterized?

The third wave of technology would in all probability be a combination of the first two waves. It will be both fundamental and transformational simultaneously. The devices – mechanical, electro-mechanical and electronic – will be all there, made more powerful and friendly by more versatile and more capable embedded hardware and software. The devices will incorporate hitherto unchartered laws of science and will feature software that mimics human need fulfillment to a greater degree. Combining the two waves, the third wave of technology will probably rewrite human and industrial paradigms, covering both the planet and person in a holistic sense.

Food security

Topping the agenda would be technological levers for ensuring global food security. With land being increasingly utilized for industrialization and urbanization, especially in emerging countries, the need to use technology for ensuring affordable food for all is a major imperative. The unpredictability and harshness of climate change accentuates the need for better technology markers for agriculture. As opposed to the second wave which sought to propagate factory style farming, the third wave would address the need for sustainable agriculture.

According to United Nations, by 2025 the global population would cross 8 billion. Of this 6.7 billion (84 percent) would live in the less developed or emerging countries. A vast proportion of this population currently lives without even one square meal a day. The need to ensure food security to this huge population would be the most impactful technological challenge. The advanced sections of the global society would simultaneously need to reassess and moderate its approach towards dietary habits, including the dependence on meat consumption. Several studies have pointed out the adverse impact of current approaches on global farming and climate warming on one hand and the direct adverse linkages with animal ethics and human health on the other (reference, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of our Insatiable Appetite by David A Kessler, and An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage, FT Bookshop).

Drought-tolerant seeds, perennial grains, non-toxic fertilizers, titrated plant nutrition, weather-timed sowing, sensor-driven irrigation, clinically validated GM foods, meat-mimicking vegetarian food options, drip irrigation, soil fertility strategies, no-loss harvesting, nutrition-driven grain processing, multiple crop patterns, recyclable agriculture and customized farm equipment could combine to trigger huge spikes in farm productivity with sustainability. Biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology should drive new technological innovations in agriculture. An emerging country such as India can take the lead by establishing a string of Institutes for agricultural technology on the lines of the famous Indian Institutes of Technology.

Energy security

Energy is the fuel of growth; unfortunately, however, it is also the greatest contributor for loss of natural resources, increase of carbon emissions, and worsening of climate change. From around 500 quadrillion BTU in 2010, the world energy consumption is forecast to increase to 532 quadrillion BTU in 2015 and 678 quadrillion BTU in 2030, representing an increase of 44 percent. China and India, the emerging economic powers, are the two largest consumers of energy. Their share in world energy consumption which was 10 percent in 1990 has increased to 20 percent currently and is forecast to increase to 30 percent by 2030. While advanced nations may be accusative of this trend, the growing share of China and India, as the world’s largest people base (around 40 percent of global population), is an inevitable and logical corollary of their emergence as global hubs of research and manufacture as well as outsourcing.

Currently, oil, coal and natural gas together contribute to around 80 percent of total energy generation. The first challenge for technology is to increase the inter se share of natural gas within these three fuel sources and to make coal a super-clean source of energy. The second challenge is to make energy generation from renewable sources of energy, wind, ocean, solar and geo-thermal, intrinsically economically viable, weaning them away from government subsidies and incentives, and making them contribute a larger share to total energy generation. The third challenge is to make nuclear energy multi-atomic element and super-safe with terror, and accident proofing. The fourth challenge is to shift hydro-energy generation from stored river water dams to naturally flowing waterfalls, releasing river water to uses that are more critical, such as irrigation and domestic and industrial uses. The combined impact of the technology redefinition in energy sector should be to make oil, coal and natural gas (as a group), all renewable sources as a group, and nuclear sources contribute equally to energy generation, at around 33 percent each.

How would China and India, and their technologists cope with the challenges of the required tectonic shift in energy consumption and generation? Massive replacement of dated generating equipment, optimization of energy distribution and upgrades of machinery in user industries are the low hanging fruits which will serve to lower the cost of energy generation and consumption. It is, however, in establishing new infrastructure for renewable energy generation that technology needs to provide a new definition. Given that India is a hot, tropical, windy country with an enormously long coast line it is possible to make India a hub of renewable energy. Technologists, industrialists and bureaucrats need to collaborate to establish solar energy and wind energy cities across the length and breadth of the country, and ocean energy plants all along the coastal line. It is a technology challenge that could redefine the scale, scope and competitiveness of India’s economic and industrial growth in future for India.

Expanded convergence

The second wave of technology was characterized by a new principle of multi-function delivery, aptly called convergence. Devices began to be designed to perform more than one function; and in some cases the distinction between the primary function and the secondary functions got diffused. Cellular phone is a classic case that overrode the primary function of long distance speech communication with secondary functions such as camera, music player, organizer, multi-channel messaging, GPS navigation and social networking. Thousands of software applications have served to convert the mobile phone into a powerful daily aid and a virtual pocket computer.

In the third wave, the principle of convergence will test new frontiers even in mobile telephony, expanding to cover more functions, some of which could not be linked previously even in concept. Current email messages could be replaced by voice and video mail messages, making mobile phone interactions virtually face to face human interactions. From today’s finger touch banking the mobile phone could morph into tomorrow’s portfolio manager, making program-guided transactions. A hand held mobile phone could in future become a virtual health companion by diagnosing body health parameters real time through new sensor technologies.

Convergence could take multiple forms. As a hypothetical but potentially feasible proposition future televisions could come with video capture potential while set-top boxes could have reverse transmission capability enabling aspiring citizens participate in reality shows of the studios direct from their homes. Direct-to-home television transmission could also become direct-to-studio transmission. New power generation equipment could be designed to work equally effectively with all kinds of feedstock, from coal to oil, or from hydro to solar. Applications of convergence could be as many as human ingenuity could dream; the third wave of technology could make them possible.

Diversified concurrence

The automobile industry made a major contribution in the second wave by conceptualizing and implementing concurrent engineering. By involving all the domains of an automobile value chain, from market research and product development, through facility planning and manufacturing, to supply chain and marketing, the Japanese automobile industry created a paradigm that brought new products on time to market , with targeted quality and cost profiles. The third wave of convergence, which involves designs without walls, requires concurrence across businesses which were traditionally built around mono-function products.

Hitherto, convergence has been technology driven. Innovative technologists utilized adjacent usage spaces to develop design-driven products with multi-market segment capabilities. The third wave would require different business segments, and perhaps even different companies, to collaborate and define new product possibilities. For example, laptop makers and projection device makers could collaborate to develop a laptop which could also project the presentations. Flower vase makers could collaborate with organic farmers to develop readymade vases with green plants for homes. Food processing firms could collaborate with pharmaceutical firms to develop immune boosting functional foods. Possibilities could be many.

Concurrence may not be natural and collaborative either due to competitive business compulsions or due to an inability of firms to balance mutual contributions and rewards. Concurrence would have to be achieved in such conditions through creation of requisite technical capabilities, licensing arrangements or downright acquisitions. Organic or inorganic, an ability to combine multiple technologies to develop multi-functional products will be the new dimension of competitiveness. Google’s acquisition of YouTube was an example; so is HP’s acquisition of Palm. Valero’s acquisitive move into ethanol production and ExxonMobil’s multi-million dollar bet on in-house research into algae and synthetic genome technologies reflect the opposite, but equally relevant, approaches to merge businesses without borders.

Efficiency in form factor

A new found focus on form factor has been at the core of the new wave of miniaturization and the emergence of convergence devices. The third wave of technology, however, has to look beyond miniaturization to exploit the full potential of form factor, and to conserve resources. The fundamental premise for the third wave technologists is that at least 50 percent of any device is a wasted, non-usable or non-used space, partly due to the technological limitations and partly due to user habits. Take, for example, a television in which the back of the panel is a completely wasted space. It is possible to design televisions with back-to-back twin panels if only users are willing to use televisions as central pieces of entertainment rather than as corner pieces!

Laptops, notebooks, net-books and computer display screens are yet another device group that reflect an enormous waste of space. At a very simple level, with more robust display screens, the effective display screen size within the total screen can be increased from the current 85 percent to 95 percent. In addition, with the advent of touch screen technologies, there is no reason why both the internal sides of a laptop cannot be fully utilized to achieve total display or partitioned display; for example, the top of the opened laptop for typing in of information and the bottom for simultaneous browsing of the Internet. The front of a notebook can also feature an optional screen for two co-workers to simultaneously see, discuss and edit. Electronic readers and mobile phones can be released from the constraints of passive space design to active space design, with some ingenuity.

Form factor efficiency need not be confined only to electronic devices. Industrial machinery, farm equipment, automobiles and home interiors, to quote a few, could benefit from new dimensions in form factor efficiency. Machining centers were a great advancement in multi-machining of components, especially complex automobile parts such as cylinder head and cylinder block. Typically, the part to be machined is kept in the centre of the machining centre. The idle exterior of the machining centre can also be designed to perform other machining activities such as planning and shaping or to perform certain surface measurements. Farm equipment constitute yet another example of how the total surface area can be differentially designed and shaped to meet different soil conditions and tilling requirements. Automobiles can be designed for example to offer seat configurations that can be modified to suit the occupiers’ body profiles and driving preferences. Home interiors offer enormous potential for space-optimized and convergence-oriented designs.

Regenerative engineering

Technology has, so far, made life easier for the human being with the advances in science, engineering, information processing and medicine. Devices and equipment are continually upgraded to newer levels of efficiency and new devices and equipment are also continuously developed to offer new applications. Creation of robots and humanoids has been the crowning glory of this technological achievement. The next wave of technology could create robots which replicate human beings with thought processes and movements which are as close to those of human beings as possible. The third wave could see two different dimensions of medical technology.

The first is a chip-empowered human being. If a chip can power a computer or a device to the highest realms of performance, it would be equally feasible in future for a chip to power a handicapped person to overcome his or her handicaps. Physically challenged special persons can look forward to previously unforeseen contributions from third wave of technology. Technologists, physicians and surgeons, however, need to collaborate to establish connectivity between the human chip and neural networks of the human brain. Just as a pacemaker did wonders to cardiac performance, the new human chip would be the future brain maker, duly supported by a slew of bio-medical parts.

The second is creation of human organs through regenerative medicine. Stem cells are showing enormous promise to rebuild human capabilities, whether of weakened heart muscles or re-growing lost organs. While immortality is certainly antithetical to rules of life, enhanced span of life and improved quality of life are certainly possible through regenerative medicine. Technology would need to create appropriate environmentally conditioned laboratory suites and new generation equipment for cellular and molecular analysis. Aseptic cryogenic, genetic and incubating equipment with enhanced bioengineering capabilities are required for scientists to explore new vistas in regenerative medicine .


The world is in the throes of several challenges posed by depletion of resources, global warming, and increasingly volatile economic and social conditions. Technology has made life meaningful in the past bringing previously inconceivable things into the realms of life; there is no reason why technology would not usher in yet another transformation for a society that is being increasingly pressured not only by technology itself but also by the way technology is deployed.

The new third wave of technology will express itself in four essential dimensions. The first will be in terms of ensuring food and energy security for the planet, through new infrastructural technologies. The second will be in terms of growing businesses without borders through new convergence products and concurrence businesses. The third will be in terms of greater utilization of form factor design for each device and equipment to be spatially and functionally more utilitarian. The fourth will be in terms of integrating technological and human capabilities to regenerate and reinforce human capabilities.

The world would be a far better and rejuvenating place to live for the human race if the third wave of technology pans out as presented herein.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 2, 2010

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