Jan 25th 2016

The many reasons to be excited  about America’s future

Every 30 or 40 years, Americans become incredibly pessimistic.  They begin to believe the nation is falling behind in competitiveness and innovation, that their children will not be as well off as they themselves have been, and that some other country will own the future.  They fear that the U.S. will go the way of the British Empire in the 20th century.

This may be the country’s greatest advantage, because it causes it to maintain a level of humility and to constantly reinvent itself.  But the fears are completely unfounded.

The United States is in fact in the middle of a dramatic revival and rejuvenation, propelled by an amazing wave of technological innovations.  These breakthroughs are delivering the enormous productivity gains and dramatic cost savings needed to sustain economic growth and prosperity.  And they are enabling entrepreneurs to solve the grand challenges of humanity, the problems that have always bedeviled the human race: disease, hunger, clean water, energy, education, and security.

Through advances in computing whose rate of acceleration Moore’s Law describes, faster computers are being used to design faster computers.  And these faster computers, in turn, are making it possible to design new forms of energy, smaller and more powerful sensors, artificial-intelligence software that can interpret the massive amounts of information that we are gathering, and robots that can do the mundane work of humans.  It is even becoming possible to redesign human cells and other organisms.  Almost all fields of science are becoming digitized, enabling them to start advancing at exponential rates.

The really good news is that the world will share in the prosperity that this American reinvention is creating.

There are 1.2 billion people with no connection to a power grid, for example, and another 2.5 billion who can get power only intermittently and so use fuels such as kerosene for lamps.  Kerosene is a dirty fuel that, according to The Economist, costs $10 per kilowatt–hour— which is about 50 times more than Americans pay for their energy.  Worse, kerosene fires are epidemic in Africa, and their toxic fumes cause respiratory ailments that kill hundreds of thousands per year.  This is all about to change: within a decade and a half, we will have the ability to harness the power of the sun and wind to provide 100% of the planet’s energy needs. The cost of clean energy will fall to the point that it seems free.  We will be able to light up every corner of the globe and allow children in Africa to be able to study when they get home, to equip all homes with heating and air conditioning, and to produce unlimited food and clean water.

Desalination plants have so far struggled to get funded, because they are power hungry.  This makes water production through desalination prohibitively expensive.  When power costs decline by 30% to 40%, desalination will become an economical option; when they approach zero, which will happen, coastal zones will become water-rich regions.  We will be able to remove environmentally damaging dams and transport water everywhere.

Despite the recent El Niño, California is still suffering from an extreme drought.  Farmers and city-dwellers are fighting over water rights; where I live, in Silicon Valley, some towns have dramatically increased water rates—affecting rich and poor residents alike.  The doomsayers are warning that California will need to change forever and that it will need to stop growing fruits, vegetables, and almonds.  With almost free energy and desalination, though, Sacramento River Delta will easily afford to grow rice, and the San Joaquin Valley can grow more almonds.

Affordable smartphones are also becoming available world wide, connecting the human race as never before.  When Silicon Valley companies succeed in perfecting their drones, balloons, and microsatellites later in this decade, they will be able to blanket the Earth with Internet access, thereby providing everyone with access to a sea of knowledge.  Communities across the globe will be able to learn from each other, participate in the global economy, and uplift themselves.

With the advances in genomics and with health sensors that connect to smartphones, our entire health-care system is about to be upended.  We are moving into an era of data-driven, crowdsourced, participatory, genomics-based medicine.  Just as our bathroom scales give us instant readings of our weight, devices we wear on our wrists or ingest into our bodies will monitor our health and warn us when we are about to get sick.  Artificial intelligence–based applications will prescribe medicines or lifestyle changes holistically, on the basis of our full medical history, habits, and genetic makeup.  This is a good thing, because health care is a misnomer for our medical system: it should be called sick care.  Doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies only make money when we are in bad health.  The technology industry, which is creating these advances, is however motivated to help us prevent illness and disease and stay healthy in the first place—so we can surf the Internet more and download more apps.

Advances in robotics and 3D printing will also, over the next decade, change the way in which we manufacture products that we use every day.  Our home 3D printers will produce our toothbrushes, clothing, and even our food.  Robots will soon start driving our cars and stocking shelves in supermarkets, and will care for the elderly and provide companionship.

America is leading the world in technology advances, but innovation is happening everywhere.  It is an unstoppable force, one that will create great opportunities and disruptions.  Entire industries will be wiped out as new ones are created.  Jobs such as taxi driver and machinist will be eliminated, and a few new ones will emerge.  We will find solutions to the grand challenges of humanity, and everything will be more affordable, but income inequality will rise because the creators of the new technologies will be the ones most to gain financially.

As America turns 250 a decade from now, it is going to be a time to reflect on how far the country has come and what has made it what it is.  But it will be past time too to foresee the effects of technology changes and to prepare for a future far different from anything we have imagined.  Management consulting firm A.T. Kearney has presented four such futures for the United States, from “twilight’s last gleaming” to “so gallantly streaming”. Anything is possible, and that is why we need to change the national dialog now from one that is bogged down in pessimism to one in which we discuss how we make the most of the amazing opportunities ahead.

For Vivek Wadhwa's site, please click here.

To follow Vivek Wadhwa on Twitter, please click here.


Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering,  Duke University; and Distinguished Fellow at Singularity University. He is author of  “The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent”—which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year of 2012, and ” Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology”—which documents the struggles and triumphs of women.  In 2012, the U.S. Government awarded Wadhwa distinguished recognition as an  “Outstanding American by Choice”— for his “commitment to this country and to the common civic values that unite us as Americans”. He was also named by Foreign Policy Magazine as Top 100 Global Thinker in 2012. In 2013, TIME Magazine listed him as one of The 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech.

Wadhwa oversees research at Singularity University, which educates a select group of leaders about the exponentially advancing technologies that are soon going to change our world.  These advances—in fields such as robotics, A.I., computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials—are making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only for governments and large corporations to do: solve the grand challenges in education, water, food, shelter, health, and security.

In his roles at Stanford and  Duke, Wadhwa lectures in class on subjects such as entrepreneurship and public policy, helps prepare students for the real world, and leads groundbreaking research projects.  He is an advisor to several governments; mentors entrepreneurs; and is a regular columnist for The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Accelerators, LinkedIn Influencers blog, Forbes, and the American Society of Engineering Education’s Prism magazine.  Prior to joining academia in 2005, Wadhwa founded two software companies.


Browse articles by author

More Essays

May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "