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.


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Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."