Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Future Is Coming: The Technology Revolution of the Roaring 2020s

In my August 12 newsletter, I discussed the technological innovations that drove the prosperity of the 1920s. Then I discussed the ones that are likely to do the same during the current decade:

“The awesome range of futuristic ‘BRAIN’ technological innovations includes biotechnology, robotics and automation, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. There are also significant innovations underway in 3-D manufacturing, electric vehicles [EVs], battery storage, blockchain, and quantum computing.”

In my 2018 book, Predicting the Markets, I observed:

“In the past, technology disrupted animal and manual labor. It sped up activities that were too slow when done by horses, such as pulling a plow or a stagecoach. It automated activities that required lots of workers. Assembly lines required fewer workers and increased their productivity. It allowed for a greater division of labor, but the focus was on brawn. Today’s ‘Great Disruption,’ as I like to call it, is increasingly about technology doing what the brain can do, but faster and with greater focus.”

The future is always coming, of course. However, the future is already here to a large extent. Consider the following awesome technologies that are just starting to proliferate in ways that should boost productivity and prosperity:

(1) Home-based work, education, and entertainment. The pandemic has transformed the way many people work, pursue an education, and get entertained. They can do all these activities from home because of technologies that allow them to carry on their lives over the Internet. When the pandemic is finally over, many people may go back to their old normal routines. Employers, however, may tell their employees to continue to work from home or closer to home in the suburbs. Reducing or eliminating commutes to work certainly increases productivity. It also cuts the costs of urban office space.

A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research compared employee behavior over two eight-week periods before and after shelter-in-place mandates were implemented. Looking at email and meeting metadata, the group calculated that the workday lasted 48.5 minutes longer, the number of meetings increased about 13%, and people sent an average of 1.4 more emails per day to their colleagues.

(2) Telemedicine. Telemedicine allows patients to visit with clinicians remotely using virtual technology. Innovative uses of telemedicine are increasing with advances in telehealth platforms and remote patient-monitoring technology. New mobile health apps and wearable monitoring devices help track a patient’s vitals, provide alerts about needed care, and help patients access their physician. Over the last few months, millions of people have relied on video or telephone calls to talk to their doctors.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has taken unprecedented action to expand telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries. On March 13, 2020, President Trump made an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act empowering CMS to issue waivers to Medicare program requirements to support healthcare providers and patients during the pandemic. One of the first actions CMS took under that authority was to expand Medicare telehealth on March 17, 2020, allowing all beneficiaries to receive telehealth in any location, including their homes.

Before the public health emergency, approximately 13,000 beneficiaries in fee-for-service Medicare received telemedicine in a week. In the last week of April, nearly 1.7 million did so. In total, over 9 million beneficiaries have received a telehealth service during the public health emergency, mid-March through mid-June, according to a July 15 HealthAffairs blog post.

(3) 6G. An August 21 article in SingularityHub, titled “6G Will Be 100 Times Faster Than 5G—and Now There’s a Chip for It,” reports the following:

“Though 5G—a next-generation speed upgrade to wireless networks—is scarcely up and running (and still nonexistent in many places) researchers are already working on what comes next. It lacks an official name, but they’re calling it 6G for the sake of simplicity (and hey, it’s tradition). 6G promises to be up to 100 times faster than 5G—fast enough to download 142 hours of Netflix in a second—but researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how to make such ultra-speedy connections happen.”

However, this technology probably won’t be available for prime time until 2030. For now, we’ll have to settle for 5G. The pandemic has slowed the rollout of 5G at the same time as it has increased the demand for the technology to facilitate working remotely by boosting data transmission speeds. Nevertheless, the rollout should continue during the second half of this year into 2021. When it becomes truly accessible, it promises to be more than 30 times faster than the average 4G download speed and to revolutionize self-driving cars, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things.

(4) Robotics, automation, and 3D manufacturing. The August 18 issue of National Geographic featured an article titled “The robot revolution has arrived.” The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly boosted the interest in having robots do more of what humans did before the health crisis. In many instances, it is simply the medically wise alternative to using infection-prone humans. The article reports:

“Already, in 2020, robots take inventory and clean floors in Walmart. They shelve goods and fetch them for mailing in warehouses. They cut lettuce and pick apples and even raspberries. They help autistic children socialize and stroke victims regain the use of their limbs. They patrol borders and, in the case of Israel’s Harop drone, attack targets they deem hostile.”

The pandemic disrupted global supply chains. One likely outcome is that manufacturers will increasingly explore ways to work with suppliers closer to home. Instead of just-in-time inventories, companies will be looking for ways to have just-in-case inventories available in the event of future supply disruptions. They are increasingly using 3D printers to produce parts on demand to the exact specification and in the exact numbers required—reducing wait time and safeguarding against external disruptions.

Robots, automation, and 3D printers are revolutionizing manufacturing. An August 21 article in reports:

“Mighty Buildings claims to increase the efficiency and reduce the waste in building modern homes. Drawing from foundations in robotics, manufacturing and sustainability, Mighty Buildings’ goal is no less than the reimagination of the construction sector. The company uses a combination of 3D printing and prefab techniques to automate up to 80 percent of the building process for greater productivity. … According to the Oakland, Calif.-based startup, they can build a 350-square-foot studio unit in under 24 hours while using 95 percent fewer labor hours at twice the speed of traditional manufacturing methods.”

If one of the consequences of the pandemic is de-urbanization, there will be more suburbanites who will need to buy one or more cars to get around their small towns. The August 7 Forbes reports:

“A mass shift to single-occupancy vehicles is occurring nationwide according to new research from Cornell University, which poses a major traffic and pollution problem in many cities. The solution, according to today’s most influential automakers, is to accelerate the development of electric, driverless cars programmed by artificial intelligence.”

Volkswagen AG pledged more than a fifth of its vehicles will be electric by 2025, while investing 44 billion euros ($52 billion) on autonomous driving and “mobility services” by 2023.

By the end of the 2020s, autonomous drones carrying passengers and cargo could be as ubiquitous as in the old television cartoon The Jetsons. EHang, a Chinese company, reportedly is ahead of the pack with its autonomous aerial vehicle, or AAV. A user can summon an EHang drone using an app. The drone lands at a predetermined spot near the requested pick-up location. It can carry up to two passengers with a combined weight of under 440 pounds and travel up to 32 kilometers (22 miles) on a single charge.

(5) Batteries. The outlook for EVs and drones depends largely on progress made in increasing the capacity and service lives of large batteries while reducing their weight, as Jackie and I have often discussed in the past. The future may belong to solid-state batteries, which reportedly could be available by 2025. That’s the same year that the world’s biggest automakers plan to launch an array of new electric models.

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