"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Thomas Watson, Chairman, IBM, 1943
"[Future] invention, discovery is likely not to have the same value as the transistor had or the automobile had. The equivalent of those things will be invented or discovered, but by themselves, they are just not going to be able to generate real business value or wealth as these things did." --Nick Donofrio, Senior Vice President of Technology and Manufacturing, IBM, 2004
The Donofrio quote was taken from this BBC article. Donofrio says that even in the case of the automobile and transistor, the value came not from the thing itself, but from how it was used: its social and cultural impacts. And he goes on to argue that technologists will need to focus on service and value rather than inventing gee-whiz gizmos as in the dot-com era. His vision of future technology focuses on seamless human-computer interfaces such as networked jewelry.
He has a point: general-purpose communication enablers will be quite important. But he is missing at least three other general-purpose technologies.
Before I list these general-purpose technologies, I'll comment on why general-purpose is the key concept. Most techno-gizmos are of limited utility and applicability. They're built and used for a specific purpose, so their value is limited. But a general-purpose technology is one that can be used for a wide range of purposes. It's both adaptable--engineerable and flexible--and powerful, so that it can add value to a wide range of activities. Electricity is clearly a general-purpose technology. Transistors are general-purpose switches, and they enable cheap computers that are general-purpose information processors. Cars are general-purpose; they're used for transporting people and objects very rapidly almost anywhere, as well as being a lot of fun (except in rush hour).
So general-purpose communication aids will certainly transform society. But almost by definition, any general-purpose technology will transform society. What Donofrio seems to be implying is that we're not going to see general-purpose technologies like we used to. But it didn't take me long to think of three that we will be seeing in the next few decades.
Molecular manufacturing (you knew I was going to say that, didn't you?) will give us general-purpose control over nanoscale structure. That will allow us to build lots of new, powerful, commercially valuable devices. That will certainly be transformative--though whether in a good or a bad way remains to be seen.
But there are at least two other general-purpose technologies coming soon. One is control of intelligence. Zack Lynch has been writing about neurotechnologies as the next big breakthrough. I've written to him, "What about molecular manufacturing?" And he's responded, more or less, "Yeah, that'll be big, but neurotech will be *really* big." Well, he knows more about neurotech than I do, so my best guess is that they'll both be *really* big. Anyway, neurotech seems to be approaching a point where we'll be able to engineer our brains, choose our moods, increase our intelligence and skills and learning ability. And then there's AI, which despite having a degree in it I know very little about. But even partial and limited success at general-purpose problem solving would have quite an impact.
The other approaching breakthrough is engineered control of health. We're just barely starting to move medicine from alchemy (try things and see if they work) to engineering. We don't yet even understand which parts of the genome are important and what they do. But we're learning fast. As our tools and sensors shrink to the size of cells and molecules, and our computers improve to where they can encompass the genome and then the proteome, we will become able to develop treatments deliberately rather than haphazardly. We can expect a radical increase in health and lifespan.
The BBC article begins, "It is unlikely that future technological inventions are going to have the same kind of transformative impact that they did in the past." I don't know whether Donofrio would go that far; I suspect the BBC is trying to downplay the power of technology, as they have done with molecular manufacturing. All Donofrio said was that new technologies wouldn't generate "real business value or wealth." But given the ability of businesses to extract wealth from almost any new invention, I think he's wrong even about that.