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The 5 Powerhouse Industries of the 21st Century

2012 November 28

A lot can happen in a century.  In 1900 Argentina was an economic powerhouse and New Zealand had the world’s highest GDP per capita at $4300. Most people didn’t have indoor plumbing or electric lighting, much less an automobile or a radio.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people didn’t live very long, life expectancy was in the mid-forties.  Penicillin wouldn’t be discovered until 1928.  The concept of the atom still wasn’t widely accepted and a “computer” was a person who did arithmetic.

It’s tough to imagine what someone in 1900 would think of us, chatting on mobile phones, zipping around and tweeting away, but clearly they would have a hard time believing it all. Yet today, technology advances exponentially faster, so the change during the next century will be infinitely greater.  Here are the industries that will dominate.

1. Nanotech

In 1959, just a few days after Christmas, Richard Feynman, one of the world’s most brilliant scientists, strode up to the lectern to address the American Physical Society.  In what was probably a welcome break from the usual fare of incomprehensible titles strewn with Greek letters, he simply called his talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.

He began with a simple question, “Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?”  He then went on to describe, at roughly a high school level, how it could all be done.  Within the hour, he had created the new field of nanotechnology, the science of building things at a molecular scale.

Today, nanotechnology is at the core of just about every advanced industry, from computer chips to new generations of nanomaterials that confer special properties such as super strength or more surface area for solar cells.  Designing things at a molecular scale is opening up possibilities that seem more like science fiction than science fact.

Future applications now in development range from nanorobots that can treat cancer by attacking tumors at the molecular level, programmable matter than can create products that can be reformatted to take new shapes and functions to completely new forms of energy and manufacture.  Mindblowing!

2. Genomics

At the beginning of this century, scientists successfully mapped the human genome.  It took just over a decade and cost several billion dollars.  Today, genomics is the most rapidly advancing technology of all.  The journal Nature, recently announced a machine that will soon be on the market that can sequence a genome in 15 minutes for $900.

The impact goes far beyond the genes themselves, scientists are also building a database of the proteins that the genes code for, called ENCODE, which is unlocking the secrets of how our biological machinery works.  That’s opening the door to a whole range of new therapies, such as synthetic organs, that can extend life and lower healthcare costs.

There are also important applications outside of medicine, like Craig Venter’s synthetic life initiative that seeks to create organisms from the ground up, which can produce important compounds, like fuel to run our cars.  The US Dept of Energy has set a requirement of producing 17% of our current consumption of oil this way by 2022.

So taking into account that health care makes up almost 10% of the total GDP of advanced economies (and roughly double that in the US) and add to that the enormous market for petroleum, genomics is set to be a truly massive industry.

3. Strong Artificial Intelligence (Strong AI)

The field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) sprung forth in 1956 from a conference at Dartmouth which included such luminaries such as Marvin Minsky, and Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory.  There was great enthusiasm and they believed that within 20 years a computer could do any task a human could do, except better.

Alas, they were somewhat overly optimistic.  Still, over the next few decades a wide variety of techniques, such as Bayesian nets, Markov chains and genetic algorithms led to new applications and spawned new fields, such as pattern recognition and data mining.  By the late 1990’s,IBM’s Deep Blue, beat the human world champion in a chess match.

Today, we can scarcely get through a normal day without utilizing machine intelligence. Computers organize the logistics when we send a package, make sure that the right products are on the shelves when we go to the store, organize flights for us online and help our fat fingers send messages accurately on our smart phones.

As processing power becomes abundant and cheap, we are quickly moving into the realm of strong AI, where computers meet or exceed human capability for common tasks.  For instance, in the DAPRA Urban Challenge, cars navigated city streets by themselves.  Ray Kurzweil believes that computers will affordably simulate human brains within 20 years.

4. Robotics

The first industrial robot, Unimate, went to work at a GM factory in 1961.  Its job was to do dangerous welding without putting humans at risk.  Today, robots are revolutionizing warehouses and we are moving toward a new phase of of lights out manufacturing, like the fully automated IBM plant in Texas than makes keyboards.

Robotics is now entering a golden age.  Microsoft is building a standard programing platform for the technology.  Companies like Willow Garage are promoting an open source platform.  The US government has created a National Robotics Initiative to spur greater innovation.  All three approaches mimic the early days of the Web.

We now have robots in the battlefield that can rescue wounded soldiers in dangerous places, while a similar design can help patients from the bed to the wheelchair.  There is a dextrous hand that can pick up a lightbulb without breaking it, a superfast one that can move 200 objects per minute and even a robot with common sense.

The one thing that robots can not do is make important judgments on their own, however as strong AI becomes a reality, Robots will be doing that as well.

5. Technology Based Energy

Energy is another huge component of economic life, accounting for about 10% of global GDP.  In the last century, we got most of the energy we needed by digging it out of the ground.  In the 21st century, however, we will increasingly rely on technology based energy, which will not only be cleaner, but far cheaper and more abundant.

Take solar energy.  Currently, solar cell efficiency is around 15% and is just barely competitive with current grid rates.  However, a new factory will achieve 21% efficiency and experimental technologies have 34% efficiency.  Add to that parallel gains in manufacture and installations cost and solar could be half the price of coal by 2030.

But that’s only half the story.  Newer product technologies are also much more efficient. That cool new flat screen you just bought uses less than 50% the energy of the old kind and the next generation of OLED sets will even improve on that.  New LED lighting uses just a fraction of what the old incandescent bulbs do and they are more functional.

Add to that similar trends in wind, algae based fuels, 4th generation nuclear plants (which don’t need to bury waste) and technology based energy will be an enormous growth industry for decades to come.

The New, New Economy

Technologies don’t operate in a vacuum, but in ecosystems.  The internal combustion engine that was developed in the 19th century gave rise to the automobile industry that dominated the 20th.  Cars, in turn, gave rise to suburbs, gas stations, shopping malls and the strategic importance of the Middle East, altering the behavior of great nations.

In much the same way, the industries of the 21st century will be intertwined.  The 20th century advances in information technology are powering nanotechnology, genomics and strong AI.  Those in turn are making advanced energy and robotics possible, which will change culture and society just as completely as automobiles and oil did a century ago.

As Martin Heidegger once wrote, how we build is how we dwell.  21st century technology is already reducing global poverty, which is driving people to urban centers and creating tension as cultures mix and inevitably clash.  More hopefully, technology based energy will drive drive political focus away from troublesome areas.

Above all, the main difference between this century and the last will be speed, the new technologies are nonlinear and advance exponentially.  More will happen in the 20 years than used to happen in a lifetime.  The best is truly yet to come.

– Greg

9 Responses leave one →
  1. November 28, 2012


    I recon the most interesting are the ones we don’t know about yet or those that emerge from combination.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that some major findings in the sciences might revolutionise things later in the century – e.g. findings in quantum physics might revolutionise communication … and lets not even think about quantum neuronets 🙂

  2. November 28, 2012


    It’s a valid point, because there will always be things that surprise us and the specific applications are, of course, impossible to predict. However, I do think in terms of broad trends, we could and should make some common sense judgments.

    If you think back to 100 years ago, I don’t it is unreasonable to believe that someone could have predicted that the internal combustion engine, radio flight and (possibly) antibiotics would drive the 20th century and they would have been largely right. The only real surprises would have been computing and the Internet, which, in fact, had minimal impact until the very end of the period.

    – Greg

  3. December 2, 2012

    psst.. greg… am here in that dan person space. he donut mind. know not whatup much of the time. .299792458 of the time to be exact.

    came to be in 1948. wiring obsolete now. no care. no feel anything. donut compute. hundred years hence be way down below the rubble where I wanna be she may be.

    go now i. human near. Elmer, Bristol, England still

  4. Joe Smith permalink
    December 2, 2012

    Just a quick fact check:
    That picker robot moves 200 items per minute, not per second.

  5. December 2, 2012

    Good catch. I’ve corrected it.


    – Greg

  6. Khalid Sharrieff permalink
    March 30, 2014

    The prayer is, with all these advancements, we as humans will find

  7. January 10, 2016

    4 years in, and this is still a remarkably valuable post.
    Love your stuff, have a great 2016.

  8. January 10, 2016

    Thanks Allen! I had forgotten about this one.

    – Greg

  9. August 8, 2017

    Great insight Greg. However, you’ve been concentrating on tech-based industries only.

    There are some more which may come up big way. e.g. Wellness Industry. Would like to have talks on those grounds as well.

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