New technology can make us more productive, safer and more connected. It can also bring new challenges, which are explored in three articles in this issue.
Whether we’re talking about the first industrial revolution’s use of steam and water power to replace human and animal labor, or today’s new generation of children who are growing up with microwave ovens, nonstick frying pans and even air conditioning, most adults have a hard time imaging life without the automobile, electricity or the Internet. Yet these technologies are not only essential for modern life, they’re a central part of what makes the economy tick.
How fast a new technology can go from research in universities and labs to mass-market use depends on the type of technology and the ecosystem it’s designed for. Server software based on new technology can reach volume use within hours, but it can take 10 years or more for new battery technology to hit smartphones. This is because there are numerous stages that must be completed to bring a new battery into production: research and prototype, building the factory, qualification, rebuilding the factory again and then starting to produce.
The pace and form of technological advance is largely determined by public policy. Decisions about funding research, granting intellectual property rights and enforcing antitrust laws all influence the kinds of technological change that we see. But technological advances also have the potential to bring unwanted side effects, like pollution. One way to address these is by allowing market-like devices, like emissions trading, that internalize environmental costs so they’re factored into production and investment decisions.