One such area is driverless cars: Google is one of the main forces behind this innovation, which would reduce accidents by around 90 per cent and liberate billions of hours of wasted time, unleashing a productivity revolution. Several states in the US have now changed their laws to allow driverless cars, which use Google street view, artificial intelligence and sensors and radars, and appear to work far better than human-driven cars. When these eventually go mainstream, they could transform society and the economy for the better.
Another revolutionary technology is 3D printing, which sounds like it comes out the febrile imagination of a science fiction writer but which actually exists. The way it works is astonishingly clever: it translates a digital file designed on a computer into a complex physical object, produced by small devices using a special kind of plastic. So somebody can draw a piece of furniture in 3D using computer-assisted design, and then the machine actually “prints” or produces it, using the plastic as the raw material. It is a wonder to watch and is set to transform key British industries over the next decade, according to a fascinating report out today by the Work Foundation’s Big Innovation Centre.
The study – by Andrew Sissons and Spencer Thompson – cogently argues that 3D printing could help shift some manufacturing jobs back to Britain, reduce the environmental impact of many goods, and offer consumers far greater choice. It will dramatically blur the boundaries between digital content and physical output and challenge the traditional model of mass production in manufacturing, enabling many objects to be made close to where they are needed. The industries most likely to be disrupted by these changes, according to the authors, include the textiles and clothing, pharmaceuticals, rubber and plastics, machinery and furniture industries. There will be significant potential for on-demand manufacture of drugs in hospitals and bespoke shaped plastics. The first area of real 3D penetration is likely to be furniture and low-tech toys, the report argues. There are still lots of issues with the technology, which remains in a state of infancy. Most notably, the range of materials available to 3D printers remains limited.
The Work Foundation – a left-wing think-tank – is too keen on government micro-managing this crucial new technology. We certainly don’t need a 3D task force led by Vince Cable, or subsidies. But we do need an intellectual property system that is fit for purpose; to ensure 3D printing isn’t used for dangerous ends (such as making bombs) and that a clear framework of responsibility and liability is needed when things go wrong. One thing is sure: driverless cars and 3D printing are the big ideas to watch over the next decade.
IT is excellent news that microeconomists have won this year’s Nobel Prize for economics. As we explain on p3 and p17, Al Roth is an expert at matching theory, and Lloyd Shapley developed his insights using sophisticated game theory. They have helped patients who needed new organs, shed light on marriage and dating choices and helped design new markets. Their work is genuinely useful – sadly, not something that can be said of all of modern economics.
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