This November, the American people will elect a new president — a big decision made more complicated by the startling technological progress being made in information technology, energy, education, manufacturing and health care. These accelerating advances make it critical for today’s candidates to move beyond campaign slogans and get serious about debating the future.
To better understand why considering the future is so important, let’s review how much the world has changed since 2008, when Barack Obama was elected on the slogan “Change We Can Believe In.”
Eight years ago, horizontal drilling and fracking technology was in its infancy. It would have been difficult to envision how these tools would transform the American economy by making the U.S. the largest net exporter of energy in the world as well as delivering $1.50-a-gallon gas. Is it feasible that work now being done on advanced battery storage technology could similarly transform the energy equation in the next four years? If so, how does such a technology fit into Ted Cruz’s offer to “Reignite the Promise of America”?
In 2008, when Facebook and YouTube were relatively new and Twitter had barely gotten started, it would have been difficult to imagine how the hundreds of millions of conversations hosted by these platforms would soon tilt public opinion enough to help legalize gay marriage in America. Undoubtedly, new information-sharing platforms will emerge in the near future. Could some sway public opinion on issues as diverse as euthanasia and a universal basic income? When Hillary Clinton claims she is “for America,” how do such topics figure in her vision, and where might she be open to changing her mind — as she did on gay marriage?
When Obama was first inaugurated, Airbnb had only just begun and Uber didn’t yet exist. Today, the former is forcing local governments to rethink how the hospitality industry is regulated, while the latter is disrupting the taxi industry and causing untold numbers of people to rethink whether car ownership is truly necessary. Is it possible that within the next four years, massive open online courses (MOOCs) could revolutionize education by delivering high-quality classes to millions at a fraction of the cost? When Sen. Bernie Sanders claims “a future to believe in,” does he believe in lowering higher education costs for younger people by promoting MOOCs or, alternatively, in protecting the interests of tenured university professors who may not fare so well in this brave, new world?
In a similar vein, how does Donald Trump view today’s continued advances in robotics, self-driven vehicles and increasingly powerful artificial intelligence platforms? (Recall that Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson were introduced only in 2011). If these technologies displace millions of manual laborers, taxi, Uber and truck drivers, and even doctors, lawyers and bankers, how does Trump envision “making America great again” for these individuals?
Lastly, in 2008 the cost of sequencing a human genome was $1 million. Today, the price is around $250. By 2020, it will cost pennies. This advance — along with exponential advances in gene editing, computational biology, nanotechnology, neuroscience and regenerative medicine — promises to do everything from curing cancer to extending life expectancy beyond 100 years. Where do such technologies fit into Marco Rubio’s vision of a “new American century,” and how does he propose ensuring the continued viability of Social Security and Medicare in the face of such seismic change?
The questions are profound, and answers will be difficult, but this is all the more reason the American people, the media and our leading candidates need to debate the future.
For if the past eight years have taught us anything, it is that slogans are well and good, but the only change we truly can believe in is change itself.
Jack Uldrich is a corporate futurist and the author of “Foresight 2020: A Futurist Explores the Trends Transforming Tomorrow.” He was director of strategic planning for the state of Minnesota under Gov. Jesse Ventura.