As the government has scrambled to keep America's banking and auto industries afloat, it has become all too easy to neglect the need for long-term economic and industrial growth. A key prerequisite for the country to return to sustainable, balanced growth is the creation of new technologies to replace those lost to globalization. And for those new sectors to appear, innovation and breakthroughs have to occur.
Unfortunately, as far as innovation goes, the U.S. seems to have gotten off to a slow start in the 21st century. Granted, advances like iPods, iPhones, and notebook computers have changed the face of media consumption and human interaction. For that matter, smart-technology fans can also chime-in: it is now possible to control a home's air conditioning, heating, security, and other systems from a PDA, cell phone or computer. However, even these impressive breakthroughs are far from game-changers. They may stimulate some aspects of the economy, but they won't significantly boost GDP, create jobs, transform daily life, and increase real incomes.
The last big game-changer was probably the internet: with its unparalleled access to information, the technology fundamentally altered almost every aspect of human interaction and commerce. However, regardless of whether one dates its creation from the 1960's, or focuses on the 1990's, when it began to reach widespread consumer use, the internet definitely belongs to the last century.
In this century, however, there has yet to emerge a major invention that will physically and socially transform the world. For America to secure long-term growth, it needs to find a new railroad, a new telephone, a new superconductor. In this context, three sectors that really seem poised for a breakthrough are autos, commercial aviation, and electric power transmission.
Autos: Why hasn't that breakthrough, next-generation car appeared yet? Where is the low-weight car that gets 50 miles per gallon on the highway, and has the durability, ride and handling of a BMW 7-Series?
Aviation: In the last century, commercial aviation replaced propellers with turbines and approached the sound barrier before inexplicably stopping in its tracks. Admittedly, supersonic flight occurred with the Concorde, which was discontinued for financial reasons in 2003, but that hardly explains why we haven't developed a new, cheaper supersonic plane (or space plane) to replace the SST. Commercial flights should be traveling considerably faster than the sound barrier by now, yet are still moving at roughly the same speed as 1970's-era 747-100s.
Electric power transmission: America is still transmitting power on the same type of wires that it used 30 years ago. It seems odd that a cheap, durable, room-temperature superconductor -- one that would dramatically lower power costs -- hasn't been developed yet.
If anyone has any ideas as to why the United States has fallen behind in the game-changer industry, or what breakthroughs we need to generate growth, please add your comments below.
Financial Editor Joseph Lazzaro is based in New York.
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