The Nobel Prize-winning economist reflects on misguided policies, social disasters—and whether he had it too easy.
My family was from Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, but I studied mostly in Santiniketan, in a school in India. My earliest memories, between the ages of 3 and 6, are all of Mandalay in Burma, where my father was a visiting professor in the 1930s. I felt much at home in all these places, and the idea that you can be at home only in one place has never taken root in my mind.
That people could die as a result of stupidity or worse in public policy is quite important in my understanding about the world. The Bengal famine of 1943, which I witnessed as a child of 9, was largely the result of stupid public policy, in a year of relatively good food supply.
[I also remember] the riots that occurred in the 1940s, which were not connected with the famine, but resulted from political cultivation of divisive identities. Suddenly, people who had seen themselves as just Indians, or just Bengalis, or just human beings, redefined themselves as sharply separated Hindus and Muslims. The wave of violence passed soon enough, but left a lot of dead bodies behind.
Functioning democratic societies do not tend to have famines. With free elections and multiple parties and a free press, it is very easy to bring a government down by criticizing it for not preventing a famine. Countries with recent cases of famine—North Korea, Sudan, Somalia—do not have functioning democracies.
Undernourishment is different. You can use democracy to fight it, but it requires a lot more imagination. For famine, all you have to do is print on the newspaper front page a picture of an emaciated mother with a skin-and-bones child on her lap, and you’ve made an editorial [against bad policies]. You need to work harder for an editorial about undernourishment, [which] is not very clearly visible, not killing people immediately.
I wish I could claim some heroism in persevering with my work against adversity, but I fear I cannot, since I have got nothing but encouragement from others—my teachers, my family, my friends, my colleagues, and most importantly my students. There isn’t a story of courage there.
Amartya Sen teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard University. He received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998.
The financial crisis is taking up most of the media oxygen these days, but the aftershocks of two other acute crises, in energy and food prices, are still reverberating. The combined result is that energy and agriculture are becoming inseparable issues.
It sounds counterintuitive, because lower oil prices are making fuels from farm and forest land less competitive. This is true, but only in the short run. The crisis has boosted awareness that dependency on a limited set of resources, including financial products, must be avoided by all means. The best response is diversification—and biofuels will be a major beneficiary of this incipient trend.
Today’s biofuels involve either ethanol or diesel, with the former accounting for roughly 90 percent of the market. Brazil, the United States, and China are the greatest producers. More than half of the world’s bioethanol is generated from sugar cane; the rest, controversially, comes mainly from corn. Biodiesel is mostly derived from rapeseed and sunflower. Jatropha and other “wild” crops are barely in their infancy. On the whole, biofuel crops as a tool to lift small farmers out of poverty remain an unfulfilled dream.
The real promise for biofuels lies not in food or feed crops, but in nonfood organic material such as grass, wood, organic waste (this may include the inedible part of crops, such as stalks), and algae. The potential supply is large: About half of all biomass on Earth consists of lignocellulose, a structural material of plants that can be processed into fuel. And the legal mandate will be there: By 2016, U.S. bioethanol producers will be required to switch to lignocellulosic feed stocks.
For now, coarse mechanical and chemical methods are necessary to separate the constituents of lignocellulose, and energy efficiency is still low. But soon enough, more sophisticated use of bacteria, fungi, and yeasts will make the processing far easier and cleaner. Aquatic biomass (such as algae) will provide another option, as will rapidly growing grass and tree species and organic refuse from households and factories.
Will the biofuels of tomorrow replace oil, as some advocates suggest? It’s doubtful. Produced and used responsibly, fuel from plants will at best be a small, though growing, piece of a broader renewable energy portfolio that includes wind and solar power. But even if electric cars are in widespread use and massive increases in fuel efficiency are taking place, the need for liquid fuels will still rise in the next decade in many areas. In some countries, adding biofuels to the mix will make a real difference in saving foreign exchange and boosting the agricultural sector. Biofuels have the added advantage of allowing the continued use of fossil fuel infrastructure, which, like it or not, is one Big Thing that will be with us for some time to come.
By-Louise O. Fresco is professor at the University of Amsterdam.
Financial engineering brought us to the edge of ruin, but human engineering—directed evolution—will reshape the global economy, and sooner than you think.
As countries and industries grow increasingly overwhelmed by wave after wave of bankruptcies, layoffs, restructurings, botched contracts, and embarrassing bonuses, they might lose sight of a second, much larger set of tsunamis gathering force over the horizon. While the economy is melting down, technology is moving forward at an even faster rate. The ability to adapt to the accelerating pace of change will determine who survives.
To use the current bailout jargon, at least three major technologies are shovel-ready: the programming of tissues, the ability to engineer cells, and robots. As these breakthroughs and others converge, we are going to see a massive restructuring of global economic power.
We can now program life. Several months ago, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics took a mycoplasma cell and inserted long strands of DNA into it, making the cell an entirely different species. In January 2008, the same team built and inserted the world’s largest organic molecule into a cell—this is the equivalent of a complete software package to program cells. One year later they produced thousands of these programs in a single day.
Taken together, these discoveries mean that one can write out a life code, manipulate a cell, and execute a specific desired function. It means we can convert cells into programmable manufacturing entities. But this software builds its own hardware, allowing companies to begin using bacteria to produce chemicals, fuels, medicines, textiles, data storage, or any series of organic products.
These discoveries, and new applications, are spreading rapidly. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have assembled a standard registry of biological parts. Think of this as a RadioShack for cells. You can get open-source proteins, RNA, DNA, regulators, and terminators. In 2008, hundreds of students from 21 countries came together to make cool live stuff. Rice University’s team tried to engineer resveratrol (the substance that makes red wine good for you) into beer, leading one judge to exclaim, “Wow, cancer-fighting beer. There is a God!” The Taiwanese team was just a little more ambitious. It attempted to engineer gut bacteria to act as a kidney.
Over the next decade, hundreds of open-source and private designs will blossom into millions of projects and applications. Some of these products will fundamentally change how and where we produce most of what we consume.
A second major tsunami is our increasing ability to grow complex organic structures, such as limbs, bladders, hearts, and tracheas. All complex organisms start out as undifferentiated, pluripotent cells, meaning these cells contain an entire genome and are able to produce all body parts. Mexico’s dinosaur-like axolotl salamanders naturally regrow body parts, including sections of their hearts and brains as well as whole limbs. A very young human can regrow parts of fingers. Taking this concept one step further, Cliff Tabin at Harvard Medical School is growing extra wings on chickens.
And soon, it may be possible to do this without a full body, just some cells. Over the past year, researchers shocked human cells back to their pluripotent state. This means that rather than using embryonic stem cells, we can grow skin cells from our own tissue into other body parts. Wake Forest University’s Anthony Atala is growing human bladders and ears in glass containers. A Colombian woman dying of tuberculosis had her own trachea regrown. And Harald C. Ott, a researcher now at Massachusetts General Hospital, took all the cells off a rat heart, leaving only a framework behind. His team then put rat stem cells onto this scaffold, whereupon the cells self-organized and the heart began to beat. Turns out life happens, and we are just learning the rules on how to program it.
Finally, a third tsunami, one we have gotten tired of waiting for: robots. Those of us of a certain age grew up expecting that by now we would have the Jetsons’ robot maid, Rosie, simplifying our lives. Yet so far, all we have is the Roomba vacuum cleaner. We have waited so long and watched so much science fiction that our expectations are now very low.
But change is coming fast. Boston Dynamics’s BigDog robot, for instance, is at the forefront of a paradigm shift in transportation, logistics, and perhaps warfare. It can carry nearly 350 pounds over complex terrain, including ice and steep, snowy forest ridges. Harvard University’s Robert Wood is working on the other end of the design scale, building robots the size of flies. All manner of surveillance, transport, and communication are about to be altered permanently by the coming robot age. When this development is tied to miniaturized, terabyte-scale processing, the engineering and data-processing breakthroughs will be extraordinary. Before we know it, robots will be everywhere.
Robotics and materials design are already changing humans. In the 2008 Olympics, double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius attempted to compete against the “able-bodied.” Running on a pair of artificial legs made of carbon fiber, he missed the cutoff time by just under a second. One of Pistorius’s successors is going to qualify next time. Two or three Olympics after that, the “disabled” may well be unbeatable. And the materials and robotics revolution is coming together with brain mapping, imaging, and control. Already, artificial arms can be controlled with no muscle input, just brain commands.
The possibilities go way beyond limbs. Our hard-of-hearing grandparents used big megaphones; our parents had big boxes, above the ears, that would whistle at odd times. Now we use barely visible miniature earbuds, and cochlear implants provide the deaf with at least some sense of sound. In a few years, as machines continue to double in power and halve in cost, they will hear normally. Two or three years after that, they will do many things we cannot: focus hearing, increase or decrease sensitivity, and hear sounds that dogs, bats, or whales can hear.
The same is happening with eyes. Implants may soon allow the blind to begin to see light and dark, and eventually shapes, colors, and details. Implanted eyes may someday be able to focus, see ultraviolet or infrared light, and record and transfer images externally.
As innovators begin to read, reproduce, and program life, they will change almost every industry across the globe. Already, a majority of the grain we consume is genetically modified, and clothes, medicines, plastics, cars, fuels, and information companies use life-science technologies. Disposable food containers at Wal-Mart are made of biodegradable plastic grown in plants. Companies as diverse as L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Kaiser Permanente, and Intel are betting part of their future on life sciences. DuPont has invested more than $100 million in a fermentation plant that helps grow your breathable, water-repellent jogging suit from bacteria. Toyota’s life-sciences division is making car parts from plastics grown in plants. Google’s mapping software helps display and navigate bacterial genomes, and the company is backing a Harvard scientist in decoding the genomes of 100,000 people.
Over the past few decades, the ability to code digits created an unprecedented burst of wealth, a large-scale restructuring of industries, and the rapid rise of once poor countries (Ireland, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and some regions of India come to mind). Something similar is occurring in life-literate countries. What began in the mid-1990s as an obscure subspecialty related to pharmaceuticals has become a key component of national development plans. Brazil leads the world in biofuels production thanks to life-science programs launched decades ago. South Korea invests in cloning and tissue engineering. Costa Rica is bridging medicine, ecotourism, and biomanufacturing. The next Bangalores will likely be powered by the life sciences.
Life code and other applied technologies such as robotics are perhaps the most powerful levers humans have ever had. The ability to adopt and adapt to these technologies will eventually determine who gets, or remains, powerful and rich on an individual, national, and regional scale. It is the basis for the next Ford, Intel, Microsoft, and Google. Boston, San Diego, Rockville, and Silicon Valley, not to mention Beijing, Singapore, and Seoul, are continuing to invest in life-science stocks, which are outperforming stocks in other industries.
But even the rise and fall of nations and regions may be relatively small compared with the eventual scale of the change. By beginning to read and write life code, we are gradually becoming a different species; we are moving from Homo sapiens into Homo evolutis, a human being that deliberately engineers its own evolution and that of other species. And that is the ultimate tsunami.
BY- Juan Enriquez, author of As the Future Catches You, is managing director of Excel Medical Ventures, a venture capital company that invests in life-science technologies, and a cofounder and shareholder of Synthetic Genomics.
As NIKOLAI KONDRATIEV shivered before his executioners on a wintry Siberian morning in 1938, he could scarcely have imagined that, 71 years later, his name would be resurrected by a new generation of business theorists and management gurus seeking to understand the first Great Recession of the 21st century.
A prime mover behind Lenin’s 1921 New Economic Policy, which briefly rehabilitated capitalism in order to save a young Soviet Union from imminent collapse, Kondratiev was an intellectual insurgent in a time and place where heresy could get one killed. Kondratiev theorized that economic activity took place in long waves: 50- or 60-year periods of creativity and growth followed by briefer contractions, after which the cycle would begin anew.
So taken was Joseph Schumpeter, the Harvard University economist best known for coining the term “creative destruction,” with the idea of long waves that he named the concept for Kondratiev. Schumpeter’s view was that innovation tends to arrive in clumps: “discrete rushes which are separated from each other by spans of comparative quiet.” These bursts of creativity, he wrote, “periodically reshape the existing structure of industry by introducing new methods” of production, organization, and supply. As for the negative effects of depressions—unemployment, the loss of wealth, economic dislocation—they were just creative destruction at work.
Today, with the pillars of capitalism falling all around us, it might seem odd to wonder what world-changing shifts this Great Recession will help bring to life—what Next Big Thing is just around the corner. But moments of rupture such as these are precisely what true innovators seek to exploit, creating new paradigms and leaving a trail of winners and losers in their wake. Companies, technologies, and ideas that survive this latest tide of creative destruction will emerge sharper, stronger, and more resilient for it.
History virtually guarantees it. The Long Recession that began in 1873 paved the way for new titans of industry and finance. The Great Depression before World War II gave us synthetic rubber, television, and the New Deal. The popping of the 1990s tech bubble cleared the field for Google.
So what might the next wave bring? Massive structural shifts are no doubt in store for capitalism itself, with the once mighty financial industry on its knees and market fundamentalism in retreat. In world politics, power may be fragmenting, but a humbled America stands poised to be an unlikely beneficiary of the crash its financial wizards created. Awareness of the Earth’s vulnerability is growing, but perhaps not fast enough to combat environmental decline. And in the new field of bioengineering, scientists are steadily perfecting technologies that may forever alter what it means to be human.
Innovation can be a double-edged sword. The Carnegies and Rockefellers of the late 19th century became Teddy Roosevelt’s crony capitalists in the early 20th. The engineering advances of the 1930s helped turn World War II into a bloodbath. And the credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations of the 2000s became financial weapons of mass destruction in 2008. We can expect what comes next to have its dark side, too.
We can’t predict the future with any certainty. But we know it will be much different from today. Get ready for a world of change. Get ready for the Next Big Thing.