U.S. sees tech's 'center of gravity' shifting to Asia

Government's forecast for next 15 to 20 years gives tech a big role; including big data, robotics, smart cities and anarchic social networks

After each presidential election, the government's top intelligence experts release a report about the future of the world.

It's always a best seller.

The Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds document, released this week by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), is already the number one seller in Amazon's international relations category and ranked number two among political books sold on the retail site.

It ranks 1,412nd overall on Amazon's best seller list for all categories.

Unlike many government reports, the 160-page Global Trends report is written for a broad audience. Its descriptive style is a combination of Tom Clancy, NPR News and Foreign Affairs. It even quotes Charles Dickens.

The Kindle edition of the report is available for $1.99 on Amazon, but can be downloaded for free as a PDF on the DNI website.

The DNI report outlines potential worldwide scenarios -- good and bad -- over the next 15 to 20 years. Tech-enabled change figures prominently in the scenarios.

The government sees tech empowering people in the coming years, and believes that 80% of the world's population will one day have access to cloud services and new analytical capabilities.

By 2030, Asia " will have surpassed the North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, based upon GDP, population size, military spending and technological investment, the report said.

"China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030," the report said.

The report also includes the colorfully labeled wild card category of "Black Swans," which are "discrete events" with the potential for major impact.

The "Black swans" include climate change. "Dramatic and unforeseen changes already are occurring at a faster rate than expected," and could cause regional food supply issues.

There could be a pandemic that kills millions, nuclear terror or a cyberattack by 2030.

And if those things weren't enough to worry about, there's a potential for a solar geomagnetic storm powerful enough to disrupt the electric grid, knock out satellites, and many sensitive electronic devices."

The report generally believes "a shift in the technological center of gravity from West to East and South" has already begun and will continue "as the flows of companies, ideas, entrepreneurs, and capital from the developed to the developing markets increase."

The emerging economies will aided by the spread of multinational corporations as well as by the ability of Chinese, Indian and Brazilian companies to rapidly become competitive internationally.

The speed of this shift depends on the availability of risk capital and the development of laws that protect intellectual property, the report said.

The technology trends that will dominate in the coming years include big data and the tools to manage it. Big data could deliver all kinds of advances, from improving predictive models to providing an oppressive government a new means to control its population.

By 2030, it's possible that quantum computing may begin to have an impact, the report said.

In terms of social networks, the government gives its due to Facebook but says its "continued dominance during the next 15-20 years (or even the next five) is not guaranteed."

Social networks of the future "may not even be formal organizations, but rather anarchic collectives built on sophisticated variants of peer-to-peer file sharing technologies."

Another tech trend is the development of "smart cities," or the ability to use advanced IT capabilities in all aspects of urban management.

Robotics and 3D printing "have the potential to change work patterns in both developing and developed words." They could make technologies could make semi-skilled manufacturing workers in developing economies "redundant."

By 2030, robots "could eliminate the need for human labor entirely in some manufacturing environments with total automation become more cost effective than outsourcing manufacturing to developing economies," according this intelligence report.

This latter point may get an early illustration via Apple as it begins manufacturing one of its Mac lines in the U.S. That plant is expected to be heavily robotic.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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