Innovation in America: A Tale of the Decade to Come

This article is part of our Innovation in America series, in which Foolish writers highlight examples of innovation going on today and what they see coming in the future.

Author's note: This is a fictional story exploring how several major technological trends shape one man's life 10 years from now. It is the final part of a three-part series that examines the possible progress of technology over the coming decade.

Family ties
Johnny is now 33 years old and has become a senior roboticist at Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) X. He and his wife are trying to conceive their first child. They want their offspring to have the best possible opportunities available in a rapidly changing world. Today, Johnny and his wife are going to visit the Silicon Valley Genomic Institute for a full genomic analysis. The institute is not known only for its analytical capabilities. It has evolved from that original focus to become one of the most advanced human genetic engineering facilities in the United States.

Automated world
Johnny and his wife travel to the institute in an autonomously driven car controlled by Google technology. It's been more than a decade since Google first developed successful self-driving cars, but legislation and costs posed major obstacles to widespread consumer adoption until the start of the 2020s. Now, thanks to automation, a great deal of Northern California's transportation infrastructure has been taken over by automation.

The roads would seem eerily sparse to a driver in 2012. Most knowledge workers now find telecommuting more rewarding and efficient than going to an office, and cost-conscious corporations encourage the behavior shift. Many travel-dependent jobs have either moved online or have been superseded by autonomous vehicles and unmanned aerial transports, which number in the tens of thousands over American skies.

Most vehicles Johnny's car passes on the way to the institute are automated transport vehicles delivering packages for FedEx, with a few others bearing families to vacation spots or medical appointments. They communicate with each other using a connected vehicle web, each vehicle transmitting vital information to nearby vehicles and to central communication servers installed in the spaces formerly occupied by traffic control devices.

Did you know? California, Hawaii, Arizona, and Oklahoma have all crafted legislation for regulating autonomous cars on public roads, and Nevada already allows it.

The institute is a gleaming monument to medical science, towering four stories over a quiet tree-lined neighborhood. It's one of the few locations in the area with significant traffic. As Johnny and his wife leave their car, an unmanned Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) transport helicopter whirs into view, descending to the institute's roof to deliver sensitive supplies. Cameras in the entry alcove scan the pair's eyes as they approach, granting access to the institute.

Did you know? The Federal Aviation Administration will develop regulations to allow unmanned commercial aircraft over American airspace by 2015.

A sparse reception area greets Johnny and his wife just beyond the doors. There is no one waiting to greet them, but the word "information" is printed on the far wall above a semicircular desk, on which sits a luminescent cube. Johnny waves his arm over it. Sensors in his wristband computer communicate with the cube, seamlessly transferring more specific appointment information to the wristband while also uploading Johnny's encrypted personal details to the institute's record servers.

Johnny puts on a thin head-mounted Google interface display device, similar to a pair of wraparound glasses without lenses. A simple map pops up in Johnny's field of vision, with a semitransparent arrow stretching away from his body into the distance. Other information drops into view, letting him know more about his appointment and the potential risks of the procedure.

Did you know? Google's Project Glass, a current concept augmented-reality display device resembling glasses, may one day be usable as contact lenses.

As Johnny leads the way to their procedural room, he passes by an open door labeled "extraction." Inside is a small Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG  ) robotic surgeon, with one long and very thin tube-like apparatus surrounded by several spindly arms. A row of tall medical refrigerators line the far wall of the extraction room, with a small display embedded in each offering details on the contents inside. A warning flashes on his display: RESTRICTED AREA. The door to the extraction room closes abruptly.

Did you know? Robotic surgery is already approaching a point where some procedures might be performed by wirelessly controlled capsule devices, inserted into small incisions or swallowed by patients.

The procedural room is very white and very clean. A young geneticist is leaning against a desk, the surface of which appears to be a large high-resolution display offering information relevant to the procedures Johnny and his wife are looking for. A diagnostic machine, one of Life Technologies' (Nasdaq: LIFE  ) latest sequencing models, sits on a countertop, its display signaling readiness. Another machine sits next to it, slightly larger and bulkier.

Johnny and his wife seat themselves in a pair of comfortable white chairs, and the geneticist proceeds to explain the first few steps of the procedure. First they'll need to provide genomic material, which will be prepared in the bulkier machine before being run through the sequencer. This process is accomplished with a cheek sample from both Johnny and his wife.

Did you know? The cost to sequence a complete human genome might cost less than $100 by the middle of this decade. It cost millions to sequence the first genomes.

From start to finish, the sequencing takes less than half an hour. Both genomes are analyzed independently and in combination with each other, and the results are sent to the desk display. There's a wealth of data to discover, and there will be many decisions to make. Johnny can see how likely his offspring is to inherit any number of unwelcome ailments, and modification procedures are available to minimize or negate the risks of many. The couple is also offered a choice of gender, eye color, hair color, and many more human variables. It won't be cheap, but Johnny has saved for this moment...

No crystal ball
This series has been a fictional journey through 10 years in the life of one man, with a close eye on the technology that shapes his world. The further into the future we go, the stranger it seems, and the more difficult it is to anticipate it with any accuracy. I have attempted to keep my crystal ball focused firmly on innovations that are either already here or are under development, to avoid stepping too far into the realm of science fiction.

Many have made the mistake of overestimating how fast technology can evolve, but underestimation can be the more dangerous error. The point is to highlight several emerging technologies and demonstrate their potential to shape our lives for the better.

If you haven't already, read about how Johnny's life has evolved since 2012:

Can these innovative companies reach their potential? The Motley Fool can keep you informed of their progress as it happens, from now until 2022. Just add them to your watchlist:

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Intuitive Surgical. The Fool owns shares of Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of FedEx, Google, and Intuitive Surgical. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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