COMMENTARY: From energy to tech, U.S. on cusp of a golden age

Americans are on the cusp of a golden age. After two decades of substandard growth, many of the constraints that held back progress are receding.

In 2012, oil traded for $112 a barrel — now it’s in the $50s. America is a major producer again, and abundant natural gas and breakthroughs in wind and solar power promise to keep energy inexpensive.

China has mapped ambitious plans to replace the internal-combustion engine, but it won’t take a socialist edict to bring electric cars here. Free-market economics will drive the change from gasoline-powered vehicles in personal transportation and many commercial uses. That will profoundly reduce U.S. petroleum use and carbon footprint, and make America a major net energy exporter.

Capital to improve and start businesses is significantly less expensive than before the financial crisis. America’s private sector — more defined by technology giants like Google and Apple and innovations in digital innovation — requires fewer funds to create more new and better products than it did during the industrial age.

Google was started with only $25 million and was worth $23 billion five years later. Henry Ford needed far more money and time to launch the Model T.

That’s why large corporations have more profits than they can reinvest, the Federal Reserve predicts that interest rates will not again rise to pre-financial crisis levels and most importantly, anyone with a good idea can raise the funds needed to launch a Twitter or an Airbnb.

Finally, the high cost of labor, which has been a major impediment to U.S.-based production, is about to become irrelevant as robotics and artificial intelligence automate so much of what we do.

Labor-saving innovations inevitably spark new growth and employment opportunities, but the challenge remains to train many more young people and displaced workers for more highly skilled positions. Progress in medicine and neurotechnology offers a glimpse of radically improved human capability for more genuinely creative work and multitasking.

Over the last 200 years, medicine has gone from trial-and-error identification of roots and herbs to cope with ailments to more scientific enquiry to develop vaccines, antibiotics and reconstructive devices to mapping and leveraging the genetic codes to create treatments.

Recently, Novartis AG received approval from the FDA for a first-of-its-kind procedure to alter the DNA of a patient’s white blood cells to combat an aggressive form of leukemia. Essentially, having mapped the genetic instructions embedded in the human machine, we are now recoding its software.

Neurotechnology connects the human brain to mechanical devices. Until now, its practical applications have focused on compensating for nerve damage — implanting devices that permit patients with severed spinal cords to use their legs — and on correcting brain disorders — treating epilepsy by repairing defects in the electronic signals the brain sends to the rest of the body.

Now it is branching into a formal union of computers and the brain to improve cognitive performance and enhance the thinking power of the human mind — put more plainly, altering the species by adding new accessories.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Facebook are working on a brain interface that would eliminate the need for keyboards or speaking through digital assistants to instruct our laptops and smartphones. This would permit humans, simply by thinking, to access the resources of the internet in real time and delegate complex tasks to artificial intelligence programs — the brain will go from violinist to conductor of a full-scale orchestra.

DARPA is working on a neural interface much larger than used, for example, to treat epilepsy and similar disorders that would transform the brain into a programmable and improvable machine. Teaching new skills could become something akin to the scene in “The Matrix” where a character learns kung fu from a download.

The potential to open doors for ordinary and disadvantaged citizens to sophisticated and creative pursuits in finance, medicine, law, engineering, the arts and more are breathtaking and harken a new age — as profound as the Enlightenment.

About 130,000 years ago, modern man emerged and has not changed much — the species, unlike others, could create tools and structures to alter its environment instead of adapting physically to changing conditions.

A new age dawns. The species will alter the human brain to accomplish more productive and satisfying lives.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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