2013 trends: With the good may come the bad
That whooshing sound you hear is the world changing at an ever-accelerating pace.
Welcome to 2013. Here's some of what you might see:
Faster, smaller mobile tools that put the world in users' hands will fuel increasing changes in consumer habits.
Robots will take on more tasks, and they'll creep closer to the advanced intelligence of science fiction. The development of three-dimensional printing could bring about a renaissance in American manufacturing.
Some changes will pose challenges for people globally.
Expect extreme weather to continue and clean water sources to dwindle. Melting glaciers and rising sea levels threaten coastal populations. Experts warn that a hotter, thirstier, more crowded world could create an environment for microbes to mutate and spark pandemics.
America's latest energy boom in natural gas and oil production will continue to change where and how nations run everything from cars to factories, but political battles loom as companies lobby to move plentiful resources to more profitable markets overseas.
A truce could occur in America's decades-long "War on Drugs," which helped balloon prison spending.
One thing's for sure: 2013 won't be a year for the faint of heart.
Robots walking among us
Robots perform ultra-fine precision surgery. Self-driven cars are tested in California and Nevada.
Experts say this revolution is just beginning. The benefits will accrue when robots can learn.
Yaser Shiekh, a research assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is working to teach robots to interpret subtle facial expressions that allow humans to interact.
“Right now robots are tools for us to use. They are not team members or collaborators because they're blind to all these things we do,” Sheikh said.
Bernie Meyerson, vice president of innovation at IBM, said IBM researchers believe such developments will happen within five years as research on cognitive computing — machines that can be taught, as opposed to programmed — continues.
“When you get into these game-changing technologies, robotics will blossom and change the way we live,” Meyerson said.
The next computer revolution
Home desktop computers that ignited the digital age for millions of Americans increasingly are relegated to dusty basement corners. Faster, cheaper, more flexible devices are changing a world in which billions of people connect through tablets, smartphones and other devices.
That means widespread, instant access to information and communication, but a recent World Bank study suggests broader ramifications for a developing world in which many still struggle just to eat.
“Mobile communications offer major opportunities to advance human and economic development — from providing basic access to health information to making cash payments, spurring job creation and stimulating citizen involvement in democratic processes,” wrote Rachel Kyte, World Bank vice president for sustainable development.
It's an a la carte world
Consumers increasingly can customize products and services they buy. Airlines, media companies and universities are tailoring products to what people want and need.
Audrey Guskey, a professor who studies consumer trends at Duquesne University, calls it “niche picking.” Today, shoppers armed with tablets and smartphones bypass traditional retailers and rely on online sites to get what they want.
“In a sense it is allowing customers to design things for themselves. The good news for consumers is, you get the service you want and you feel it's very special, just for you,” Guskey said.
Businesses that adapt to this model will survive. “There's really no going back,” Guskey said.
Water resources drying up
Climate scientists say weather patterns threaten to create a world in which the supply of clean, drinkable water shrinks.
According to the United Nations, nearly 1 billion people worldwide lack access to potable water, a factor contributing to the deaths of 1.5 million children younger than 5 every year from diarrhea, cholera and other ailments.
Kenya, where a decade-long drought culminated in bloodshed over water rights last fall, could be a harbinger of the problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency says at least 36 U.S. states project water shortages this year. Depleted aquifers prompted officials in the Midwest and Plains states last fall to rethink water policies.
“Water availability and water quality are both challenges. We're finding cities outgrowing water supplies, not only in the West but across the country,” said Peter Gleick at Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif.
Made in America — again
Experts believe the United States is on the verge of a manufacturing renaissance, driven by developments such as higher manufacturing costs in China, declining domestic energy costs, and leaps in technologies such as 3-D printing.
Economist Allan Meltzer with Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business said Western Pennsylvania's rich natural gas fields position it to participate in spin-off industries such as chemical and fertilizer production.
He cautions that advanced technologies, not brute strength, will be the basis for this change.
“It will have to be based on technology,” Meltzer said.
Researchers are betting additive manufacturing, a process in which 3-D printers using computer models create everything from airplane parts to hearing aids, will give manufacturers the boost they need by reducing material and energy costs.
A changing planet
Western Pennsylvania has snow on the ground, but climate change gained attention following Superstorm Sandy's $60 billion devastation of the East Coast on Oct. 29. Sandy was the latest of catastrophic storms and climate events worldwide in recent years, including unprecedented heat waves, killer tornadoes and melting polar ice caps.
Many experts note that rising ocean levels and warmer water allow storms to gather immense strength. Tracking records show slow but significant increases over the past century.
A CNN report showed nine of the hottest years on record occurred in the past decade.
The World Bank reported a “nearly unanimous” prediction by scientists that Earth's temperature will rise as much as 4 degrees Celsius this century. The bank said consequences could include “the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production, potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer (and) wet regions wetter.”
The changing face of energy
A decade ago, many people predicted an end to the cheap energy that fueled American growth for more than a century. Today, oil and gas drillers tap vast underground resources in places ranging from Pennsylvania forests to the plains of North Dakota.
The boom is driving down commodity prices and fueling proposals for nine gas-fired power plants in Pennsylvania to generate 7,049 megawatts of power. Governments, seeking to save on fuel costs, are snapping up natural gas-powered vehicles.
How long can this last? The production spike without a corresponding jump in domestic demand caused energy companies to seek premium prices overseas.
Meanwhile, construction of two nuclear reactors in Georgia — the first in the United States since 1979 — might mark another new beginning for the industry, although cost overruns and construction delays plague the project.
Alternative energies continue to make small inroads. For example, John Hangar, former secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, noted the wind industry installed 12,000 megawatts of capacity in 2012, the equivalent of six nuclear units.
Invasion of super bugs
Antibiotics were miracle drugs in the 20th century. But decades of over-prescription prompted bacteria to mutate into drug-resistant bugs.
Add to that the threat of emerging diseases and you've got a breeding ground for a pandemic, said Michael Osterholm, an expert in epidemiology at the University of Minnesota.
Will this be the year the bugs triumph?
Osterholm isn't saying that. He simply points out that microbial evolution, enabling a bug to mutate 27,000 times a day, favors the bugs. That's a strong argument for preparation and creative response to infectious diseases, he said.
“Think about influenza in 2009 when a pandemic strain emerged. Within the first month we documented its existence in 42 countries. When something emerges it's just a plane ride away,” he said.
Tipping point in 'War on Drugs'
Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana in ballot referenda in 2012. Before those votes, they were among 18 states and the District of Columbia that allowed marijuana use for “medicinal” purposes. In many cases the requirements to get medicinal marijuana were so soft that it was effectively legal.
The federal government, which outlaws marijuana, and courts will sort out conflicting laws. Yet some foresee the beginning of the end of the War on Drugs.
Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie Mellon University professor and criminal justice expert, said the election results are the latest clue of growing disenchantment with drug policy.
This war counts losses in the billions of dollars in states such as Pennsylvania, where prison costs are starting to eclipse state spending on higher education.
Drug offenses account for about half of federal prison and a quarter of state prison populations. Blumstein predicts we'll move toward recognizing and combatting drug use as a public health issue.