02
Jan
17

SEARCHING FOR CLUES ON THE FUTURE OF TECH

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January is normally a month of change—new calendars, new resolutions. But this month, after a hard-fought presidential race, the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States seems like a step into the unknown. Even Trump’s supporters feel largely uncertain about an administration led by a businessman who has never before held public office.

Predicting the positions of a Trump administration, including matters relating to technology, is challenging because the only cues have been often-conflicting comments during the campaign. There are, however, clues to the future of the tech landscape under the new administration found in the early positions on five key areas: manufacturing and related jobs, space exploration, infrastructure, research and development, and the Internet of Things.

For example, Trump’s call for the return of manufacturing jobs to the U.S. found widespread support. But the genie may be out of the bottle. As this magazine and others have written, machines are learning to perform jobs previously held by factory workers. The Washington Post recently reported on a Boston Consulting Group prediction that, by 2025, the operating cost of a welding robot will be less than $2 per hour, compared to the $25 per hour that a human welder earns today in the U.S. Advanced manufacturing is transforming factory automation and there’s no going back.

One technology area where Trump has been specific has been his support for space exploration. Last October, he told a rally in Sanford, Fla., “Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.” Trump has supported private-public partnerships to increase space activity and economic growth. A robust space initiative could spur national pride and boost interest in engineering and science careers, much as it did 50 years ago.

A much-discussed infrastructure improvement measure has received general bipartisan support from lawmakers and the public. Infrastructure spending would spur tech and blue-collar jobs. But Trump’s trillion-dollar ten-year plan has some lawmakers concerned because the funding model is sketchy and leans on enticing the private sector with tax credits.

Early comments by the new administration on federal funding for R&D portends possible reexamination of government research priorities. Initiatives such as Manufacturing USA, which brings together industry, academia, and federal partners through a network of advanced manufacturing institutes, will be under a microscope. Trump has been on record supporting U.S. manufacturing, so Manufacturing USA’s $70 million budget should be safe. Funding for research in other areas, especially those supported by the Department of Energy, may experience a different fate based on the new president’s comments on the energy sector.

The fifth area I will be watching is how Trump and his team deal with the complexities of applying the Internet of Things to U.S. industry. Companies such as GE are trying to shed their old, industrial image, becoming instead global IoT providers focusing on delivering software, networks, and artificial intelligence. (GE has become a major proponent of high-tech jobs training. Read about its plans in this month’s cover story, “Filling the Talent Gap,” beginning on page 28.)

Most candidates who gain elected office trade much of the rhetoric of the campaign for pragmatism imposed by the restrictions of the office they win. Maybe they also discover that the words that got them elected don’t make as much sense after Election Day. That’s human nature—and also the game of politics.

 

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

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