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Progress watch 2012: Smart phones, jobs returning to America, and war crimes trials

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Americans are seeing their own mobile revolution – more than half of all Americans today use their cellphones to access the Internet, up from a third three years ago, according to the Pew Research Center. That puts the United States on the brink of a breakthrough: "Within a few years, [smart phone use] is going to be ubiquitous, and when you get that many people using smart phones, it transforms the economy, society, and politics," says Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Indeed, technology drives much of the change seen in America, even just this year. Sales of nonpolluting electric cars are surpassing expectations. And self-driving cars are now legal in California. Google conducted the first test of its self-driving car with a passenger who was chauffeured to the dry cleaner and Taco Bell. Even this flashy moment has been slower to brew than it may seem. "This has always been one of the more popular predictions about the future people were talking about in the '60s and '70s, back when they were discussing all the other sort of wide-eyed, post-cold-war futures," says Patrick Tucker, the director of communications at the World Future Society. Beyond being wide-eyed, self-driven automobiles might make passengers safer – computers are likely eventually to be better drivers than humans, Mr. Tucker says – and transform cities. Summoning one's car from even a mile away "removes the need for designing cities on the basis of the availability of on-site parking," he says. Ordering up an automobile also makes car sharing easier, which can reduce carbon emissions, he adds.

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