We didn't realize we were no longer living in an industrial economy for about 20 years, from the early 1950s to the early '70s. When we finally figured out the old economy had exited, we didn't know what to call the new one. Postindustrial? Service? Shopping and gathering? Information won the title.
Get ready for deja vu all over again. Like everything else, all economies have beginnings and endings, and we can already see the end of this one a few decades hence. Economies end not because they peter out but because a challenger supplants them. That's what will happen around a quarter-century from now.
Hunting-and-gathering economies ruled for hundreds of thousands of years before they were overshadowed by agrarian economies, which ruled for about 10,000 years. Next came the industrial ones. The first began in Britain in the 1760s, and the first to finish started unwinding in the U.S. in the early 1950s. We're halfway through the information economy, and from start to finish, it will last 75 to 80 years, ending in the late 2020s. Then get ready for the next one: the bioeconomy.
Life cycles for people and plants, for businesses, industries, economies and entire civilizations have four distinct quarters: gestation, growth, maturity and decline. The Internet is the main event of the information economy's mature quarter, the last phase of it being marked by the widespread use of cheap chips and wireless technology that will let everything connect to everything else. Life cycles overlap. So the information economy will mature in the years ahead as the bioeconomy completes its gestation and finally takes off into its growth quarter during the 2020s.
The bioeconomy opened for business in 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson identified the double-helix structure of DNA. The bioeconomy has been in its first quarter ever since, and completion and publication of the decoded human genome marks the end of this gestation period.
We're heading into the second, or growth, quarter, when hot new industries appear, much as semiconductors and software did in the second quarter of the info economy. Thus biotech will pave the way for the bioec era. During the next two decades, organic biotech will overlap with inorganic silicon infotech and inorganic composite materials and nanotechnologies.
During the overlap of infotech and biotech, we will be digitizing many biological processes. Up until now, four kinds of information dominate: numbers, words, sounds and images. But information comes in many other forms, such as smell, taste, touch, imagination and intuition. The problem is that our technologies for smell, taste and other new information forms aren't yet developed enough to make them commercially viable. By the 2020s, they will be.
Smell, for example, perhaps the most primal of senses, is being digitized the way sight and sound have been. The basics of what makes a smell can be captured molecularly and expressed digitally on a chip at a reasonable price. Companies like DigiScents of Oakland, Calif., and Ambryx of La Jolla, Calif., have already developed digital odors. Cyrano Sciences of Pasadena, Calif., is developing medical-diagnostics technology that can "smell" diseases.