There are several reasons why change does not get created, change is incremental instead of radical, change is developed but turns out not to be low impact and people can often be poor judges of what really matters.
Functional High Impact
Impact also needs to consider what is being displaced. In communication, if I am replacing a land line telephone with a cellphone, this change is functional less than if I am using a personal land line to displace a telegraph service. This is less impact than a telegraph service enabling light speed communication over longer distances than smoke signals, naval flag signals or light signals.
Airplane package deliveries are high impact displacement of pony express and some clipper ship deliveries.
Incremental versus Radical
Most change is incremental. The functional improvement is actually not functionally that high over what was done before. The adoption of the new technology is low and takes decades to reach high market penetration.
Example: There is rapid manufacturing and prototyping now as a billion dollar industry. This is only a small niche part of the manufacturing industry.
People Try to Keep Everyday Life the Same
Even when radical change is possible and available people will use it in a way that keeps every day life the same
The internet could and is sometimes used to make people's life different. However, most people want to do what they have always functionally done but slightly better where it really makes an improvement.
For people to adopt something radically different, the change has to be worth the effort to change their daily routine. Where it is possible to do something close to what they have always done then they will. ie. If there is a choice where the Technology is integrated into the same old ways, instead of the old ways adjusted to the technology then integration with the old ways is what usually is chosen.
There was an article last year on "Why nothing really happens most of the time", which mostly focused on why change is often not created or takes far longer than expected.
1. A lot of money gets spent on an inferior plan that has no chance at really making a true difference.
Example: the space program versus commercial airplanes. If 3-20 people go to the moon or Mars over the course of decades, this could at most be an accomplishment for "humanity". The benefit or difference does not truly impact most people. Commercial airplanes are thirty thousand planes moving over two hundred million people each year. Over six million passengers every day.
2. No effort is really spent to develop something which could be radically world changing.
Those two relate to molecular nanotechnology. This technology was proposed decades ago and could enable radical technological change. In theory, billions of dollars a year are spent by governments on nanotechnology. However, most of the money went to buildings/facilities for nanotechnology and not on projects that could develop the technology. Plus what was called nanotechnology was often incremental chemistry that had no chance of creating radical change or enabling anything like the envisioned potentially radical technology.
High risk and truly high payoff research is not often funded.
Incremental Change is No Slouch
Life expectancy has been increasing at about 0.2 to 0.3 years every year in many countries (Japan, United States, most of Europe - the developed world). There has been some progress against certain types of cancer and 50+ years ago infectious diseases like polio and the measles were bigger killers.
In the early 1970s, Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reform in China which basically stopped over two hundred years of massive screw ups in China. This has enabled China to begin a return to world economic and technological leadership, which is a position that China had until not getting on board the industrial, economic and technological revolutions. People in China are experiencing fairly radical change.
The impact of China's rise is indirect to the lives of people in the developed world. There is technology which could significantly improve the lives of people in poor countries who have trouble getting clean water, have more trouble with some diseases and have deaths from pollution caused by burning coal indoors.
Discover magazine list of world change technology. A lot of it is for impacting poor people, which is very worthwhile but would not have high impact for people in the developed world. Like giving clean water for 1.2 billion people and saving a few million lives each year. If the people of Africa and parts of Asia had enough water and clean water and food and were healthier they could have more GDP growth over decades. It would be a key factor in enabling a "rise of the rest" and setting the stage for a possible repeat of China's rise over 50-150 years. However, corruption and other social problems can prevent and delay that from happening in those places even if basic needs could be better addressed.
Based on these Standards: Quick Technology Rundown
Really nice but not radical change to fabric of World civilization
Cure for cancer - not radically world changing
Before cancer was the leading cause of death, it was Polio or measles or something else. Curing cancer, life expectancy increases by about five years in the developed world. Cancer is many diseases. Lung cancer is made up diseases effective many metabolic pathways and dozens of genetically different diseases. Possibility for getting to almost zero deaths from cancer. Cheap biomarker and imaging tests for detecting cancers at an early stage which has very high survival rates. Secondarily to boost the immune system with a form of blood transfusion so that people can fight off cancer. This change would be radical for those who would have gotten fatal cancer or if a loved one would have died from cancer. By 2020, the expectation is 15 million new cases of cancer per year. 7 million people die of cancer each year.
In the USA in 2008 there will be 1,437,180 new cancer cases and 565,650 cancer deaths. Death rates from cancer in the United States have decreased by 18.4 percent among men and by 10.5 percent among women since mortality rates began to decline in the early 1990s. So if the next twelve years were to get the same improvement, it would be continued incremental improvement.
Not world changing to your life - They are cars. One part of eventually making a clean environment over decades.
Not personally world changing, you just skip the fillup
You mean, I have a very large world map in my pocket?
You mean like a taxi without the driver?
Nanofactories might not be world changing. They could be a super boost to the rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing niche. Walmart and Costco could have machines for reducing the inventory that they need to stock.
There would likely still be economies of scale and mass production. Currently we have laser printers which allow short run quality productions of documents. However, there are still larger machines for printing newspapers, magazines and any long production runs. Economies of scale come not just from longer production runs but from the need for knowledge and operating a business model to justify mass production. Even if people had equivalent production technology there would still be only a few who had the high volume market. A large section of the masses can in theory make access the technology to make a high quality and popular movie (ala the Blair Witch Project). However, this is rare because of a shortage of talent. Also, those who succeed turn "professional". There becomes a farm system for amateurs to prove themselves and turn professional. More industries become like "American Idol". This is similar to the situation for bloggers.
Nuclear Fusion success would likely slowly reduce the cost of power. It would eventually eliminate the danger of global warming. Restrictions on growth over the long term would be eliminated. Space travel would be revolutionized over decades. Even if Bussard IEC Fusion was demonstrated as commercially net energy positive tomorrow, it would take decades to get space travel near the current state of commercial air travel, where it is impacting a lot of every day lives. Economic impact would be sooner with cheap energy and with access to space material resources.
Radical Life Extension from SENS or some other means. The potential exists for life extension by many decades and rejuvenation of older people. It would take decades to move successful treatments from the labs and mice to people and then to distribute the treatments on a large scale. Very promising success of this and other technologies would change the psychology and expectations that people have.
Artificial General Intelligence would need to have a successful breakthrough and the nature of high impact solutions that AGI could enable would need to also turn out to be radically accelerated. Solutions are being developed now and would continue to be developed. How generally applicable and how successfully it is applied is not known since it is not known how it could succeed. Current AI is successful with financial trading, but that only shifts around the dollars around different financial winners. Plus if AI was not available, other tricks would be used to gain advantage.
This site has posited a mundane singularity. However, many pieces and large segments of civilization have to come together to achieve it and the increase in economic growth could take many decades to bring about. Significant and broadly noticeable divergence from the status quo would take a long time. Getting started also takes time and effort and the right choices.
Amazing, if True
Highly controversial technologies that most people think are impossible.
Blacklight Power could have a big impact on the cost of energy and provide clean energy.
What if Blacklight power works in 2009?
EMdrive if successful would transform transportation and open up space travel and enable cloud cities.
Potentials but probably still take many years for Adoption
Enable Regeneration and synthetic organs, spinal and nerve damage repairs, along with improved medical assistance for better wound closure and treatment.
For US solder in Iraq: There is powder for near instant wound closure. There is thin "saran wrap like" film that holds in guts of the disemboweled, so that they live if they get to field hospital. Darpa has funded some promising work to enable humans to regenerate limbs and organs like salamanders (regrowth would be over a few months).
Change: Basically when those were widely available, if some accident or violence does not kill you instantly, the situation can be such that you survive and fully recover without impairment within 6-12 months.
Difference with new cancer treatment: Lives saved could be higher with cancer treatment but incremental on cancer treatment is 1-6% fewer deaths per year. Enabling human regeneration would replace no regeneration (other than wound closure and tips of fingers). We are already in a world of progress against cancer.
Obesity cure, safe steroids and Myostatin inhibitor - Rev up or switch metabolism where you do not eat for many days or months and just burn fat. This would enable no fat people and safe steroids and myostatin inhibitors would enable people to safely become very muscular (30-80% more lean muscle mass). These would improve health and change the appearance of yourself and people you meet every day. Truly effective, fool-proof obesity cures would in some ways be similar to China getting back on track. It would be a reversal of a series of screw ups. In China's case reversing bad economic and social policy and for obesity correcting societies collective increase in weight from widespread bad eating habits like fast food and corn syrup processed food.
Molecular nanotechnology enabled nanomedicine for genetic and cell repair.
This would change the world. It would take likely take 15-40 years to make it work properly (need to have work out the science of repair and the regulatory issues). It would be a slow process.
If anyone has other possibilities or disagrees with these assessments then please provide comments.