Someday, Your Smartphone Will Actually Improve Your Life

The 'app economy' may soon produce some genuinely useful technology.

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BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. – You might be enthralled with your iPhone or your Android device (or even your Blackberry). But what has it done for you?

Not much, according to some of the very technology titans who have created and funded the digital revolution.

At the annual Milken Institute confab of financiers and business leaders here, technology has gotten something of a black eye. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and helped fund Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp, Spotify and other prominent startups, told a filled ballroom that technology hasn't actually generated much innovation during the last 40 years.

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"We've become incrementalists," he said, "who have talked ourselves into thinking that throwing angry birds at pigs is the best we can do. I think we can do better."

A lot of people disagree with Thiel, arguing that digital technology has empowered consumers, delivered vast amounts of information to people and brought humans closer together.

Thiel counters with macroeconomic data showing that income growth has stalled in much of the developed world during the last 40 years, while living standards have flatlined and people have become more worried than ever about falling behind. "Much technology today is small and trivial," he said. "The technological cornucopia we've been promised doesn't seem to trickle down to most people."

That may change during the next few years, as the "app economy" that was basically created by accident begins to mature and offer ordinary people tangible lifestyle, and even lifesaving, improvements. Most technologists agree that mobile computing is the wave of the future, with the development of applications for mobile devices becoming a major new industry.

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Up till now, most apps have been games such as Angry Birds or Farmville, or other kinds of entertainment. Other apps such as maps or messaging may add convenience or keep you connected to friends, but few if any have offered breakthrough advances.

Forthcoming apps may have a bigger wow factor and make a more direct impact on people lives. "What's possible in the medical area blows my mind," Ray Sharma, founder and president of XMG Media, which develops mobile games, said at the conference.

Other speakers described apps either available now or coming soon that can monitor diabetes, help caregivers diagnose kids' ear infections without a trip to the doctor, improve medication compliance and detect heart irregularities.

A bit further off are implantable chips able to sync with smartphone apps and provide much more detailed information about medical conditions, alerting patients and doctors when something might be wrong. One snag could be regulatory approval for such devices, which are unprecedented for agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration.

"The FDA is struggling mightily with this," said Mike Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute. "We have a 21st century economy and 20th century regulation."

Washington's clumsy handling of innovation, needless to say, is a recurring theme among technology visionaries.

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Education could be another breakthrough area, with heavy backpacks filled with textbooks yielding to thin tablets holding far more information. And apps that gather location information on thousands or millions of users may have more important uses than simply allowing you to know when your pals have arrived at Starbucks.

A smartphone app called Waze tracks people as they drive, creating real-time traffic maps that can let you know if there's a backup ahead, and suggest a better route. When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast last year, the Obama administration asked Waze if its users could help determine which gas stations had power and which were out of commission. Waze users provided eyes-on reports that helped authorities respond to the crisis, a template for community-based mapping.

The promise of technology sometimes exceeds expectations and sometimes falls short, so nobody can be sure how the app economy and the mobile revolution will impact society. "We can hope and pray it will raise living standards in the years ahead," Thiel said. Or at least save us from a few traffic jams.

Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman