05/30/2014 05:06 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2014

Latin America in the Technology Tsunami

Hill Street Studios via Getty Images

A technology tsunami is about to transform our lives and the global economy. It will be the biggest industrial revolution ever. Latin Americans can surf this giant wave to propel the region into an era of prosperity, inclusion and sustainability. But its disruptive power should not be underestimated.

In recent decades we saw the emergence of powerful digital technologies. But this was just the beginning. We are in the early stages of a revolution driven by the confluence of exponential technologies such as ubiquitous computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, advanced genomics, nanotechnology, renewable energies and 3D printers. After decades of unmet promises they will surprise us with the speed and extension of their impact.

The applications that already exist and will propagate in the next decade seem taken from science fiction. Machine learning systems capable of replacing humans in a wide array of activities. Smart robots capable of replacing manufacturing employees even in China. Self-driving and electric cars. 3D printers capable of producing anything from toys to houses. Synthetic biology tools to design and print DNA. Exoskeletons that allow paraplegics to walk. Bioprinters for meat and leather production. Cost-competitive solar panels. The list goes on.

As Peter Diamandis shows in his book Abundance, this revolution will allow us to generate a prosperous future. We will have the tools to overcome hunger, water scarcity and the energy and housing needs of a growing population without destroying the planet.

At the same time, the impact of the tsunami will be huge, fast and difficult to assimilate. Tens of millions of jobs will be destroyed and only partially replaced by others that demand new capabilities and higher education. All industries will undergo radical transformations. Companies that are not future-ready will become irrelevant or extinct. New social, ethical and political dilemmas will demand reinventing institutions and legal frameworks.

We need a human-centered strategic agenda powered by empathy and responsibility and focused on prosperity, inclusion and sustainability. Technology will only redefine possibilities. It will be up to us to design and leverage new tools to build a better future and minimize adaptation costs.

We can achieve prosperity through education, innovation, entrepreneurship and the creative economy. Only education and innovation provide engines strong enough to escape the trap of middle-income economies. We can multiply exports of knowledge intensive services, reindustrialize with cutting-edge automation and nurture our growing technology startup ecosystem. But we need to strengthen the links to the global economy and shift our focus to human capital as a development engine following the examples of Israel, Korea and now China.

Thousands of technology-based companies (Technolatinas) are emerging in the region in everything from consumer Internet, mobile and online games to artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nano-satellites. They are born regional or global and they are redefining business paradigms. Lowering the barriers and risks of creating and running a business, fostering venture capital and stimulating private sector R&D would go a long way towards more thriving ecosystems.

Ensuring decent living conditions for everyone is possible and a precondition for strong democracies, healthy social fabrics and our collective wellbeing. Many will have difficulty keeping up with the pace of change. More than half of our youth doesn't finish high school. Most will be sitting ducks when faced with fast paced automation and global competition through digital platforms, unless we act. We need to reinvent education, re-engage those left behind and leverage digital technologies to provide everyone the skills they will need for the 21st century.

Poverty, structural unemployment and exclusion are the clearest threats to the security of the region. We should address them with the same resolve that other nations dedicate to their national defense. For example, we could focus innovation on inclusion creating technology development programs for the bottom of the pyramid, replicating the success DARPA had advancing military technology. Strengthening vocational and technical education programs and selectively eliminating job taxes could help to reduce youth and technology-driven unemployment. We should revisit our social safety nets to make them stronger but contingent on work to avoid the corrosive effects of sustained inactivity. We could also build networks of community centers in impoverished neighborhoods (like those built in Medellin) to provide gateways to the knowledge economy.

We should also actively leverage clean technologies to ensure a vital and habitable environment for future generations. Solar energy is expected to become cost-competitive with fossil fuels in a few years and can be produced abundantly in our region. Urban agriculture and bioprinting meat could enable us to stop natural forest destruction. And these are just some of the possibilities.

For the first time in history, Latin America can take part in an industrial revolution and reap its benefits. We are young and we have tremendous creative potential and adaptive capacity. Our economies are healthy, allowing us to tackle large forward-looking challenges. Creating global startups is easier than ever.

It is time to focus on building a better future by surfing the technology tsunami. We only need imagination, determination and a human-centered agenda.