Technology is a constant part of life, but it’s hard to decide which forms of technology will disrupt the future and provide untold benefits. A recent report designed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) critically assessed breakthrough innovations and shortlisted ten technologies that will change the face of the Earth. In the words of the Chief Technology Officer at WEF, “From income inequality to climate change, technology will play a critical role in finding solutions to all the challenges our world faces today.” According to him, the purpose of this report is to analyze how “This year’s emerging technologies demonstrate the rapid pace of human innovation and offer a glimpse into what a sustainable, inclusive future will look like.”
In order to be featured in this list the technologies were expected to be truly disruptive while being attractive to researchers and investors alike. The final criteria is that within the next five years, they are expected to reach significant scale. Hence, we are looking at workable solutions of technology that can positively change the world. A special shout out to number 9, especially for tech enthusiasts.
Bioplastics for a circular economy
It’s critical to acknowledge that we are part of a ‘plastic’ civilization. The
Biodegradable plastics are the logical solution with such plastics being derived and converted back to biomass leading to a ‘circular’ plastic economy.’ The most feasible materials for this purpose are cellulose and lignin, which are abundantly present in waste wood, giant reed and agricultural byproducts that serve no useful purpose. Companies like Chrysalix Technologies-UK and Met Gen Oy-Finland are actively working towards separating lignin and cellulose from original materials and applying them in useful ways. There are hurdles like cost and minimization of water/other resources to enable large scale manufacturing of these biodegradable plastics. Voluntary change and regulatory actions are required to ensure that these solutions are adopted in major industries, but the breakthrough is certainly evident.
Robots are utilized in multiple ways including manufacturing, medical procedures and inspection procedures etc. However, their interactive capabilities have reached a tipping point whereby their future applications can be conceived in social terms i.e. educating children, caring for elders or simply taking care of household chores. Artificial intelligence has played a huge role in development of technology that understands social and emotional intelligence, the formation of perceptions and how to translate thoughts and feelings. These advances enable scientists to design algorithms that enable robots to conduct human interactions like understanding speech, verbal and non-verbal cues, framing adequate responses and most importantly adapting to feedback.
There have been numerous failures in designing consumer robots, but despite that fact in 2018 alone, $5.6 billion revenues were achieved. This number is expected to triple in seven years with numerous robots leading the way. An example if Blue Frog Robotics a.k.a. Buddy, which provides services of personal assistant, home security and automation, while also playing games. Social robots like Pepper from SoftBank Robotics are already spread around the globe as 15,000 units help in fast-food restaurants, hotel check-ins, airport services and shopping help.
To summarize, the concept means that ‘Thin, flat metalenses could replace bulky glass for manipulating light.’ With the rapid evolution of technology, electronics and computers have shrunk, but the means of viewing them i.e. optical tech has refused to keep pace. Traditional technology has no solution for focusing light on small glass lens, except for stacking them. The breakthrough came in 2018, when scientists discovered the ‘achromatic’ metalens that focused all wavelengths of light on one spot, to produce a clear image.
The applications of this technology are manifold as laboratory tools and microscopes could be supported with enhanced vision. The application is also true for commercial products like virtual reality headsets, cameras and optical sensors in IOT (Internet of Things). Similarly, the functionality of optical fibers can be increased significantly. The project has received attention from Google and Samsung and Metalenz- a startup is already working to introduce a commercial model.
Disordered proteins as drug targets
The scientific discovery of ‘intrinsically disordered proteins’ (IDPs) caused the identification of elements that lead to cancer and brain diseases. The problem was that these structures were disordered and changed shape, thereby medicinal cures were not possible. The discovery of molecules that bind and cure IDPs like beta-amyloid means that other medical cures are not far away. Different diseases like Alzheimer’s, lung cancer, neurodegeneration are being treated by
Smarter fertilizers can reduce contamination in environment
World population is increasing and farmers are increasingly worried about stimulating the crop yields. However, the increase of fertilizers can damage the environment, while not resulting in desired outcomes. The normal fertilizers are sprayed across farmland or applied in the form of granules, where they create nutrient nitrogen and phosphorous after reacting with water. Ideally, these nutrients are targeted at plants but most of them become a part of greenhouse gas emissions or trigger enormous growth of algae and related organisms. The solution is ‘controlled-release formulations’ that are focused on crop growth resulting in less emissions and higher crop yield.
One class of this fertilizer is slow-release in nature and resembles capsules endowed with phosphorous, nitrogen and essential nutrients. The outer shell is designed to delay the access to internal nutrients whereby plants can gradually absorb them, as compared to the traditional burst whereby most of the quantity escapes in the air. Smart fertilizer embody the principles of slow-release while adapting to moisture, soil temperature etc. Haifa group and ICL Specialty fertilizers are foremost in these developments. Precision farming is the field wherein these smart fertilizers function as AI, Data Analytics and sensory devices combine to improve crop yields and minimize wasteful nutrient emissions. For most farmers, smart fertilizers are a cost-effective option, while Precision farming can be adopt by large farmlands.
Combine physical touch with video conferencing tech and you reach ‘collaborative telepresence.’ This might seem like a scene from a ‘Stars Wars’ movie, but physically doctors can assist with patients as if they were physically present in the room. Meeting attendees can shake hands and feel gestures even if they were miles apart. The consumer perspective is astounding as you can tour foreign cities together and enjoy the same sights and sounds. In some ways this was expected as virtual and augmented reality (AR& VR) and video conferencing had bridged the divide between continents. The introduction of 5G will introduce adrenaline to VR and AR, and people will be able to experience things without time lags. Microsoft is already investing in this field and we can expect rapid developments very soon.
Advanced food tracking and packaging
The farm to fork food tracking mechanism will be boosted with the application of blockchain technology to identify product contaminations in a few minutes. This fact is critical to avoid/minimize 600 million people facing food contamination on annual basis. Built-in packaging sensors will further enhance identification of spoilt food even before it reaches the expiry date.
IBM Food Trust is a company focusing on the food industry by providing a blockchain-based food platform. Since blockchain technology involves the creation of digital records created in multiple locations using the same sequence, tampering/altering is not possible. Carrefour, Walmart, Sam’s Club, BeefChain etc. are a few companies that have joined this initiative and can now trace contaminated items, some in even a few seconds. This means that the original supplier/batch can be targeted instead of calling for a national recall of the whole product line.
The packaging perspective is critical because it covers the whole supply chain, since the food is first packaged, then transferred on pallets and finally reaching their destination. Companies like Insignia Technologies have produced sensors that can analyze the usefulness of a product after it has been opened and till when it’s edible. This is done by following the color changes of the sensor. Timestrip UK has been credited with introducing sensors that change color if the product is exposed to temperatures in excess of recommended limit. The major hurdle is cost but in order to provide food security, blockchain and technology are being used to propel this initiative forward.
Safer nuclear reactors
In order to improve the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the proliferation of nuclear reactors can play a significant role because they don’t emit carbon. They will included in a mix of energy technologies that are aimed at improving the environment. The main drawback is the risk of explosion as The Three Mile Island Incident in 1979 and the Japanese radiation release in Fukushima Daiichi suggest. These incidents occurred due to the presence of zirconium and its reaction with water after overheating, which lead to production of hydrogen. The solution is present in accident-tolerant fuels produced by companies like Framatome and Westinghouse Electric Company.
The introduction of these tolerant fuels will certainly minimize the risk of explosions and make nuclear energy cost effective. In this manner, it can be used in tandem with solar, wind energy and natural gas to provide an efficient energy mix. Russia and China are currently leading the way in developing safe nuclear reactors supported by ‘passive’ safety systems that can overcome overheating, even if the electrical power is offline.
DNA data storage
The World Economic Forum (WEF) shared following statistics on digital data:
“Every minute in 2018, Google conducted 3.88 million searches, people watched 4.33 million videos on YouTube, sent 159,362,760 emails, tweeted 473,000 times and posted 49,000 photos on Instagram, according to software company Domo.”
There is no doubt that hardware technology has evolved in leaps and bounds during the last two decades. However, there is a limit to data storage and ours will be reached within a century. Running data centers involves a serious amount of energy and hence this trend is not sustainable. The remarkable cure offered by DNA data storage is that ‘a square meter cube,’ can hold the annual data requirements of the whole world. This leap is more significant then the comparison of a supercomputer with the original bulky mainframes of the 1960s.
The benefits of DNA are that it’s superbly sequenced and can remain stable for 500,000 years, as evidenced by the genome sequencing of a fossil horse belonging to that period. Moreover, it doesn’t require huge amounts of energy to sustain itself, therefore we are talking about a data solution that can reduce existing hardware to microscopic proportions. The implications for the environment and energy needs cannot be imagined at this point in time.
In theory this sounds great, but the interesting part is that Microsoft Research and University of Washington have already developed “a fully automated system for writing, storing and reading data encoded in DNA.” The cost implications are important if the technology is to compete with electronic storage. At the very least DNA data storage will certainly be used for preservation of data over millennia and performing unthinkable operations over massive scales of data.
Utility-Scale storage of Renewable energy
Electricity generation is undergoing a seismic shift as declining costs of wind and solar energy and the urgency towards decarbonizing energy systems have combined in an excellent manner. In the US alone, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), has stated that wind and solar energy have tag teamed to double the energy produced by renewables within a decade. The trend is expected to continue in the future, but the real challenge is storing this energy because of the irregular nature of these energy sources. Lithium-ion batteries have stepped up to fulfill the gap of energy storage requirements.
At the moment Lithium-ion batteries are contributing towards 80% of the U.S. utility-scale battery-storage capacity and their electricity cost has reduced by 76% as compared to 2012. Currently, they can support operations for 2-4 hours, as their sporadic usage by states like Florida and California suggests. The real challenge is increasing this power storage to eight hours as this will enable stored solar power to be used in peak-evening time. For the next five to ten years, lithium-ion batteries will feature prominently as battery storage market will grow six-fold between 2018 and 2020. The U.S. is leading research and application in this regard to achieve carbon-free electricity generation. However, the real focus of investment in energy storage is found in Korea and China.