Technology is an incredible thing, holding the potential to transform lives and societies, thereby unlocking opportunities hitherto unimaginable. In fact, living through a pandemic would be a lot more difficult minus the bridge that technology builds to a semblance of normalcy. It has allowed us to work from home, stay connected to loved ones near, and far, and provided essential building blocks of growth for the world and industries in these tumultuous times.
Be it computing and artificial intelligence to biotechnology and nanotechnology, the advances we have seen over the last two decades has been staggering, but it is a double-sided coin, holding the potential to be used for the greater good or abused, if in the wrong hands.
A new World Economic Forum report reveals the top 10 emerging technologies of 2020 that hold the potential to disrupt the status quo and spur real progress.
Here are 2020’s top 10 emerging technologies.
- Microneedles for painless injections and tests
Hate injections? 2020 just got a lot better for you. Think of tiny needles, at no more than the width of a human hair, enabling pain-free injections and blood testing. By penetrating the skin without touching our nerve endings, “microneedles” enable a whole new world of medicine for many. It can be attached to syringes or patches, or even mixed into creams. What’s more, it doesn’t need expensive equipment or extensive training, making healthcare more accessible, especially in under-served areas, like India’s hinterland.
- Sun-powered chemistry
A lot of commonplace chemicals requires the use of fossil fuels. But as we stride towards a greener future, a new approach promises a reduction in the sector’s emissions by using sunlight to convert waste carbon dioxide into useful chemicals. This represents a major step towards creating “solar” refineries to produce everything from medicines and detergents to fertilizers and textiles. All in a sustainable manner.
- Virtual patients
Clinical trials have required willing test subjects, which has been a bone of contention. But new technology promises the creation of a virtual human organ that behaves just like the real thing, not only rendering human or animal testing redundant, but also making the whole process quicker, safer, and less expensive.
- Spatial computing
Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, LiDAR and other tech much like it is blurring the boundaries between real and virtual worlds, and spatial computing promises to take things a step further. It digitizes objects and allows sensors and motors to react to one another, creating a digital world not far removed from ours. But it goes even further, adding spatial mapping that allows tracking and control of an objects movements and interactions, opening new avenues for how people and machines can interact across a range of applications and industries.
- Digital medicine
Wearables are already helping us keep a better eye on our health, and digital medicine extends that philosophy by allowing for the monitoring of conditions or administration of therapies that could improve quality of life. Pills containing sensors are under development, and much like heart sensors in smart watches, innovations are being worked on for breathing disorders, depression, Alzheimer’s and more. This will, of course, be no replacement for a real doctor, but represents a big step forward for those with limited access to healthcare, or the elderly living alone, for instance.
- Electric aviation
Greenhouse gas emissions from commercial air travel are growing at a faster clip than predicted in previous projections, although the pandemic has unintendedly put us on a different trajectory. Now, electric propulsion is being worked on, which would allow air travel to cut out carbon emissions, slash fuel costs and bring about big noise reductions. While long-haul electric flights may have some time yet to take off, industry biggies like Airbus and NASA are working on this, and Airbus says it could have 100-passenger electric planes ready for take-off in 2030.
- Lower-carbon cement
Urbanization is a phenomenon which won’t halt anytime soon, and that means we need to watch the cement we use. 4 billion tonnes of cement are produced every year, accounting for around 8% of global CO2 emissions. Projections say that this figure is set to rise to 5 billion tonnes over the next 3 decades as urbanization ramps up. Thus, researchers and start-ups are working on lower-carbon approaches that could benefit society in the long run, including measures that could see taking cement out of concrete altogether.
- Quantum sensing
Sensors are increasingly commonplace thanks to the internet of things – but the next generation of sensing technology promises dramatic new capabilities. Imagine having perfectly accurate navigation under water, sensing changes in gravity that reveal potential volcanic activity, climate change and earthquakes, portable monitors for brain activity. Quantum sensing makes all of this possible by exploiting the quantum nature of matter, and as sensors become increasingly commonplace, they have the potential to significantly improve lives.
- Green hydrogen
The carbon-free economy is a pipe dream. Or is it? Green hydrogen, which uses renewable energy to produce hydrogen from water, is taking off around the globe. Experts predict it will become a $12 trillion market by 2050, and help in the energy transition by driving decarbonization in hard-to-electrify sectors of the economy that require high-energy fuel, such as long-haul trucking, aviation, and heavy manufacturing.
- Whole-genome synthesis
Whole-genome synthesis represents a big advance in synthetic biology, and improvements in synthesis technology and software are making it possible to print ever larger swaths of genetic material and to alter genomes more extensively. This could then theoretically allow viruses to be created and studied in laboratories without having to wait for physical samples. And its application goes beyond medicine, helping in the sustainable production of chemicals, fuels or construction materials from biomass or waste gases. And, of course, the rewriting of our own genome sequence, allowing for cures for genetic diseases.
The future is an exciting one, and one whose potential we cannot wait to dive into.