Technology - an agent of change
Technological advances have always been key agents of change in how we work, interact and live. During the last two decades, the world has witnessed an unprecedent pace of technological innovation in all fields, from computing and artificial intelligence to biotechnology and nanotechnology. These technologies come with a potential to help us solve some of our most pressing global challenges, but also pose significant risks, if misused and mismanaged.
Every year, this publication brings together some of the world’s experts to inform decision-makers and the wider public about emerging technologies that have the potential to disrupt industry and society. This gives us chance to position ourselves to best capitalize on their promises and safeguard against potential risks.
2020's top challenges answered
There are a lot of important global challenges, but none more pressing in 2020 than those of global health and climate change. It should come as no surprise to the reader that the majority of the technologies identified this year by the experts offer solutions to these two challenges.
In healthcare, we are seeing significant advances in areas that can help with diagnosing and treating diseases more accurately and efficiently, from using our smart devices to diagnose Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s early, and creating virtual organs instead of real ones for diagnosis, to digitizing large amounts of genetic material – like a virus – and then being able to physically reproduce it and manipulate it. Advances in medical devices called microneedles also promise to increase the global reach of vaccines and decrease risks of disease transmission.
As for climate change, we have witnessed significant technological advances that can help us reduce our global carbon footprint, from using the sun’s energy to convert waste carbon dioxide into valuable materials, and manufacturing cement with reduced carbon emissions, to being able to produce hydrogen without using fossil fuel energy, but instead using excess electricity. Moreover, the aviation sector has been making important steps that will allow the industry to use electric engines, which massively reduce carbon emissions and fuel costs.
Finally, there have been some exciting developments in digital technologies that promise to change many industries, as well as our day-to-day lives. Augmented and virtual reality are already starting to find their space in the workplace and our daily lives, but spatial computing will take these capabilities a step further, allowing us to digitize physical objects that connect via the cloud, and then affect the physical world through our smart devices. Moreover, new types of sensors (quantum sensors), are enabling numerous applications, from receiving early-warning systems for volcanic activity and earthquakes to monitoring brain activity in real time.
All these exciting technologies are out of the laboratories and with the right type of investment, legal frameworks and thoughtful application, can provide great benefits to a world dealing with some major challenges.
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Did you know?
- Microneedle devices could enable testing and treatment to be delivered in underserved areas and can reduce the risk of transmitting viruses
- Virtual organs can be used in place of risky interventions that are required for diagnosing or planning treatment
- We will soon be able to use our smartphones to screen for breathing disorders, depression, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism and other conditions
- Electric engines in planes could not only eliminate direct carbon emissions, but also reduce fuel costs by up to 90%, maintenance by up to 50% and noise by nearly 70%
- The ability to write our own genome that will inevitably emerge will enable doctors to cure many, if not all, genetic diseases
Good is not guaranteed
While these technological advances bring with them a huge potential for positive disruption for society and industry, they are neither sufficient agents of change by themselves nor is their use for good guaranteed.
On one hand, most of these technologies still need significant amounts of funding to be able to reach the maturity and price point that can make their integration in our industry and society viable and scalable. No company or government can ensure this, so the public and private sectors need to collaborate regionally and globally to pool resources and data. This will ensure that society manages to reap the benefits of these technologies as soon as possible.
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On the other hand, policy-makers need to quickly take action to find solutions to some of the important risks that come with a lot of these technologies.
For example, the ability to diagnose and track diseases from a smart device raises questions about the limits of the accuracy of the diagnosis and how the user can be sure that the app they are using is a legitimate one (vetted by local or global health authorities). It also raises significant concerns about data and privacy – who has access, who has rights to use, who is legally responsible in terms of a data breach etc.
Our ability to digitize, physically reproduce and manipulate large sequences of genetic material also brings with it a huge risk of fatal misuse or weaponization. Scientists have the main responsibility in developing a way to track and locate potential misuses and threats, but governments and international organizations must come together to set rules and regulations on a global scale, as these technologies are not limited by national boundaries.
Proactive action and collaboration at policy and industry levels will be the key in enabling the positive use of these technologies and limiting the risk of misuse of some of them. Decision-makers need to act now given the urgency of the challenges we are facing, the fact these new technologies can help us address many of these, and the level of risk that some of them have.
An opportunity not to be passed up
Imagine a world where we have managed to reduce our carbon emissions to a minimum, where our planes fly with electric motors and our cars run on green hydrogen. A world where genetic diseases are eradicated and where we can diagnose many other diseases early and accurately before treating them efficiently. A world where our digital world enhances our physical world, rather than distracting us from it. This world will soon be technically feasible. It is up to us and to decision-makers to make it a reality. We hope that the Top-10 Emerging Technologies 2020 report can help towards realizing this exciting potential.