The World Economic Forum's annual list of emerging technologies, released this summer, include both familiar and unfamiliar discoveries. Experts believe this is the year they will most impact individuals, businesses and society.
A diverse range of breakthrough technologies, including batteries capable of providing power to whole villages, “socially aware” artificial intelligence and new generation solar panels, could soon be playing a role in tackling the world’s most pressing challenges, according to a list published by the World Economic Forum.
“Technology has a critical role to play in addressing each of the major challenges the world faces, yet it also poses significant economic and social risks. As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is vital that we develop shared norms and protocols to ensure that technology serves humanity and contributes to a prosperous and sustainable future,” said Jeremy Jurgens, Chief Information and Interaction Officer, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.
The Top 10 Emerging Technologies 2016 list, compiled by the Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies and published in collaboration with Scientific American, highlights technological advances its members believe have the power to improve lives, transform industries and safeguard the planet. It also provides an opportunity to debate any human, societal, economic or environmental risks and concerns that the technologies may pose prior to widespread adoption.
“Horizon scanning for emerging technologies is crucial to staying abreast of developments that can radically transform our world, enabling timely expert analysis in preparation for these disruptors. The global community needs to come together and agree on common principles if our society is to reap the benefits and hedge the risks of these technologies,” said Dr Bernard Meyerson, Chief Innovation Officer of IBM and Chair of the Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies.
One of the criteria used by council members during their deliberations was the likelihood that 2016 represents a tipping point in the deployment of each technology. Thus, the list includes some technologies that have been known for a number of years, but are only now reaching a level of maturity where their impact can be meaningfully felt.
The top 10 technologies to make this year’s list are:
With the Internet of Things expected to comprise 30 billion connected devices by 2020, one of the most exciting areas of focus today is now on nanosensors capable of circulating in the human body or being embedded in construction materials. Once connected, this Internet of Nanothings could have a huge impact on the future of medicine, architecture, agriculture and drug manufacture.
One of the greatest obstacles holding renewable energy back is matching supply with demand, but recent advances in energy storage using sodium, aluminium and zinc based batteries makes mini-grids feasible that can provide clean, reliable, round the clock energy sources to entire villages.
Much already has been made of the distributed electronic ledger behind the online currency Bitcoin. With related venture investment exceeding $1 billion in 2015 alone, the economic and social impact of blockchain’s potential to fundamentally change the way markets and governments work is only now emerging.
4. 2D Materials
Graphene may be the best-known, single-atom layer material, but it is by no means the only one. Plummeting production costs mean that such 2D materials are emerging in a wide range of applications, from air and water filters to new generations of wearables and batteries.
Self-driving cars may not yet be fully legal in most geographies, but their potential for saving lives, cutting pollution, boosting economies, and improving quality of life for the elderly and other segments of society has led to rapid deployment of key technology forerunners along the way to full autonomy.
Miniature models of human organs – the size of a memory stick – could revolutionize medical research and drug discovery by allowing researchers to see biological mechanism behaviours in ways never before possible.
This new photovoltaic material offers three improvements over the classic silicon solar cell: it is easier to make, can be used virtually anywhere and, to date, keeps on generating power more efficiently.
Shared advances in natural language processing and social awareness algorithms, coupled with an unprecedented availability of data, will soon allow smart digital assistants help with a vast range of tasks, from keeping track of one’s finances and health to advising on wardrobe choice.
The use of light and color to record the activity of neurons in the brain has been around for some time, but recent developments mean light can now be delivered deeper into brain tissue, something that could lead to better treatment for people with brain disorders.
Advances in synthetic biology, systems biology and evolutionary engineering mean that the list of building block chemicals that can be manufactured better and more cheaply by using plants rather than fossil fuels is growing every year.
To compile this list, the World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies, a panel of global experts, drew on the collective expertise of the Forum’s communities to identify the most important recent technological trends. By doing so, the Meta-Council aims to raise awareness of their potential and contribute to closing gaps in investment, regulation and public understanding that so often thwart progress.
(Top image: A graphene tube. Image credit: Getty Images.)
Oliver Cann is Director, Media Relations at the World Economic Forum.
This piece originally appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog.