An international steering committee of technology experts headed by Mariette DiChristina (Scientific American editor-in-chief) and Bernard S. Meyerson (IBM chief innovation officer) presented a kaleidoscopic view of world-changing new technologies at the Annual Meeting of New Champions 2019 in Dalian, China, July 1-3.
Nicknamed the Summer Davos, The New Champions is one of a half dozen annual meetings held by the World Economic Forum (WEF). This year’s meeting produced a report titled the “Top 10 Emerging Technologies” for 2019. The committee sorted through dozens of nominations, and this year’s list ranged widely from bioplastics that degrade, microlenses made of arrays of nanoscale objects, smart fertilizers, and utility-scale storage for renewable energy sources.
Image: World Economic Forum
These are the emerging technologies the WEF selected.
1. BIOPLASTICS FOR A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Manufactured plastics create three problems that require attention. Hundreds of metric tons are created each year, and less than 15% of that tonnage is recycled. The rest is incinerated or dumped in landfills and the seas. If these materials were subject to microbial digestion, there would be a solution—biodegrable plastics. Today, companies like Chrysalix Technologies in the UK and MetGen Oy are working on plastics created out of cellulose and lignin. Both are widely available and biodegradable. In fact, cellulose is “the most abundant organic polymer on earth.”
2. SOCIAL ROBOTS
We have become used to viewing robots as occupational usurpers, but there is another class of “social” robots that are built to “engage with people and elicit an emotional connection.” The WEF report says we have reached a tipping point with familiar bots so that we might “expect social robots to become more sophisticated and prevalent in the next few years.” Robotic responses are more lifelike now due to research “into such issues as how perceptions form, what constitutes social and emotional intelligence, and how people can deduce other’s thoughts and feelings.” In other words, robots are relying less on preprogrammed “appropriate” responses and more on the bot’s “judgment.” Companion robots can already recognize voices, faces, and emotions. They can read verbal and nonverbal cues, make eye contact, speak conversationally, and even continue to learn. The WEF points out that sales of consumer robots are estimated at $5.6 billion in 2018, and “the market is expected to grow to $19 billion by the end of 2025, with more than 65 million robots sold a year.”
3. TINY LENSES FOR MINIATURE DEVICES
One of the more exotic technologies described are the flat meta-lenses that are less than a micron thick. They are made of arrays of nanoscale objects, not glass, because at the microscale needed, glass can no longer be ground and polished to these miniscule dimensions using conventional tools. The report explains, “A metalens consists of a flat surface, thinner than a micron, that is covered with an array of nanoscale objects, such as jutting pillars or drilled holes.” They are so thin they can be stacked without a significant increase in thickness, and the manufacture of these lenses can be accomplished on the same equipment currently used for semiconductor fabrication. These microlenses can be used in diagnostic tools that produce endoscopic imaging and in optical fibers as well. One startup, Metalenz Inc. of Weston, Mass., expects to be marketing their meta-lenses within a few years.
4. DISORDERED PROTEINS AS DRUG TARGETS
In the early 2000s, the importance of intrinsically disordered proteins began to be addressed. These are proteins that don’t have a fixed or ordered three-dimensional structure. They provide flexibility for cells to adapt, but they also exacerbate neurodegenerative illnesses and cancers. Even worse, they prevent some drugs from targeting and adhering to them due to their instability. In 2017, researchers in France and Spain were able to use an established anxiety medication to target, bind to, and inhibit NUPR1, a disordered protein involved in one form of pancreatic cancer. Numerous pharmaceuticals are now targeting particular IDPs associated with small-cell lung cancer, Alzheimer’s, and neurodegeneration. The WEF report asserts, “It is increasingly likely that in the next three to five years, these once ‘undruggable’ proteins will end up in the crosshairs of pharmaceutical development.”
5. SMARTER FERTILIZERS TO REDUCE ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINATION
Conventional fertilizers increase crop production at a cost to the environment. Ammonia and urea combine with water to increase nitrogen available to the plants, and potash combines with water to add phosphorous. Unfortunately, a lot of the nitrogen goes into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases and phosphorous encourages algae growth in watersheds. A current solution is the slow-release fertilizers that have a shell to control the penetration of water on its way into the chemicals within. Even smarter fertilizers are now in development that will slow the nutrient release even more with sensitivity to the soil temperature, acidity, and moisture changes. These new chemicals form part of sustainable agriculture, which is now called “precision farming,” that also includes autonomous vehicles (robots) to deliver nutrients in prescribed amounts in the fields.
6. COLLABORATIVE TELEPRESENCE
We already have Skype and FaceTime that allow us to send our presence and receive others online. These internet sessions are useful socially, for business, and even for remote medical diagnoses and counseling. Collaborative telepresence now will add advanced AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and haptic sensors, all powered by 5G networks. The result is 360-degree immersive reality augmented by the projected presence of AR and a sense of touch transmitted back via your avatar. WEF also expects predictive AI algorithms could eliminate the user’s sense of time gaps or pauses. The report predicts, “Although collaborative telepresence is still very much emerging, all the pieces are in place for it to become transformative within three to five years.”
7. ADVANCED FOOD TRACKING AND PACKAGING
This entry in the list is about the two technologies that can improve food safety. The report cites disturbing World Health Organization statistics regarding a problem in which “About 600 million people suffer food poisoning every year, and 420,000 die as a result. When an outbreak occurs, investigators can spend days or weeks tracking its source.” Another side issue is the amount of noncontaminated food that might be discarded simply because it’s very difficult to track food as it “travels a complex path from farm to table and the records are kept in local systems.” The solutions involve better record-keeping using blockchain decentralized record keeping, like the IBM Food Trust, and small sensors that can monitor the “quality and safety of food in pallets, cases, or individually wrapped products.” Companies developing these sensors include Timestrip UK, Vistab International, and Insignia Technologies.
8. SAFER NUCLEAR REACTORS
It was the overheating of the fuel rods at Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi reactors that caused those disasters. The zirconium alloy fuel rods are packed with pellets of uranium dioxide, and if the zirconium overheats, a reaction with the surrounding water can release sufficient hydrogen for an explosion. Addressing the problem, companies like Westinghouse Electric Company and Framatome are developing accident-tolerant fuels that aren’t as likely to overheat, and if they do they will produce little or no hydrogen. The Russian state-run company Rosaton has new “passive” safety systems that can control overheating even when electric power to the system shuts down. Other manufacturers are developing “fourth-generation” reactors that use liquid sodium or molten salt instead of water to cool the rods and prevent hydrogen generation if they do overheat.
9. DNA DATA STORAGE
As the massive amounts of data generated each year worldwide reach avalanche proportions (418 zettabytes per year by 2020), the eventual failure of our magnetic and optical data storage systems becomes more certain and more imminent. One unique solution is to use another, very efficient information-storage system to replace our hard drives. The WEF innovation report explains: “DNA can accurately stow massive amounts of data at a density far exceeding that of electronic devices. The simple bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli) for instance, has a storage density of about 1019 bits per cubic centimeter. . . At that density, all the world’s current storage needs for a year could be well met by a cube of DNA measuring about one meter on each side.” DNA data storage is moving from the theoretical as a group at Harvard used DNA editing to record images of a human hand onto the genome of E. coli. The data can be read out with better than 90% accuracy. The University of Washington, Microsoft, and Twist Bioscience are all working on DNA-storage systems.
10. UTILITY-SCALE STORAGE OF RENEWABLE ENERGY
A current problem with the renewables like wind and solar energy crops up each night and when the winds calm. A demand for a solution is intensifying as the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has documented a doubling of electricity produced by these two renewables in the past decade. In January 2019, the EIA predicted wind, solar, and other nonhydroelectric renewables “would be the fastest-growing slice of the electricity portfolio for the next two years.” Today, lithium-ion batteries provide more than 80% of America’s utility-scale battery-storage power capacity. And as the cost of production continues to rapidly decrease, the research firm Wood Mackenzie predicts the market for energy storage will soar, doubling from 2018 to 2019 and tripling from 2019 to 2020. Other experts seem confident that lithium-ion batteries will continue to dominate as the most economic storage solution for the next decade.
You can read or download a PDF of the complete Insight Report. The report contains much more detail on each project in a compact 17-page format.