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Flexible batteries? Designer viruses? Wearable plant sensors? Every year the World Economic Forum selects the technologies that will have the biggest impact on humanity and the planet. Let’s take a look at the 2023 list…
Imagine if farmers could attach tiny wearable sensors to their crops. They could read the data to improve plant health – and it would be cheaper and more effective than taking photos with a drone.
Well, wearable plant sensors are already being tested. In fact, they are one of the new technologies featured in the World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2023 report.
In this annual project, the WEF outlines the areas that it believes will to impact society positively in the next three to five years. Its underlying mission? To “improve the state of the world and the humans inhabiting it.”
That’s quite a target. But the program has a pretty good track record. It kicked off in 2011 with a list that identified little-known technologies such as the genetic-engineering tool, CRISPR-Cas9. Just four years later, CRISPR became Nobel Prize-winning science. Today it is regularly used to create insect and drought-resistant crops.
For the 2023 edition of the list, WEF’s team of 90 experts from 20 countries appraised 95 nominations. They took account of four key factors:
• Novelty: the technology is at an early stage, and not already widely used
• Applicability: has the potential to be of significant benefit to societies and economies
• Depth: is developed by multiple companies and the focus of significant investment interest
• Power: has the power to disrupt established norms and industries
And in 2023, for the first time, the WEF added a new criterion: impact fingerprint. This was meant to assess how a technology might shape humanitarian and environmental wellbeing. It included:
• People: how will the tech enhance security and dignity—in areas such as food security, access to clean water and healthcare?
• Planet: considerations such as restoring biodiversity, minimizing waste, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions
• Prosperity: potential to improve the quality of life for individuals. Factors include job creation, connectivity, and leisure time
• Industry: potential to generate new markets over the next decade
• Equity: assessing the potential to democratize access to essential resources such as healthcare, energy, materials, and the internet.
So let’s take a closer look at the WEF list of world-changing tech…
#1. Flexible batteries
The battery is the Cinderella of the tech world. It does a lot of the hard work, but is rarely appreciated. Advances in battery tech have the potentially to change the way we work and play. And nowhere is this truer than in the flexible battery form factor.
Flexibles have been promised for more than a decade, but are still nowhere near the mass market. But this could be about to change. Several types of flexible batteries are now in development. They are based on lithium-ion or zinc-carbon systems placed on conductive polymer current collectors. In some cases, the electrodes of flexible batteries can be coated with flexible substrates, including carbon-based materials like graphene, carbon fibers or cloth.
Why is this exciting? Because flexible batteries can accelerate the development of wearable medical devices, biomedical sensors, flexible displays and smartwatches. They might also unleash new ideas in fashion design.
#2. Generative artificial intelligence
Unlike some other techs in the WEF list, GenAI is already pretty mainstream. In 2022, OpenAI launched ChatGPT and took it to 100 million users in a few weeks. But while ChatGPT and others are making strides in generating text, computer programming, images and sound, GenAI has many other exciting future applications in areas such as drug design, architecture and engineering.
For example NASA engineers are testing AI systems that can construct lightweight spaceflight instruments. They believe this can deliver a 10x reduction in development time. Even more impressive, scientists are testing GenAI’s ability to analyze brain activity and generate drawings of a person’s thoughts.
#3. Sustainable aviation fuel
Air travel presents a major challenge in the race to reduce CO2. Aviation accounts for up to 3 percent of global emissions, but unlike motoring it cannot transition to electric power any time soon. Aircraft need energy-dense fuels for long-distance flights.
Now a potential solution is on the runway. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) does not require large-scale changes to current aircraft and equipment. SAF can be made in many ways – from biomass, captured CO2, green hydrogen, plant oil and animal fat. It often uses engineered bacteria to break down the raw materials.
Today, SAF makes up less than one percent of global jet fuel demand. But the numbers are rising sharply. Production tripled in a year to at least 300 million liters in 2022. In 2023, a UK consortium was planning the first net-zero transatlantic flight using SAF.
#4. Designer phages
A phage is a virus that infects and replicates inside bacteria. Obviously, if we could manipulate phages, it would allow us to enhance the growth of livestock, treat plant diseases and eliminate dangerous bacteria in food supply chains. Well, now we can.
Technicians are developing synthetic biology tools that reprogram a phage to execute a set of genetic instructions. This changes a bacterium’s functions, causing it to produce a therapeutic molecule or to become sensitive to a certain drug, for example.
Designer phages are already making progress. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved testing of a designer phage that treats hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is caused by E. coli.
#5. Metaverse for mental health
The Metaverse has been the focus of immense hype in the last few years. But the excitement was mostly based around entertainment and commerce. Less was said about wellbeing.
But now there is growing interest in the potential of virtual worlds to improve mental health outcomes. There’s a sense that the metaverse could become a shared virtual space in which
people connect and access therapy. Many startups have emerged. For example, TRIPP has created Mindful Metaverse, which offers VR-enabled guided mindfulness and meditation.
Advances in interface technologies promise even more thought-provoking possibilities. Experiments are already taking place in ultrasonic waves that simulate touch, and neuro-technologies that are attuned to a user’s emotional state.
#6. Wearable plant sensors
There’s a big data revolution taking place in agriculture. Farmers are using algorithmic analysis to assess the health of their crops, improve plant yield and avoid damage from pests and disease.
However, traditional visual inspections using low-resolution satellite data and sensor-equipped drones are expensive and time-consuming. Which is why there is excitement around wearable plant sensors. These small, non-invasive devices attach to individual plants for continuous monitoring of temperature, humidity, moisture and nutrient levels.
There are challenges. Wearable sensors are time-consuming to install and maintain. But the results are compelling, not least because The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says food production needs to grow by 70 percent to feed the world by 2050.
#7. Spatial omics
The human body is home to 37.2 trillion cells. How do they keep us alive and healthy? This is the question spatial omics could answer. And if it does, it could lead to medical breakthroughs.
Here’s how it works: scientists slice an organ into sections only one cell thick. They then use spatial omics tools to visualize the locations of specific biomolecules in each slice. This allows previously unobservable cell architecture to be viewed in unprecedented detail.
The technique is already showing promise. In one test, technicians identified a population of neurons in a mouse’s injured spinal cord, and were able to speed up their recovery. There are other potential applications in treating tumors, Alzheimer’s and rheumatoid arthritis.
#8. Flexible neural electronics
Brain-machine interfaces really are the stuff of science fiction. The idea that we could control machines with our thoughts is intoxicating. But progress is already being made. BMI-like systems are already used to treat epilepsy, and to enhance prosthetic limbs with electrodes to interface with the nervous system.
The longstanding problem has been the implants themselves. They are often made of hard materials, which cause discomfort and cannot bend or adapt to brain movements. Meanwhile non-invasive methods, like electrodes on the skin, deliver much less accurate results.
Hence the excitement about soft biocompatible materials and soft-circuit printing. Tests are underway, and the hope is that they can address neurological conditions such as dementia and autism.
#9. Sustainable computing
We live in a world of cloud-based services – from TV streaming to email to social. These services are built on top of data centers that consume one per cent of all electricity produced. Can we reduce this burden?
Every player in the ecosystem is trying. And there are multiple ways to attack the problem. For example, the city of Stockholm is recycling waste heat from data centers to heat homes. Meanwhile Google is using AI-powered energy management to cut energy consumption in its data centers by 40 percent.
There could also be big gains that result from the ability to process and store data across multiple locations. For example, Crusoe Energy installs modular data centers at sites where it can capture naturally occurring methane flaring.
#10. AI-facilitated healthcare
For millions of people, the biggest barrier to healthcare is the organization of the healthcare system itself. Long delays are frequently caused by the inability of providers to allocate resources effectively.
Sorting through vast quantities of ‘untidy’ data is what AI is great at. So now there is hope that AI can improve healthcare drastically. Companies such as Canada’s Medical Confidence are already doing this, and have been able to reduce wait times from months to weeks.
The impact of AI-based healthcare could be most profound in developing nations. The Indian is already experimenting with an AI-powered program that helps physicians to engage remote communities.