Exploring Clean Technology
World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016
Posted by Ian London | October 11, 2016
New technologies seem to be being announced faster than ever (and a lot of them I describe for you here each month!), holding promise of solving many of the world’s most pressing challenges, be it food and water security, energy sustainability or medical treatments. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies recently noted that “in the past year alone, 3D printing has been used for medical purposes; lighter, cheaper and flexible electronics made from organic materials have found practical applications; and drugs that use nanotechnology and can be delivered at the molecular level have been developed in medical labs.”
The Meta-Council offers a platform for advising decision-makers, regulators, business leaders and the public globally on what to look forward to (and out for) when it comes to breakthrough developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, smart devices, neuroscience, nanotechnology and biotechnology.
The WEF also has a tradition of naming the Top 10 Emerging Technologies to keep an eye on annually. I’m only going to profile six of their 2016 list here, as their advanced materials and material science connection jump off the page… at least for me. (The other four new technologies I do not describe below are: Optogenetics, Systems Metabolic Engineering, Open Artificial Intelligence Ecosystem, and the Blockchain.)
Before I begin, we do need to recognize that there’s generally a very long transition to effectively move new technologies from the research lab to people’s lives. Furthermore, as noted by the WEF, “it has been observed that most of the global challenges of the 21st century are a direct consequence of the most important technological innovations of the 20st century.”
Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings
With the Internet of Things (IoT) expected to comprise 30 billion connected devices by 2020, one of the most exciting areas of focus today is 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. Imagine the IoT built from inexpensive microsensors and microprocessors paired with tiny power supplies and wireless antennas.
Next Generation Batteries
Although solar and wind power capacity have been growing rapidly, these renewable sources of energy still satisfy less than five percent of global electricity demand. Better batteries could solve this problem, enabling emissions-free renewables to grow even faster and making it easier to bring reliable electricity. Recent advances in energy storage using lithium, sodium, aluminium and zinc based batteries makes mini-grids feasible.
Graphene is stronger than steel, harder than diamond, lighter than almost anything, transparent, flexible and an ultrafast electrical conductor. Graphene may be the best-known, single-atom layer material, but it is by no means the only one. 2-D materials have interesting properties and substances that can be combined like Lego bricks to build still more new materials. Plummeting production costs will secure 2D materials application in a wide range of applications, from air and water filters to new generations of wearables and batteries.
Self-driving cars may not (as 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. Google and other companies have been testing self-driving cars, which process vast amounts of sensory data from onboard radars, cameras, ultrasonic range-finders, GPS and stored maps to navigate routes. (I well appreciate that autonomous vehicles do involve drawbacks).
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. Many important biological studies and practical drug tests can be done only by studying an organ it operates. New technology could fill this need by growing functional pieces of human organs in miniature, on microchips.
Perovskite Solar Cells
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.
As noted, it’s often difficult to predict the possible downsides of any new technology, As Andrew Maynard noted in his article in Scientific American (June 23rd), we must try to predict downsides anyway in order to responsibly develop new technologies. It is important to ask what harm or complexities technologies like those listed in this year’s top ten could cause, and figure out how to best address such. As Maynard asks, “How do we ensure that ‘logical’ self-driving cars safely share the road with less ‘logical’ humans?” Another example relates to our being infused with internet-connected nano-sensors that reveal one’s most intimate biological details to the world, as it could present social and psychological risks that can’t be solved by technology alone. Similar concerns arise around “open artificial (AI) intelligence ecosystems” whereby combining “listening” devices, cloud computing and the Internet of Things, machines are increasingly combining the capacity to understand or misinterpret normal conversation with the ability to take action on what is heard.”
Read the full list here: https://www.weforum.org/communities/meta-council-on-emerging-technologies/
So once again, advanced materials and material science play fundamentally important roles in new technologies.
Until soon… Ian