Emerging noteworthy technologies (WEF)

Anna Triponel

June 30, 2023
Our key takeaway: “Emerging technologies – some of which you might never have heard of – can and will shape our collective future in the years ahead.” These are the words from Jeremy Jurgens, Managing Director at the World Economic Forum. We have really enjoyed reading about the technologies of tomorrow, and in particular those that will play a role in getting us to the net zero future that we need. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for instance is needed to move the aviation industry towards net-zero carbon emissions. Today, SAF represents 1% of global jet fuel demand: this must increase to 13-15% by 2040 to put the aviation industry on the path to net zero by 2050. And the excellent news is that the production of SAF from biogenic raw materials using renewable energy is steadily increasing, and we hear from the WEF that airlines, manufacturers and fuel companies are working around the clock to enable the scale needed to get us to a net zero aviation industry. Other technologies of particular interest are wearable plant sensors - yes individual monitors attached to each plant - to optimize yields, reduce water, fertilizer and pesticide use, and detect early signs of disease. Very relevant in a world where food production will need to increase by 70% to feed the world’s population in 2050. And of course, the development of net-zero-energy data centres, particularly important as we move from data centres consuming higher and higher levels of energy (from our 1% use of electricity today). Technologies are the future, so let’s continue to shape them wisely.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has published ‘Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2023’ (June 2023) which highlights the technologies set to positively impact society within the next three to five years. The report delves into each technology's potential impact on people, the planet, prosperity, industry and equity. Here they are:

  • Sustainable aviation fuel: Moving the aviation industry towards net-zero carbon emissions. “Enter a solution that does not require large-scale changes to current aviation infrastructure and equipment: sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), produced from biological (e.g. biomass) and non- biological (e.g. CO2) resources. Combined with other decarbonization strategies, including system- wide operational efficiencies, new technologies and carbon offsets, SAF should move the airline industry towards reaching net-zero carbon emissions in the coming decades.”
  • Wearable plant sensors: Revolutionizing agricultural data collection to feed the world. “The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization states that world food production will need to increase by 70% to feed the world’s population in 2050. Technological innovations in agriculture will be a key step towards meeting this dramatic escalation and improving the world’s food security. … The next frontier in crop monitoring is even higher resolution: the monitoring of individual plants. Wearable plant sensors promise to improve plant health and increase agricultural productivity. These sensors are small, non-invasive devices that can be attached to crop plants for continuous monitoring of temperature, humidity, moisture and nutrient levels. Data from plant sensors can optimize yields, reduce water, fertilizer and pesticide use, and detect early signs of disease.”
  • Sustainable computing: Designing and implementing net-zero-energy data centres. “[D]ata centres, which facilitate Google searches, email, the metaverse, AI and myriad other aspects of an increasingly data-based society, consume an estimated 1% of the electricity produced globally, and this amount will only increase with growing demand for data services. While there is no single “green data” magic bullet, it is expected that the coming decade will boast substantial strides toward net-zero-energy data centres as emerging technologies are combined and integrated in innovative ways – rapidly making the dream of net-zero-energy data centres an achievable reality.”
  • Generative artificial intelligence: Expanding the boundaries of human endeavour. “Generative artificial intelligence (AI) is a powerful type of AI that can create new and original content by learning patterns in data, using complex algorithms and methods of learning inspired by the human brain. While generative AI is still currently focused on producing text, computer programming, images and sound, this technology could be applied to a range of purposes, including drug design, architecture and engineering.” When it comes to the workplace, “[g]enerative AI technologies specifically benefit low-ability workers and can increase job satisfaction and self-efficacy. Given the potential for productivity gains resulting from adopting these new technologies, it’s crucial to acknowledge the likelihood of job displacement.”
  • Designer phages: Engineering viruses to augment human, animal and plant health. “Recent advances allow engineering of the microbiome to benefit human well-being and agricultural productivity. Key to this engineering are phages – viruses that selectively infect specific types of bacteria.” This in turn can be used to treat microbiome-associated diseases. “Phages are also being designed as feed supplements to enhance the growth of livestock, treat certain plant diseases and eliminate dangerous bacteria in food supply chains.” (Microbiome are the microbes living on and within the human body, animals and plants)
  • Flexible batteries: Powering wearable technologies for healthcare and e-textiles. “Standard, rigid batteries may soon be a thing of the past as thin, flexible batteries – made of lightweight materials that can be easily twisted, bent or stretched – reach the market.” Applications include “wearable medical devices and biomedical sensors, flexible displays and smartwatches.”
  • Metaverse for mental health: Shared virtual spaces to improve mental health. “Excess screen time and social media can decrease psychological well-being,25 but they can also enhance well-being when used responsibly. Screen time spent building connections in shared virtual spaces might help combat the growing mental health crisis as opposed to contributing to it.”
  • Spatial omics: Molecular-level mapping of biological processes to unlock life’s mysteries. “The human body is composed of approximately 37.2 trillion cells. How do they all work together to keep us alive and healthy? Spatial omics may provide researchers with an answer. By combining advanced imaging techniques with the specificity and resolution of DNA sequencing, this emerging method enables the mapping of the what, where and when of biological processes at the molecular level.”
  • Flexible neural electronics: Better engineered circuits to interface with the nervous system. “In recent years, brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) have gained visibility, igniting collective imaginations regarding the power and potential of one day controlling machines with thoughts. BMIs allow electrical signals the brain produces to be captured by sensor hardware. Algorithms then decode these electrical signals into instructions that a computer can understand and execute.” Flexible BMIs “could deepen understanding of neurological conditions such as dementia and autism” and “could provide greater control of neuroprosthetics.”
  • AI-facilitated healthcare: New technologies to improve the efficiency of healthcare systems. “[G]overnment-based and academic teams have been created to integrate AI and machine learning (ML) into healthcare – both to anticipate impending pandemics and to aid in effectively addressing them (AI4PEP). These emergent efforts to enhance the efficacy of national and global healthcare systems in the face of major health crises, and to democratize access to care, are in their initial stages but will rapidly scale up by integrating quality data into the AI and ML models.”

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