Significant technological advances over the past decade have changed the way we live, work and interact with each other.
Yet, many of these developments either happened behind closed doors in research laboratories and private companies or became so quickly ingrained in our daily lives that they often went unnoticed.
Every year, experts convened by the World Economic Forum and Scientific American make predictions about the emerging technologies expected to have major social, economic, and environmental impacts worldwide.
While some of these technologies have been catapulted into public consciousness and are fully integrated into our lives, others have been slower to gain momentum.
In the run-up to the 10th Anniversary edition of the Top 10 Emerging Technologies Report, launching 16 November, we take a look at some of the technologies from the past nine reports and ask: did the technology change the world, or did it fail to fulfil its potential? How is it impacting lives today, and where is it headed?
One of the newest of the Top 10 Emerging Technology cohort, electric aviation made it onto our 2020 list. The technology has been around for a while – think about electric gliders for instance – but in the past year innovation has accelerated, driven by a need for the sector to decarbonize.
“We’re transitioning to a world with zero carbon. The aviation sector accounts for 2% of carbon emissions – and it’s only slated to grow more, even with COVID,” Katherine Hamilton, Chair of 38 North Solutions and Co-Chair the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Clean Electrification.
“Hundreds of companies out there are innovating and there are lots of customers waiting in the wings. Supply chain is being created for these industries and, most importantly, companies like United Airlines, Airbus, DHL, UPS, all of the big purchasers are putting in orders for these airplanes.”
The electric aviation industry can be broken down into two main types of aircraft – hybrid or fully electric. Fixed-wing aircraft can be converted, and there are also electric vehicle take-off and landing (eVTOL) crafts, for urban settings, that take off similarly to a helicopter and then convert into a traditional type of airplane.
Battery technology is also advancing, but a key challenge is still battery density.
“Luckily because of electric vehicles and energy storage, batteries have come a long way. Lithium ion batteries have developed in a way that is much more dense, but we can expect to see solid state batteries as well. The other piece is hydrogen fuel cells, so we need to adapt lots of different technologies that will be able to address different use cases of electric aviation.”
Many companies are already testing these new technologies and Hamilton says we can expect to see some of the smaller planes certified to fly as early as 2023.
“The first important space to tackle are the small, two-seater training planes, they will be ready in the next couple of years. What we’re then going to need to see is flights that go across the ocean, and that might take slightly longer, but we can only do this one step at a time.”
She says we need to make sure we don’t just innovate, but also scale the innovation and have a healthy supply chain for the technologies that are going to go into that aircraft and that we make sure we approve them, “so when people get on a flight, you have confidence it has been made safe for you to travel in and that you will feel better getting on that plane”.
Conversational AI is constantly improving – in 2018, when artificial intelligence made it onto our list of Top 10 Emerging Technologies, IBM’s Project Debater out-debated a human.
Sophia Velastegui, Chief Technology Officer, AI of Dynamics 365 at Microsoft, explains how AI has been taught to argue and says this is just the start of what’s possible.
“The main technology that makes up digital assistants is machine learning around natural language understanding with context and sentiment additive. It’s able to convert spoken words into text, reference a topic and sentiments individuals have to activate that conversation.
“Although we’re still on a journey to [a fully] conversational agent, we’re seeing success with Xiaoice, for example, which had half a billion conversations in just 3 months after launch, with an average of 23 dialogue turns, or about 10 minutes of conversation.”
In the next five to 10 years, Velastegui says we can expect conversational AI to be integrated further into assisting people at work and in life.
“There’ll be an increase in hybrid digital agent and human engagement, just as we were able to perform [more complex] online searches leveraging significant AI capability.
“We’ll have the flexibility to interact in a way that is more natural for us with equal performance and that’s important in allowing people from age 7 to 70 to feel comfortable engaging.”
But there are significant technology hurdles to overcome before conversational AI can become accessible for all. These include having increasingly inexpensive and capable mobile computing devices and connectivity across the globe as well as 5G to increase communication between the edge devices to the cloud and reduce latency, so the response time will be more natural.
Cloud computing also needs to be improved to process the conversation, while the Internet of Things, a network of low-cost sensors which adds another layer of signals, will increase understanding. There also needs to be further investment in training AI systems for a specific subject matter for increased contextual awareness and accuracy, says Velastegui.
In future, she sees AI becoming more customized, so each individual gets a different response.
We’ve only seen the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of how precise genetic engineering techniques will be able to benefit everything from human health to food security in future.
That’s according to Feng Zhang, Professor in Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the pioneers of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique, which is a tool to fix individual mutations in human DNA.
Genetic engineering made it onto our 2015 Top 10 Emerging Technology list – and in the intervening years, it has leapt forward, thanks in part to the CRISPR breakthrough.
Similar to using the ‘find’ functionality to search for typos in a document, CRISPR-Cas9 works within the chemical environment of cells to find a mutation and help treat a disease, Zhang explains.
“You can give it a string in the form of RNA. CRISPR-Cas9 will take the string and search along the genome to find where that mutation, that genetic difference is in the DNA – that’s where you can delete sequences and insert new DNA sequences.”
CRISPR is unique in genetic engineering technology because it’s far quicker and easier to reprogramme and use inside of cells.
“Before it used to take researchers several weeks or longer to engineer a new gene editor to edit a specific gene. With CRISPR-Cas9 you can design a new editor within minutes and design tens of thousands of editors to study many genes and edit many mutations.”
Scientists have already used the technology to treat sickle cell disease or congenital genetic disorders in parts of the body like the liver. While, in agriculture, scientists are engineering drought-resistant crops that can produce a higher yield.
But genetic engineering advances come with a huge responsibility, warns Zhang: “It’s really important to come up with ways to regulate [the technology] and consider what are the things we want to do and what are the things we don’t want to cross the boundary.”
In future, with the right mix of materials, roads will not only be able to fix themselves, they’ll be able to communicate with robots to help mend them, clean the air around them, ease flooding – and “live a long and healthy life”.
So says Abir Al-Tabbaa, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Cambridge, whose research focuses on reducing cement’s lifespan, cost and carbon footprint.
Self-healing materials made it onto the 2013 list of Top 10 Emerging Technology – and while self-healing asphalt for roads and paint for cars are becoming a reality, self-healing concrete is a slightly more complex matter, in part due to the standards required in the construction industry.
“Biomimetic materials mimic nature and natural systems, which have the ability to sense their environment, adapt, respond and self-repair. They have self-healing, self-sensing, self-diagnosing and self-immunizing capabilities,” explains Prof Al-Tabbaa.
“Natural systems are low-carbon, low-energy and low-waste, so they’re more sustainable.”
In order to reach net zero by 2050, we need to decarbonize construction materials, including cement, which has a large carbon footprint. Self-healing materials can help.
“Alongside the developments of low-carbon cements which minimize the capital carbon, we also need to minimize the service-life carbon footprint and so self-healing materials together with low-carbon cementitious systems, produce this whole-life carbon reduction.”
Prof Al-Tabbaa hopes the construction industry will come together to accelerate the adoption of these materials.
With a focus on roads, we might see self-healing, self-sensing roads that have additional functionalities of flood alleviation and energy capture, dependent on the materials embedded in them.
Featuring on our 2016 list of Top 10 Emerging Technology, systems metabolic engineering (SysME) is a more sustainable approach to producing chemicals needed for fuels and medicine.
Microorganisms, including bacteria, are genetically engineered to overproduce chemicals like ethanol as part of their metabolic process as they ferment, ‘feeding on’ renewable organic resources, in a safe, sealed environment.
“Fuels, including those suitable to replace jet fuel, diesel and gasoline, are now all being produced by fermentation of engineered microorganisms,” says Sang Yup Lee, Distinguished Professor and Vice President for Research at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
“Not only are these fine chemicals replacing petrochemicals, various natural products which are important for human health are being more efficiently produced by fermentation of metabolically engineered microbes, which can replace the tedious and costly process of extracting from plants, insects, or animals.”
Breakthroughs in genome sequencing, genetic engineering and metabolic flux analysis, which allows a systems-level understanding of microbe metabolism, have enabled advances in SysME, which is good news for the environment.
“As the world tries to move away from using fossil resources to achieve its net-zero goals, the number of bioengineered products produced by microorganisms will continue to increase,” adds the professor.
Although the large-scale fermentative production of chemicals is not yet viable economically, in the next five to 10 years, the technology has the potential to disrupt the way we produce chemicals and materials, as it incorporates data science, machine learning and automation.
“This bio-based sustainable production system is in general carbon neutral because it uses raw material that is biosynthesized using CO2 as a carbon source, so a lot of chemicals and fuels we use [in future] will be produced by biological means.”
Back in 2014, when body-adapted wearable electronics featured on our list of Top 10 Emerging Technologies, our uses for devices were outpacing the design of electronics, as components were still being wired to rigid hardboards.
Fast-forward seven years and smartwatches and health trackers are ubiquitous – while there is even wearable underwear that can monitor your heart rate, showing diagnostic potential that brings healthcare firmly into the home.
So what has happened to enable this acceleration?
World Economic Forum Young Scientist and Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the American University of Beirut Joseph Costantine explains.
“We’ve seen plenty of innovations where these wearable electronics are actually monitoring glucose, lactate or other biomarkers that are extremely important. But one major thing also is manufacturing and printing for flexible electronics that allows these electronics to be integrated into a smaller and more flexible landscape and other wearable apparel.
“Flexible electronics have jumped operation into a higher frequency band, so now you can see flexible electronics operating in the microwave range or the millimeter wave range of the spectrum in order to leverage electromagnetic wave sensing.”
In future, Costantine predicts we won’t need to buy separate devices – our comfortable, everyday clothes will measure our vital signs and will be able to alert our doctor if we’re having a heart attack, for example. But, he warns, that companies creating these wearables must have very clear privacy terms to maintain trust among consumers.
Given the poor success rates of treatments for things like cancer and depression, medical professionals have been trying to tailor treatments to individual patients for some time.
Personalized medicine was one of the Top 10 Emerging Technologies in our 2012 list.
A decade on, there is renewed cause for optimism, says Dr. Elizabeth O’Day, CEO and Founder of Olaris, Inc: “In the next 5 to 10 years, we will be able to get the right drug to the right patient at the right time at the right dose and optimize all of these parameters.
“We spend billions of dollars every year on drugs or treatments that don’t work. Personalized medicine stands to correct this. Not only are we going to improve [patient] outcomes, but we can cut costs on drugs and treatments that aren’t going to benefit an individual.”
But for personalized medicine to benefit everyone, scientists trying to figure out which treatments work best for which patients will require data from as diverse a group as possible.
“We need all ethnicities, all geographies, people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to be involved in this process, or risk increasing health disparities, and that’s not the future of medicine that we want to create.”
Genomic vaccines – vaccines made from DNA or RNA that encode desired proteins – have been in development for many years but saw unexpected success in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
The technology was on our list of Top 10 emerging technologies in 2017, and three years later, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna created the world’s first mRNA vaccines to tackle the world’s biggest health threat.
Equitable distribution of vaccines is a global challenge, but in future, access to genomic vaccine technology could be democratized, believes Prof. Robin Shattock, Chair of Mucosal Infection and Immunity at Imperial College London.
“I think we’ll see many governments around the world wanting to establish their own manufacturing capacity and… because you don’t need a large manufacturing facility, it could move to a situation where there are many regional manufacturing centres that have the hardware and what becomes distributed is the software – the genetic code for the next pandemic pathogen or the next chronic target.
“I’m hoping it will revolutionize a lot of what we do. It’s not a magic bullet, it won’t replace all other types of vaccines, but it will have an important role to play in public health.”
In 2019, we identified that droid friends and robot assistants would increasingly become part of everyday life, looking after the elderly and educating children – and the pandemic has accelerated this trend due to the need to maintain a social distance.
But there’s still a little way to go for these emerging technologies. As robotics become more integrated into people’s lives, they will need to be designed to detect, interpret, and respond to human behaviour, according to Henny Admoni, A. Nico Habermann Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute.
“In our consciousness as a society, we’ve been thinking about social robots for a very long time, but the reality is that most of the robots that are out in the world right now are much more physical robots that tend to be isolated from humans.
The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.
The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.
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“A social robot is not a replacement for social interaction, but becomes a medium through which communities can engage and people can interact.”
“It’s really important as we build robots into our lives that we consider the ethical implications of robotics, who has access to these different technologies and what these technologies are perpetuating in terms of the social norms that are already embedded in society.”
Greta Keenan, Programme Specialist, Science and Society, World Economic Forum
Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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