The World Economic Forum, Switzerland, announced its annual list of breakthrough technologies with the greatest potential to make a positive impact on the world.
“From income inequality to climate change, technology will play a critical role in finding solutions to many of the challenges our world faces today. This year’s emerging technologies demonstrate the rapid pace of human innovation and offer a glimpse into what a sustainable, inclusive future will look like,” says Jeremy Jurgens, chief technology officer.
The Top 10 emerging technologies of 2019 are:
- Bioplastics for a circular economy. Only 15% of plastics today are recycled. Meanwhile, biodegradable plastic lacks the strength of conventional materials. This year’s breakthrough comes through using cellulose or lignin from plant waste, which increases mechanical strength and doesn’t use crops that could otherwise be used for food production.
- Social robots. Robots are able to recognize voices, faces and emotions, interpret speech and gestures, respond to verbal and non-verbal cues and even make eye contact. They’re increasingly being used to care for the elderly, educate children and do all sorts of tasks in between.
- Metalenses. These lenses so small that, up until now, has been impossible to make them through traditional glass-cutting and glass-curving techniques. A breakthrough in the way lenses are produced will allow further miniaturization in sensors and medical imaging devices.
- Disordered proteins as drug targets. “Intrinsically disordered proteins” are proteins that can cause cancer and other diseases. Unlike conventional proteins, they lack a rigid structure, which makes them difficult to treat. Now, scientists have found a way to prevent their shape-shifting long enough for treatment to have an effect.
- Collaborative telepresence. Imagine video conferences where you can not only feel as if you’re in the same room as your correspondents, but you can actually feel one another’s touch.
- Smarter fertilizers. Much of the improvement in fertilizers over the years has been in enhancing their ability to slowly release nutrients as and when needed. The drawback is that they still contain ammonia, urea and potash. The latest versions use more environmentally friendly sources of nitrogen, plus microorganisms that improve take-up by plants.
- Advanced food tracking and packaging. Locating the source of food contamination can now take minutes rather than days as a result of blockchain technology to monitoring food’s progress through the supply chain. Meanwhile, sensors in packaging can tell when food is about to spoil, reducing the need to trash whole batches once an expiration date is reached
- Safer nuclear reactors. The great risk with nuclear power is that the fuel rods can overheat, and when mixed with water, produce hydrogen, which can then explode. New fuels are coming online that are less likely to overheat, and if they do, produce very little or no hydrogen. These new configurations can replace existing fuel rods with little modification.
- DNA data storage. At the rate data is produced, there is probably less than 100 years before the magnetic or optical storage systems will reach maximum capacity. These systems also consume huge amounts of energy. DNA, life’s storage material, has no such limitations. According to one estimate, all the world’s current storage needs for a year could be met by a cube of DNA measuring about one meter on a side.
- Utility-scale storage of renewable energy. Lithium-ion batteries will likely be the dominant technology for the next 5-10 years, and continuing improvements will result in batteries that can store 4-8 hours of energy – long enough, for example, to shift solar-generated power to the evening peak of demand.