When we think about the top emerging technologies of today, the first things that come to our minds are artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things, 5G, blockchain technology, drones, and 3D printing. Of course, each of them is going to shape our future in their own ways. But when the World Economic Forum asked the world’s leading technology experts to list the top 10 emerging technologies of 2019, their views were a bit different.
An international Steering Committee of leading technology experts headed by Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina has compiled a list of the top 10 emerging technologies of 2019. The Committee invited nominations from experts around the world, and evaluated the nominations based on a number of factors.
The top emerging technologies have the potential to provide major benefits to economies and societies, change the established ways of doing things, and attract the interest of research labs, companies, and investors. They should also have the potential to make significant inroads over the next five years.
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These are the top 10 emerging technologies of 2019, according to WEF. Each of them reflects the rapid pace of innovation and offers a glimpse into what our future could look like.
10- Utility-scale storage of renewable energy
The world’s energy production is rapidly shifting from carbon-based sources to renewable means. But the large-scale storage of renewable energy is necessary for later use when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. The use of lithium-ion batteries for renewable energy storage is growing rapidly. Lithium-ion batteries are set to become “more than just a bit player in the grid.” Scientists are also exploring alternative technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and flow batteries.
9- DNA-based data storage
The WEF report points out that an estimated 418 zettabytes of data will be created and stored in data centers across the globe in 2020 alone. The existing data storage systems cannot sustain in the future, and we will face “a serious data-storage problem that will only become more severe over time.” Scientists are working on DNA-based data storage technologies to address the problem.
Our DNA stores life’s information in a tiny amount of space. Data can be stored in the sequence of A, T, G, C nucleotides, turning DNA into a new form of information technology. According to scientists at Harvard, all the world’s data generated in one year could be stored in a cube of DNA measuring just one square meter.
8- Safer nuclear reactors
Various countries have been using nuclear reactors to produce energy at large scales. Commercial nuclear reactors don’t emit carbon, making it one of the cleanest sources of energy. But the memories of major disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl are still fresh in the minds of people. Nuclear reactor manufacturers such as Westinghouse and Framatome are working on “accident-tolerant” fuels that are far less likely to overheat. Even if they overheat, they will produce very little hydrogen, dramatically minimizing the risk of explosion.
7- Advanced food tracking and packaging
According to the World Health Organization, about 600 million people suffer food poisoning every year, and more than 420,000 of them die. Experts believe that a combination of Blockchain technology and advanced sensors in packaging could reduce both food waste and food poisoning. Walmart connected all the participants in the supply chain on a common blockchain, and was able to trace the origin of “contaminated” items within seconds.
Meanwhile, various companies and research labs are developing tiny sensors that can monitor the quality and safety of food items in “pallets, cases or individually wrapped products.”
6- Collaborative telepresence
Apps like Skype, FaceTime, and WhatsApp have brought video calling to the masses. Multiplayer online games have further changed how people interact over the Internet. Progress in several technological areas such as 5G, augmented reality, and virtual reality will transform collaborative telepresence by better simulating users’ presence in remote areas. You could be able to physically exchange handshakes with people in different locations.
5- Smarter fertilizers to reduce environmental contamination
The world’s population continues to grow rapidly, and is expected to reach 11.2 billion by 2100. Our food production needs to improve in the future to feed more people. Using more fertilizers to improve crop yields is not the option because it would be inefficient and also harm the environment. The use of controlled-release fertilizers could help. The controlled-release fertilizers release their substances only when necessary based on the type of soil and climate. Companies are also developing ecologically-friendly formulations to prevent fertilizers from damaging the environment.
4- Disordered proteins as drug targets
Medical researchers have known for a long time that a certain class of proteins drives cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. These proteins are referred to as “intrinsically disordered proteins” (IDPs). They change their structures frequently, which makes them difficult to target because most medicines work by targeting a stable structure. Scientists have now identified compounds that prevent the IDPs from shifting their shapes frequently, which should allow treatments to take effect.
3- Tiny lenses for miniature devices
Smartphones, computers, and other devices have shrunk in size. Most of their components have also become smaller over the years as technology companies continue to cram more and more features into their devices. One component that has refused to shrink is the camera lenses. That’s partially because the elements of a glass lens are stacked to focus light properly. Also, the existing glass cutting and curving techniques aren’t good enough to build smaller lenses while maintaining all their capabilities.
But now engineers have managed to create flat, thin metalenses that could replace the bulky glass lenses. The technology could help make the camera sensors smaller.
2- Social robots
In the last few years, we have seen the development of amazing humanoid robots with social skills. Honda’s Asimo and SoftBank’s Pepper can interact with humans, recognize moving objects, gestures, and understand their surroundings. Pepper is capable of understanding human emotions and voices. As artificial intelligence continues to improve, we will see future robots interacting with humans more closely and assisting them in different aspects of life.
1- Bioplastics for a circular economy
According to a study, more than 90% of the world’s sea birds have plastic in their gut. The amount of plastic being dumped into our rivers and oceans is alarming. More than 8 million tons of marine plastic debris ends up in the ocean every year. If it is not controlled in time, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.
Bioplastics could help us tackle the problem of plastic pollution. Bioplastics are made of biomass and eventually decompose into biomass. But a major problem with bioplastics is that they lack the strength of conventional plastic. Scientists are using lignin or cellulose from plant waste to strengthen them without harming the environment.