The World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies, based on the collaborative expertise of the Forum’s communities, identified the most important recent technological trends.
The purpose of doing so is to raise awareness of their potential and contribute to closing the gaps in investment, regulation and public understanding that so often thwart progress.
The 2015 list is:
Fuel cells in vehicles create electricity to power an electric motor, generally using oxygen from the air and hydrogen. Mass-market fuel cell vehicles are an attractive prospect, because they will offer the range and fuelling convenience of today’s diesel and petrol-powered vehicles while providing the benefits of sustainability in personal transportation.
The new age of robotics takes these machines away from the big manufacturing assembly lines, and into a wide variety of tasks. Using GPS technology, just like smartphones, robots are beginning to be used in precision agriculture for weed control and harvesting.
In 2014 critical advances were made in this area, with the publication of a landmark paper in the journal Science announcing the discovery of new classes of thermosetting polymers that are recyclable.Like traditional unrecyclable thermosets, these new structures are rigid, resistant to heat and tough, with the same potential applications as their unrecyclable forerunners.
Conventional genetic engineering has long caused controversy. However, new techniques are emerging that allow us to directly “edit” the genetic code of plants to make them, for example, more nutritious or better able to cope with a changing climate.
An important next stage in additive manufacturing would be the 3D printing of integrated electronic components, such as circuit boards. Nano-scale computer parts, like processors, are difficult to manufacture this way because of the challenges of combining electronic components with others made from multiple different materials.
Artificial intelligence, in contrast to normal hardware and software, enables a machine to perceive and respond to its changing environment. As machines grow in human intelligence, this technology will increasingly challenge our view of what it means to be human, as well as the risks and benefits posed by the rapidly closing gap between man and machine.
In essence, the idea of distributed manufacturing is to replace as much of the material supply chain as possible with digital information. Importantly, it should reduce the overall environmental impact of manufacturing: digital information is shipped over the web rather than physical products over roads or rails, or on ships; and raw materials are sourced locally, further reducing the amount of energy required for transportation.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have become an important and controversial part of military capacity in recent years. The next step with drone technology is to develop machines that fly themselves, opening them up to a wider range of applications.
Even today’s best supercomputers cannot rival the sophistication of the human brain. Neuromorphic chips aim to process information in a fundamentally different way from traditional hardware, mimicking the brain’s architecture to deliver a huge increase in a computer’s thinking and responding power.
Many of our most intractable health challenges, from heart disease to cancer, have a genetic component. Indeed, cancer is best described as a disease of the genome. With digitization, doctors will be able to make decisions about a patient’s cancer treatment informed by a tumour’s genetic make-up.