News & Perspectives

The Risks and Rewards of the World's Top Ten Emerging Technologies

The Risks and Rewards of the World's Top Ten Emerging Technologies

Examining the World Economic Forum's Highest Impact Picks
Perspective// Posted by: Joanna Harrison / 6 Apr 2015
nanobot -innovation - technology- health

From artificial intelligence to precision genetic engineering, to the digital genome, we appear to be on the verge of some incredible technological breakthroughs that could eradicate disease, end poverty and generally improve our lives.

But along with the opportunity comes foreseen and unforeseen risk. These technologies are not guaranteed to work. They are not necessarily safe. What is more, emergent technologies form a complex and interdependent system, so if something goes wrong with one, it may affect all.

Recently, The World Economic Forum named the top 10 emerging technologies of 2015.  In this case, “emerging” doesn’t mean revolutionary.  Many of the technologies listed have been around for years.  However, the WEF Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies, a panel of 18 experts, says that these technologies are well on their way to making major advances and safeguarding the planet.

Clearly we need to balance the risk against the reward, but on the understanding that one of the greatest risks may be to ignore the opportunity.

Here we take our own look at the technologies selected by WEF and highlight both the rewards and the risks.

We want to hear from you! Tell us how one of these technologies might impact your industry, in 300 words or less. Send your answers by June 30th to ENTER@nowlabsinc.com 

1. Fuel cell vehicles

What you need to know

Fuel cell vehicles generate their own electricity to power an electric motor. They do not need to be charged by being plugged into an electric grid connected outlet. They produce zero emissions: Hydrogen and oxygen go in and water and vapor come out.

Reward

The WEF Council predicts that the number of fuel-celled vehicles will reach several million within a decade.  Supporters of the technology says it promises the range and fuelling convenience of today’s hydrocarbon fuelled vehicles while delivering on sustainability goals.

Risk

Elon Musk and major automakers like Ford and GM have voiced criticism of fuel cell vehicles calling the technology inefficient. Certainly there are questions about how to improve the hydrogen extraction process without using hydrocarbons. Natural gas is often used to refine hydrogen from its natural source. California law requires that 33 percent of all hydrogen produced in the state to come from ‘green’ renewable sources, such as refuse and even human waste. Other questions remain about how to improve the storage and transportation of hydrogen.

2. Next-generation robotics

What you need to know

A new age of robotics sees robots move from factory assembly lines and other controlled tasks to working beside humans taking on more human tasks, both in the workplace and at home.

Reward

Robots are now smaller, more dexterous, safer, and easier to use. Now able to adapt to a change in their environment, they will soon be capable of integrating into the human workflow, opening up a new era of collaboration between humans and machines.  

Risk

Will robots displace humans from jobs? What does a human / robot relationship look like? Could robots ever take over?

3. Recyclable thermoset plastics

What you need to know

Scientists have discovered a new way of producing a type of durable, hard-set plastic, called thermoset plastic, used to make mobile phones and circuit boards. Unlike the old thermoset plastic, this new class of polymer is recyclable.

Reward

Up until now, all this plastic has ended up in landfills. The WEF expects the new thermoset plastics to replace the old ones within five years.

Risk

Requires an extremely toxic chemical to break down the plastic. 

4. Precise genetic-engineering techniques

What you need to know

Recent advances in genetic engineering have made it possible to “edit” the DNA sequences in living cells. Scientists can identify a gene for a particular trait and then alter it in some way, either by removing a short DNA sequence or by adding a mutation, mimicking and speeding up the natural evolutionary process. This is different to current GMO techniques that transplant genes from one plant or species to another.

Reward

Genome editing could result in improved yields by producing crops that are more resistant to pests and diseases, and that can tolerate extreme temperatures and drought. A more precise technique lowers the uncertainty about how the change may affect the plant in other ways.

Risk

There is much regulatory uncertainty: Should the same GMO regulations apply to genome editing? What about the impact of gene-edited organisms on environment and health? Could there be unintended genomic modifications in off-target sites?

5. Additive manufacturing

What you need to know

Additive manufacturing, often called 3D printing, is the process of building an object layer-by-layer using a computer aided 3D design file.  The technology is driving innovation in many areas including manufacturing, engineering and medicine.  

Reward

Additive manufacturing can speed up prototyping and create an opportunity for on-demand production. With 3D bioprinting, the “ink” is made of living cells and can be used for the generation of skin, bone, tracheal splints and heart and vascular tissue.

Risk

Although we are still far from being able to print body parts, bioprinting raises questions about the ethics of human enhancement. In addition, the fact that it is possible to create, copy and modify objects poses concerns about intellectual property rights and product liability, and presents an ethical dilemma due to the fact people could, for example, print a handgun at home.

6. Emergent artificial intelligence

What you need to know

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the creation of software and systems that behave intelligently, that can respond to their surroundings, plan and make decisions. We see primitive forms of the technology already: Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson, Google’s self driving car. Flying drones are also in the testing stage.

Reward

AI has the capacity to benefit every facet of our lives. If human intelligence has gotten us this far, think how quickly we could progress if our intelligence is magnified, starting with productivity improvements, fewer car accidents and better medical diagnoses and treatments. AI has become one of the hottest areas of start-up investing.

Risk

The downside is that machines may not always act in a way that is beneficial to humanity. Elon Musk says "With artificial intelligence we are summoning the  demon" and Stephen Hawking warns that AI could end mankind. A less apocalyptic concern is that machines could threaten human jobs and demand new laws to govern their actions.

7. Distributed manufacturing

What you need to know

The aim of distributed manufacturing is to have products made close to their end destination, in local hubs not in large centralized factories.  Raw materials are sourced locally and digital plans are sent to the various manufacturers, which use computerized tools to build the products.

Reward

Distributed manufacturing reduces logistics costs and environmental impact. It also lowers market entry costs and reduces time to market, since prototypes and products can be made more cheaply and quickly.  It results in a more agile supply chain, which can expand and contract with demand.

Risk

As with additive manufacturing, distributed manufacturing makes it difficult to regulate and control products, which could bypass government controls. Some risk assessments say that threats from distributed manufacturing could be catastrophic and could lead to nuclear proliferation on a much wider scale.

8. "Sense and avoid" drones 

What you need to know

A drone is an unmanned aircraft of any size. They were first used by the military but can now used for all sorts of purposes such as monitoring and spraying crops or filming.  Amazon and Google want to use drones to deliver packages. Currently drones need to be controlled remotely by humans and the pilots need to have line of sight to their vehicle. Emergent drones will use “sense and avoid” technology to allow them to navigate themselves around obstacles, eliminating the need for a human operator.

Reward

Next generation robotics will accelerate this trend. Drones will be able to carry out tasks too dangerous for humans, such as checking electric power lines, or delivering critical medical supplies to remote locations.  Facebook plans to use drones, satellites and lasers to expand internet access.

Risk

Putting aside the ethical issues of the use of drones for military purposes, the risk of collision cannot be eliminated entirely, especially in adverse conditions such as in the dark or in high winds. There are also other concerns around security and privacy.

9. Neuromorphic technology

What you need to know

A neuromorphic chip is a new kind of microprocessor. It is modeled on a human brain and uses “neural networks” to process information rather than moving data backwards and forwards between a central processor and memory chips the way a traditional chip does. The neuromorphic chip is able to better process sensory information such as visual or audio data. It can detect and predict patterns using relatively little energy.

Reward

Neuromorphic technology can produce tiny chips able to deliver superior compute power, which will allow the production of ever smaller intelligent machines. It also promises to accelerate advances in artificial intelligence by providing the technology needed to help robots anticipate and learn.

Risk

Neuromorphic technology is linked closely to the development of artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and so there exists the same ethical implications of the technology: Privacy, security, and the relationship between humanity and machines.

10. Digital genome

What you need to know

The role of genetics in healthcare is becoming increasingly important, allowing scientists and clinicians to study the role that genetic factors play in disease.

Tests are used to precisely identify a disease, predict a person’s likelihood of developing a disease, and give information about how an individual’s body will process certain medicines.

Reward

Testing can lead to individualized treatments and highly targeted therapies, which can improve treatment outcomes.  

Risk

There are ethical concerns about how employers or insurance companies access and use the information and also personal challenges for people who learn that they may be susceptible to a genetic disease.

We want to hear from you! Tell us how one of these technologies might impact your industry, in 300 words or less. Send your answers by June 30th to ENTER@nowlabsinc.com 

Joanna Harrison
Joanna has a knack for storytelling, immersing herself into the world of her clients and quickly identifying their core narrative.