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Responsible innovation key to the success of emerging technologies
Andrew Maynard   Jul 17, 2014   2020 Science  

The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies on February 25, 2014 released its annual list of breakthrough technologies. The list highlights 10 trends in technological advancement that could offer innovative solutions to a range of pressing global challenges.  As a member of the council that compiles the list each year, I’m excited to see technologies here that could be truly transformative.  At the same time, realizing the benefits they offer will require a good dose of responsible innovation mixed in with the technologies each trend represents.

Some of the trends– computers that can read and interpret brain signals and screen-less displays that project images directly onto a person’s retina, for example, may seem straight out of a science-fiction movie.  Others – like nanostructured carbon composites and grid-scale energy storage – have been evolving for a while.  But each trend  represents breakthroughs that are poised to underpin significant economic, social and environmental impact in the near future.


That said, in today’s complex and interconnected world, their sustainable development and use also hinges on understanding how they might harm people and the environment, and how people’s perceptions and assumptions might affect their development trajectories.  This is where an increasingly sophisticated understanding of sustainable innovation is needed.  While scientists and engineers are masters at demonstrating what is technologically possible, it is society that ultimately decides which technologies succeed and which do not.

The World Economic Forum top ten technology trends push us far beyond the realms of what we are used to – this is why they are so exciting and inspiring.  To be sustainable though, the complex engineering they represent must be integrated with an understanding of how to develop and use them safely and effectively.

Take for example advances in human microbiome therapeutics, which involve modifying or even re-engineering bacteria naturally found in humans to prevent or treat health conditions.  Using our own bacteria to cure ailments and protect against disease may sound better than pumping our bodies with medications. But unless we get a good handle on the potential downsides of messing around with the bacteria that are part and parcel of how our bodies work, it’s going to be tough to get effective microbiome therapies off the ground.

Not all of these trends are so esoteric or seemingly inaccessible to consumers.  For instance, consumer technologies such as relatively inexpensive screen-less displays are just around the corner.  Take the Glyph for example, a screen-less display developed by local Ann Arbor company Avegant that is poised to transform personal video displays. This is a tremendously exciting technology that could potentially revolutionize how we receive and work with visual information. Its potential extends far beyond videos and gaming to changing how we visually interact with complex data.  But its long-term success – like the success of other technologies in the top ten list – will depend on getting the social as well as the technological and economic calculus right. Achieve this, and the power exists to transform good ideas into agents of change in a world that is hungry for technologies that help solve problems and make lives better.

That is a vision of sustainable technology innovation that truly excites me.

This year’s World Economic Forum  top ten emerging technologies are:

  • Brain-computer interfaces: These already let you type just by monitoring the electrical activity of your brain. As the technology advances it could allow people with disabilities to operate wheelchairs using only their thoughts.
  • Mining metals from desalination brine: Large-scale desalination is becoming economically feasible for the first time because of new chemical processes to recycle waste side-products.
  • Nanostructured carbon composites: Cars made from carbon-fibre reinforced composites are as much as 40 per cent lighter than older models, offering huge energy savings.
  • Grid-scale electricity storage: A fundamental breakthrough is close that would allow “grid scale storage” –saving surplus energy from fluctuating renewable sources like sun and wind within the electrical power grid.
  • Body-adapted wearable electronics: Whether worn on the body, embedded in clothes or even under the skin, these devices will track information, such as heart rate and stress levels, giving people real-time feedback about their health.
  • Nanowire lithium-ion batteries: New batteries based on silicon – using tiny silicon nanowires – could have a longer life, charge more quickly and hold up to three times the charge of existing batteries.
  • Screen-less display: A 3D image projected into space – a ‘screen-less display’ – can convey information that a 2D image presented on a screen cannot. This is close to becoming a practical reality.
  • Human microbiome therapeutics: A new generation of therapeutics comprising a subset of microbes found in a healthy gut are under clinical development.
  • RNA-based therapeutics: Like DNA, RNA plays a part in protein synthesis and, to a lesser extent, the transmission of genetic information. Scientific advances are combining to enable a new generation of targeted, RNA-based drugs.
  • Quantified Self (Predictive analytics): Using data and specialized machine learning algorithms, we can build detailed and predictive models about people and their behaviours, which can help in areas like urban planning and medical diagnosis.

For more in-depth analysis on each of the trends,visit World Economic Forum website.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

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