07 Dec 2020 18:15 IST

Innovations of 2020 that will define the future of tech

WEF experts highlight advances with the potential to revolutionise industry, healthcare and society

An international group of experts from the Scientific American and the World Economic Forum sifted through more than 75 nominations and selected top ten emerging technologies that have the potential to spur progress in societies and economies by outperforming established ways of doing things. These tech inventions, although not in wide use currently, are likely to have a major impact in the next three to five years, becoming front-runners in the development of many fields.

Microneedles for painless injections and tests

Barely visible needles, or “microneedles”, are poised to usher in an era of pain-free injections and blood testing. Whether attached to a syringe or a patch, microneedles prevent pain by avoiding contact with nerve endings. Many microneedle syringe and patch applications are already available for administering vaccines and many more are in clinical trials for use in treating diabetes, cancer and neuropathic pain.

Because these devices insert drugs directly into the epidermis or dermis, they deliver medicines much more efficiently than familiar transdermal patches, which rely on diffusion through the skin. These painless prickers can be expected to significantly expand drug delivery and diagnostics and new uses will arise as investigators devise ways to use them in organs beyond the skin.

Sun-powered chemistry

The manufacture of many chemicals important to human health and comfort consumes fossil fuels, thereby contributing to extractive processes, carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. A new approach employs sunlight to convert waste carbon dioxide into these needed chemicals, potentially reducing emissions in two ways — by using the unwanted gas as a raw material, and sunlight, not fossil fuels, as the source of energy needed for production.

The advances occurring in the sunlight-driven conversion of carbon dioxide into chemicals are sure to be commercialised and further developed by start-ups or other companies in the coming years.

Virtual patients

What if computers could replace patients as well? If virtual humans could have replaced real people in some stages of a coronavirus vaccine trial, for instance, it could have sped development of a preventive tool and slowed down the pandemic. Similarly, potential vaccines that weren’t likely to work could have been identified early, slashing trial costs and avoiding testing poor vaccine candidates on living volunteers.

These are some of the benefits of “in silico medicine”, or the testing of drugs and treatments on virtual organs or body systems to predict how a real person will respond to the therapies. For the foreseeable future, real patients will be needed in late-stage studies, but in silico trials will make it possible to conduct quick and inexpensive first assessments of safety and efficacy, drastically reducing the number of live

Spatial computing

The spatial computing at the heart of this scene is the next step in the ongoing convergence of the physical and digital worlds. It does everything virtual reality and augmented reality apps do: digitise objects that connect via the cloud; allow sensors and motors to react to one another; and digitally represent the real world. Then it combines these capabilities with high-fidelity spatial mapping to enable a computer “coordinator” to track and control the movements and interactions of objects as a person navigates through the digital or physical world.

Spatial computing will soon bring human-machine and machine-machine interactions to new levels of efficiency in many walks of life, among them industry, healthcare, transportation and the home. Major companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, are heavily invested in the technology.

Digital medicine

Could the next prescription from your doctor be for an app? A raft of apps in use or under development can now detect or monitor mental and physical disorders autonomously or directly administer therapies. Collectively known as digital medicines, the software can both enhance traditional medical care and support patients when access to healthcare is limited — a need that the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated.

Electric aviation

In 2019, air travel accounted for 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions, a number that could triple by 2050. Electric airplanes could provide the scale of transformation required and many companies are racing to develop them. Not only would electric propulsion motors eliminate direct carbon emissions, they could also reduce fuel costs by up to 90 per cent, maintenance by up to 50 per cent and noise by nearly 70 per cent.

Among the companies working on electric flight are Airbus, Ampaire, MagniX and Eviation. All are flight-testing aircraft meant for private, corporate or commuter trips and are seeking certification from the US Federal Aviation Administration. Cape Air, one of the largest regional airlines, expects to be among the first customers, with plans to buy the Alice nine-passenger electric aircraft from Eviation.

 

Cape Air, one of the largest regional airlines in the US, expects to be among the first customers, with plans to buy the Alice nine-passenger electric aircraft from Eviation.   -  Eviation

 

 

 

Lower-carbon cement

It has been said that if cement production were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the US. A variety of lower-carbon approaches are being pursued, with some already in practice. Start-up Solidia in Piscataway, New Jersey, is employing a chemical process licensed from Rutgers University that has cut 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide usually released in making cement. The recipe uses more clay, less limestone and less heat than typical processes.

 

Norcem, a major producer of cement in Norway, is aiming to turn one of its factories into the world’s first zero-emissions, cement-making plant.   -  norcem.no

 

 

Quantum sensing

Quantum computers get all the hype, but quantum sensors could be equally transformative, enabling autonomous vehicles that can “see” around corners, underwater navigation systems, early-warning systems for volcanic activity and earthquakes, and portable scanners that monitor a person’s brain activity during daily life. The UK, for example, has put £315 million into the second phase of its National Quantum Computing Programme (2019-2024).

Green hydrogen

The traditional process for producing hydrogen, in which fossil fuels are exposed to steam, is not even remotely zero-carbon. Green hydrogen is different. It is produced through electrolysis, in which machines split water into hydrogen and oxygen, with no other by-products. Companies are working to develop electrolysers that can produce green hydrogen as cheaply as grey or blue hydrogen, and analysts expect them to reach that goal in the next decade.

 

 

A consortium of companies behind a project called Gigastack plans to get two offshore wind farm with 100 megawatts of electrolysers to generate green hydrogen at an industrial scale.   -  gigastack.co

 

 

 

Whole-genome synthesis

Whole-genome synthesis is an extension of the booming field of synthetic biology. Researchers use software to design genetic sequences that they produce and introduce into a microbe, thereby reprogramming the microbe to do desired work — such as making a new medicine. The ability to write our own genome will inevitably emerge, enabling doctors to cure many, if not all, genetic diseases.

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