Emerging technology as an agent for change

Andrew D. Maynard
Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University, Author of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
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The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has 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 on to a person’s retina, for example – may seem straight out of a science-fiction movie. Others, such as nanostructured carbon composites and grid-scale energy storage, have been evolving for a while. However, each trend represents breakthroughs that are poised to underpin significant economic, social and environmental impact soon.

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 10 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. The Glyph, for example, is a screen-less display 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 on the top 10 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 to solve problems and make lives better.

Author: Andrew Maynard is the director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council of Emerging Technologies. 

Find out more on how emerging technologies are reshaping society, business and government in the Global Technology Leadership course of the Forum Academy.

Image: The hand of humanoid robot AILA (artificial intelligence lightweight android) operates a switchboard during a demonstration by the German research centre for artificial intelligence at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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