Removing CO2 from the air could help reverse climate change Image: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
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- We asked our 2020 intake of Technology Pioneers for their views on how technology will change the world in the next five years.
- From quantum computers and 5G in action to managing cancer chronically, here are their predictions for our near-term future.
1. AI-optimized manufacturing
Paper and pencil tracking, luck, significant global travel and opaque supply chains are part of today’s status quo, resulting in large amounts of wasted energy, materials and time. Accelerated in part by the long-term shutdown of international and regional travel by COVID-19, companies that design and build products will rapidly adopt cloud-based technologies to aggregate, intelligently transform, and contextually present product and process data from manufacturing lines throughout their supply chains. By 2025, this ubiquitous stream of data and the intelligent algorithms crunching it will enable manufacturing lines to continuously optimize towards higher levels of output and product quality – reducing overall waste in manufacturing by up to 50%. As a result, we will enjoy higher quality products, produced faster, at lower cost to our pocketbooks and the environment.
Anna-Katrina Shedletsky, CEO and Founder of Instrumental
2. A far-reaching energy transformation
In 2025, carbon footprints will be viewed as socially unacceptable, much like drink driving is today. The COVID-19 pandemic will have focused the public’s attention on the need to take action to deal with threats to our way of life, our health and our future. Public attention will drive government policy and behavioural changes, with carbon footprints becoming a subject of worldwide scrutiny. Individuals, companies and countries will seek the quickest and most affordable ways to achieve net-zero – the elimination of their carbon footprint. The creation of a sustainable, net-zero future will be built through a far-reaching energy transformation that significantly reduces the world’s carbon emissions, and through the emergence of a massive carbon management industry that captures, utilizes and eliminates carbon dioxide. We’ll see a diversity of new technologies aimed at both reducing and removing the world’s emissions – unleashing a wave of innovation to compare with the industrial and digital Revolutions of the past.
Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering
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3. A new era of computing
By 2025, quantum computing will have outgrown its infancy, and a first generation of commercial devices will be able tackle meaningful, real-world problems. One major application of this new kind of computer will be the simulation of complex chemical reactions, a powerful tool that opens up new avenues in drug development. Quantum chemistry calculations will also aid the design of novel materials with desired properties, for instance better catalysts for the automotive industry that curb emissions and help fight climate change. Right now, the development of pharmaceuticals and performance materials relies massively on trial and error, which means it is an iterative, time-consuming and terribly expensive process. Quantum computers may soon be able to change this. They will significantly shorten product development cycles and reduce the costs for R&D.
Thomas Monz, Co-Founder and CEO of Alpine Quantum Technologies
4. Healthcare paradigm shift to prevention through diet
By 2025, healthcare systems will adopt more preventative health approaches based on the developing science behind the health benefits of plant-rich, nutrient-dense diets. This trend will be enabled by AI-powered and systems biology-based technology that exponentially grows our knowledge of the role of specific dietary phytonutrients in specific human health and functional outcomes. After the pandemic of 2020, consumers will be more aware of the importance of their underlying health and will increasingly demand healthier food to help support their natural defences. Armed with a much deeper understanding of nutrition, the global food industry can respond by offering a broader range of product options to support optimal health outcomes. The healthcare industry can respond by promoting earth’s plant intelligence for more resilient lives and to incentivize people to take care of themselves in an effort to reduce unsustainable costs.
Jim Flatt, Co-Founder and CEO of Brightseed
5. 5G will enhance the global economy and save lives
Overnight, we’ve experienced a sharp increase in delivery services with a need for “day-of” goods from providers like Amazon and Instacart - but it has been limited. With 5G networks in place, tied directly into autonomous bots, goods would be delivered safely within hours.
Wifi can’t scale to meet higher capacity demands. Sheltering-in-place has moved businesses and classrooms to video conferencing, highlighting poor-quality networks. Low latency 5G networks would resolve this lack of network reliability and even allow for more high-capacity services like telehealth, telesurgery and ER services. Businesses can offset the high cost of mobility with economy-boosting activities including smart factories, real-time monitoring, and content-intensive, real-time edge-compute services. 5G private networks make this possible and changes the mobile services economy.
The roll-out of 5G creates markets that we only imagine - like self-driving bots, along with a mobility-as-a-service economy - and others we can’t imagine, enabling next generations to invent thriving markets and prosperous causes.
Maha Achour, Founder and CEO of Metawave
6. A new normal in managing cancer
Technology drives data, data catalyzes knowledge, and knowledge enables empowerment. In tomorrow’s world, cancer will be managed like any chronic health condition —we will be able to precisely identify what we may be facing and be empowered to overcome it.
In other words, a new normal will emerge in how we can manage cancer. We will see more early and proactive screening with improved diagnostics innovation, such as in better genome sequencing technology or in liquid biopsy, that promises higher ease of testing, higher accuracy and ideally at an affordable cost. Early detection and intervention in common cancer types will not only save lives but reduce the financial and emotional burden of late discovery.
We will also see a revolution in treatment propelled by technology. Gene editing and immunotherapy that bring fewer side effects will have made greater headway. With advances in early screening and treatment going hand in hand, cancer will no longer be the cursed 'C' word that inspires such fear among people.
Sizhen Wang, CEO of Genetron Health
7. Robotic retail
Historically, robotics has turned around many industries, while a few select sectors - such as grocery retail - have remained largely untouched . With the use of a new robotics application called 'microfulfillment', Grocery retailing will no longer look the same. The use of robotics downstream at a 'hyper local' level (as opposed to the traditional upstream application in the supply chain) will disrupt this 100-year-old, $5 trillion industry and all its stakeholders will experience significant change. Retailers will operate at a higher order of magnitude on productivity, which will in turn result in positive and enticing returns in the online grocery business (unheard of at the moment). This technology also unlocks broader access to food and a better customer proposition to consumers at large: speed, product availability and cost. Microfulfillment centers are located in existing (and typically less productive) real estate at the store level and can operate 5-10% more cheaply than a brick and mortar store. We predict that value will be equally captured by retailers and consumers as online.
Jose Aguerrevere, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Takeoff Technologies
8. A blurring of physical and virtual spaces
One thing the current pandemic has shown us is how important technology is for maintaining and facilitating communication - not simply for work purposes, but for building real emotional connections. In the next few years we can expect to see this progress accelerate, with AI technology built to connect people at a human level and drive them closer to each other, even when physically they’re apart. The line between physical space and virtual will forever be blurred. We’ll start to see capabilities for global events - from SXSW to the Glastonbury Festival - to provide fully digitalized alternatives, beyond simple live streaming into full experiences. However, it’s not as simple as just providing these services - data privacy will have to be prioritised in order to create confidence among consumers. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic we saw a lot in the news about concerns over the security of video conferencing companies. These concerns aren’t going anywhere and as digital connectivity increases, brands simply can’t afford to give users anything less than full transparency and control over their data.
Tugce Bulut, CEO of Streetbees
9. Putting individuals - not institutions - at the heart of healthcare
By 2025, the lines separating culture, information technology and health will be blurred. Engineering biology, machine learning and the sharing economy will establish a framework for decentralising the healthcare continuum, moving it from institutions to the individual. Propelling this forward are advances in artificial intelligence and new supply chain delivery mechanisms, which require the real-time biological data that engineering biology will deliver as simple, low-cost diagnostic tests to individuals in every corner of the globe. As a result, morbidity, mortality and costs will decrease in acute conditions, such as infectious diseases, because only the most severe cases will need additional care. Fewer infected people will leave their homes, dramatically altering disease epidemiology while decreasing the burden on healthcare systems. A corresponding decrease in costs and increase in the quality of care follows, as inexpensive diagnostics move expenses and power to the individual, simultaneously increasing the cost-efficiency of care. Inextricable links between health, socio-economic status and quality of life will begin to loosen, and tensions that exist by equating health with access to healthcare institutions will dissipate. From daily care to pandemics, these converging technologies will alter economic and social factors to relieve many pressures on the global human condition.
Rahul Dhanda, Co-Founder and CEO of Sherlock Biosciences
10. The future of construction has already begun
Construction will become a synchronized sequence of manufacturing processes, delivering control, change and production at scale. It will be a safer, faster and more cost-effective way to build the homes, offices, factories and other structures we need to thrive in cities and beyond. As rich datasets are created across the construction industry through the internet of things, AI and image capture, to name a few, this vision is already coming to life. Using data to deeply understand industry processes is profoundly enhancing the ability of field professionals to trust their instincts in real-time decision making, enabling learning and progress while gaining trust and adoption.
Actionable data sheds light where we could not see before, empowering leaders to manage projects proactively rather than reactively. Precision in planning and execution enables construction professionals to control the environment, instead of it controlling them, and creates repeatable processes that are easier to control, automate, and teach.
That’s the future of construction. And it’s already begun.
Meirav Oren, CEO and Co-Founder of Versatile
11. Gigaton-scale CO2 removal will help to reverse climate change
A scale up of negative emission technologies, such as carbon dioxide removal, will remove climate-relevant amounts of CO2 from the air. This will be necessary in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C. While humanity will do everything possible to stop emitting more carbon into the atmosphere, it will also do everything it can in order to remove historic CO2 from the air permanently. By becoming widely accessible, the demand for CO2 removal will increase and costs will fall. CO2 removal will be scaled up to the gigaton-level, and will become the responsible option for removing unavoidable emissions from the air. It will empower individuals to have a direct and climate-positive impact on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. It will ultimately help to prevent global warming from reaching dangerous levels and give humanity the potential to reverse climate change.
Jan Wurzbacher, Co-Founder and co-CEO of Climeworks
12. A new era in medicine
Medicine has always been on a quest to gather more knowledge and understanding of human biology for better clinical decision-making. AI is that new tool that will enable us to extract more insights at an unprecedented level from all the medical 'big data' that has never really been fully taken advantage of in the past. It will shift the world of medicine and how it is practiced.
Brandon Suh, CEO of Lunit
13. Closing the wealth gap
Improvements in AI will finally put access to wealth creation within reach of the masses. Financial advisors, who are knowledge workers, have been the mainstay of wealth management: using customized strategies to grow a small nest egg into a larger one. Since knowledge workers are expensive, access to wealth management has often meant you already need to be wealthy to preserve and grow your wealth. As a result, historically, wealth management has been out of reach of those who needed it most. Artificial intelligence is improving at such a speed that the strategies employed by these financial advisors will be accessible via technology, and therefore affordable for the masses. Just like you don’t need to know how near-field communication works to use ApplePay, tens of millions of people won’t have to know modern portfolio theory to be able to have their money work for them.
Atish Davda, Co-Founder and CEO of Equityzen
14. A clean energy revolution supported by digital twins
Over the next five years, the energy transition will reach a tipping point. The cost of new-build renewable energy will be lower than the marginal cost of fossil fuels. A global innovation ecosystem will have provided an environment in which problems can be addressed collectively, and allowed for the deployment of innovation to be scaled rapidly. As a result, we will have seen an astounding increase in offshore wind capacity. We will have achieved this through an unwavering commitment to digitalization, which will have gathered a pace that aligns with Moore’s law to mirror solar’s innovation curve. The rapid development of digital twins - virtual replicas of physical devices - will support a systems-level transformation of the energy sector. The scientific machine learning that combines physics-based models with big data will lead to leaner designs, lower operating costs and ultimately clean, affordable energy for all. The ability to monitor structural health in real-time and fix things before they break will result in safer, more resilient infrastructure and everything from wind farms to bridges and unmanned aerial vehicles being protected by a real-time digital twin.
Thomas Laurent, CEO of Akselos
15. Understanding the microscopic secrets hidden on surfaces
Every surface on Earth carries hidden information that will prove essential for avoiding pandemic-related crises, both now and in the future. The built environment, where humans spend 90% of their lives, is laden with naturally occurring microbiomes comprised of bacterial, fungal and viral ecosystems. Technology that accelerates our ability to rapidly sample, digitalize and interpret microbiome data will transform our understanding of how pathogens spread. Exposing this invisible microbiome data layer will identify genetic signatures that can predict when and where people and groups are shedding pathogens, which surfaces and environments present the highest transmission risk, and how these risks are impacted by our actions and change over time. We are just scratching the surface of what microbiome data insights offer and will see this accelerate over the next five years. These insights will not only help us avoid and respond to pandemics, but will influence how we design, operate and clean environments like buildings, cars, subways and planes, in addition to how we support economic activity without sacrificing public health.
Jessica Green, Co-Founder and CEO of Phylagen
16. Machine learning and AI expedite decarbonization in carbon-heavy industries
Over the next five years, carbon-heavy industries will use machine learning and AI technology to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint. Traditionally, industries like manufacturing and oil and gas have been slow to implement decarbonization efforts as they struggle to maintain productivity and profitability while doing so. However, climate change, as well as regulatory pressure and market volatility, are pushing these industries to adjust. For example, oil and gas and industrial manufacturing organizations are feeling the pinch of regulators, who want them to significantly reduce CO2 emissions within the next few years. Technology-enabled initiatives were vital to boosting decarbonizing efforts in sectors like transportation and buildings - and heavy industries will follow a similar approach. Indeed, as a result of increasing digital transformation, carbon-heavy sectors will be able to utilize advanced technologies, like AI and machine learning, using real-time, high-fidelity data from billions of connected devices to efficiently and proactively reduce harmful emissions and decrease carbon footprints.
David King, CEO of FogHorn Systems
17. Privacy is pervasive – and prioritized
Despite the accelerating regulatory environments we’ve seen surface in recent years, we are now just seeing the tip of the privacy iceberg, both from a regulatory and consumer standpoint. Five years from now, privacy and data-centric security will have reached commodity status – and the ability for consumers to protect and control sensitive data assets will be viewed as the rule rather than the exception. As awareness and understanding continue to build, so will the prevalence of privacy preserving and enhancing capabilities, namely privacy-enhancing technologies (PET). By 2025, PET as a technology category will become mainstream. They will be a foundational element of enterprise privacy and security strategies rather than an added-on component integrated only meet a minimum compliance threshold. While the world will still lack a global privacy standard, organizations will embrace a data-centric approach to security that provides the flexibility necessary to adapt to regional regulations and consumer expectations. These efforts will be led by cross-functional teams representing the data, privacy and security interests within an organization.
Ellison Anne Williams, Founder and CEO of Enveil
How will technology change the world in the next five years?
It is very exciting to see the pace and transformative potential of today’s innovative technologies being applied to solve the world’s most pressing problems, such as feeding a global and growing population; improving access to and quality of healthcare; and significantly reducing carbon emissions to arrest the negative effects of climate change. The next five years will see profound improvements in addressing these challenges as entrepreneurs, the investment community and the world’s largest enterprise R&D organizations focus on developing and deploying solutions that will deliver tangible results.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a difficult lesson in just how susceptible our world is today to human and economic turmoil, it has also - perhaps for the first time in history - necessitated global collaboration, data transparency and speed at the highest levels of government in order to minimize an immediate threat to human life. History will be our judge, but despite the heroic resolve and resiliency on a country by country basis, as a world we have underperformed. As a global community and through platforms like the World Economic Forum, we must continue to bring visibility to these issues while recognizing and supporting the opportunities for technology and innovation that can best and most rapidly address them.
Robert Piconi, CEO of Energy Vault
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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