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From virtual patients to green hydrogen: How to harness the top 10 emerging tech of 2020 for good

National University of Singapore's Kang Lifeng shows a sample of a microneedle patch that his team of researchers have pioneered at the university in Singapore September 11, 2014. The microneedle patch, made up of dozens of needles 600 microns long (0.6 millimetre) and half as wide, can deliver encapsulated dosages of drugs into the bloodstream through the skin painlessly, as compared to injections. According to Kang, the innovation, which is awaiting clinical trial, can be used potentially for cosmetic and skincare purposes to deliver collagen to inner skin layers, as well as non-invasive administration of drugs such as painkillers and insulin for patients in homecare settings.   REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: HEALTH DRUGS SOCIETY) - GM1EA9B10L301

National University of Singapore's Kang Lifeng shows a sample of a microneedle patch. Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Rigas Hadzilacos
Project Lead, Industry Accelerators, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Tech for Good

This article is part of: Pioneers of Change Summit
  • Emerging technologies will be key to solving global challenges like COVID-19.
  • The World Economic Forum and Scientific American identified the top 10 emerging technologies of 2020.
  • They include virtual patients, green hydrogen and quantum sensing.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating effect on lives and economies, the world is increasingly looking to the scientific world for answers and solutions.

Technological advances have always been key agents of change. During the past two decades, the world has been witnessing an unprecedented pace of technological innovation, from computing and artificial intelligence to biotechnology and nanotechnology.

The World Economic Forum and Scientific American identified 10 emerging technologies for 2020 in this year’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies report. They are:

  • Microneedles for painless injections and tests
  • Sun-powered chemistry
  • Virtual patients
  • Spatial computing
  • Digital medicine
  • Electric aviation
  • Lower-carbon cement
  • Quantum sensing
  • Green hydrogen
  • Whole-genome synthesis

These technologies come with the potential to help us solve some of our most pressing global challenges, but also pose significant risks if misused and mismanaged. Here are three key takeaways.

1. Emerging tech can be a crucial ally

One of our key allies in the battles against global issues including our current health crisis, climate change, food security, water shortages and rising energy needs will be emerging technologies.

This year, for example, we have seen a number of technological achievements that will help us with the disruptions facing our healthcare systems. Advances in the production of microneedle devices, which cost less and are easier to use, will give many currently underserved areas access to vaccinations - a very encouraging development, especially in light of the current pandemic.

Moreover, some developers of digital health applications for smart devices have made breakthroughs in detecting irregular heart rhythms that can be signs of serious heart issues, and more apps like that are in the works for detecting or tracking symptoms related to diseases including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and autism.

Finally, impressive developments in our digitization capabilities allow us to digitally recreate human organs, which will soon lead to drastically reduce the use of humans for testing drugs, and, increasingly, the whole human genome, enabling in due course doctors to cure most genetic diseases.

For dealing with climate change, there have been many recent advances that can equip our economies with more tools to lower our carbon footprint. Using electric energy to produce hydrogen (rather than the traditional use of fossil fuels) is becoming increasingly possible, leading to the production of carbon-free hydrogen, which experts deem necessary for meeting the Paris Agreement goal of abating more than 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year.

Electric power is also promising to change the aviation sector, with many companies, investors and companies making progress in electric motors, which when ready will not only eliminate emissions but also significantly reduce fuel and maintenance costs, as well as noise pollution. Another potentially game-changing technological development is low- (or even no-) carbon cement. With cement being the most widely used human-made material, this can lead to a significant reduction of our emissions on a global level.

Finally, technological breakthroughs that increase the efficiency of the use of solar energy to convert waste carbon dioxide into chemicals that are useable for medicines, detergents, fertilizers and textiles promise to radically transform the chemicals industry, potentially into a true waste-free circular economy.

2. But we must also prepare for risks

These powerful new tools don’t come without risk. For example, many technological solutions are based on data, and we haven’t found a way yet to ensure the safety and privacy of this data.

This is especially in health applications. Whole-genome engineering could lead to accidental misuse or weaponization. With microneedle devices, it is still unclear how the age and weight of the patient, the site of injection and the delivery technique influence the effectiveness of the delivery method, so it could lead to inefficient treatments. There is, therefore, an urgent need for users to understand any limitations and for rigorous control and oversight from the relevant health authorities.

We can overcome these technical difficulties and uncertainties. For example, hydrogen use was once considered very dangerous, but thanks to technological progress, it is now proven to be safer than traditional fuels. We can get there with new tech if we accelerate the creation and adoption of standards and practices.


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3. Collaboration will be key to realizing benefits

Even though emerging technologies hold the promise to help us deal with some of our most difficult challenges globally, they cannot be agents of change on their own. Collaboration between governments, companies, the scientific community, academia and the broad public are necessary, both locally and internationally.

On one hand, most of these technologies still need significant amounts of funding and research to be able to reach the maturity and price point that can make their integration in our industry and society viable and scalable. No company or government can ensure this, so the public and private sectors need to pool resources and share research data, so as to ensure that society manages to reap the benefits of these technologies as soon as possible.

On the other hand, a lot of the risks of these technologies can only be dealt with global policies, as their use and effects go beyond national borders. Policymakers need take coordinated action on a global level to set new regulations, and companies that are starting to incorporate these technologies need to constantly exchange best practices and set new standards that ensure that the potential for misuse of any of these technologies is minimized.

A world where we have managed to reduce our carbon emissions to a minimum, where genetic diseases are eradicated, and where we can diagnose diseases early and accurately and treat them efficiently will be soon technically feasible. It is up to the decision-makers of the world to make it a reality.

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