• Virtual patients, vaccines, medicine-making biomachines and microneedles are examples of tech innovation that is meeting the moment to address the global health crisis.
  • Health has been a strong focus for this year’s top 10 emerging technologies.
  • Technology can drive a Great Health Reset, but success will be determined by the willingness of all stakeholders to trust one another and to invest in a shared effort.

This year’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies, revealed in a new report produced in partnership with Scientific American, are meeting the moment to fuel a “Great Reset”: a complete redesign of how we manage the current crisis and prevent or mitigate the next one.

Tech innovation is the agent of change. The current cohort, with those of earlier editions, offer solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges – notably the global health crisis and its economic fallout, alongside the ongoing climate emergency.

Not surprisingly, health has been a strong focus of late, with a number of impressive tech advances, but there is a rising sense that technologies alone cannot reinvent the future.

COVID-19 has exposed the global cooperation gap

The pandemic persists despite the extraordinary efforts of a global medical community to contain and expunge the underlying virus. Perhaps more concerning, the absence of a coordinated global approach to containment and resolution has likely expanded and extended its impact.

Two divergent yet critically entwined issues arise: the technological resources brought to bear in addressing this pandemic, and the global international governance and coordination required to achieve best outcomes.

Top 10 Emerging Technologies 2020
Image: World Economic Forum

One of this year’s Top 10, virtual patients – which replace humans with simulations – could make clinical trials faster and safer. Microneedles that provide painless injections, another technology on the list, could speed drug delivery for the prevention and treatment of viruses like COVID-19. A third tech, whole-genome synthesis, enables researchers to design genetic sequences that could be introduced into microbes to turn them into medicine-making biomachines.

Deep technical capabilities such as these executed in isolation are likely to be ineffective, as would be well-coordinated international efforts that are absent the required technologies. In achieving the Great Health Reset, both global governance and emergent technologies will play central roles together.

Reasons for optimism – virus hunting and pandemic bashing

To avoid future pandemics, access to what is traditionally seen as protected health data is critical. Such transparency is not supported by many nations today, and the current pandemic is in part a consequence of the time lag from disease discovery to reporting. It is a systemic, global problem.

The world needs to move towards a system where local healthcare providers, and their local government leadership, recognize and report data “up the chain of command.” Sequential reporting delays, or data suppression, costs lives as the disease vector spreads unchecked. Ideally, the autonomous collection and interpretation of medical reports in real time and on a global scale would drastically improve disease discovery.

The benefits of technology require the development of one critical but so far elusive asset: trust.

Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism.

In computational biology, the constant battle among nations for supercomputing supremacy has led to the global emergence of heavily accelerated computing systems employing Graphic Processor Units (GPUs), and Field Programable Gate Arrays (FPGAs).

Such systems have enabled the structural analysis of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the identification of the molecular structure, required to deactivate it. This technology has seen the process completed in hours versus months.

Vaccine candidate platforms
Image: GAVI

Similarly, the emergence of AI (advances were also cited in 2016, 2017, and 2018), with its myriad applications, promises to examine vast swathes of data and extrapolate a trajectory of parameters that would suggest an imminent viral threat in the future.

At a more foundational level, CRISPR-Cas9 (Top 10 2018), the technology enabling precision gene editing, may allow us to alter the genetic code of those species known to host vectors of disease. Similarly fundamental was the 2017 Top 10 entry elaborating on the emergence of genomics-based vaccines, now in fact in phase 3 COVID-19 trials by Pfizer and Moderna.

5G communications protocol, capable of supporting Gigabit data rates, is a game changer in facilitating a level of global connectivity and in-depth data to track events relevant to the early identification and mitigation of a potential pandemic outbreak.

These and other technologies are all key tools to mitigate the next pandemic – but only with global commitment to transparency and cooperation across and within geopolitical boundaries.

The value of data comes with trust

In the Great Health Reset, we must address and overcome concerns regarding national and personal data privacy. Countries must lead by example, supporting the standardization and sharing of medical records pertinent to transmissible disease. Utilizing autonomous monitoring of such data, assisted by AI, would see the recognition of small signals of risk as early as possible.

Such warnings must then be shared globally, perhaps via established organizations, such as the WHO, or newly formed trusted global entities. To maintain privacy, an emergent technology, Homomorphic encryption, allows the processing of data without decrypting it, to avoid revealing personally identifiable information at any stage of data analytics.

The benefits of technology require the development of one critical but so far elusive asset: trust. Trust at the personal, institutional, governmental, and global level, is required to make material gains. Technology can assist in providing the tangible assets required to drive a Great Health Reset, but success will be determined by the willingness of all stakeholders to trust one another and to invest in a shared effort.