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Emerging technologies don’t just solve big problems – they reshape possibility

An engineer works on a computer with advanced technologies.

"Every day, innovators and entrepreneurs are developing and applying new technologies." Image: ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Jeremy Jurgens
Managing Director, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions
  • The World Economic Forum's 14th Annual Meeting of the New Champions convenes in Tianjin, China, from 27–29 June 2023.
  • The meeting comes as artificial intelligence and its impact on the global economy dominate headlines.
  • The public and private sector must continue to come together to scale the distribution of advancing technologies to benefit more people.

The last time the World Economic Forum held its “Summer-Davos” in Tianjin, China, in 2018, experts predicted artificial intelligence (AI) would be a technology to transform our world. Today, we are seeing the effects of accessible AI on our economies and societies. With OpenAI or LangBoat, the power of AI has become accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

AI and its impact on jobs, the economy and international relations is dominating headlines around the globe. It’s no surprise to find generative AI spotlighted in the Top 10 Emerging Technologies 2023 report, released 26 June. But beyond flashy headlines is the daily, cumulative process of designing, developing, implementing, and scaling technologies to solve many small problems with the potential to add up to big impact.

This year’s meeting, back in Tianjin, celebrates incremental, sometimes quiet, often technical advances – as well as the necessary failures – along the pathway of innovation. From specially designed plant sensors that can increase food security to sustainable aviation fuel that can help decarbonize the aviation industry, these technologies show the power of big ideas to not only tackle giant issues but slowly unlock progress.

Consider the potential of technology to increase global food production by 70% to feed the growing world’s population in 2050.

There have been promising steps to advance food security around the world. For example, the Indian state of Telangana, in collaboration with the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution India, is using technologies to deliver agritech services to more than 100,000 farmers by 2025. The pilot phase of the project currently enables more than 7,000 chilli farmers to access AI-based advisories, soil testing, produce quality testing, and e-commerce services.

In the future, “wearable plant sensors,” small, non-invasive devices that can be attached to crop plants for continuous monitoring of temperature, humidity, moisture and nutrient levels, could further refine and increased food production on a massive scale. This technology uses data to optimize yields while also reducing waste and minimizing agriculture’s environmental impact. But work remains to lower costs and improve data analytics.

Moving forward, the public and private sector must continue to come together to reduce costs and scale the distribution of advancing technologies to benefit more people. Advancements in the solar and wind energy industries show the power of this process. In China, for example, the rapid scaling up of solar and wind technologies lowered the cost and boosted the use of renewable energy globally.

Sustainable aviation fuels, which are produced from biological (e.g. biomass) and non-biological (e.g. CO2) resources, have the potential to follow a similar journey. The production of these fuels is rapidly rising, tripling between 2021 and 2022, and businesses have come together in recent years to bring these solutions to market and scale them further, for example through the Clean Skies for Tomorrow initiative and the First Movers Coalition. But more progress must be made to reach the necessary level of up to 15% of all aircraft using these fuels by 2040 to meet the industry’s target to be net-zero by 2050.

The good news is that the time horizon for technological evolution is narrowing, increasing the potential for us to experience the benefits of applying technologies to address global problems like the climate crisis in our lifetimes.

The challenge is that this increased speed of change also raises complex regulatory and ethical questions that we must address to ensure their responsible, inclusive use. Businesses must play a central role in pursuing a responsible approach towards – including shared safety protocols for – the technology they are developing. Alongside this, policymakers must create agile regulatory frameworks that can adapt to the rapid pace of change in the development and application of new technologies.

For every headline about the transformative benefits of generative AI, there is one about its potential dangers – from job displacement to malicious exploitation. To address these challenges, the new AI Governance Alliance is bringing together industry leaders, governments, academic institutions and civil society organizations around the goal to champion the responsible global design and release of transparent and inclusive AI systems.

But we can’t stop at just what’s in the headlines. Every day, innovators and entrepreneurs are developing and applying new technologies that are changing the world around us in ways that seemed like science fiction just a few years ago. Policymakers, business leaders and technologists must come together to minimize risks and realize the potential of these emerging technologies to grow economies, improve lives and safeguard the planet.

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