Deep Dives

The World Economic Forum’s Top Ten Emerging Tech Trends

The World Economic Forum this week released its annual Top Ten Emerging Technology Trends. The report outlines how the convergence of the physical, digital, and biological worlds is impacting human and planetary health, enabling innovations such as the engineering of viruses as well as ways to extract data from plants that optimize yields and reduce water, fertilizer and pesticide use, while helping to feed the world’s growing population. Read on to learn about all ten trends in the Forum report, which was was prepared in partnership with Frontiers and includes the perspectives of over 90 experts in 20 countries.

Generative AI

Generative artificial intelligence, a type of AI that can create new and original content by learning patterns in data, using complex algorithms and methods of learning inspired by the human brain, is currently focused mainly on producing text, computer programming, images and sound, but this technology could be applied to a range of purposes, including drug design, architecture and engineering, says the report.

Initial work has been published on generating candidate drug molecules targeting particular conditions, notes the report. Indeed, the first drug fully generated by artificial intelligence entered  phase II clinical trials with human patients this week. Insilico Medicine, a Hong Kong-based biotech startup with more than $400 million in funding, created the drug, INS018_055, as a treatment for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic disease that causes scarring in the lungs. “It is the first fully generative AI drug to reach human clinical trials, and specifically Phase II trials with patients,” Alex Zhavoronkov, founder and CEO of Insilico Medicine, told The Innovator during The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting Of The New Champions.

Meanwhile, NASA engineers are currently working towards AI systems that can construct lightweight spaceflight instruments, achieving a 10-fold reduction in development time while simultaneously improving structural performance, notes the report.

In scientific research, generative models could facilitate breakthroughs by improving experimental design, identifying relationships between data elements and creating new theories, says the report. For example, recently developed AI algorithms can translate a mathematical formula into plain English or analyze brain activity data to generate drawings of the objects that human participants are holding in their mind.

The potential of generative AI is fueling investment in the sector. In the past week alone three young generative AI companies were valued at $1 billion or more. Inflection AI, a one-year-old artificial intelligence start-up set up by one of DeepMind’s founders, raised $1.3 billion from Microsoft and Nvidia, among others.  Led by chief executive Mustafa Suleyman, the company’s team of 35, hired from DeepMind, Google, OpenAI and Microsoft, launched a chatbot called Pi, adding to the flood of similar products rolled out publicly this year by  OpenAI and Google. Microsoft, another lead investor, in Inflection AI  has placed a large and public bet on ChatGPT-maker OpenAI, a leading player in the development of generative AI. The AI company Runway, which is applying AI to art, entertainment and human creativity, was valued at $1.5 billion this week in its latest round of funding, after it raised $141 million from investors, including Alphabet-owned Google  and Nvidia. Typeface, a generative AI platform for enterprise content creation, said on June 28 that it was valued at $1 billion after an oversubscribed Series B funding round led by Salesforce’s global investment arm, bringing the total capital raised to $165 million. The flurry of deals this week follows the news earlier this month that Mistral, a four-week-old French AI start-up,  raised €105 million in Europe’s largest-ever seed round.

AI Facilitated Healthcare

The shortcomings of healthcare systems all over the world became clear during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, government-based and academic teams have been created to integrate AI and machine learning (ML) into healthcare – both to anticipate impending pandemics and to aid in effectively addressing them, notes the report. These emergent efforts to enhancethe efficacy of national and global healthcare  systems in the face of major health crises, and to democratize access to care, are in their initial  stages but will rapidly scale up by integrating quality data into the AI and ML models.

An AI- based approach to optimizing access to care is becoming broadly adopted in Canada and will likely be replicated elsewhere, says the report.  It notes that the impact of AI-based healthcare could be even more profound in developing nations, which often lack the infrastructure and personnel to deliver health services to much of their populations. Intelligent tools to assist in the identification, monitoring and treatment of new or ongoing medical conditions – such as an AI-based system to facilitate the reading of radiological data – are a first step in leveraging AI and ML to enhance healthcare capabilities in locations where care is currently inadequate.

Tapping Into The Promise of Synthetic Biology

Engineered viruses could allow for hyper-targeted therapies that can selectively affect specific bacteria, says the report. Using synthetic biology tools, the genetic information of phages (viruses that selectively infect specific types of bacteria) can be reprogrammed so that infected bacteria execute a bio-engineered set of genetic instructions. With bio-engineered phages, scientists can change a bacterium’s functions, causing it to produce a therapeutic molecule or to become sensitive to a certain drug. For example, designer phages are showing potential for treating microbiome-associated diseases such as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a rare but serious condition that affects the kidneys and blood-clotting functions, caused by a certain species of E. coli, says the report. Scientists engineered the genetic material of an E. coli-infecting phage to encode genetic “scissors” that can chop up the E. coli genes that lead to HUS. This approach was recently granted an orphan drug designation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, paving the way for clinical trials. Phages are also being designed as feed supplements to enhance the growth of livestock, treat certain plant diseases and eliminate dangerous bacteria in food supply chains.

Flexible Brain Machine Interfaces

 Researchers have recently developed brain interfacing (BMI) circuits on bio-compatible materials that are soft and flexible. Flexible circuits can conform to the brain, reducing scarring and sensor drift, and they can be packed with enough sensors to stimulate millions of brain cells at once, vastly outperforming the scale and time frame of today’s hard probes, notes the report. When used in neuroscience research, flexible BMIs could deepen understanding of neurological conditions such as dementia and autism and in the clinic flexible BMIs could provide greater control of neuroprosthetics without requiring frequent recalibration.

Applications of flexible BMIs are already undergoing U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved clinical trials, rapidly making this technology a reality. In the future, other implantable devices, such as cardiac pacemakers, could adopt similar types of materials, says the report. Looking forward, advances in materials manufacturing and soft-circuit printing could further improve flexible BMI technologies, eventually leading to true human-AI interfacing. Given the sensitive nature of brain-derived data the report notes that privacy and ethical use guidelines must establish how these data can be used in the short, medium and long term.

Molecular Level Mapping

By combining advanced imaging techniques with the specificity and resolution of DNA sequencing, an emerging method called spatial omics enables the mapping of the what, where and when of biological processes at the molecular level, allows previously unobservable cell architecture and biological events to be viewed in unprecedented detail., says the report. The technique is already showing promise in therapeutic discovery. Using spatial omics scientists identified a population of neurons in the spinal cord that appears to be responsible for recovery after spinal cord injury. Stimulating these neurons in paralyzed mice sped up their recovery to walking. Additional potential health-related applications include characterizing the various cell types in a tumor to customize treatment and shedding light on the mechanisms of complex diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Infectious diseases can also be investigated using spatial omics, the report says.

Metaverse For Mental Health

Virtual shared spaces – digital environments where people can interact professionally andsocially via augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR) – are helping combat what the report refers to as  the growing mental health crisis. Gaming platforms are already being leveraged for mental health treatment, increasing patient engagement but also helping destigmatize mental health issues. For example, DeepWell Therapeutics has created video games to treat depression and anxiety; UK-based Xbox studio Ninja Theory has incorporated mental health awareness into mass-market games and plans to expand into treatment with their Insight Project;  and TRIPP has created Mindful Metaverse, which enhances well-being through VR-enabled guided mindfulness and meditation. Interface technologies could further augment social and emotional connections between distant participants. For example, Emerge Wave 1 is a tabletop device that uses ultrasonic waves to simulate touch, enhancing users’ social experience. Eventually, the report says the metaverse is expected to connect to therapeutic neurotechnologies, such as direct brain stimulation to treat severe depression.

Wearable Plant Sensors

Sensors attached to crop plants for continuous monitoring of temperature, humidity, moisture and nutrient levels are helping farmers detect early signs of disease, optimize yields and reduce water, fertilizer and pesticide use, while helping to feed the world’s growing population, says the report. Two companies, Growvera and Phytech, have independently developed micro-sized needle sensors that insert into a plant’s leaves or stems to measure changes in electrical resistance. Data are transmitted wirelessly to a computer or mobile device, where they are analyzed to generate insights about plant health. Farmers can thus monitor crops in real time and intervene based on the specific demands of plants, such as adjusting irrigation or fertilizer application in  response to moisture levels or nutrient data. By providing real-time data about plant health and environmental conditions, the report says these devices can help farmers optimize agriculturalproductivity, reduce waste and minimize agriculture’s environmental impact while helping to feed the world’s growing population.

Flexible Batteries

Flexible batteries have applications in a growing number of fields, including wearable medical devices and biomedical sensors, flexible displays and smartwatches, notes the report. Health-related applications powered by these batteries could transmit data wirelessly to healthcare providers, facilitating remote patient monitoring. Flexible batteries  can also be integrated into the fabric of jackets, shirts or other apparel  to power emerging textile-based electronics with capabilities ranging from built-in heating systems to health monitoring.

The flexible battery market is expected to expand rapidly in the coming years. One study forecasts that the global flexible battery market will grow by $240.47 million from 2022-2027, accelerating at a compound annual growth rate of 22.79% during this period, notes the report. The primary drivers of growth are expected to be the increasing demand for wearable devices and the growing trend towards miniaturization andflexibility of electronics. Several companies are actively developing and commercializing flexible battery technology, including LG Chem, Samsung SDI, Apple, Nokia, Front Edge Technology, STMicroelectronics, Blue Spark Technologies and Fullriver Battery New Technology. There is still room for innovation in this space, says the report, and new players are likely to enter the market as the technology evolve.

Sustainable Computing

Data centers, consume an estimated 1% of the electricity produced globally and this amount will only increase with growing demand for data services, says the report. While there is no single magic bullet, it is expected that the coming decade will boast substantial strides toward Net-Zero energy data centers as emerging technologies are combined and integrated in innovative ways. First, to address heat-management issues, liquid cooling systems are being developed that use water or dielectric coolant to dissipate heat, and excess heat is being repurposed for applications including space heating, water heating and industrial processes. For example, the city of Stockholm is implementing projects to harness waste heat from data centers to heat homes, says the report. AI is also being used to analyze and optimize energy use in real-time, maximizing efficiency without compromising performance. DeepMind, for example, has successfully demonstrated the potential of AI-powered energy management, achieving up to a 40% reduction in energy consumption at Google’s data centers.

Another positive development is that the technological infrastructure supporting  Net-Zero energy data centers is becoming more modular and demand-based. For instance Cloud and edge computing systems allow data processing and storage to be spread across multiple devices, systems and even locations.  As an example, Crusoe Energy installs its modular data centers at sites where methane flaring occurs to enable cloud computing infrastructure to be powered by methane gas that would otherwise have been released directly into the atmosphere. These and other prefabricated units can be easily deployed, expanded or relocated, allowing data center operators to optimize energy use and adapt to their companies’ changing needs. Additional innovations in software and hardware include novel computing architectures like systems on a chip;  and optimizations such as energy-proportional computing, in which computers use energy proportional to the amount of work being performed.

Sustainabile Aviation Fuel

Aviation accounts for 2%-3% of global CO2 emissions annually, with projected emissions of 39 gigatons between 2022-2050. While the use of electric vehicles for ground transport is rapidly increasing, the aviation sector has struggled with decarbonization because energy-dense fuels are required for long-distance flights, says the report. Additionally, the high price of replacing aircraft means that the current fleet will remain in operation for decades, and electric or hydrogen-fuelled planes may not be viable for long-distance flight in any case.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is produced from biological  biomass and non-biological CO2 resources, does not require large-scale changes to current aviation infrastructure, notes the report.  Combined with other decarbonization strategies, including system-wide operational efficiencies, new technologies and carbon offsets, the report says SAF should help the airline industry move towards reaching Net-Zero carbon emissions in the coming decades. Today, SAF makes up less than 1% of global jet fuel demand. That number would have to increase to 13%-15% by 2040 to put the aviation industry on the path to Net Zero by 2050, says the report. Such an increase will require the creation of 300-400 new SAF plants.

An increasing number of airlines have committed to using SAF, a trend that is expected to accelerate through global efforts such as the Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow initiative and First Movers Coalition. Nine different types of SAF have been approved, with other  candidates still in active development. This year a consortium of actors in the United Kingdom is scheduled  to deliver the first Net-Zero transatlantic flight using solely sustainable aviation fuel.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.