Every year, the World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies releases a top 10 list of the year’s most promising technological innovations. Judged on their potential to improve lives, transform industries, and enhance our ability to protect and preserve the environment, these technologies are highlighted by the WEF as the pioneering representatives of a future that is not so very far away. As a new year approaches, read on for a look back at the WEF’s top emerging technologies of 2016.
Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings
While the Internet of Things has already dramatically expanded our concept of what it means to be online (i.e., beyond computers and mobile devices to everyday parts of the physical world like cars and door locks), experts estimate that the true “big bang” of the online universe may be yet to come. That’s because the sensors that power today’s Internet of Things are now shrinking in size from millimeters or microns down to the nanometer scale—a scale small enough to allow sensors to circulate within living bodies or be directly mixed into construction materials. Able to collect incredibly detailed information from millions of different points, these nanosensors will give us a less expensive, more accurate, and increasingly up-to-date picture of our cities, factories, homes, and bodies, ushering in a new era for sectors such as architecture, energy efficiency, and medicine and drug manufacturing.
The biggest obstacle to widespread use of renewable energy sources has been the lack of an affordable and reliable way to store and use that energy, especially as demand grows. Better batteries have long been touted as a possible solution, but only recently have batteries with the necessary capacity come on the scene. Based on sodium, aluminum, and zinc, these next-generation batteries have proved to be more affordable, more scalable, and safer when compared with the lithium batteries that power today’s electric cars and sophisticated electronics, making them better able to support solar- or wind-powered transmission system. (Such batteries have already been shown to deliver enough power for whole factories, towns, or even remote rural communities.) The prospect of a combination of renewable-energy generation and grid-scale batteries could completely transform not only developing nations, where many people still do not have access to the grid, but also industrialized countries that are struggling to reduce carbon emissions while still meeting electricity demand and economic growth.
The decentralized and distributed public ledger behind the bitcoin digital currency, the blockchain is unique in that no one person or entity owns or controls it. Rather, the entire blockchain can be accessed by every user. In many ways, the blockchain is like the Internet: it is an open, global infrastructure that can serve as the foundation for many other technologies and applications. Copies of the blockchain are scattered worldwide, making the technology effectively tamper-proof.
Not surprisingly for a technology that has made the WEF top 10 list, the blockchain has virtually limitless possibilities for changing how markets and government operate. With every transaction recorded using public and private keys based on cryptographic mathematical techniques, the blockchain allows users to exchange money or make purchases without a bank account; record simple, legally enforceable contracts without a lawyer; and sell everything from real estate to stocks and property without a broker. By bypassing traditional intermediaries, the blockchain could reduce or even eliminate transaction costs, resulting in huge savings not only for individual users, but for professional intermediaries like banks and attorneys as well.
The Bronze Age and the Iron Age were both revolutionized and defined by their mastery of their namesake materials; likewise, our own era may come to be described in terms of a new class of materials that has emerged in the last decade or so. Known as two-dimensional materials, these new substances are each composed of just a single layer of atoms. The best-known example of a two-dimensional material is graphene, made of lattice-like layers of carbon, which was created in 2004 by two scientists using Scotch tape. This innovation, which went on to earn its discoverers the Nobel Prize, is stronger than steel and harder than diamond. Extremely lightweight, transparent, and flexible, as well as a powerful electrical conductor, graphene (and other members of this developing class of materials) holds huge potential for uses ranging from flexible sensors that can be sewn into garments to stronger and lighter airplane wings.
If self-driving cars still seem like a far-off, futuristic fantasy, it’s time to think again. Just as modern society was transformed by the invention of the automobile, another groundbreaking shift is upon us today: the rise of self-driving vehicles. Consumer use of such vehicles is only just beginning, but self-driving cars have been undergoing extensive testing at companies such as Google for several years now. Results have been mainly positive so far, with vehicles leveraging massive amounts of sensory data from GPS systems, ultrasonic range-finders, on-board cameras, and other sensors to navigate complex and rapidly shifting traffic situations on their own. When autonomous vehicle technology is deployed more widely, the potential for preventing accidents and saving lives, reducing pollution, growing economies, and improving quality of life is certain to be transformational.