Spotlight on the Top 10 Technologies of 2016 – Part 2

The overview of the World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016 continues with a look at the second half of the list. Read on to learn more about the incredible technologies that rose to prominence during the last year.

  1. Organs-on-chips

Image by NIH Image Gallery | Flickr

Although many biological studies and drug trials need to be able to study an operational, living organ in order to produce the best possible results, the fact is that full human organs are more in demand for transplant use than research purposes. That’s what makes the promise of an emerging new technology, which grows miniature but fully functional pieces of human organs on microchips, so exciting. In 2010 researchers from the Wyss Institute created a lung-on-a-chip, the first-ever organ of this kind, and since then, various other groups have reported the successful creation of models of the heart, liver, kidney, bone marrow, and cornea.

About the size of a USB key, these miniature chip-based organs are made from a translucent, flexible polymer with microfluidic tubes, each of which are lined with human cells from the organ in question, forming complex patterns within the chip. When blood or other compounds such as experimental drugs are pumped into the tubes, the cells behave in many of the same key ways that a living organ would. Such an innovation holds the potential to eliminate animal testing, give more accurate results for experimental drug trials, and possibly allow the testing of responses to biological or chemical weapons.

  1. Perovskite solar cells

Although the solar energy market is currently dominated by silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells, this technology is widely recognized as far from ideal. Silicon PV cells are made from a material that requires tremendous amounts of energy to transform into the pure, elemental form needed for cell construction. They are also very rigid and heavy, and their power conversion efficiency rate has remained fixed at a mere 25 percent for the last 15 years.

Perovskite, a broad class of materials featuring a binding of organic molecules, a metal, and a halogen into a three-dimensional crystal lattice structure, has the potential to address all three of the limitations of silicon PV cells. Due to its largely organic nature, a perovskite can be made inexpensively and with a greatly reduced level of energy consumption. Additionally, the film itself is very lightweight and can easily adapt to virtually any surface. After seeing a remarkable doubling in improvement in the past two years alone, perovskite is already commercially competitive with silicon PV cells in terms of energy efficiency.

Though questions remain about the long-term durability of perovskite, as well as how its large-scale industrial production might work, even a small initial supply of perovskite cells could bring solar power to regions not yet connected to a grid, thus potentially transforming the lives of up to 1.2 billion people who are currently without reliable electricity access.

  1. Open AI ecosystem

Image by iphonedigital | Flickr

In the past few years, several powerful pieces of technology have emerged that make the possibility of an open AI ecosystem—a sort of human-like digital assistant, like a more powerful and personalized version of Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant—closer to becoming a reality than ever. Together with an unprecedented volume and availability of data, major advances in natural language processing and social awareness algorithms are allowing AI systems to become increasingly adept at interpreting contextual cues. So thanks to the Internet of Things, not only could such a system connect with your calendar to schedule a meeting or with the thermostat in your home to turn the heat on when you leave work, it can also start to learn your preferences about when and how it should perform its tasks.

  1. Optogenetics

Built on research initially done during the 1970s, optogenetics, or the use of light and color to not only observe but control neuronal activity, is transforming how we understand the brain. Today, this field of study is experiencing a new burst of progress now that ultrathin, flexible microchips are making it possible to deliver light much deeper into brain tissue than ever before. While it has been difficult for researchers to explain how brains work the way they do, optogenetics offers the possibility of understanding and even curing major brain conditions like Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, and depression.

  1. Systems metabolic engineering

While the vast majority of everyday products such as plastics, fabrics, cosmetics, and fuels are currently made from petroleum products and petrochemicals, recent advances in synthetic and systems biology and evolutionary engineering are changing things. Today, metabolic engineers are able to cheaply and easily create a range of chemicals and other products using biological systems rather than irreplaceable, environmentally damaging fossil fuel resources; a paradigm shift that is not only better for the planet, but potentially for the global economy as well.