The Top Ten Emerging Technologies of 2016

By Irvine Wladavsky Berger for WSJ

The World Economic Forum recently published its 2016 list  of the Top Ten Emerging Technologies that will likely have the greatest impact on the world in the years to come. The list is compiled by the WEF Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies, a panel of global experts led by Dr. Bernard Meyerson, IBM Fellow and Chief Innovation Officer.

“Horizon scanning for emerging technologies is crucial to staying abreast of developments that can radically transform our world, enabling timely expert analysis in preparation for these disruptors,” said Dr. Meyerson. “The global community needs to come together and agree on common principles if our society is to reap the benefits and hedge the risks of these technologies.”

The technologies on the list are not new. They’ve been worked on for many years. But their selection to the top ten list indicates that, in the opinion of the council members, each of these technologies has now reached a maturity and acceptance tipping point where its impact can be meaningfully felt.

Here are the ten technologies comprising the 2016 list, along with the reason cited by the WEF for their selection:

  • Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings — “With the Internet of Things expected to comprise 30 billion connected devices by 2020, one of the most exciting areas of focus today is now on nanosensors capable of circulating in the human body or being embedded in construction materials.”
  • Next-generation batteries— “One of the greatest obstacles holding renewable energy back is matching supply with demand, but recent advances in energy storage using sodium, aluminum, and zinc based batteries makes mini-grids feasible that can provide clean, reliable, around-the-clock energy sources to entire villages.”
  • The Blockchain — “With venture investment related to the online currency bitcoin exceeding $1 billion in 2015 alone, the economic and social impact of blockchain’s potential to fundamentally change the way markets and governments work is only now emerging.”
  • 2-D materials — “Plummeting production costs mean that 2D materials like graphene are emerging in a wide range of applications, from air and water filters to new generations of wearables and batteries.”
  • Autonomous vehicles — “The potential of self-driving vehicles for saving lives, cutting pollution, boosting economies, and improving quality of life for the elderly and other segments of society has led to rapid deployment of key technology forerunners along the way to full autonomy.”
  • Organs-on-chips — “Miniature models of human organs could revolutionize medical research and drug discovery by allowing researchers to see biological mechanism behaviors in ways never before possible.”
  • Perovskite solar cells — “This new photovoltaic material offers three improvements over the classic silicon solar cell: it is easier to make, can be used virtually anywhere and, to date, keeps on generating power more efficiently.”
  • Open AI ecosystem — “Shared advances in natural language processing and social awareness algorithms, coupled with an unprecedented availability of data, will soon allow smart digital assistants to help with a vast range of tasks, from keeping track of one’s finances and health to advising on wardrobe choice.”
  • Optogenetics— “Recent developments mean light can now be delivered deeper into brain tissue, something that could lead to better treatment for people with brain disorders.”
  • Systems metabolic engineering — “Advances in synthetic biology, systems biology, and evolutionary engineering mean that the list of building block chemicals that can be manufactured better and more cheaply by using plants rather than fossil fuels is growing every year.”

The full report includes a longer, one-page description of each of these technologies. Let me make some brief comments on those technologies I’m most familiar with: AI, IoT, autonomous vehicles and blockchain.

Artificial Intelligence. After many years of promise and hype, AI has finally been making great progress over the past several years. AI is now being applied to activities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans. And, as the WEF report notes in Open AI Ecosystem: From artificial to contextual intelligence,  “over the past several years, several pieces of emerging technology have linked together in ways that make it easier to build far more powerful, human-like digital assistants… into an open AI ecosystem.”

“This ecosystem connects not only to our mobile devices and computers – and through them to our messages, contacts, finances, calendars and work files – but also to the thermostat in the bedroom, the scale in the bathroom, the bracelet on the wrist, even the car in the driveway… The secret ingredient in this technology that has been largely lacking to date is context. Up to now, machines have been largely oblivious to the details of our work, our bodies, our lives… AI systems are gaining the ability to acquire and interpret contextual cues so that they can gain these skills…Although initially these AI assistants will not outperform the human variety, they will be useful – and roughly a thousand times less expensive.”

The Internet of Things. The Internet of Things has also been long in coming. Ubiquitous Computing dates back to the 1990s, when neither the necessary low-cost devices nor wireless networks were anywhere near ready. But in the last few years, IoT started to take off, with over 10 billion interconnected smart devices already out there, and the expectation that those numbers would rapidly expand to 10s of billions by 2025 and to 100s of billions in the decades ahead. “The myriad possibilities that arise from the ability to monitor and control things in the physical world electronically have inspired a surge of innovation and enthusiasm,” said a 2015 McKinsey report.”

IoT-based solutions are being deployed in a number of areas, including smart citiessmart homes and smart healthcare. In Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings, the WEF takes IoT to a whole new level: “Scientists have started shrinking sensors from millimeters or microns in size to the nanometer scale, small enough to circulate within living bodies and to mix directly into construction materials. This is a crucial first step toward an Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) that could take medicine, energy efficiency, and many other sectors to a whole new dimension… When it arrives, the IoNT could provide much more detailed, inexpensive, and up-to-date pictures of our cities, homes, factories – even our bodies.”

Autonomous Vehicles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), traffic accidents claim over 30,000 lives and lead to over  2 million injuries every year in the US alone. Ninety-four percent of those crashes can be tied back to human error. Safety is thus far and away the overriding objective of vehicle automation technologies. These technologies may also aim to develop fully autonomous vehicles over time.  But in the meantime, they will significantly improve the overall safety of our cars and help reduce our large numbers of traffic accidents, deaths and serious injuries.

In Autonomous Vehicles: Self-driving cars coming sooner than expected, the WEF report writes that “The long-term impact of autonomous vehicles on society is hard to predict, but also hard to overstate…  Self-driving systems may have bugs – the software that runs them is complicated – but they are free from the myriad distractions and risk-taking behaviors that are the most common causes of crashes today. In the near term, semi-autonomous safety systems that engage only to prevent accidents, but that otherwise leave the driver in charge, will also likely reduce the human cost of driving significantly.”

Blockchain. Finally, let me comment on blockchain, a technology that first came to light around 2008 as the architecture underpinning bitcoin. But, as with the internet, the web and other major technologies, the blockchain has now transcended its original objective. Over the years, blockchain has developed a following of its own as a distributed data base architecture with the ability to handle trust-less transactions where no parties need to know nor trust each other for transactions to complete. Blockchain holds the promise to revolutionize the finance industry and other aspects of the digital economy by bringing one of the most important and oldest concepts, the ledger, to the Internet age.  In The Blockchain: A revolutionary decentralized trust system<, the WEF report explains that:

“The technology doesn’t make theft impossible, just harder. But as an infrastructure that improves society’s public records repository and reinforces representative and participatory legal and governance systems, blockchain technology has the potential to enhance privacy, security and freedom of conveyance of data – which surely ranks up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Irving Wladawsky-Berger worked at IBM for 37 years and has been a strategic advisor to Citigroup and to HBO. He is affiliated with MIT, NYU and Imperial College, and is a regular contributor to CIO Journal.

First appeared at WSJ