Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

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Description: Technology is perhaps the greatest agent of change in the modern world. While never without risk, technological breakthroughs promise innovative solutions to the most pressing global challenges of our time. From batteries that can provide power to whole villages to microchips that could take the place of organs in medical research, this yearís 10 emerging technologies offer a vivid glimpse of the power of innovation to improve lives, transform industries and safeguard our planet.

To compile this list, the World Economic Forumís Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies, a panel of global experts, draws on the collective expertise of the Forumís communities to identify the most important recent technological trends. By doing so, the Meta-Council aims to raise awareness of their potential and contribute to closing the gaps in investment, regulation and public understanding that so often thwart progress.

 
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Contents:
Global Agenda

Top 10 Emerging
Technologies of 2016

By the World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies
June 2016

World Economic Forum®
© 2016 – All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or
Transmitted in any form or by any means, including
Photocopying and recording, or by any information Storage
and retrieval system.
.
REF 220616

Contents
5 Introduction
6

Nanosensors and the Internet of
Nanothings

7

Next Generation Batteries

8

The Blockchain

9

Two Dimensionsional Materials

10 Autonomous Vehicles
11 Organs-on-chips
12 Perovskite Solar Cells
13 Open AI Ecosystem
14 Optogenetics
15 Systems Metabolic Engineering
16 Acknowledgments

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

3

4

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

Introduction
Technology is perhaps the greatest agent of change in the modern world. While never without risk,
technological breakthroughs promise innovative solutions to the most pressing global challenges of
our time. From batteries that can provide power to whole villages to microchips that could take the
place of organs in medical research, this year’s 10 emerging technologies offer a vivid glimpse of the
power of innovation to improve lives, transform industries and safeguard our planet.

Bernard Meyerson,
Chief Innovation
Officer, IBM
Corporation; Chair,
Meta-Council
on Emerging
Technologies

To compile this list, the World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies, a panel
of global experts, draws on the collective expertise of the Forum’s communities to identify the most
important recent technological trends. By doing so, the Meta-Council aims to raise awareness of
their potential and contribute to closing the gaps in investment, regulation and public understanding
that so often thwart progress.

Mariette DiChristina,
Editor-in-Chief,
Scientific American;
Vice-chair, MetaCouncil on Emerging
Technologies

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

5

Nanosensors and the Internet of
Nanothings
Tiny sensors that can connect to
the web
The Internet of Things (IoT), built from inexpensive
microsensors and microprocessors paired with tiny power
supplies and wireless antennas, is rapidly expanding
the online universe from computers and mobile gadgets
to ordinary pieces of the physical world: thermostats,
cars, door locks, even pet trackers. New IoT devices are
announced almost daily, and analysts expected to up to 30
billion of them to be online by 2020.
The explosion of connected items, especially those
monitored and controlled by artificial intelligence systems,
can endow ordinary things with amazing capabilities—a
house that unlocks the front door when it recognizes
its owner arriving home from work, for example, or an
implanted heart monitor that calls the doctor if the organ
shows signs of failing. But the real Big Bang in the online
universe may lie just ahead.
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.
Some of the most advanced nanosensors to date have
been crafted by using the tools of synthetic biology to
modify single-celled organisms, such as bacteria. The
goal here is to fashion simple biocomputers that use DNA
and proteins to recognize specific chemical targets, store
a few bits of information, and then report their status by
changing color or emitting some other easily detectable
signal. Synlogic, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., is working
to commercialize computationally enabled strains of
probiotic bacteria to treat rare metabolic disorders. Beyond
medicine, such cellular nanosensors could find many uses in
agriculture and drug manufacturing.

6

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

Many nanosensors have also been made from nonbiological materials, such as carbon nanotubes, that can
both sense and signal, acting as wireless nanoantennas.
Because they are so small, nanosensors can collect
information from millions of different points. External devices
can then integrate the data to generate incredibly detailed
maps showing the slightest changes in light, vibration,
electrical currents, magnetic fields, chemical concentrations
and other environmental conditions.
The transition from smart nanosensors to the IoNT seems
inevitable, but big challenges will have to be met. One
technical hurdle is to integrate all the components needed
for a self-powered nanodevice to detect a change and
transmit a signal to the web. Other obstacles include thorny
issues of privacy and safety. Any nanodevices introduced
into the body, deliberately or inadvertently, could be toxic
or provoke immune reactions. The technology could also
enable unwelcome surveillance. Initial applications might
be able to avoid the most vexing issues by embedding
nanosensors in simpler, less risky organisms such as
plants and non-infectious microorganisms used in industrial
processing.
When it arrives, the IoNT could provide much more detailed,
inexpensive, and up-to-date pictures of our cities, homes,
factories—even our bodies. Today traffic lights, wearables or
surveillance cameras are getting connected to the Internet.
Next up: billions of nanosensors harvesting huge amounts of
real-time information and beaming it up to the cloud.

Next Generation Batteries
Making large-scale power storage
possible
Solar and wind power capacity have been growing at
double-digit rates, but the sun sets, and the wind can be
capricious. Although every year wind farms get larger and
solar cells get more efficient, thanks to advances in materials
such as perovskites, these renewable sources of energy still
satisfy less than five percent of global electricity demand.
In many places, renewables are relegated to niche roles
because of the lack of an affordable, reliable technology to
store the excess energy that they make when conditions
are ideal and to release the power onto the grid as demand
picks up. Better batteries could solve this problem, enabling
emissions-free renewables to grow even faster—and making
it easier to bring reliable electricity to the 1.2 billion people
who currently live without it.
Within the past few years, new kinds of batteries have
been demonstrated that deliver high enough capacity
to serve whole factories, towns, or even “mini-grids”
connecting isolated rural communities. These batteries
are based on sodium, aluminium or zinc. They avoid the
heavy metals and caustic chemicals used in older leadacid battery chemistries. And they are more affordable,
more scalable, and safer than the lithium batteries currently
used in advanced electronics and electric cars. The newer
technology is much better suited to support transmissions
systems that rely heavily on solar or wind power.

Last October, for example, Fluidic Energy announced an
agreement with the government of Indonesia to deploy 35
megawatts of solar panel capacity to 500 remote villages,
electrifying the homes of 1.7 million people. The system will
use Fluidic’s zinc-air batteries to store up to 250 megawatthours of energy in order to provide reliable electricity
regardless of the weather. In April, the company inked a
similar deal with the government of Madagascar to put 100
remote villages there on a solar-powered mini-grid backed
by zinc-air batteries.
For people who currently have no access to the grid—no
light to work by at night, no Internet to mine for information,
no power to do the washing or to irrigate the crops—the
combination of renewable generation and grid-scale
batteries is utterly transformative, a potent antidote for
poverty. But better batteries also hold enormous promise
for the rich world as it struggles to meet the formidable
challenge of removing most carbon emissions from
electricity generation within the next few decades—and
doing so at the same time that demand for electricity is
growing.
The ideal battery is not yet in hand. The new technologies
have plenty of room for further improvement. But until
recently, advances in grid-scale batteries had been few and
far between. So it is heartening to see the pace of progress
quickening.

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

7

The Blockchain
A revolutionary decentralized trust
system
Blockchain–the technology behind the bitcoin digital
currency–is a decentralized public ledger of transactions
that no one person or company owns or controls. Instead,
every user can access the entire blockchain, and every
transfer of funds from one account to another is recorded
in a secure and verifiable form by using mathematical
techniques borrowed from cryptography. With copies of the
blockchain scattered all over the planet, it is considered to
be effectively tamper-proof.
The challenges that bitcoin poses to law enforcement and
international currency controls have been widely discussed.
But the blockchain ledger has uses far beyond simple
monetary transactions. Like the Internet, the blockchain
is an open, global infrastructure upon which other
technologies and applications can be built. And like the
Internet, it allows people to bypass traditional intermediaries
in their dealings with each other, thereby lowering or even
eliminating transaction costs.
By using the blockchain, individuals can exchange money
or purchase insurance securely without a bank account,
even across national borders—a feature that could be
transformative for the two billion people in the world
currently underserved by financial institutions. Blockchain
technology lets strangers record simple, enforceable
contracts without a lawyer. It makes it possible to sell real
estate, event tickets, stocks, and almost any other kind of
property or right without a broker.
The long-term consequences for professional intermediaries,
such as banks, attorneys and brokers, could be profound—
and not necessarily in negative ways, because these
industries themselves pay huge amounts of transaction
fees as a cost of doing business. Analysts at Santander
InnoVentures, for example, have estimated that by 2022,
blockchain technology could save banks more $20 billion
annually in costs.

8

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

Some 50 big-name banks have announced blockchain
initiatives. Investors have poured more than $1 billion in the
past year into start-ups formed to exploit the blockchain for
a wide range of businesses. Tech giants such as Microsoft,
IBM and Google all have blockchain projects underway.
Many of these companies are attracted by the potential
to use the blockchain to address the privacy and security
problems that continue to plague Internet commerce.
Because blockchain transactions are recorded using
public and private keys—long strings of characters that
are unreadable by humans—people can choose to remain
anonymous while enabling third parties to verify that they
shook, digitally, on an agreement. And not just people: an
institution can use the blockchain to store public records
and binding promises. Researchers at the University of
Cambridge in the U.K., for example, have shown how drug
companies could be required to add detailed descriptions
of their upcoming clinical drug trials to the blockchain.
This would prevent the companies from later moving the
goalposts if the trial did not pan out as anticipated, an alltoo-common tactic. In London, mayoral candidate George
Galloway has proposed putting the city’s annual budget on
the blockchain ledger to foster collective auditing by citizens.
Perhaps the most encouraging benefit of blockchain
technology is the incentive it creates for participants to work
honestly where rules apply equally to all. Bitcoin did lead to
some famous abuses in trading of contraband, and some
nefarious applications of blockchain technology are probably
inevitable. 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.

Two-Dimensional Materials
“Wonder materials” are becoming
increasingly affordable
New materials can change the world. There is a reason
we talk about the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Concrete,
stainless steel, and silicon made the modern era possible.
Now a new class of materials, each consisting of a single
layer of atoms, are emerging, with far-reaching potential.
Known as two-dimensional materials, this class has grown
within the past few years to include lattice-like layers of
carbon (graphene), boron (borophene) and hexagonal boron
nitride (aka white graphene), germanium (germanene),
silicon (silicene), phosphorous (phosphorene) and tin
(stanene). More 2-D materials have been shown theoretically
possible but not yet synthesized, such as graphyne from
carbon. Each has exciting properties, and the various 2-D
substances can be combined like Lego bricks to build still
more new materials.
This revolution in monolayers started in 2004 when two
scientists famously created 2-D graphene using Scotch
tape—probably the first time that Nobel-prize-winning
science has been done using a tool found in kindergarten
classrooms. Graphene is stronger than steel, harder than
diamond, lighter than almost anything, transparent, flexible,
and an ultrafast electrical conductor. It is also impervious
to most substances except water vapor, which flows freely
through its molecular mesh.
Initially more costly than gold, graphene has tumbled in price
thanks to improved production technologies. Hexagonal
boron nitride is now also commercially available and set to
follow a similar trajectory. Graphene has become cheap
enough to incorporate it in water filters, which could make
desalination and waste-water treatment far more affordable.
As the cost continues to fall, graphene could be added
to road paving mixtures or concrete to clean up urban
air—on top of its other strengths, the stuff absorbs carbon
monoxide and nitrogen oxides from the atmosphere.

Other 2-D materials will probably follow the trajectory that
graphene has, simultaneously finding use in high-volume
applications as the cost falls, and in high-value products
like electronics as technologists work out ways to exploit
their unique properties. Graphene, for example, has been
used to make flexible sensors that can been sewn into
garments—or now actually 3-D printed directly into fabrics
using new additive manufacturing techniques. When added
to polymers, graphene can yield stronger yet lighter airplane
wings and bicycle tires.
Hexagonal boron nitride has been combined with graphene
and boron nitride to improve lithium-ion batteries and
supercapacitors. By packing more energy into smaller
volumes, the materials can reduce charging times, extend
battery life, and lower weight and waste for everything from
smart phones to electric vehicles.
Whenever new materials enter the environment, toxicity
is always a concern. It’s smart to be cautious and to
keep an eye out for problems. Ten years of research into
the toxicology of graphene has, so far, yielded nothing
that raises any concerns over its effects on health or the
environment. But studies continue.
The invention of 2-D materials has created a new box of
powerful tools for technologists. Scientists and engineers
are excitedly mixing and matching these ultrathin
compounds—each with unique optical, mechanical
and electrical properties—to produce tailored materials
optimised for a wide range of functions. Steel and silicon,
the foundations of 20th-century industrialization, look clumsy
and crude by comparison.

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

9

Autonomous Vehicles
Self-driving cars coming sooner
than expected
The rise of the automobile transformed modern society.
It changed where we live, what we buy, how we work,
and who we call friends. As cars and trucks became
commonplace, they created whole classes of jobs and
made other professions obsolete.
We are now on the cusp of an equally transformative
technological shift in transportation: from vehicles driven
by humans to vehicles that drive themselves. The longterm impact of autonomous vehicles on society is hard to
predict, but also hard to overstate. The only certainty is that
wherever this technology becomes ubiquitous, life will be
different than it was.
Google and other companies have been testing self-driving
cars for several years now, with good success. These
autos process vast amounts of sensory data from onboard radars, cameras, ultrasonic range-finders, GPS, and
stored maps to navigate routes through ever more complex
and rapidly changing traffic situations without any human
involvement.
Consumer use of vehicles with autonomous capabilities,
however, is just beginning. Adoption will proceed gradually,
through the steady implementation of increasingly intelligent
safety and convenience features in otherwise ordinary cars.
Some models, for example, already offer hands-off parallel
parking, automatic lane-keeping, emergency braking, or
even semi-autonomous cruise control. Last October, Tesla
Motors made available a software package that enables
a limited form of self-driving operation for owners of its
vehicles to download.
This trend is likely to continue as such technology matures
and as legal and regulatory barriers start to fall. A halfdozen states have already authorized autonomous road
vehicles, and more have plans to do so. Discussions are
well underway among auto insurers and legislators about
how to apportion liability and costs when self-driving cars
get into crashes, as they inevitably will—although it is widely
expected that these cars will prove to be much safer, on
average, than driver-operated cars are today.
10

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

There is plenty of room for improvement on that front. In
the United States, crashes and collisions claim more than
30,000 lives and cause some 2.3 million injuries annually.
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, semiautonomous 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.
Far more profound transformations will follow once cars and
trucks can be trusted to pilot themselves routinely—even
with no one inside. Exclusive car ownership could then
cease to be the necessity of modern living that it is today
for so many people. Shared cars and driverless taxi and
delivery services could become the norm. This transition
might help the aged and infirm—an increasing fraction of
the population—to “age in place” more gracefully. Shared
programmable vehicles could reduce the need for local
parking structures, reduce congestion by preventing
accidents and enabling safe travel at higher speeds and
closer following distances, and unlock numerous secondary
benefits.
Like every technology, autonomous vehicles will involve
drawbacks as well. In some distant day, commercial driving
may no longer be a sustainable career. Shared vehicles
raise some thorny privacy and security concerns. In some
regions, increased affordability of car access may greatly
exacerbate traffic and pollution problems rather than easing
them. But the many benefits of self-driving cars and trucks
are so compelling that their widespread adoption is a
question of when, not if.

Organs-on-chips
Using chips instead of organs for
medical testing purposes
Outside of Hollywood special effects shops, you won’t find
living human organs floating in biology labs. Set aside all
the technical difficulties with sustaining an organ outside the
body—full organs are too precious as transplants to use
in experiments. But many important biological studies and
practical drug tests can be done only by studying an organ
as it operates. A new technology could fill this need by
growing functional pieces of human organs in miniature, on
microchips.
In 2010, Donald Ingber from the Wyss Institute developed
a lung-on-a-chip, the first of its kind. The private sector
quickly jumped in, with companies such as Emulate, headed
by Ingber and others from the Wyss Institute, forming
partnerships with researchers in industry and government,
including DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency. So far, various groups have reported
success making miniature models of the lung, liver, kidney,
heart, bone marrow, and cornea. Others will certainly follow.
Each organ-on-a-chip is roughly the size of a USB memory
stick. It is made from a flexible, translucent polymer.
Microfluidic tubes, each less than a millimeter in diameter
and lined with human cells taken from the organ of interest,
run in complex patterns within the chip. When nutrients,
blood, and test compounds such as experimental drugs are
pumped through the tubes, the cells replicate some of the
key functions of a living organ.
The chambers inside the chip can be arranged to simulate
the particular structure of an organ tissue, such as a tiny air
sac in a lung. Air running through a channel, for example,
can then very accurately simulate human breathing.
Meanwhile, blood laced with bacteria can be pumped
through other tubes, and scientists can then observe how
the cells respond to the infection, all without any risk to a
person. The technology allows scientists to see biological
mechanisms and physiological behaviors never before seen.

Organ microchips will also give a boost to companies
developing new medicines. Their ability to emulate human
organs allows for more realistic and accurate tests of drug
candidates. Last year, for example, one group used a chip
to mimic the way that endocrine cells secrete hormones into
the blood stream and used this to perform crucial tests on a
diabetes drug.
Other groups are exploring the use of organs-on-chips
in personalized medicine. In principle, these microchips
could be constructed using stems cells derived from the
patients themselves, and then tests could be run to identify
individualized therapies that are more likely to succeed.
There is reason to hope that miniature organs could greatly
reduce the pharmaceutical industry’s reliance on animal
testing of experimental compounds. Millions of animals
are sacrificed each year to such tests, and the practice
provokes heated controversy. Ethical considerations aside,
it has proven to be immensely wasteful—animal trials rarely
provide reliable insights into how humans will react to the
same drug. Tests done on miniaturized human organs might
do better.
Military and biodefence researchers see the potential
for organs-on-chips to save lives in a different way. The
simulated lung, and other devices like it, could be the next
big step in testing responses to biological, chemical or
radiological weapons. It isn’t possible to do this today, for
obvious ethical reasons.

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

11

Perovskite Solar Cells
Making progress towards
ubiquitous solar power generation
The silicon solar cells that currently dominate the world
market suffer from three fundamental limitations. A
promising new way of making high-efficiency solar cells,
using perovskites instead of silicon, could address all three
at once and supercharge the production of electricity from
sunlight.
The first major limitation of silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells is
that they are made from a material that is rarely found in
nature in the pure, elemental form needed. While there is
no shortage of silicon in the form of silicon dioxide (beach
sand), it takes tremendous amounts of energy to get rid
of the oxygen attached to it. Typically, manufacturers
melt silicon dioxide at 1500–2000 degrees Celsius in an
electrode arc furnace. The energy needed to run such
furnaces sets a fundamental lower limit on the production
cost of silicon PV cells and also adds to the emissions of
greenhouse gases from their manufacture.
Perovskites—a wide-ranging class of materials in which
organic molecules, made mostly of carbon and hydrogen,
bind with a metal such as lead and a halogen such as
chlorine in a three-dimensional crystal lattice—can be
made much more cheaply and with fewer emissions.
Manufacturers can mix up batches of liquid solutions and
then deposit the perovskites as thin films on surfaces of
virtually any shape, no furnace needed. The film itself weighs
very little.
Those features thus eliminate the second big limitation
of silicon solar cells, which is their rigidity and weight.
Silicon PV cells work best when they are flat and housed
in large, heavy panels. But those panels make large-scale
installations very expensive, which is in part why you
typically see them on rooftops and big solar “farms.”

12

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

The third major limitation of conventional solar cells is their
power conversion efficiency, which has been stuck at
25 percent for 15 years. When they were first described,
perovskites offered much lower efficiency. In 2009,
perovskite cells made of lead, iodide and methylammonium
converted less than 4 percent of the sunlight that hit them
into electricity. But the pace of improvement in perovskites
has been phenomenal, thanks in part to the fact that
thousands of different chemical compositions are possible
within this class of material. By 2016, perovskite solar-cell
efficiencies were above 20 percent—a five-fold improvement
in just seven years and a stunning doubling in efficiency
within just the past two years. They are now commercially
competitive with silicon PV cells, and the efficiency limits
of perovskites could be far higher still. Whereas silicon
PV technology is now mature, perovskite PVs continue to
improve rapidly.
Researchers still need to answer some important questions
about perovskites, such as how durable they will be when
exposed to years of weathering and how to industrialize
their production to churn out quantities large enough to
compete with silicon wafers in the global market. But even
a relatively small initial supply of these new cells could be
important in bringing solar power to remote locations that
are not yet connected to any electrical grid. When paired
with emerging battery technology, perovskite solar cells
could help transform the lives of 1.2 billion people who
currently lack reliable electricity (see “Next Generation
Batteries page 7”).

Open AI Ecosystem
From artificial to contextual
intelligence
One of the advantages that CEOs and celebrities have over
ordinary workers is that they don’t need to spend much
time handling the uninteresting, time-consuming aspects
of daily life: scheduling appointments, making travel plans,
searching for the information they want. The elite have PAs,
personal assistants who handle such things. But soon—
maybe even this year—most of us will be able to afford
this luxury for the price of few lattes a month, thanks to the
emergence of an open AI ecosystem.
AI here refers, of course, to artificial intelligence. Apple’s Siri,
Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s OK Google, and Amazon’s
Echo services are nifty in the way that they extract
questions from speech using natural-language processing
and then do a limited set of useful things, such as look for
a restaurant, get driving directions, find an open slot for a
meeting, or run a simple web search. But too often their
response to a request for help is “Sorry, I don’t know about
that” or “here’s what I found on the web.” You would never
confuse these digital assistants for a human PA. Moreover,
these systems are proprietary and hard for entrepreneurs to
extend with new features.
But 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—
that is, 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 interconnection
of the Internet with the Internet of Things and your own
personal data, all instantly available almost anywhere via
spoken conversations with an AI, could unlock higher
productivity and better health and happiness for millions of
people within the next few years.

By pooling anonymized health data and providing
personalized health advice to individuals, such systems
should lead to substantial improvements in health and
reductions in the costs of health care. Applications of AI
to financial services could reduce unintentional errors, as
well as intentional (fraudulent) ones—offering new layers of
protection to an aging population.
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. A human PA knows when you are interruptible,
stressed, bored, tired or hungry. The PA knows who and
what is important to you, and also what you would prefer
to avoid. AI systems are gaining the ability to acquire
and interpret contextual cues so that they can gain these
skills as well. Although initially these AI assistants will not
outperform the human variety, they will be useful—and
roughly a thousand times less expensive.
Various companies have already demonstrated AI systems
that have some of these capabilities. Microsoft Research
built one that knows when you are too busy to take a call
(and which calls should ring through regardless) and that
automatically schedules meetings at times you would likely
choose yourself. Other companies such as Angel.ai have
introduced services that search for flights that suit your
preferences and constraints based on simple plain-English
requests.
Just as discretion and loyalty are prized among human PAs,
digital versions will succeed only to the extent that we trust
them with our security and privacy. Vendors will no doubt try
to use such systems to influence our purchase choices. We
will have to decide when and whether we are comfortable
with that.

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

13

Optogenetics
Using light to control genetically
modified neurons
Brains—even relatively simple ones like those in mice—
are daunting in their complexity. Neuroscientists and
psychologists can observe how brains respond to various
kinds of stimuli, and they have even mapped how genes are
expressed throughout the brain. But with no way to control
when individual neurons and other kinds of brain cells turn
on and off, researchers found it very difficult to explain how
brains do what they do, at least not in the detail needed to
thoroughly understand—and eventually cure—conditions
such as Parkinson’s disease and major depression.
Scientists tried using electrodes to record neuronal activity,
and that works to some extent. But it is a crude and
imprecise method because electrodes stimulate every
neuron nearby and cannot distinguish among different kinds
of brain cells.
A breakthrough came in 2005, when neurogeneticists
demonstrated a way to use genetic engineering to make
neurons respond to particular colors of light. The technique,
known as optogenetics, built on research done in the 1970s
on pigment proteins, known collectively as rhodopsins and
encoded by the opsin gene family. These proteins work
like light-activated ion pumps. Microbes, lacking eyes, use
rhodopsins to help extract energy and information from
incoming light.
By inserting one or more opsin genes into particular neurons
in mice, biologists are now able to use visible light to turn
specific neurons on or off at will. Over the years, scientists
have tailored versions of these proteins that respond to
distinct colors, ranging from deep red to green to yellow to
blue. By putting different genes into different cells, they use
pulses of light of various colors to activate one neuron and
then several of its neighbours in a precisely timed sequence.

14

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

That is a crucial advance because in living brains, timing is
everything. A signal issued at one moment may have the
complete opposite effect from the same signal sent out a
few milliseconds later.
The invention of optogenetics greatly accelerated the pace
of progress in brain science. But experimenters were limited
by the difficulty of delivering light deep into brain tissue. Now
ultrathin, flexible microchips, each one hardly bigger than a
neuron, are being tested as injectable devices to put nerves
under wireless control. They can be inserted deep into a
brain with minimal damage to overlying tissue.
Optogenetics has already opened new doors to brain
disorders, including tremors in Parkinson’s disease, chronic
pain, vision damage and depression. The neurochemistry
of the brain is clearly important for some brain conditions,
which is why drugs can help improve symptoms—up to a
point. But where the high-speed electrical circuitry of the
brain is also disturbed, optogenetic research, especially
when enhanced by emerging wireless microchip technology,
could offer new routes to treatment. Recent research
suggests, for example, that in some cases non-invasive light
therapy that shuts down specific neurons can treat chronic
pain, providing a welcome alternative to opoids.
With mental disorders affecting one in four people globally
and psychiatric diseases a leading source of disability,
the better understanding of the brain that advanced
optogenetics will provide cannot come soon enough.

Systems Metabolic Engineering
Chemicals from renewable sources’
microorganisms
Trace the products we buy and use every day—from
plastics and fabrics to cosmetics and fuels—back to their
origins, and you’ll find that the vast majority were made
using stuff that came from deep underground. The factories
that make the products of modern life do so, by and large,
out of chemicals of various kinds. And those chemicals
come from plants powered primarily by fossil fuels that
transform feedstocks—also mainly petrochemicals—into
myriad other compounds.
It would be much better for the climate, and possibly
better for the global economy as well, to make many of the
chemical inputs to industry from living organisms instead of
from oil, gas, and coal. We already use agricultural products
in this way, of course—we wear cotton clothes and live
in wooden houses—but plants are not the only source of
ingredients. Microbes arguably offer even more potential,
in the long term, to make inexpensive materials in the
incredible variety of properties that we now take for granted.
Rather than digging the raw materials of modern life from
the ground, we can instead “brew” them in giant bioreactors
filled with living microorganisms.
For bio-based chemical production to really take off, it must
compete with conventional chemical production on both
price and performance. This goal now seems within reach,
thanks to advances in systems metabolic engineering, a
discipline that tweaks the biochemistry of microbes so that
more of their energy and resources go into synthesizing
useful chemical products. Sometimes the tweaks involve
changing the genetic makeup of the organism, and
sometimes it involves more complex engineering of
microbial metabolism and brewing conditions as a system.
With recent advances in synthetic biology, systems biology,
and evolutionary engineering, metabolic engineers are
now able to create biological systems that manufacture
chemicals that are hard to produce by conventional
means (and thus expensive). In one recent successful

demonstration, microbes were customized to make PLGA
[poly(lactate-co-glycolate)], an implantable, biodegradable
polymer used in surgical sutures, implants, and prosthetics,
as well as in drug delivery materials for cancer and
infections.
Systems metabolic engineering has also been used to
create strains of yeast that make opioids for pain treatment.
These drugs are widely needed in the world, and in
particular in the developing world, where pain is insufficiently
managed today.
The range of chemicals that can be made using metabolic
engineering is widening every year. Although the technique
is not likely to replicate all of the products currently made
from petrochemicals, it is likely to yield novel chemicals
that could never be made affordably from fossil fuels—in
particular, complex organic compounds that currently are
very expensive because they must be extracted from plants
or animals that make them in only tiny amounts.
Unlike fossil fuels, chemicals made from microbes are
indefinitely renewable and emit relatively little greenhouse
gas—indeed, some could potentially even serve to reverse
the flow of carbon from Earth to atmosphere by absorbing
carbon dioxide or methane and incorporating it into
products that are eventually buried as solid waste.
As biochemical production scales up to large industrial
use, it will be important to avoid both competing with food
production for land use and also accidental releases of
engineered microorganisms into the environment. Although
these highly engineered microbes will likely be at a great
disadvantage in the wild, it’s best to keep them safely in their
tanks, happily working away at making useful stuff for the
benefit of humanity and the environment.

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

15

Acknowledgments
Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies
Bernard Meyerson (Chair)
Chief Innovation Officer, IBM Corporation

Zhang Dongxiao
Dean and Chair Professor, College of Engineering, Peking
University
Report Team (World Economic Forum)

Mariette DiChristina (Vice-Chair)
Editor-in-Chief, Scientific American
Noubar Afeyan
Managing Partner and Chief Executive Officer, Flagship
Ventures
Nayef Al-Rodhan
Honorary Fellow, St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford

Fernando Gomez
Head of Chemistry and Advanced Materials, Basic and
Infrastructure Industries
Rigas Hadzilacos
Meta-Council Manager, Specialist, Knowledge Network and
Analysis
Production Team

Jeffrey Carbeck
Specialist Leader, Advanced Materials and Manufacturing,
DC Innovations, Deloitte
George Chen Guodiang
Professor, School of Life Sciences, Tsinghua University
Liam Condon
Chief Executive Officer, Bayer CropScience
Lee Sang Yup
Distinguished Professor, Director and Dean, Korea
Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
Geoffrey Ling
Director, Biological Technologies Office, DARPA
Henry Markram
Professor, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
(EPFL)
Kiyoshi Matsuda
Chief Innovation Officer, Corporate Strategy Office,
Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corporation
Andrew D. Maynard
Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society,
Arizona State University
Apurv Mishra
Founder, Glavio Wearable Computing
Robert Pepper
Vice-President, Global Technology Policy, Cisco
Françoise Roure
Senior National Adviser, National Advisory Board on
Industry, Energy and Technologies, Ministry of Finances and
Public Accounts of France
Leila Takayama
Senior Researcher, Google
16

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

Mike Hanley
Head of Digital Communications, Member of the Executive
Committee, Digital Content and Editing
Oliver Cann
Head of Media Content, Media Relations
Ceri Parker
Commissioning Editor, Digital Content and Editing
Floris Landi
Graphic Designer, Publications
Special Thanks to:
Javier Garcia-Martinez
Professor, University of Alicante
Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology
Wayt Gibbs
Contributing editor, Scientific American
Tim Harper
Chief Executive Officer, G2O Water
Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology
Corinna Lathan
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, AnthroTronix
Global Agenda Council on Artificial Intelligence & Robotics
Mihaela Ulieru
Research Professor, Carleton University
Global Agenda Council on Data-Driven Development

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2016

17

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