AI-enabled healthcare, using the metaverse for mental health care and flexible batteries powering wearable medical devices, are on World Economic Forum’s annual report on top 10 emerging technologies. It includes environmental innovations, such as sustainable aviation fuels and wearable plant sensors and the power of AI to reengineering molecular biology.
The report is based on perspectives of over 90 academics, industry leaders and futurists from 20 countries around the world, to discover the technologies most likely to impact people and the planet in the next three to five years.
The top 10 and their expected impact:
1.Sustainable aviation fuel
The aviation industry generates between 2-3% of global CO2 emissions, but all regions of the world are set to see big increases by 2050. Unlike many other industries, the weight-to-power ratio of batteries makes electrification a challenge. That’s where sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) comes in.
Synthetic fuels are made from biological sources like biomass or non-biological sources like CO2, and can be used with existing aviation infrastructure and equipment. Today, SAFs meet around 1% of aviation industry fuel demand, but this must increase to 13-15% by 2040 to help the industry reach net-zero emissions by 2050, says the report.
2.Wearable plant sensors
Global food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Crop monitoring is a key part of achieving this goal.
Micro-sized needle sensors embedded in individual plants could harvest a wealth of data to improve plant health and increase agricultural productivity, says the report. These devices monitor temperature, humidity, moisture and nutrient levels to help optimize crop yields, reduce water and fertilizer use and detect early signs of disease.
Exponential growth in AI, cloud computing and other technologies requires bigger, more powerful and more plentiful data centre capacity. Data centres consume 1% of total global electricity production, but powering our increasingly data-hungry digital society means this is set to increase.
Several technologies are emerging, aimed at making the goal of net-zero-energy data centres a reality, says the report. These include using water or dielectric liquid cooling to dissipate heat, alongside technologies that repurpose excess heat to warm buildings, heat water or for industrial processes.
Also, AI-enabled systems can analyze and optimize energy use in real-time, maximizing efficiency and performance – reducing energy consumption by as much as 40% at Google’s data centres.
And making data processing and storage infrastructure modular and demand-based means systems like cloud and edge computing can be distributed across multiple devices, systems and locations to optimize energy use.
Generative artificial intelligence models are fast becoming a part of everyday life. The models use complex algorithms to recognize and utilize patterns in data.
Generative AI technology goes beyond producing written texts, images and sound, with applications including drug design to target specific medical conditions, architecture and engineering. NASA engineers are developing AI systems to create lightweight space instruments, reducing development time and improving structural performance, for example.
5.AI in healthcare
Emerging AI-based technologies and machine learning tools could help the global healthcare sector both anticipate and better prepare for future pandemics or other challenges.
Such systems could help increase the efficiency of national and global healthcare systems to tackle health crises and improve access to healthcare. Innovations like this could also reduce treatment waiting times, by aligning treatment needs with available medical resources and increasing medical outreach, says the report.
The benefits of AI in healthcare could be magnified in developing countries, which often lack sufficient infrastructure and staff to provide widespread access to healthcare services.
6.Metaverse for mental health
The virtual world can create shared digital spaces where people can meet each other socially and professionally. Virtual environments open up new opportunities to provide mental health treatments, covering a range of telemedicine applications, including prevention, diagnostics, therapy, education and research.
Several gaming platforms have been established to help people with conditions like depression and anxiety or encourage mindfulness and meditation, for example.
Human, animal and plant microbiomes are home to vast communities of microbes that are crucial to each organism’s health. Recent advances in bioengineering allow scientists to engineer microbiomes to increase human and animal well-being and agricultural productivity.
The technology centres around phages, which are viruses that identify and infect specific types of bacteria with genetic information, says the report. Bioengineers can reprogramme a phage’s genetic information so it transmits genetic instructions to bacteria to change how it functions, enabling microbiome-associated diseases to be targeted and treated.
The human body is a collection of around 37.2 trillion cells that work together. To understand how microbiological processes like this work, scientists have developed a method called spatial omics, which combines advanced imaging techniques with sophisticated DNA sequencing processes to map biological processes at the molecular level.
Using spatial omics, scientists can observe intricate details of cell architecture and biological processes that were previously unobservable, according to the report.
As electronic devices become ever more flexible, a more pliable type of battery is emerging to power them. Flexible batteries are made of lightweight materials that can be twisted, stretched, bent into shape and even coated onto carbon-based materials like carbon fibre or cloth.
These rechargeable, bendable batteries are increasingly energizing growing markets – like roll-up computer screens, smart clothing and wearable electronics, including healthcare devices and biometric sensors, says the report.
10.Flexible neural electronics
Brain-machine interfaces (BMI) allow direct communication between the brain and external computers. So far, the technology has been based on rigid electronics and limited by the mechanical and geometrical mismatch with brain tissue. But breakthroughs in flexible electronics and more biocompatible materials mean a less invasive experience for patients.
BMI-type technologies are already in use to treat patients with epilepsy and with prosthetic limbs that use electrodes to connect with the nervous system.