AI, virtual reality, gene-editing, blockchain and nanotechnology are the five foundational technologies that will transform our lives, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Technology is developing rapidly and innovations that were once the stuff of science fiction are now an everyday reality.
Specifically, according to the WEF, AI, virtual reality, gene-editing, blockchain and nanotechnology technologies will impact every aspect of our day-to-day lives, from learning to preventing diseases.
According to the WEF, the speed and scale of technology-led change over the last 20 years is mind-boggling. It suggests that we have shaped a world where information moves at lightning speed at a near-zero cost to the far corners of the earth: this makes connecting and collaborating possible at a scale that was previously considered science fiction.
We have developed technologies, it adds, such as mRNA vaccines and reusable space rockets, that enable us to take on challenges from combatting coronaviruses to colonizing Mars. However, wWhile these changes are truly astounding, the WEF suggests that five foundational technologies are likely to propel us into a world akin to those portrayed in movies.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI)
While the internet is the foundation of information distribution, AI is the foundation of learning. Leveraging AI, smart devices have the ability to monitor, collect and process relevant data and use learned intelligence to make optimal decisions and discoveries at blazing speeds that trump most human capabilities. Much like the internet, which – in less than 25 years – has become an integral part of most industries from food to finance, AI capabilities could permeate and transform all industries. AI-based self-driving cars are familiar and relatable.
However, completely different AI-powered applications are on the horizon. There is, for example, an AI tool that analyses facial expressions and hormonal and other biological changes in students in a classroom to identify flagging interest and recommend interventions. AI-powered machines could join the healthcare labour force and play an active role in diagnosis and treatment. Google’s AlphaGo, an inexpensive programme that learnt to play the complex game ‘Go’ on its own, is a testament to the pace at which AI can learn and beat even the top players in the world.
- Virtual Reality (VR)
We experience the world and learn about our reality via our five senses and our perception of reality can be altered by the information fed to our senses. VR creates a doorway into a world where our senses can be shown a version of reality that isn’t real but perceived. VR has had and will continue to have, a major impact on a wide array of fields from skills development to surgery to gaming. Flight simulators are common today and provide low-risk (accident-free), cost-effective and climate-friendly (no carbon emissions from jet fuel) options for pilots to acquire a critical skill.
While using virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be placed in a recreation of their traumatic event to help them develop coping mechanisms. And, imagine a surgeon being able to operate on a patient-specific simulation (complex tumour in a hard-to-reach location) prior to the live operation or children in remote areas experiencing the Great Barrier Reef and learning about the importance of coral reefs. The possibilities are endless.
- Gene editing technologies
CRISPR, a pair of molecular scissors that can edit or alter a target DNA sequence precisely, has shown promise. It was discovered in the bacterial immune system, where it cuts the DNA of viruses invading our body. Although in its early stages, CRISPR provides the capability to thwart a range of genetic diseases, including cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and blood disorders. It was recently used as a therapeutic and diagnostic tool for coronavirus. It even has the potential to create crops that are disease and drought-resistant and manufacture biofuels at scale to combat the climate crisis. Ultimately, gene editing could be the key to the holy grail – finally moving away from diagnosing and treating diseases to preventing them altogether.
Blockchain is a public and distributed ledger that isn’t controlled by any single person or entity. While the most well-known, yet less understood, application leveraging blockchain is cryptocurrency, blockchain has the potential to reshape everything from political (voting) to economic (digital currencies and smart contracts) systems. Smart contracts (programmatic agreements between two parties) built on blockchain make it faster, less expensive and efficient for lenders to automatically trigger actions, such as margin calls, release collaterals or locking cars (using IoT) when a car payment isn’t made in time. In today’s political context, blockchains can ensure that only those eligible can vote, votes cannot be tampered with and voting can be done securely via a smartphone.
Nanotechnology enables the manipulation of matter on a near-atomic scale to produce new structures and materials. It has the potential to affect a wide range of industries from healthcare to manufacturing. In the area of food science, nano-sensors in packaging can help detect salmonella-type contaminations. One of the biggest opportunities is in the area of targeted drug delivery and healthcare. In the not-too-distant future, we could treat cancer by targeting just the unhealthy cells and stimulating the growth of nerve cells using nanofibers to regenerate damaged spinal nerves. Nano-structured filters can also remove viruses and other impurities from water, creating abundant safe potable water, an insurmountable challenge for centuries.