While scientists developed vaccines against Covid-19 in a record time this year, emerging technologies like high-tech replacements for human volunteers could make clinical trials even faster and safer in the future, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum and Scientific American magazine.
The report identified the “top 10 emerging technologies” after experts whittled down scores of nominations to a select group of new developments with the potential to spur real progress.
These technologies include the following:
Microneedles for painless injections and tests: These tiny needles could make injections and blood testing pain-free, said the report.
“Microneedles” — at no more than the depth of a sheet of paper and the width of a human hair — can be attached to syringes or patches, or even mixed into creams.
They penetrate the skin without troubling underlying nerve endings.
Sun-powered chemistry: Making many of the chemicals we use every day requires fossil fuels. By using sunlight to convert waste carbon dioxide into useful chemicals, a new approach holds the promise of reducing the sector’s emissions.
Recent developments in the sunlight-activated catalysts needed for this process are a step towards creating “solar” refineries to produce useful compounds from the waste gas, said the report.
These components could be turned into everything from medicines and detergents to fertilisers and textiles.
Virtual patients: The process of initial assessments of drugs and treatments could become faster with virtual patients, according to the report.
In this system, data taken from high-res images of a human organ is fed into a complex mathematical model of the mechanisms that control that organ’s function.
Then, computer algorithms resolve the resulting equations and generate a virtual organ that behaves like the real organ.
Spatial computing: Spatial computing is the next step of virtual-reality and augmented-reality technologies that bring physical and digital worlds together.
As with VR and AR, it digitizes objects that connect via the cloud, allows sensors and motors to react to one another and creates a digital representation of the real world, said the WEF and Scientific American magazine report.
But it goes even further, adding spatial mapping that lets a computer “coordinator” track and control the movements and interactions of objects as a person moves through the digital or physical world.
Digital medicine: While they will not replace doctors any time soon, apps that monitor conditions or administer therapies could enhance their care and support patients with limited access to health services.
Electric aviation: As a number of organisations including Airbus and NASA are working on the technology, air travel of the future could cut out carbon emissions significantly.
There are about 170 electric plane projects in development, mainly for private, corporate and commuter travel — but Airbus says it could have 100-passenger electric planes ready for take-off in 2030, said the report.
Lower-carbon cement: Researchers and start-ups are working on lower-carbon approaches, including tweaking the balance of ingredients used in the process, employing carbon capture and storage technology to remove emissions, and taking cement out of concrete altogether.
Quantum sensing: Imagine self-driving cars that can “see” around corners, or portable scanners that can monitor a person’s brain activity. Quantum sensing could make these things and much more a reality. Quantum sensors operate with extreme levels of precision by exploiting the quantum nature of matter — for example, using the difference between electrons in different energy states as a base unit.
Green hydrogen: This technology could have a key role in energy transition by helping decarbonise sectors like shipping and manufacturing that are harder to electrify because they require high-energy fuel.
Whole-genome synthesis: Improvements in the technology can give insights into how viruses spread or help in producing vaccines and other treatments. In the future, it could help sustainably produce chemicals, fuels or construction materials from biomass or waste gases, said the report.
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