Analysis

The top ten emerging technologies of 2015

Japan is taking the lead in developing hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Eighteen experts at the World Economic Forum have come up with a list of tech to watch that will have a big impact in the next couple of decades most of which could turn the infrastructure sector on its head. Here’s what they selected.

1.   Fuel cell vehicles – zero emission cars that run on hydrogen

The technology has now begun to reach the stage where automotive companies are planning to launch them for consumers. Initial prices are likely to be in the range of $70,000, but should come down significantly as volumes increase within the next couple of years.

Unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles behave as any conventionally fuelled vehicle. With a long cruising range – up to 650 km per tank (the fuel is usually compressed hydrogen gas) – a hydrogen fuel refill only takes about three minutes. Hydrogen is clean-burning, producing only water vapour as waste, so fuel cell vehicles burning hydrogen will be zero-emission, an important factor given the need to reduce air pollution.

A significant challenge is the lack of a hydrogen distribution infrastructure that would be needed to parallel and eventually replace petrol and diesel filling stations. Long distance transport of hydrogen, even in a compressed state, is not considered economically feasible today. However, innovative hydrogen storage techniques, such as organic liquid carriers that do not require high-pressure storage, will soon lower the cost of long-distance transport and ease the risks associated with gas storage and inadvertent release.

Also required will be the reliable and economical production of hydrogen from entirely low-carbon sources, and its distribution to a growing fleet of vehicles (expected to number in the many millions within a decade).

2. Next generation robotics

Advances in robotics technology are making human-machine collaboration an everyday reality. Better and cheaper sensors make a robot more able to understand and respond to its environment. Robot bodies are becoming more adaptive and flexible and robots are becoming more connected, benefiting from the cloud-computing revolution by being able to access instructions and information remotely, rather than having to be programmed as a fully autonomous unit.

The new age of robotics takes these machines away from the big manufacturing assembly lines, and into a wide variety of tasks, using GPS technology. Robots are ideal for tasks that are too repetitive or dangerous for humans to undertake, and can work 24 hours a day at a lower cost than human workers. In reality, new-generation robotic machines are likely to collaborate with humans rather than replace them. Even considering advances in design and artificial intelligence, human involvement and oversight will remain essential.

3. A new kind of plastic to cut landfill waste

Plastics are divided into thermoplastics and thermoset plastics. The former can be heated and shaped many times, and are ubiquitous in the modern world, comprising everything from children’s toys to lavatory seats. Because they can be melted down and reshaped, thermoplastics are generally recyclable. Thermoset plastics however can only be heated and shaped once, after which molecular changes mean that they are “cured”, retaining their shape and strength even when subject to intense heat and pressure.

Thermoset plastics are a vital part of the modern world but are not recyclable even when subject to intense heat and pressure.  As a result, most thermoset polymers end up as landfill.

In 2014 publication of a landmark paper in the journal Science announced the discovery of new classes of thermosetting polymers that are recyclable. Called poly(hexahydrotriazine)s, or PHTs, these can be dissolved in strong acid, breaking apart the polymer chains into component monomers that can then be reassembled into new products.  Although no recycling is 100% efficient, this innovation – if widely deployed – should speed up the move towards a circular economy with a big reduction in landfill waste from plastics. WEF expects recyclable thermoset polymers to replace unrecyclable thermosets within five years, and to be ubiquitous in newly manufactured goods by 2025.

4. Precise genetic-engineering techniques

Conventional genetic engineering has long caused controversy. However, new techniques are emerging that allow directly “editing” of the genetic code of plants to make them, for example, more nutritious or better able to cope with a changing climate by requiring less water.

5. Additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing starts with loose material, either liquid or powder, and then builds it into a three-dimensional shape using a digital template. 3D products can be highly customized to the end user, unlike mass-produced manufactured goods. Additive manufacturing is potentially highly disruptive to conventional processes and supply chains. Rapid growth is expected over the next decade as more opportunities emerge and innovation in this technology brings it closer to the mass market.

6. Emergent artificial intelligence

Over recent years, AI has advanced significantly: most of us now use smartphones that can recognise human speech, or have travelled through an airport immigration queue using image-recognition technology. Self-driving cars and automated flying drones are now in the testing stage before anticipated widespread use, while for certain learning and memory tasks, machines now outperform humans.

Artificial intelligence, in contrast to normal hardware and software, enables a machine to perceive and respond to its changing environment. Emergent AI takes this a step further, with progress arising from machines that learn automatically by assimilating large volumes of information.

Like next-generation robotics, improved AI will lead to significant productivity advances as machines take over – and even perform better – at certain tasks than humans, for instance self driving cars.

7. Distributed manufacturing

The idea of distributed manufacturing is to replace as much of the material supply chain as possible with digital information. To manufacture a chair, for example, rather than sourcing wood and fabricating it into chairs in a central factory, digital plans for cutting the parts of a chair can be distributed to local manufacturing hubs using computerized cutting tools known as CNC routers. Parts can then be assembled by the consumer or by local fabrication workshops that can turn them into finished products. One company already using this model is the US furniture company AtFAB.

Distributed manufacturing is expected to enable a more efficient use of resources, with less wasted capacity in centralised factories. It also lowers the barriers to market entry by reducing the amount of capital required to build the first prototypes and products. Importantly, it should reduce the overall environmental impact of manufacturing through delivery and shipping.

If it becomes more widespread, distributed manufacturing will disrupt traditional labour markets and the economics of traditional manufacturing. It does pose risks: it may be more difficult to regulate and control remotely manufactured medical devices, for example, while products such as weapons may be illegal or dangerous. 

Scale is no object: one UK company, Facit Homes, uses personalized designs and 3D printing to create customized houses to suit the consumer. Product features will evolve to serve different markets and geographies, and there will be a rapid proliferation of goods and services to regions of the world not currently well served by traditional manufacturing.

8. ‘Sense and avoid’ drones

The next step with drone technology is to develop machines that fly themselves, rather than being operated remotely by humans, opening them up to a wider range of applications. For this to happen, drones must be able to sense and respond to their local environment, altering their height and flying trajectory in order to avoid colliding with other objects in their path. In nature, birds, fish and insects can all congregate in swarms, each animal responding to its neighbour almost instantaneously to allow the swarm to fly or swim as a single unit. Drones can emulate this.

With reliable autonomy and collision avoidance, drones can begin to take on tasks too dangerous or remote for humans to carry out: checking electric power lines, for example, or delivering medical supplies in an emergency. Drone delivery machines will be able to find the best route to their destination, and take into account other flying vehicles and obstacles.

Drones are essentially robots operating in three, rather than two, dimensions; advances in next-generation robotics technology will accelerate this trend.

9. Neuromorphic technology

These are computer chips that mimic the human brain mimicking the brain’s architecture to deliver a huge increase in a computer’s thinking and responding power.

Miniaturization has delivered massive increases in conventional computing power over the years, but the bottleneck of shifting data constantly between stored memory and central processors uses large amounts of energy and creates unwanted heat, limiting further improvements. In contrast, neuromorphic chips can be more energy efficient and powerful, combining data-storage and data-processing components into the same interconnected modules. In this sense, the system copies the networked neurons that, in their billions, make up the human brain.

With vastly more compute power available for far less energy and volume, neuromorphic chips should allow more intelligent small-scale machines to drive the next stage in miniaturization and artificial intelligence.

Potential applications include: drones better able to process and respond to visual cues, much more powerful and intelligent cameras and smartphones, and data-crunching on a scale that may help unlock the secrets of financial markets or climate forecasting. Computers will be able to anticipate and learn, rather than merely respond in pre-programmed ways.

10. Digital genome

In summary, this is healthcare for an age when your genetic code is on a USB stick.

While the first sequencing of the 3.2 billion base pairs of DNA that make up the human genome took many years and cost tens of millions of dollars, today your genome can be sequenced and digitized in minutes and at the cost of only a few hundred dollars. The results can be delivered to your laptop on a USB stick and easily shared via the internet. This ability to rapidly and cheaply determine our individual unique genetic make-up promises a revolution in more personalized and effective healthcare.

This list was compiled by the Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies.

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