The WEF’s ‘Top ten emerging technologies report 2023’ assessed how each technology will impact people, the planet, prosperity, industry and equity and was produced in collaboration with Frontiers, a publisher of peer-reviewed, open-access, scientific journals.
The technologies analysed for the annual list were those promising major benefits to societies and economies, as also those considered to be disruptive, attractive to investors and researchers, and expected to have achieved considerable scale within five years.
Since the first edition in 2011, the report has identified little-known technologies that went on to have a global impact. These include genomic vaccines, featured in the 2016 report and later became the technology underpinning most COVID-19 vaccines, and AI-led molecular design, featured on the 2018 list, two years before the first AI-discovered drugs entered clinical trials.
Talking about the selected top ten, the WEF said standard rigid batteries may soon be a thing of the past as thin, flexible batteries — made of lightweight materials that can be twisted, bent and stretched — reach the market.
This new generation of battery technology – expected to hit a market value of USD 240 million by 2027 – has applications across medical wearables, biomedical sensors, flexible displays and smartwatches. On generative AI, it said this new type of is AI capable of generating new and original content by learning from large datasets that was catapulted into public dialogue at the end of 2022 with the public release of ChatGPT. Evolving rapidly, generative AI is set to disrupt multiple industries, with applications in education, research and beyond, the WEF said.
On sustainable aviation fuel, the report said with 2-3 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions coming from aviation, and no sign of long-haul electric flights, this fuel produced from biological (such as biomass) and non-biological (like CO2) sources could be the answer to decarbonize the aviation industry in the short to medium term.
On designer phages, the report said ‘phages’ are viruses that selectively infect specific types of bacteria.
Equipped with increasingly sophisticated genetic engineering tools, scientists can now reprogramme phages to infect the bacteria of their choosing, allowing them to target one type of bacteria in a complex community of co-existing types of bacteria such as in plant, animal and human microbiomes.
Though many of the near-term applications will be in research, there are signs these ‘designer’ phages could eventually be used to treat microbiome-associated diseases or eliminate dangerous bacteria in food supply chains.
Also, responding to the growing mental health crisis, product developers are starting to build shared virtual spaces to improve mental health.
“Video games are already being used to treat depression and anxiety and VR-enabled meditation is on the rise. Combined with next-generation wearables that allow the user to feel touch and or respond to the user’s emotional state, the future metaverse could be ripe for improving mental health,” the WEF said.
It further said drones and satellites have been gamechangers in monitoring large-scale farms that traditionally relied on manual soil testing and visual observations.
“Now we have a new generation of plant sensors – small, non-invasive devices that can be ‘worn’ by individual plants for continuous monitoring of temperature, humidity, moisture and nutrient levels. Assuming they can overcome scaling costs, wearable plant sensors could improve plant health and increase yields,” the report said.
On the other hand, ‘spatial omics’ allows scientists to “see” biological processes at the molecular level inside cells, by combining advanced imaging techniques with the specificity of DNA sequencing.
By revealing previously unobservable biological structures and events, this powerful new technology is poised to speed up our understanding of biology and help researchers develop new treatments for complex diseases, the report said.