By Nnamdi Odumody
Here are the top ten emerging technologies of 2019 according to the World Economic Forum.
- Bioplastics for a Circular Economy: Plastic waste in the ocean kills sea animals. It also causes environmental nuisance when dumped in landfills. The use of Biodegradable plastics helps to create a Circular Economy as the plastic waste can be converted to biomass energy. Biodegradable plastics like the common one from petrochemicals consists of polymers which can be molded in their fluid state into a variety of forms. Chrysalix Technologies, a spin off from Imperial College London has created a process that uses low cost ionic liquids to separate cellulose and lignin from starting materials. Finnish Biotech company MetGen Oy produces a number of genetically engineered enzymes that cleave lignins of different origins into components needed for a wide range of applications. Mobus is developing lignin based plastic pellets for use in biodegradable flower pots, agricultural mulches, etc.
- Social Robots: These are robots which use artificial intelligence in response to data captured from cameras and other sensors by recognizing people’s voices, faces and emotions, interpret speech and gestures, responds accurately to complex verbal and non verbal cues, makes eye contact, speaks conversationally, and adapts to people’s needs by learning from feedback, rewards and criticisms. Pepper, a humanoid robot from Softbank Robotics recognizes faces and basic human emotions and engages in conversations via a touchscreen on its chest. About 15,000 Pepper robots worldwide perform hotel check-ins, airport customer service, shopping assistance and fast food checkout while at Alibaba’s Flyzoo Future Hotel in Hangzhou, China it’s T-Mall Genie helps guests adjust their room temperature, lights, curtains and TV, plays music and even handle room service. In Dubai Airport, its police robot helps answer tourist enquiries in English and Arabic.
- Meta Lenses for Miniature Devices: Metalenses are flat surface, thinner than a micron that is covered with an array of nanoscale objects such as jutting pillars or drilled holes. As incident light hits these elements, many of its properties change including its polarization, intensity, phase and direction of propagation. They allow for greater miniaturization of microscopes and other laboratory tools as well as consumer products like cameras, mixed reality headsets and optical sensors for internet of things solutions as well as enhancing the functionality of optical fibres.
- Disordered Protein As Drug Targets: Scientists are utilizing a rigorous combination of biophysics, computational power and a better understanding of the way that IDPs (Intrinsically Displaced Proteins) function to identify compounds that inhibit these proteins and some have emerged as bonafide drug candidates. French and Spanish researchers in 2017 proved that an FDA approved drug called trifluoperazine which is used in treating psychotic disorders and anxiety bound to and inhibited NUPR1, a disordered protein involved in a form of pancreatic cancer. Large scale screening tests to evaluate thousands of drug candidates for therapeutic potential have shown several that inhibit c-Myc with some headed towards clinical development.
- Smarter Fertilizers To Tackle Environmental Contamination: Smart fertilizers made possible by sophisticated materials and manufacturing techniques that can tune the shells so that they alter release rates in desired ways as the soil’s temperature, acidity or moisture changes have been developed recently. Through the combination of different types of tuned capsules, manufacturers can make fertilizers that have profiles tailored to the needs of specific crops or growing conditions. Haifa Group and ICL Specialty Fertilizers are examples of those offering more precise control.
- Collaborative Telepresence: Collaborative telepresence is transforming how people collaborate virtually in business and beyond. Proximie, an augmented reality enabled surgery platform builds a bridge between surgeons in developed countries and those operating under austere conditions in developing countries. Recently Dr Ling Zhipei, a Chinese surgeon performed the first ever brain surgery over a 3,000km distance through China Mobile’s network and Huawei’s 5G technology.
- Advanced Food Tracking and Packaging: IBM’s Food Trust, a blockchain platform for the food industry which integrates growers, distributors and retailers to create a trusted record of a food’s journey through the end to end supply chain. Walmart used this system to trace the origin of a contaminated item in seconds. Other food giants such as Carrefour, Sam’s Club, Smithfield foods, Beefchain, Albertsons Companies, Wakefern Food and Topco Associates have joined this initiative. Timestrip UK and Vitsab International have independently developed RFID tags that change colour if a product has been exposed to above recommended temperatures while Insignia Technologies created a solution which slowly changes colour after a package has been opened and indicates when it’s time to dispose the food into the refuse bin.
- Safer Nuclear Reactors: Manufacturing developments are seeing to the production of accident tolerant fuels which are less likely to overheat and in case they do will produce little or no hydrogen. Some are replacing zircomium and uranium dioxide with different materials. The new fuels could help nuclear plants run more efficiently making nuclear power cost competitive for electricity generation.
- DNA for Data Storage: DNA can accurately store massive amounts of data at a density which exceeds that of electric devices. Measuring about one metre on a side, at about 10 bits per cubic centimeter, all the world’s current storage needs could be meet by a cube of DNA.
- Utility Scale Storage Of Renewable Energy: Advancements in technology are seeing a redesign from solely lithium ion batteries to batteries which can generate and store four- eight hours or more of electricity which is long enough to shift solar generated power to the evening peak in demand.