1. Autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars will liberate drivers and create vast new industries, as well as copious amounts of extra leisure time.
2. Conversational interfaces. Speech technologies are already at the heart of intelligent personal assistants such as Siri and Alexa, but they will soon become a standard feature of many human/technology interfaces.
3. Blockchain. A distributed digital ledger technology, already the basis for Bitcoin but with potential to change the way that markets and governments work.
4. Immersive VR. No longer the preserve of games and leisure applications, VR is being adopted by companies as a replacement for human advisers.
5. Miniature AIs. Personalised artificial intelligences housed in our mobile devices will increasingly become the tools that we use to automate every aspect of our lives.
6. Solar panel mass production. Solar panels have always been expensive to manufacture at scale, but emerging technologies will make them vastly more accessible to everyone.
7. CRISPR gene editing. New techniques for altering plant genes are powerful tools for boosting disease resistance and drought tolerance.
8. Nanosensors/IoNT. We’re already connecting billions of static devices to our networks, but they will soon transmit data from our bodies and environments in powerful new ways.
9. Wireless power transfer. Small sensors and IoT devices all need power to drive them. Wireless power transfer will provide it without the need for bulky, costly batteries and power supplies.
10. Graphene and other 2D materials. Strong, light single-atom-layer materials such as graphene will revolutionise manufacturing across many industries.
“Making predictions is hard, especially about the future.” Versions of this famous quotation have been floating around since at least 1948, attributed to speakers as diverse as Danish nuclear physicists and American baseball coaches.1 Wherever it came from, its sentiment speaks loudly to anyone who has ever tried to compile lists of things that will be important in years and decades to come. It’s tough and often seems completely arbitrary; why pick this particular 10, from the thousands of technologies jostling for their position in some distant future?
This is more than just an idle philosophical question. As its numbers swell inexorably, humanity has some big problems to solve, and technology will be the answer to nearly all of them. From better ways of growing food to more accessible forms of sustainable energy and more useful connected environments, it is the ingenuity of scientists and the technology they create that will help us survive and prosper. Investing in the right ones is vitally important. So which will really make a difference in the short term and why do they deserve special attention?
It is the ingenuity of scientists and the technology they create that will help us survive and prosper
The above list is just one attempt to make sense of the best guesses currently being made by some very influential observers. It is actually a hybrid, compiled from the two highest-profile lists of their kind in 2016 – the World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies 2016 list2 and MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies 20163. Their heritage and reputations ensure that their projections are worth taking seriously for any number of reasons. But their lists also highlight some problems that compilers of the same necessarily face.
This top 10 takes the elements from each list that appear likely to have the most immediate positive impact on people around the world, but this is inevitably just one possible view. Technology is notoriously fickle in its dealings with the future and many factors – research funding, manufacturing costs, viability of large-scale testing and public interest among them – will determine which of these come to fruition first.
The futurist’s dilemma
For every blockbuster success there is a much greater number of failures, some highly visible and some far less so. Betamax and quadraphonic sound are not in anyone’s living room today. Few of us are riding Segways to work or clutching our Google Glasses. And yet some technologies fade back in after seeming to fail conclusively, usually those that depend critically on other factors to become successful. Virtual reality (VR) is a good example of this; while the key concepts were first demonstrated in the 1950s, it is only now that we have ubiquitous high-speed broadband, high-quality portable displays and extremely powerful mobile devices that the potential of VR is really becoming clear. It’s back, probably for good, after a couple of decades of derision and scepticism from seasoned technology observers.
Some technologies fade back in after seeming to fail conclusively, usually those that depend critically on other factors to become successful
In many other cases, though, technologies take a long time to emerge because the underlying physics poses significant challenges. The principle of wireless power transfer, for example – a vital future component of the vast emerging phenomenon that’s the Internet of Things – has been understood for decades. But finding a way to make it work across billions of tiny, widely-dispersed and non-standardised devices turns out to be non-trivial. It’s perfectly possible today, for some devices in some contexts, but it probably won’t be mainstream and ubiquitous for many years yet.
The test of time
Other technologies have consensus problems. Blockchain evangelists, for example, claim that it is more than just the basis for Bitcoin and other digital currencies, and that its distributed ledger model will revolutionise literally every industry; land or property ownership records, any kind of financial transaction, provenance and origin of goods, and much more. Sceptics say that blockchain models are irrelevant in many contexts, wasteful of energy, too inflexible for many applications and likely to attract the attention of criminals and fraudsters. Who’s right? Only time will tell.
Such debates are to be found everywhere as we ponder our possible futures. MIT’s original list includes reusable rockets, for example; inarguably important in the long term, but of questionable short-term impact when it comes to solving humanity’s most immediate problems. The WEF’s list, by contrast, includes autonomous vehicles – now so widely discussed and so advanced in their progress that they already seem like part of the furniture. Yet they and the second-order effects they stimulate will change our world in almost unimaginable ways within years rather than decades. So, too, will miniature artificial intelligences, whose potential is already emerging rapidly in mobile handsets as well as in devices such as Amazon’s Echo.
The second-order effects that [autonomous vehicles] stimulate will change our world in almost unimaginable ways within years rather than decades
So we offer this hybrid list as a starting point for debate, rather than any kind of definitive conclusion. Some of these developments are already here and will soon be ubiquitous. Others may never become so. All that’s certain is that whatever our future looks like, it is our technologies that will take us there.