The World Economic Forum and Scientific American team up to highlight technological advances that could change the world—including self-fertilizing crops, on-demand drug manufacturing, breath-sensing diagnostics and 3-D-printed houses.
Bernie Meyerson: That isn’t just one technology, but it’s a host of technologies that need to come together to solve a really a global crisis.
Robin Pomeroy: Welcome to a special episode of Radio Davos brought to you jointly by the World Economic Forum and Scientific American to look at the most promising technologies that could change the world for the better in the coming few years.
[Read the full Top 10 list here.]
Mariette DiChristina: I’m always interested in new advances that humanity seems to endlessly churn out.
Pomeroy: Mariette DiChristina, journalism professor at Boston University, helped put the annual emerging tech report together, along with IBM’s chief innovation officer emeritus Bernie Meyerson.
Meyerson: This technology can be used for good. It can be used for evil and we damn well, better pay attention to both of those issues.
Pomeroy: Radio Davos is a podcast from the World Economic Forum that looks at the biggest challenges and how we might solve them. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, please leave us a rating or a review and join us on the World Economic Forum Podcast Club on Facebook. I’m Robin Pomeroy. Join me and my co-host Sophie Bushwick, Scientific American’s technology editor, as we look through the top 10 emerging technology of 2021.
Meyerson: That’s why I’m optimistic because people are going into these things now with their eyes wide open.
Pomeroy: This is Radio Davos. I’m joined by Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American. Hi Sophie, how are you?
Sophie Bushwick: Hi, Robin, I’m good.
Pomeroy: So Scientific American, I would imagine all of my audience knows what it is, but could you just remind us what is Scientific American?
Bushwick: Scientific American is a magazine and website that’s been publishing science and technology news for more than 100 years.
Pomeroy: Great. And you’ve been working with the World Economic Forum on this report. The report itself has existed for 10 years. It’s called the top 10 emerging technologies, and it’s an annual report. This is the tenth one, so a very special one. And we’ve got two of the people who put that report together, Sophie, could you introduce them to us?
Bushwick: The two people who have led a steering committee putting this report together are Mariette DiChristina, journalism professor at Boston University College of Communication, and Bernie Meyerson, chief innovation officer emeritus at IBM.
DiChristina: Excellent. Sophie, great to see you.
Meyerson: Looking forward to discussing this.
Pomeroy: So you’ve both been putting this report together for several years as the COVID pandemic affected anyway this year, Mariette?
DiChristina: Thanks, Robin, nice to see you, by the way. Well, I think the COVID pandemic has affected all of us in lots of ways, but our committee meetings have often been a combination of in-person on video and sometimes in-person in-person. And this year we certainly did it all by video. Thank goodness for technology.
Bushwick: And did you notice any theme or themes that emerged this year?
DiChristina: So this is our 10th top 10 as as it’s been mentioned, and every year, I think we’ve had our successes and our maybe less successful moments. But this year, one of the things that became sort of crystal clear and maybe should be anyway through our pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals is that the world’s problems are multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder.
Yet another reason why it’s great the World Economic Forum brings everybody together. And the solutions for the world’s key problems are also multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder. And so you see that expressed a lot in this year’s top 10 where we have themes around–I’m going to call it so with energy and sustainability and health information and in the systems that get all those to work nicely together. And those three themes, in a multidisciplinary way, resonate through the entire package this year.
Meyerson: Yeah, I would agree. I think that what you’re really finding is particularly in the area as one of the topics, decarbonization showed, if you look through the list that we have, there are probably half of them are directly impactful of that one topic. It’s really almost the first time we’ve said, look, there’s this global topic that isn’t just one technology, but is a host of technologies that need to come together to solve a really a global crisis.
And it is remarkable that we found that as people brought forward their suggestions for the year, because Mariette an I do not do this, we have a great team that helps, and the suggestions are actually all aligned across one theme to an extraordinary extent. I’ve actually never seen it that tightly coupled before. So yes, there have been themes that have been sort of brought into focus by current events.
Pomeroy: We’re going to go through each of the technologies listed in this top 10. It’s not like a hit parade of music. It’s not like the number one is the number one is just 10 technologies that you think will have an impact on society in the coming year and kind of the tangible future. And let’s look at the first one that’s in the report and it’s about climate change, which is absolutely the top of the agenda right now with COP26. The technology you talk about is simply decarbonization.
Meyerson: That is the one I described as being the overarching goal that we had out there. It’s not a technology or a single technology. It is a realization that climate change is becoming such an imperative to deal with that you have to look at the disparate technologies that would enable it and then call people out to say, look, some of these are getting there, but not having a right, such as electric vehicles, which though it’s a hugely important topic and people talk about it incessantly, it’s a bit of a joke in terms of the volumes that are currently out on the street.
You’re talking give or take a couple of percent. That needs to grow dramatically. But similarly, you also have to have power to supply them. So there are challenges there. You have to have ways to segregate out CO2 that is being generated. That’s another problem you have to have ways of, for instance, storing energy in vast quantities, industrial quantities because we love, you know, renewable resources. But I would point out the sun does go to bed, give or take on average 50 percent of the time. You probably want something when the photovoltaics are generating, oh yes, nothing… that you can basically produce enough energy to compensate during the evenings through some storage device that’s low carbon that actually is very sustainable and on and on and on.
So it became this overarching theme and the first time we pointed to a result that we need that has to then drive all of these other imperatives. It’s really remarkable in that we’ve reached that point, the tipping point in this battle to basically sustain the environment and hand one that is viable to the future.
Pomeroy: Do you think there are certain technologies, which are very exciting, I mean, everyone knows about electric cars, but as you say, it’s the where does that power come from? There’s the storage of energy. How have you been struck either in the last 12 months or even more than that by particular technologies that have a lot of potential, but that have not yet emerge out of the laboratories.
Meyerson: There are certainly ones that are encouraging. If you look, there are constant efforts to develop nuclear fusion for the simple reason that you know, if you can make that work, you’re talking about something where you don’t have to worry about burying the resultant materials for ten thousand years before you poison the environment. There’s that kind of effort.
There are some interesting energy storage devices we highlighted years back that are now being deployed that are unimaginably simplistic. If you have a cuckoo clock, if you remember in the old ones, you pull a chain uplifts the weight and then when you let go well, the weight comes down slowly powers the clock. There are a bunch of guys out there. I think the company is called Energy Vault, where they literally lift these huge multi-ton blocks over with excess power. And then they just during the evening, let the blocks come back down, run a generator.
I mean, there are all sorts of technologies being developed. The problem is they are not at scale and this is where the challenge comes. We need to get to scale if we’re ever going to leverage renewables and we’re going to be able to deal with the climate crisis we’re currently facing in some rapid manner rather than something over the next decades, which is not a tenable solution.
DiChristina: I just wanted to add slightly to what Bernie was saying. I think the key message here around decarbonization is that, as you mentioned, Robin, with COP26 going on and a lot of very aggressive targets, both by policy leaders and also by industry, they will force a series of technologies to be brought to bear at scale. And although we didn’t touch on it, those will include, you know, in addition to energy and transportation technologies, things like reducing meat consumption and global global governance approaches that will help us tune the energy needs across the planet. I think that’s really ambitious, but we need to be ambitious to face today’s challenges with sustainability and climate.
Bushwick: The top 10 also include two technologies that could help decarbonize agriculture. Mariette, could you tell us about self fertilizing crops?
DiChristina: I’m happy to do that. Thank you, Sophie. I love this one. So many times, I think, when humans are inventing something, they’re taking their cues from nature, which is evolved over a billion years, you know, through trial and error known as evolution and crops itself, fertilize is one such example.
One of the things we need to do to create and grow the crops that we need on the planet today is provide lots and lots of fertilizer. It’s something on the order of 110 million tonnes of nitrogen to help fertilize crops around the globe, and this supports maybe 50 percent of all of the food that we eat across the planet as well.
The challenge there is that right now, a lot of the crops need all of that fertilizer, but some of them, namely legumes, know how to fix nitrogen themselves through nodules that they create that involve bacteria interaction with the root nodules to create the ability to fix that nitrogen fertilizer that they need. So if we could teach other crops that don’t do that now to be able to deploy the same kinds of approaches that legumes can do, then we could vastly reduce the amount of nitrogen that needs to be created.
And then we have to actually reduce the energy involved in that and vastly reduce the impact on the environment to over fertilizing. So this is the potential of crops that self fertilize, and they’re now beginning to coax those roots to do just that.
Pomeroy: How are they coaxing them, exactly?
DiChristina: Well, you know, they use chemical signaling. That is, they take, as examples, what is done in the legumes and how they have this roots have a rather intimate interaction with soil bacteria that’s already naturally present to create these nodes and then do that nitrogen fixing.
Pomeroy: Sticking with agriculture and indeed fertilizer, another one of the top 10 list is green ammonia. So which one of you would like to tell us what that is and how this can help us?
DiChristina: So I mentioned making nitrogen fertilizer and the type of nitrogen that smells can in plants roots can absorb is ammonia, and this is made now through a process called a Haber-Bosch process, which is probably one of the most important processes in industry today that you’ve never heard of. But it is accounts for creating all of this nitrogen in the form of ammonia on an industrial scale and that fuels, as I mentioned, about 50 percent of our world of food production.
If you can create green hydrogen through solar power or other sustainable energy means you can vastly reduce the amount of carbon that’s involved in making that ammonia. And that’s why it’s called green ammonia. And there’s one plant being converted to to do that now with an industrial plant to solar, which will save about 400,000 tons of carbon a year.
Meyerson: As you recall, when we talked about decarbonization, what is happening is all of this is relying going back to some of the fundamentals. As she correctly pointed out, you need green energy. This does not work if you have to just burn coal in a coal plant, create hydrogen, obviously. But electrolysis, which requires a huge amount of energy, nonetheless, if you have this kind of excess green power that is hopefully being developed, it’s it’s really a trend we’re just making green ammonia is incredibly important.
But similarly, if you look at people who are doing cryptocurrencies and have huge processing needs, they’re actually moving those computing capabilities to areas where, again, green power is available to reduce the necessary carbon footprint. So it all plays together. As I said this, this is remarkable theme that you’re going to see through all of these that is consistent.
Pomeroy: So that’s three of the top 10 tech of the year, all about decarbonization, two of them about decarbonization in agriculture. But as Bernie, as you just said, are also linked into other parts of decarbonization, such as energy. So far, we’ve identified having on this list another thread medicine or medical technology. Why don’t you pick one from the list on that subject?
Bushwick: Four of the top 10 are all about medicine, so let’s start with a new way to detect disease by sensing it on people’s breath.
DiChristina: More than 100 companies are actually working on sensors that can detect one of the 800 or so compounds that are produced in human breath. There’s a strong correlation between some of those compounds and various chronic diseases that many of us suffer from. And the way this detection is done is a metal oxide semiconductor can detect the difference in electrical resistance as this gas passes over it. And these sorts of detectors are even on an experimental basis, able to detect COVID as a study that was done in Wuhan, China, suggested. And today there is about $3.8 million dollars has been invested by the U.S. Department of Health for NASA’s E-Nose technology, which works in a similar way. It’ll be used to detect, you know, different gases on the International Space Station, but in theory, these could be applied to broader use for the rest of us as well.
Pomeroy: It’s amazing that you can detect disease on someone’s breath. I’ve read stories about dogs being able to detect…I think we’ve run stories at the World Economic Forum…being able to detect even cancers. Is there a possibility that you’ll be able to do breath tests to detect for big diseases like cancers in the future?
DiChristina: Quite a few diseases might be detected in that way. Cancers could could be one of them. I think this is this is technology with a lot of potential. We see the correlations between certain gases in the breath and certain diseases. And so it’s not rocket science, as my father would have said, but it will take some careful testing to make sure that it is reliable before it’s used on a massive scale.
Pomeroy: And sticking with the medical technologies, drugs–pharmaceuticals these days are mostly mass produced with global supply chains. In the report that you’ve put together, you talk about drugs that can be produced locally and on demand.
Meyerson: There are, in fact, efforts that are underway and in fact have been demonstrated at MIT, where they have continuous flow methods where depending upon the reagents that you have at the front end of a process, they’ve been able to demonstrate the ability to do everything from drugs that treat emotional disorders, drugs that are, for instance, lidocaine and those that handle pain.
The challenge, obviously, right now, interestingly enough, is if you go into third world regions where these things are not readily available, this is a place where that has a lot of promise because you can literally form essentially the drug there from various ingredients.
The challenge they’re facing, though, in terms of deployment right now is cost. Remember that these things have to be sterile. They are millions of dollars right now for these apparati. So it’s not something that is immediately applicable, but it is something that if you think about it over the long term, it was, you know.
When I started looking at human gene sequencing, you’re talking about tens of millions of dollars now you’re talking hundreds of dollars, it will go hopefully down that kind of a chain. The other thing is it’s also being adopted, adopted in industry as an industrial source. So this is something that will emerge and drive, I think in the end, a lower cost solution because it’s not just being applied at this limited scale in a third world environment or in a laboratory, but actually being utilized in global drug manufacturing entities where as you gain experience and scale, the costs tend to come down. But it is very promising to be able to essentially synthesize and run locally.
DiChristina: I’d like to just build on that a tiny bit. So I think we’re all seeing the challenges of global supply chain issues. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with and it’s great to have drugs made on a large scale for the globe. But I think one of the things we’re all learning as we try to adapt the world, adapt what we are doing in the world for a more sustainable future and a more healthy future is that adaptability.
So what on demand drugs allow people to do is, for instance, you know, Bernie’s already mentioned remote locations such as field hospitals for armies and, you know, as well. But but then there’s the differences between, let’s say, Bernie and me and me and Sofie and me and Robin. We each are slightly different, genetically, and in other ways, and we may respond to drugs differently.
So what if your local pharmacy or a local ish pharmacy could produce for you a drug that is tailored a little bit better to you? That’s something that’s difficult to do with large batch drug processing, but you could do with, you know, sort of smaller on-demand sites like we’re describing.
Bushwick: Another medical technology you’ve identified is wirelessly monitoring biomarkers. Can you tell us about that?
Meyerson: That is a remarkable capability, and it’s not that dissimilar to what Mariette well described as the breath sensing. What you’re doing is basically you’re using a sensitive layer on the surface of an electronic device as your sensor for various important biomarkers, as a simple example, because it’s currently in use–you can sense for the glucose content as an example in tears. And as odd as it may sound, the sensor has been built into essentially lenses that you put in your eye. Essentially, you’re wearing a contact lens that is sensing the glucose level you have in your body. You have a set of glasses on that can actually read the signal out of that and then transmit it wirelessly to a pump that you wear on your body that pumps insulin and maintaining a very uniform glucose level. That was utterly impossible even if you went back four or five years.
This sort of capability, though, can be expanded. It’s not just monitoring for that. If you have patients on chemo, you can make sure you don’t have an incidental overdose. If you have patients on various blood thinners, you can ensure that you don’t run to an excess where the bleeding becomes an issue.
I mean, it’s literally a limitless capability, and it’s been enabled by two foundational, promising technologies. One, of course, is the sensing materials that you put on the surface of a chip that respond to a given chemical. That’s one well-known part. But the other part is remarkably low power capabilities in terms of data transmission. That is really remarkable, and it also saves enormously our medical costs because you don’t have to go off and find your physician to, for instance, take data. The data is literally collected on a local device from your body and you simply transmit it wirelessly, whether it’s by Wi-Fi or whatever other connectivity you have back to a physician who can immediately assess your capabilities and how your body is doing.
So it’s really a very much a breakthrough technology, which in fact, is beginning to see widespread deployment on some of the real exploding, unfortunately exploding disease levels, such as diabetes, which on the global scale is becoming a tremendous problem. So it’s an extraordinarily promising technology
Pomeroy: And sticking on the medical technology is the last one on the list in this category, as you’ve called it, engineering better aging. How do we do that?
DiChristina: And we’re living longer, but not always healthier? Right? Between 2015 and 2020, the number of folks who are age 60 plus will double. So little go from 12 percent of the population to 22 percent of the population. So it’s probably more important than ever that we make sure that those longer lifespans are accompanied by a longer health span.
And one way researchers are working on that again is looking looking at markers as predictors of different chronic diseases and using through a combination of technology on genetic sequencing information and targeted therapies, approaching ways to try to slow that aging process. In fact, there was one study that involved a year-long administration of a cocktail of different drugs that appeared to turn back the biological clock by some months, maybe more than a year. And such targeted therapies for four different ailments that we develop as we all age–you know, we may all be subject to different sorts of ailments–might be able to reverse or slow down several of humankind’s chronic diseases. In other words, enabling us to have that longer health span.
Meyerson: Speaking as a member of that age group, I can assure you to the success of this one. This was not what I proposed, but I was definitely one of the voters in favor of including it.
DiChristina: There are more than 100 companies working on different approaches with this combination of cocktails that may be used to address a series of potentially problematic diseases that have genetic markers and the combination of studying the markers for disease as well.
Pomeroy: Is it really the advances we’ve made in genetics that have that have brought us to this point is that that’s been the breakthrough so far really on this.
DiChristina: That’s at the heart of it is genetics, plus a combination of understanding how those genetics play out with, you know, different biomarkers and then targeting those markers with cocktails of drugs that can help solve or slow down the chronic disease challenge.
Pomeroy: It’s a term we’ve used a couple of times in this episode. Biomarker could could someone help me out and give me a definition of that?
Meyerson: I mean, a straightforward level, you’re talking about a chemical marker that is affiliated with some biological effect. You can’t keep just drilling down to the DNA of every individual to go look at these things. So what you want is what they call a biomarker, which some chemical signature that you can then very cleanly affiliate back to a genetic issue and or some predictive phenomena.
So it’s really more of just you’re looking at some sort of chemistry, at the basic level, that could just be affiliated with some reaction that goes through the body. But it is that straightforward. You have to get away from the incredibly complex, you know, level where you can do this on a mass scale. So it’s not that you’re going to be, it’s gene sequencing everybody on the planet, but it would be great to be able to look at least of the blood chemistries and say, Aha, I recognize that particular blood chemistry as affiliated with this issue.
DiChristina: So, we’re talking about blood for this item with the breath sensors. It’s, you know, in our exhalations, with the wireless biomarkers, it’s skin sensing tears, as Bernie mentioned. And and even using a part of the electromagnetic spectrum called millimeter waves to peer just into the skin.
Pomeroy: So that’s four medical innovations on the top 10 list. We’ve had three about decarbonization, so that leaves us three, right? If I’m adding up correctly. Let’s look at the last three, which I’ve not managed to put into any categories, but they are three fascinating innovations. One is, it says that in future gadgets, perhaps like the one I’m holding my hand, you’ll tell me, might be able to charge via wireless signals in the air.
Meyerson: It’s kind of an interesting thing, and it does bring up some ethical questions. Let me explain the challenge. If you go back far enough, there were guys who set up huge antennas, just big TV antennas under high voltage power lines that were AC. And what they would do is they put a diode on it. And lo and behold, they generate electricity by basically sucking it off the overhead power lines and running things that may be a little questionable. OK.
This is a little different than that on a vastly different scale. In the past, there were never technologies that were sufficiently low power that you could literally say, I’m going to have an antenna that will just look at random electrical signals in the air and say, I can get enough power off that to operate steady state without any other power source. The fact that that didn’t exist, therefore, limited where you could deploy a sensor because you had to have a power source.
The argument is that with the proximity and the generation of 5G, which you’re allowed to run at a somewhat higher power density than 4G in the communications spectrum, you can literally build tiny, tiny sensors with a given purpose.
So you might, for instance, want to build a sensor that just tracks everything from, for instance, CO2 levels in a local environment. You could literally have a sensor where the power was supplied, by simply having a capacitor which acts sort of like a battery, and an antenna. That whenever there was adequate signal in the area, it literally charged itself off the random air power that’s out there because people use it for communication.
Now the catch is this only works now because you’re looking at technologies where the dimensions of transistors have gone from what would be described as football fields down to things that are literally at the level of tens of atoms. You know, you’re talking about just demonstrating, for instance, a two nanometer 20 angstrom gate with transistors. These are incredibly tiny devices that require fortunately infinitesimal amounts of power. So you’re now reaching the ability to sample, for instance, the environment and global scale to sample soil quality, to sample water availability, rainfall, you name it, at an unimaginably detailed level without having to deploy power to the individual device.
Pomeroy: And is that already happening?
Meyerson: It is in some in some areas, not broadly. 5G, as you know, is just being deployed now. But yes, in fact, there were. It’s very interesting on the windshield of your car. You have a nice demo of this, but it’s a crude form. The sensors, your little E-Z pass in New York–automatic toll payment system, the way that works is it doesn’t have a battery. Actually, when you drive through the toll booth, what used to be a toll booth? There’s actually a antenna that is simply continuously radiating energy. And what happens is an antenna inside that device absorbs that radiated energy and spits out a signal, saying, Hi, my name is so-and-so, here’s my code, charge me for the toll. That actually is the macroscopic instantiation of the same phenomena. The difference now is it’s just being scaled, ever smaller. And, you know, over time it will become much more pervasive, but it’s already in use at a macroscopic scale.
DiChristina: So people cost such little gadgets part of the Internet of Things.You know, they’re sort of smarter, a little low powered, as Bernie mentioned, gadgets that are being spread all over the world. There should be on the order of 40 billion of them, according to estimates, by 2025.
And as they’re getting sprinkled around, you know, the idea of charging them. And as they’re helping us manage the world, helping us manage for more sustainable application of fertilizers, to talk about one of our earlier topics, or to help us manage lower use of of water or power they need to be charged themselves. And that’s why this technology is an enabling technology for a lot of what the rest of this section is talking about.
And paired with that, we might also talk briefly about the Internet of Things in orbit. So all of these systems, in addition to needing power, need to be able to talk, but the cellular networks on the world don’t cover the whole planet. And so that this other technology that we talk about Internet of Things in orbit, it says, is addressing just that–how they’ll all communicate. And by using as a platform these much less expensive satellites called CubeSats and NanoSats, which are very small and which can be sprinkled around in orbit and provide that continuous communication for all of these little devices that are using all the charging that that Bernie was just talking about.
Meyerson: It’s a good summary of the way it works. You know, these tiny little devices can’t radiate back to orbit directly. That obviously won’t work. But what they can do is you only need to have one orbit capable communicator in any given location. These little devices will basically…signals will be accumulated in one of the higher power devices that would then upload it.
Similarly, though, those little CubeSats–and Marriott made a very important point–there’s what we call in the world today the digital divide, the digital divide. Literally, there are large areas of the world that are not, do not have internet accessibility, do not have that capability. And this is really a game changer because with these micro sets that you get up there and literally they’ve had launches with a drop a hundred of these things in sequence around the world.
I mean, these are really remarkably small and like devices, they’re kg each. The beauty of it is that it opens up the possibility of literally defeating the digital divide and making data accurate data and real data essentially globally accessible. I mean, it’s it’s really fairly exciting possibility because if you eliminate the digital divide, we found that opportunity follows.
Pomeroy: So you jumped us ahead there to number nine on the list, I’ve drawn up here. That section is called "Space connects the globe." Very interesting for people to read in the report. There’s one left on the list, Sophie over to you.
Bushwick: This is one of my favorite technologies on the list, and it’s a development in 3D printed buildings. Those aren’t new, but in the report you highlight how they could be made cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
Meyerson: Yeah, that’s a remarkable piece of work people are doing. It’s being done…there are several companies… Wasp in Italy for example. What they’ve done is they’ve said, look, the real limit of using 3D printing for homes is as currently implemented in the first world, quote unquote, the developed nations. The way you do this is you bring in vast amounts of concrete, you have a huge machine, is literally takes the concrete, pumps it out into a form through a nozzle and you literally draw the built in and layer by layer, create this concrete structure. And that’s all well and good. And it’s something that has an independent life in terms of being economically viable and all that.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here, because imagine what it would take if you’re out somewhere in a third world country with very little road infrastructure and you would have to cart in 40 tons of concrete. This is not going to work. What the folks said is, you know, people are for years as an example, have been building houses out of mud–mud huts. And if you’re in an area where there’s minimal rainfall, they have this technique. They mix basically long strand fibers you could get from a goat, literally, with local Earth, and you could use that to make bricks. But that process is fairly time intensive. You can instead literally take this binder, mix it live Earth, throw in some water and pump it out of a 3D printer and print a home in native materials.
The importance of that is tremendous significance in that you don’t transport anything other than the printer to the site. And that is a dramatic reduction in the amount of transportation needed. Not to mention, once you’ve got the printer there, there is no additional material needed other than local systems.
Similarly, another approach is you can simply bring a binder, a liquid binder that will hold things together, but that is about five percent of the actual content in the printed result. And you use local Earth, for instance, if you’re in error with clay. So similarly again, you reduce the transport by 95 percent once the actual filters there, and you can rather quickly, certainly in less than a day print a viable home.
These are developments that if you actually were to extend them into areas where essentially the lack of housing is crucial, it does say that you could begin to sort of level the playing field and people’s access to viable housing to protect them from the elements and from other issues. So it’s something that’s very new and it’s something that’s only been demonstrated several times. But again, we’re talking about emergent technologies here, and this one has been demonstrated with very good promise.
So we’re hopeful, shall we say, that this becomes adapted and adopted more readily to environments as opposed to just printing, you know, beautiful mansions in the first world. That may not be the fundamental use of this technology.
A lot of the things Marianne and I talk about require how should we put this…oversight…that’s a polite way of saying it. And what I’m getting at is it’s one thing to promise that you’re going to, for instance, reduce the power consumption in your organization by 30 percent and that it’s going to then in a at a national scale, have an impact of maybe, I don’t know, on average, 10 percent. If you commit to making those reductions, there needs to be a monitoring entity that actually tracks it and helps.
This isn’t about beating people up to do something, it’s about holding their feet to the fire, shall we say, because if you think about it, the International Atomic Energy Commission deals with the idea that, yeah, you know, you’ve got nuclear reactors. Well, we have these issues. You have to look at the spent materials. How are we going to store them how we basically run the reactors safely when they age out? All of those issues are basically recognized as problematic and requiring governmental monitoring. I would hope that things like decarbonization because we’re now finding that some of those goals have not been met, that there is perhaps an agreement, that there is an international commission that will sponsor the monitoring and not so much enforcement, as, shall we say, encouragement to meet the commitments that have been made today.
Pomeroy: So we’ve all been talking about climate change so much, and the challenge is immense and daunting and can lead to pessimism. Sometimes people look to technology as being the flip side. This is the optimistic side. These are the things we can do. So, Mariette, maybe I’ll turn to you first. Does technology make you optimistic?
DiChristina: I I’m a science journalist by nature, and I’m always interested in new advances that humanity seems to endlessly churn out. But but what gives me real hope because technology can be used a variety of ways, right? It’s just it’s just a tool in the end gives me real hope is seeing organizations like the World Economic Forum, which for 50 years, as for bringing people together to talk about these things and Scientific American, which for a hundred and fifty years has been explaining new technologies and the possible benefits they could bring, is the fact that we are talking.
Nothing is going to get us there except actually having an exchange of ideas about what are the best solutions in multidisciplinary discussions, you know, across the world. So we need to keep doing that. I feel great optimism about that because we are having this conversation now. I encourage us to keep at it and not just to talk, but of course, to put actions behind our words.
Pomeroy: Bernie, are you an optimist?
Meyerson: By nature, we tend to try to do the impossible, and our attitude is it’ll just take a little longer. But in all seriousness, Mariette was on a terrific point. I’m part of a sit on the U.S. board of a thing called the STS Forum, science, technology and society. It’s Japan’s almost version of the WEF, where they focus really on technical issues, but they have a marvelous segment in there because they call it "lights and shadows."
And the reason they do this is because these technologies have uses that are great and uses that are awful. And the fact that we openly talk at the beginning of their emergence about the two issues lights and shadows, it avoids these ugly surprises later on because everybody recognizes that this technology can be used for good. It can be used for evil and we damn well, better pay attention to both of those issues. So there is a real, you know, that’s why I’m optimistic as people are going into these things now with their eyes wide open.
It’s not like thalidomide and you know, wow, this is great. And then there’s some catastrophic result. People have learned lessons from unfortunate experiences, and the good news is that they’re not falling for the old adage. You know, if you don’t pay attention to past errors, you’re bound to repeat them. The science community has really developed a wonderful sense of accountability and as a consequence is really doing their best to avoid any of those issues in the future.
Pomeroy: The report is called The Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2021. You can read all about it in Sophie’s publication Scientific American and All the World Economic Forum’s website. Thanks very much to Bernie and to Mariette. Thanks so much for joining us.
Yes, thanks again to our guest today, Bernie Meyerson and Maria Cristina. And also to my co-host at Scientific American, Sophia Bushwick. And if you want to hear more of the pioneering technologies featured in these annual reports over the last decade, please check out the World Economic Forum’s YouTube channel, where my colleague Gretta Keenan has created a whole series of video interviews. Look for 10 years of emerging tech. Please subscribe to Radio Davos wherever you get your podcasts, news, a rating and review, and join the conversation on the World Economic Forum podcast club. Look for that on Facebook. This episode of our Davos was presented by me, Robin Pomeroy and Sophia Bushwick. Thanks to Greta Keenan. Studio production was by Gareth Nolan. We’ll be back soon. But for now, thanks to you for listening to Radio Davos and goodbye.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]
Robin Pomeroy is Podcast Editor at the World Economic Forum. Follow Robin Pomeroy on Twitter
Sophie Bushwick is an associate editor covering technology at Scientific American. Follow her on Twitter @sophiebushwick
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