In my last post, I covered the first four items on the World Economics Forum’s list of major technological trends of the past decade – technologies that have “changed the world.” Here I’ll summarize the other trends that made their cut.
If you’re wondering just how we’re going to replace petrochemicals, think Systems Metabolic Engineering (SysME), a “more sustainable approach to producing chemicals needed for fuels and medicine.”
Microorganisms, including bacteria, are genetically engineered to overproduce chemicals like ethanol as part of their metabolic process as they ferment, ‘feeding on’ renewable organic resources, in a safe, sealed environment. (Source: World Economics Forum)
Fuels – jet fuel, diesel, gasoline – are among the chemically-based products that this approach will help replace. Because of the environmental impact made by the use of fossil fuels, this is an especially key area for SysME. But it’s also being deployed in the medical realm, where drugs that are now produced by extracting matter from plants, insects, or animals – an expensive and time-consuming process – will now be created by fermenting “metabolically engineered microbes.”
Genome sequencing, genetic engineering, and metabolic flux analysis have all made significant advances in SysME possible.
So far, this type of chemical production hasn’t yet achieved scale economies, but look for it to become a pretty potent disruptor, where “a lot of chemicals and fuels…will be produced by biological means. Looks like chemistry majors will need to minor in biology, and vice versa.
Another top technology listed is Body Adapted Wearable Electronics. While most of us have not as yet used products created via SysME (at least not as far as we’re aware), most of us do have experience with smartwatches and health trackers. While many of us use them to be more mindful of our fitness – if you’ve ever had a Fitbit, you’ve probably found yourself pacing around the bedroom to get in your final 1,000 steps of the day – wearable electronics are also used for serious health purposes. All made possible, in large part, to the availability of flexible electronics that can be integrated into small form factors and, increasingly, apparel itself, rather than an external device.
It’s predicted that, at some point, electronics embedded in our clothing will replace our separate devices. I don’t see this happening all that soon. After all, you can wear your smartwatch as an accessory whether you’re at home, at work, hanging out in your backyard, attending a dressy event. Unless the future means we all wear something that looks like the uniform of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, I don’t see that we’ll have electronics in all of our outfits.
Personalized Medicine holds a lot of promise. Today, most patients with the same illness are treated with the same approach, which will work for some but not for others. If you think of cancers, where the results for many types haven’t really improved much over the years, many of them are a “cancer of one,” unique in its behavior depending on the composition of your DNA, your ethnic background, where you grew up, where you live now, what you’ve eaten throughout your life, what environmental factors you’ve been exposed to. Doctors are already varying cancer treatments based on what genetic markers someone has, and the direction is that medicine will get more and more personal over time.
In another instance of technology having a major impact on the health front, we have only to look at the Genomic Vaccines (“made from DNA or RNA that encode desired proteins”) that are helping fight the covid-19 pandemic. The World Economics Forum was quite prescient in putting it on their list of emerging technologies in 2017.
…and three years later, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna created the world’s first mRNA vaccines to tackle the world’s biggest health threat.
And they’ll be doing it again when the next pandemic pathogen comes along, which hopefully will not be any time soon.
I’ve been interested in robotics since I was an undergrad, so I am, of course, intrigued by Social Robots, if not exactly welcoming the day when they’re “looking after the elderly and educating children.” One thing to have a Roomba scooting around your living room picking up dust bunnies. Another thing to use robots to replace social interaction. Still, it’s been demonstrated that robotic pets, e.g., help the isolated elderly feel more engaged and less lonely, even when they’re fully aware that the robotic pet isn’t real. So there is a lot of potential for good. We just need to be ultra-careful about the ethical implications here.
As I wrote last time – and many other times – being an engineer has always made me proud, especially when I think about the profound impact our profession has always had on improving people’s lives. So, Happy New Year to all the engineers out there. Here’s to us!