Scan the horizon for technology that may revolutionise our lives

Business and society must reflect now on the emerging technologies that will drive future growth and profoundly affect the way we live.

I spent many years working in businesses, so I know how hard it is to look beyond three to five years.

Business naturally thinks short term. You are trying to keep your doors open and keep people paid.

You don’t always have the time to look up and think what else is out there. What’s coming along that might impact my industry, that might be an opportunity or a threat?

I’m lucky in that I now get to do this every day as Head of Horizon Scanning at Innovate UK. It’s my job to crystal ball gaze and look ahead 20 years or more to new technologies and trends emerging and how we might prepare for them and take advantage of them.

Each year or two, we produce an analysis of exciting emerging technologies that we share with colleagues across UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and government.

This year, we’re publishing it as a public report, ‘Welcome to the future: Innovate UK’s 50 emerging technologies’. We want people to read it and reflect on what could be coming our way.

Some of it is quite eye-opening, but more of that later. First, how do we decide what are the 50 most important emerging technologies?

What’s happening at cutting edge of science

We use the wonderful connections, networks and knowledge we have across UKRI to find out what’s happening at the cutting edge of science, and we scan government and the technology world to see what’s going on, what’s interesting and what’s exciting.

We then get a long list of technologies down to a manageable 50. We are looking for technologies that can demonstrate strong future market potential, ones that are potentially disruptive or have strong societal impact.

We are also looking for UK capability. That could be small team of scientists leading the field or a whole research sector.

We look at how far away it is from being commercial. We are talking 20 years or more. If it’s 10 years, then people are usually already talking about it and doing things.

Imagine a world where we move energy wirelessly

These emerging technologies range from artificial intelligence, digital and computing technologies, to advanced materials and manufacturing, quantum, energy and environmental technologies, robotics, medical technologies and biotechnology.

The real value comes from taking two or three of these technologies and thinking how they might fit together to solve an existing or upcoming problem.

For example, you know about wireless charging of your mobile phone, but what about gridscale transmission of energy?

Imagine a world where we could transmit energy wirelessly to remote communities, send it over the airwaves from an offshore windfarm to the grid, or even station solar panels in space and transmit the energy back to Earth.

We want businesses to start asking themselves what these technologies mean for them. What sort of revenue opportunities do they open? Do they pose a threat if a business in a different sector takes a technology on and becomes a direct competitor?

Businesses may not be acting on these things today, but we want the ideas to percolate through so people are ready and aware when they do come, and so the UK can take advantage and create revenue and jobs. And we want to hear from you whether you disagree or agree with our analysis.

Emerging technologies raise ethical questions

Society must be ready too. Many emerging technologies require ethical choices and new regulations. We should be discussing them now and preparing.

One of the biggest is human augmentation, combining of the digital with human flesh. It’s one step to use these technologies to help people lead healthy lives.

After that there is super intelligence and super strength.

We know the Terminator story of science fiction, but in day-to-day life it raises questions we need to think about. How do we feel about people with augmentations taking part in elite sport or competing with unaugmented people for jobs? Also, what if a business turns off the operating system for your augmentation device or no longer supports it?

Drugs could reverse ageing process

What about anti-ageing drugs? These are being developed as a way of keeping an ageing population healthy.

However, once you can reverse ageing effects, you get a whole new set of ethical and cultural questions. What does it mean if you live beyond 120 or you appear 25 or 30 for 40 years of your life?

Will cultural norms change so that it’s not unusual for your granny to date your best friend? How do you manage people over an 80-year career? How long can you be retired? Is there an age we consider too old to live to? What about overpopulation?

Even if we’re not enacting regulations now, we need people to start thinking about these things and discussing them.

Scientists spend a lifetime on these technologies

I have politics and economics degrees and, while working in the oil and gas industry, I undertook an engineering degree. That combination of a social science and technical and business background is really helpful for looking at these questions from differing sociotechnical perspectives.

I’m in awe of researchers and scientists who can spend a lifetime working on these technologies. They keep coming up with interesting things that I get to look at and play with the possibilities they pose.

Things like the potential of mRNA, which was highlighted in some of our earlier analyses of emerging technologies but still struggled for support and funding. It took decades of hard work and challenges for scientists to bring the technology to fruition, and it only really came to widespread attention through the vaccines we developed for COVID-19.

There is an increasing interest across UKRI in expanding horizon scanning. We want to shamelessly exploit the wonderful knowledge we have access to as an organisation. And we want everyone to join us in that conversation about the emerging technologies that could potentially change our businesses and our lives.

Top image:  Credit: UKRI

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