From anti-ageing drugs to space-based solar power, the UK’s innovation agency has picked 50 emerging technologies that look set to shape the country – and the world – in 2040 and beyond.
‘In this report, we are not seeking to predict the future, but to stimulate curiosity, share knowledge and consider the art of the possible,’ writes Indro Mukerjee, chief executive of Innovate UK.
The 50 technologies may not be the most well-funded or the hottest in R&D circles, writes Simone Boekelaar, head of horizon scanning at Innovate UK, but they have economic and society-shaping potential. ‘Our hope is that these technologies … may inspire new applications or solutions to societal challenges.’
The list of 50 emerging technologies is divided into seven groups:
- artificial intelligence, digital and computing
- advanced materials and manufacturing
- electronics, photonics and quantum technologies
- energy and environment
- health and medical
- robotics and space
One of the most eye-catching advanced materials offers the possibility of a invisibility cloak. Metamaterials are engineered at the atomic level to bend and manipulate electromagnetic waves in specific ways, giving them unusual properties not found in natural materials, such as a negative refractive index, negative electric permittivity and negative magnetic permeability. As highly efficient absorbers, they could significantly boost solar power generators and, because their novel structure stores and re-radiates energy, they could lead to more powerful telecommunications antennae. They could also be used as optical filters or to make medical imaging more precise.
When it comes to energy and the environment, the report highlights novel hydrogen storage and production technologies as having significant potential impact, while nuclear fusion also gets a mention. Forcing together atomic nuclei offers a way of producing potentially limitless amounts of energy but faces huge practical problems such as the immense temperatures required. To get around this, researchers use a super-heated plasma inside a doughnut-shaped magnetic field. A breakthrough last year put the technology under the spotlight again. Researchers at the UK Jet laboratory set a new record for the amount of energy extracted after bringing together two isotopes of hydrogen, doubling energy output over what was previously achieved.
In biotechnology, the focus is on bioelectronics and electroceuticals. These technologies use implantable devices to deliver electrical stimulation to nerves to control a wide range of bodily functions or to replace drug treatments, and could monitor and treat disease in real time. Potential applications include pacemakers, deep-brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease and nerve stimulation to combat arthritis. Other biotechnologies to watch include artificial cells (synthetic blood could reduce the need for blood donations and improve safety), programmable cells (chemical switches placed inside synthetic gene circuits control a range of cell functions), and hybrid microbe biotechnology including both artificially created microbes and those made by combining artificial and biological components.
In health and medicine, the report highlights developing alternatives to antibiotics as a global priority. Other technologies here focus on novel ways to treat disease such as manipulating the gut microbiome or using personalised RNA therapeutics. Advances in electronics and implants are driving the development of devices that can detect sensations (in prosthetic limbs, for example), or restore or enhance the senses and emulate human physiological responses to drugs to potentially revolutionise clinical trials.