A new cen­tury’s new tech­nolo­gies

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

This year’s World Eco­nomic Fo­rum meet­ing in Davos, Switzer­land, ad­dressed threats to geopo­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity and hu­man life, and sought ways to ac­cel­er­ate the de­sign of more ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and tech­no­log­i­cal tools to ad­dress them. Among this gen­er­a­tion’s most daunt­ing chal­lenges are food, wa­ter, and en­ergy short­ages; cli­mate change and ris­ing sea lev­els; and the spread of new, drug-resistant dis­eases.

Hu­man­ity has faced threats to its ex­is­tence and the health of the planet be­fore, yet we have man­aged to avoid the apoc­a­lypse, or at least post­pone it, through in­ge­nu­ity and in­ven­tion. This year’s Davos meet­ing of­fered a glimpse of where the next life-, planet- and econ­omy-sav­ing dis­cov­er­ies and prod­ucts will come from, and where we should invest our tal­ents and trea­sure to fuel the next gen­er­a­tion of trans­for­ma­tive tech­nolo­gies.

An ac­cel­er­at­ing con­ver­gence of the biological, phys­i­cal, and en­gi­neer­ing sciences prom­ises a stun­ning ar­ray of new tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions. Imag­ine a coal-fu­eled power plant that emits only wa­ter and clean air. Inside the plant, de­signer yeast cells trans­form the car­bon diox­ide re­leased dur­ing the coal’s com­bus­tion into raw ma­te­ri­als for floor tiles and other con­struc­tion sup­plies.

Or imag­ine a sim­ple and in­ex­pen­sive urine test that can di­ag­nose can­cer, elim­i­nat­ing the need for a sur­gi­cal biopsy. And, when can­cer treat­ment is needed, its toxic punch hits can­cer cells se­lec­tively, with far fewer dam­ag­ing side ef­fects.

Or imag­ine a fu­ture with plen­ti­ful food and fuel crops. Through im­proved seed stocks and more ef­fi­cient wa­ter man­age­ment, we can have crops that re­quire less wa­ter, grow at higher den­sity, and thrive in wider tem­per­a­ture ranges. And data-driven agri­cul­ture sup­ply chains will move them more ef­fec­tively to the mar­ket. Th­ese ad­vances will en­able us to feed and pro­vide power – at a lower eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal cost – to the an­tic­i­pated 2050 pop­u­la­tion of 9 bil­lion peo­ple.

Th­ese and other in­no­va­tions are emerg­ing from the con­ver­gence of bi­ol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing that is now upon us. A new gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers, and clin­i­cians, ed­u­cated more broadly than their pre­de­ces­sors, speak the lan­guages of both and are work­ing to­gether in un­prece­dented ways. They are con­vers­ing across dis­ci­plines – not only en­gi­neer­ing and bi­ol­ogy, but also chem­istry, physics, math­e­mat­ics, and com­pu­ta­tion – and set­ting new paths for in­no­va­tion, from ini­tial dis­cov­ery to the launch of ad­vanced ap­pli­ca­tions in the mar­ket­place.

The tech­nolo­gies on which many of us de­pend to­day arose from a par­al­lel con­ver­gence of dis­cov­er­ies in physics and en­gi­neer­ing in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury. In 1900, the world did not have ready ac­cess to elec­tric­ity, au­to­mo­biles and avi­a­tion, or telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. In much of the world, we now take th­ese con­ve­niences for granted; in­deed, we re­gard them as ne­ces­si­ties.

What be­gan as es­o­teric ex­plo­rations of the work­ings of the phys­i­cal world – the na­ture of elec­tro­mag­netism and the atomic struc­ture of mat­ter, for ex­am­ple – be­came, in the hands of in­ven­tors and in­no­va­tors, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, new drugs, med­i­cal imag­ing and de­vices, nu­clear power, the com­puter chip, and the In­ter­net. There are now more con­nected mo­bile de­vices than there are peo­ple on the planet.

The prod­ucts of elec­tronic and dig­i­tal in­dus­tries will con­tinue to ex­pand their im­pact, with “big data,” the “In­ter­net of things,” and the “in­dus­trial In­ter­net” be­com­ing in­creas­ingly preva­lent. Beyond the ex­ten­sion of th­ese twen­ti­eth-cen­tury tech­nolo­gies, we can also an­tic­i­pate a new set of trans­for­ma­tional in­dus­tries – as yet name­less – as we ad­vance into the new mil­len­nium.

Like­wise, the dra­matic re­duc­tion in the cost of gene se­quenc­ing, from roughly $40 mln per hu­man genome in 2003 to about $5,000 to­day, to­gether with a rapid in­crease in com­pu­ta­tional power, is boost­ing the speed, ac­cu­racy, and ro­bust­ness of med­i­cal di­ag­nos­tic tests. That prom­ises not only more timely and ef­fec­tive ther­a­pies for can­cer, but also sim­i­lar ad­vances against other cur­rently in­tractable dis­eases.

The in­dus­tries and eco­nomic driv­ers of the twenty-first cen­tury will arise from the in­creas­ingly com­bined ef­forts of bi­ol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing. It is this con­ver­gence that will help de­liver the tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions needed to sup­ply enough clean en­ergy, food, and wa­ter, as well as bet­ter health, to sus­tain the world’s nine bil­lion peo­ple in 2050.

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