Predicting the pace at which the latest technology in the world will reach the point of reliable functionality at a commercially viable price point is a notoriously thankless task. Breakthrough technology expected to mainstream in 10-20 years is sometimes with us in 5. Equally, technology forecast to imminently become part of our everyday reality can often take far longer than originally thought to gain traction or financial viability. Sometimes it turns out the technology is also not actually all that useful despite sounding exciting during early R&D and never comes to market. Or better technology overtakes it before it does.
Nonetheless, the exercise is still fun and there are usually technology developments that can relatively reliably predicted as being on the cusp of breaking through into reality. Back in 2014, analysts at the Thomson Reuters’ IP & Science department took on the risk of embarking upon an exercise that had every danger of leaving egg on their faces. But they did approach creating a list of the 10 technology breakthroughs likely to be most influential by 2025 with a sensible methodology. The team applied a data-centric approach to isolate the developments in academic-level science and technology journals most often cited and generating the most ‘buzz’. They cross-referenced this with patent applications.
They were confident that these 10 breakthrough technologies would be ‘in effect’ by 2025. So what leaps forward in the latest technology in the world did they expect we would benefit from by the middle of the next decade? And 4 years on how are those predictions panning out?
1) Dementia Making Its Last Stand
Anyone with experience of dementia will know only too well how cruel a disease it is. As life expectancy increases, and other harder to isolate factors also thought to be contributing, the World Health Organisation predicted the number of dementia cases to triple by 2050, making the neuro-degenerative disease one of the most urgent health crisis expected to face humanity.
The good news is that biotech and other medical breakthroughs led the Thomson Reuters team to a more optimistic conclusion. We are quickly getting better at early diagnosis of dementia through a growing understanding of the pathogenic chromosomes that cause it. Increasingly sophisticated onset-prevention methods led to the conclusion that by 2025 there would be a significant reduction in the number of those suffering from the disease.
Developments over the past few years support that. Scientists believe that, like the development of HIV treatments, dementia will not be eradicated by ‘one magic bullet’ but that a combination of new medicines and treatments will mean that within several years there will be significant success in ‘whittling down’ and containing dementia.
2) Solar the World’s Biggest Single Energy Source
The team predicted that the falling cost and increasing efficiency of solar panels would mean solar overtaking fossil fuels as the world’s single largest source of energy by 2025. While the contribution renewables are making to the global energy mix continues to grow that prediction does look optimistic. The International Energy Agency currently predicts that renewables will account for a total 40% of all energy consumption by 2040, with solar the largest single source of low-carbon capacity. It won’t, however, have overtaken coal and oil by 2025 and probably not for some time after that though there is cause for optimism it eventually will do.
3) Prevention of Type 1 Diabetes
Cases of Type 1 diabetes, which manifests itself at a young age as opposed to the typically middle age onset of Type 2, having been rising quickly and for reasons not completely understood. Happily, the Thomson Reuters team predicted that by 2025 advances in genomic editing and reshaping would likely mean a leap forward in prevention. 2025 may again be optimistic but there is hope that new immunotherapy treatments will, in the foreseeable future, be able to shut off the parts of the human immune system that attacks insulin-producing cells. It might be a little behind schedule but there is a strong likelihood that prevention and control of Type 1 diabetes will allow us to meaningfully combat the disease within the next decade.
4) Famine Eradication
The 2014 predictions believed that by 2025 GM crops that could be grown quickly and safely indoors using low energy LED lighting on particular wavelengths that match crop growth receptors would super-charge agriculture and eradicate global food shortages. GM crops that are disease resistant and high yield were also considered key contributing factors to this positive development.
Unfortunately, while we are certainly on the right track, it appears unrealistic that this optimistic future for crop cultivation will have reached the stage forecast by 2025. Another decade or two, however, and all things being equal, we should be there.
5) Cheap, Electric Flight
The report predicted that by 2025 new, lightweight aircraft powered by lithium-ion batteries and using advanced superconducting technology would mean commercial ‘short-hop’ journeys would be common. That prediction could well prove to be accurate, or at least be well on the way to being a reality. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are planned to feature commercial ‘flying taxi’ services. The city’s government has created an advisory council to put together a regulatory framework and Google’s Larry Page is investing heavily in the sector. If not quite as normal as hailing a normal cab or jumping on the bus, there is a high likelihood that by 2025 flying taxi services of the kind the 2014 report described will be operating commercially in the developed world.
6) IoT Dominant and Connectivity Everywhere
The report predicted that by 2025 ‘everything’ would be connected to the internet, from our fridge freezers to rural African farmers. The report predicted that this would happen “thanks to the prevalence of improved semiconductors, graphene-carbon nanotube capacitators, cell-free networks of service antenna, and 5G technology”.
This one will, to a large extent, become reality. The technology is certainly here and still improving. The only real barriers will be geo-political factors and the pace at which legacy infrastructures and technology is replaced.
7) End of the Road for Plastic Waste
Since 2014, public awareness of the plastic problem devastating the world’s oceans has heightened significantly. The huge success of the BBC’s Blue Planet II documentary series had an impact bigger than most would have thought possible on populations and governments around the world and serious steps are now being taken. As well as the conscious choice of consumers to reduce their reliance on plastic where possible, technology developments are also set to play a central role.
The Thomson Reuters report predicted that by 2025 plant-derived cellulose and other bio-nano materials would have largely replaced petroleum-based plastics. Over the past year a new urgency has pushed that change and while there is already so much non-biodegradable plastic in the environment the problem won’t have disappeared by 2025, we can hope that it won’t be being added to and the process of gradually removing plastic from the ecosystem will be well underway.
8) Personalised Medicine
Will biotech developments mean most of the drugs we take are personalised to our own personal biological make-up by 2025? Things are certainly moving in that direction as a result of new drugs being developed which bind to specific proteins and use antibodies to give precise mechanisms of action. Knowledge of the specific gene mutations that cause different kinds of cancers is also developing and will soon be treatable. Again, the job will not be complete by 2025 but the pace at which medicine is currently moving means that we can expect huge improvements to already be a fact by then.
9) DNA Mapping as Standard
The report predicted that by 2025 children would be regularly tested at the DNA level through ‘nano-probes’ inserted into the body. A personal DNA map will be created at birth and regularly checked for any changes that might identify the early onset of autoimmune diseases.
Mapping the human genome is well underway and strides have certainly been made over the past 4 years. If children are not DNA-mapped at birth by 2025, they almost certainly will be very shortly after.
The most fantastical prediction was saved for last. The Thomson and Reuters boffins forecast that by 2025 teleportation would not be a ‘thing’ but that testing around ‘quantum teleportation’ would have started in earnest.
The report stated:
“We are on the precipice of this field’s explosion; it is truly an emerging research front. Early indicators point to a rapid acceleration of research leading to the testing of quantum teleportation in 2025.”
So how have we been getting on with that one over the intervening 4 years? Well, there have indeed been developments. In 2017 Chinese scientists beamed the quantum state of a proton into orbit. The data package of how the proton was polarised was sent from Tibet to a satellite 870 miles up. For the foreseeable future the potential of quantum teleportation is believed to be limited to theoretical communications systems. But one day..who knows..Beam me up Scotty!?