There are so many scientific advances taking place, some with objective bioethical implications, that it is very challenging—if not impossible—to have adequate knowledge of all of them and to follow their evolution.
We, therefore, find the Report published in Scientific American in its December 2019 issue of great help. The Report, as its title suggests, lists 10 emerging technologies which, in the opinion of a broad panel of highly qualified scientific experts, are considered to be the most promising in the coming years.
We cannot, of course, make an in-depth commentary here. Instead, we shall refer very briefly to what we think are the highlights of each of them.
Emerging technologies information
- Bioplastics for a circular economy. Being able to use biodegradable bioplastics may help to solve the serious problem of the waste they produce, which in 2014 was 311 million metric tons. Accordingly, the development of bioplastics based on cellulose and lignin could be very promising for solving the aforementioned problem.
- Social robots. Robots are becoming increasingly advanced and will become present in our lives. Advances in artificial intelligence have enabled psychological and neuroscientific knowledge to be translated into algorithms that allow robots to recognize voices, faces, and emotions; interpret speech and gestures; respond to complex verbal and non-verbal cues; make eye contact; speak naturally, and adapt to the needs of people, which will lead to their expansion and make them indispensable company for all of us. Read our issues on the matter HERE.
- Tiny lenses for mini-devices. These could replace the glass in optical components, making it possible to substantially reduce their cost, which has so far been difficult to achieve. This will significantly lower the price of computers and electronic equipment.
- Drugs that act on flexible proteins. This technology opens new avenues for treating serious diseases, including cancer, and could seemingly be available in the next three to five years.
- Smart fertilizers that reduce environmental contamination. These are actually improved, controlled-release fertilizers that can reduce agricultural pollution and contribute decisively to feeding the growing world population by increasing—without substantially contaminating—crop yields. A positive aspect of these types of fertilizers is that they are relatively inexpensive, so they could become a cutting-edge technique that will help farmers to increase their crop appreciably. Read a related topic on the matter HERE.
- Collaborative telepresence, which will allow participants in virtual meetings to feel like they are in the same physical space, to the point where they can feel one another’s touch. This could bring a semblance of reality to telecommunications, enabling health professionals, for example, to work with their patients remotely as if they were in the same room, or families and friends to get together in a cozy getaway, even though they are actually in different places. While collaborative telepresence is at an early stage, everything is in place for it to take off within three to four years.
- Advanced food tracking and packaging. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 600 million people suffer some form of food poisoning every year, and 420,000 die. It seems that this is due, among other things, to changes that the food undergoes from its production until it is consumed. To overcome this, the packaging is needed that can control anomalies in the supply chain, allowing retailers and restaurants to remove contaminated products from circulation almost immediately.
- Safer nuclear reactors. The controversy surrounding nuclear reactors is partly due to serious accidents in the past, but this risk could be substantially reduced by the use of resilient fuels and innovative reactors. Moreover, new fuels could increase the efficiency of plants and lower the costs of nuclear energy, which could lead to its resurgence in the countries that are forbidden.
- DNA as a hard drive. More and more data is being produced worldwide that needs to be saved. As a result, we are facing a serious storage problem that experts say will only worsen over time. To overcome this, an alternative to hard drives is being developed, to store data on the DNA. DNA can store a huge amount of data, much higher than current electronic devices. For example, Escherichia coli bacteria can store up to 1019 bits per cubic centimeter. In addition, DNA is incredibly stable, ensuring data storage for much longer than current systems.
- Large-scale storage of renewable energy. The intermittent nature of energy production, apart from renewable non-hydroelectric sources, requires storage to ensure continuity of use.
For decades, the main method of storing utility-scale energy has been pumped storage hydropower, but now it seems to be more efficient to accumulate the energy produced in lithium-ion batteries, suggesting that this form of storage could be the dominant one for the next five or ten years. Read more HERE.
Current and verified emerging technologies information
From a bioethical point of view, the use of these emerging technologies does not pose any ethical problems in some cases, but in others it does. It seems interesting, therefore, for those of us dedicated to this field of thought, to have current and verified information on the latest scientific advances, in order to be aware of any bioethical problems that may arise and to try to study—and indeed if possible—resolve them.
Justo Aznar MD PhD
Bioethics Observatory – Institute if Life Sciences