Take an advanced technology. Add a twist of fantasy. Stir well, and watch the action unfold.
It’s the perfect recipe for a Hollywood tech-disaster blockbuster. And clichéd as it is, it’s the scenario that we too often imagine for emerging technologies. Think superintelligent machines, lab-bred humans, the ability to redesign whole species – you get the picture.
The reality, of course, is that the real world is usually far more mundane: less “zombie apocalypse" and more “teens troll supercomputer; teach it bad habits.”
Since 2012, I’ve been part of a group of WEF advisers who help compile an annual list of emerging technologies that are poised to transform our lives. This year’s list includes autonomous vehicles, blockchain (the technology behind BitCoin), next-generation batteries and a number of other technologies that are beginning to make their mark.
The list is aimed at raising awareness around potentially transformative technologies so that investors, businesses, regulators and others know what’s coming down the pike. It’s also an opportunity for us to think through what might go wrong as the technologies mature.
Admittedly, some of these technologies would stretch the imagination of the most creative of apocalyptic screenwriters – it’ll be a while, I suspect, before “Graphene Apocalypse” or “Day of the Perovskite Cell” hit the silver screen. But others show considerable potential for a summer scare-flick, including “brain-controlling” optogenetics and the mysterious sounding “Internet of Nano Things.”
Putting Hollywood fantasies aside, though, it’s hard to predict the plausible downsides of emerging technologies. Yet this is exactly what is needed if we’re to ensure they’re developed responsibly in the long run.
Tech problems, tech solutions
It’s tempting to ask what concrete harm technologies like those in this year’s top ten could cause, then simply figure out how to “fix” the problems. For instance, how do we ensure that “logical” self-driving cars safely share the road with less “logical” humans? Or how do we prevent bacteria that are genetically programmed to produce commercial chemicals from polluting the environment? These are risks that lend themselves to technological solutions.