Emerging technologies

We live in an era of fast technological progress, with new digital devices, applications, and tools being developed almost on a daily basis. 3D printing, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), biotechnology, and quantum technology are some of the most rapidly advancing areas, with many implications for society.

How is 3D printing impacting current manufacturing business models and what consequences does it have for the future of work? Is AR an opportunity to improve the provision of education, especially in remote areas? And what are the ethical boundaries within which biotechnology should operate? These are some of the policy questions linked to these emerging technologies.

3D printing is not a new technology; its roots can be traced back to the early 1980s. But over the past decade, the use of 3D printing – also called additive manufacturing – has grown rapidly. Today, countries are increasingly realising the potential of additive manufacturing and some of them have launched various initiatives to support research and development in this area.

What is 3D printing? It allows the fabrication of objects – as simple as a plastic cup or as complex as a house or a human organ – at one go, by adding fabrication material layer upon layer. It requires a computer, a blueprint (the schematic/template for printing the product in question), a 3D printer, and the fabrication material.

3D printers range from do-it-yourself kits that allow the printing of not-so-complex objects at home, to industrial printers used in different fields. Almost every car and airplane nowadays includes 3D printed components.

Numerous applications have also been developed for the food, health (including customised prosthetics, blood vessels, and functional organs, as well as the treatment of lesions), and construction industries.

What are the policy issues associated with 3D printing? The first is its potential malicious use. 3D printing, for instance, can produce fully operational guns and entire bogus point-of-sale devices and ATM skimming devices to steal credit card details.

Traditional manufacturing could become threatened, if the manufacturing industry transitions from production-based factories to customised manufacturing. This would also have implications on the future of work.

3D blueprints – which are at the core of this new technology – can be easily distributed online as digital files. While some producers may choose to make their blueprints freely available, others are proprietary, raising concerns over the protection of intellectual property rights.

AR and VR are rapidly emerging fields, with applications within the gaming industry, as well as in the health, education, and development sectors.

What is augmented reality? The technology allows users to view the real-world environment with augmented (added) elements, generated by digital devices. One famous example in recent years was Pokemon Go, a game for mobile devices in which players chase imaginary digital creatures (visible on their mobile phones) around physical locations.

What is virtual reality? VR goes a step forward, and replaces the real world entirely with a simulated environment, created through digitally-generated images, sounds, and even touch and smell. Using special equipment, such as a custom headset, the user can explore a simulated world or simulate experiences such as flying or skydiving.

What are the main applications of augmented and virtual reality? In architecture and engineering, AR and VR allow architects to see their building plans come to life before being built. In the business sector, these technologies allow products to be previewed or customised, thus improving productivity and offering new marketing possibilities.

In health, AR can provide surgeons with additional information when operating on a patient, such as heartbeat and blood pressure monitoring and virtual x-rays. By using AR, education can be made more interactive and fun, bringing abstract concepts to life. VR can create educational environments that are otherwise inaccessible in real-life. It can also provide a framework for students to develop skills without the real-world consequences of failing (e.g. virtual flight simulators, military and medical training).

What are the policy issues associated with AR and VR? Beyond their potential, these technologies also come with challenges. Pokemon Go, for example, generated concerns around a wide range of issues, such as public safety, cybersecurity, and privacy and data protection.

Privacy issues are common across other AR applications: Since they often track movements and data, massive amounts of data are generated about the whereabouts of users. On the economic side, AR can create new business models, raising questions about taxation, jurisdiction, and customer protection.

With VR, the main concerns are health and safety. When people are exposed to VR environments for extensive periods of time, there could be negative consequences for their physical health (such as motion sickness and disorientation) as well as their mental health (such as addiction and interpersonal communication).

‘The biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology’ – Apple co-founder Steve Jobs

Scientists can now use big data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence (AI) to explore and analyse vast amounts of data, improving their work and making it faster and more accurate. In healthcare, big data and machine learning are improving diagnostic setting and the ability to establish customised treatments for different diseases and medical conditions.

Distinct biology fields such as biotechnology, bioengineering, and cellular biology are therefore coming closer to each other through technology, with major breakthroughs in areas such as genome editing, cellular agriculture, and even neuroscience.

Genome editing, which is the insertion, deletion, modification, or replacement of DNA in the genome of a living organism, benefits greatly from advancements in digital technologies. In medicine, this technology has the potential to correct or remove defects in a gene to fight certain medical syndromes, to allow the discovery of new medicines and treatments for incurable diseases, to develop certain ‘human enhancements’ (e.g. improved night vision), and to alter body characteristics. In agriculture, it can help improve practices such as plant and animal breeding.

Cellular agriculture focuses on creating alternatives to the meat and dairy industry. Several startups are producing cultured meat (or meat produced in a lab), by using self-reproducing cells of animal origin.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), also called brain-machine interfaces, allow direct communication between the human brain and external devices. Applications already exist: from brain-controlled prosthetic limbs to neuroprosthetics which restore damaged hearing and sight.

What are the policy issues associated with biotechnology? Many of the issues are ethical and regulatory. Should genome editing in agriculture be regulated like genetically modified organisms? What are the ethical implications of human genome editing? What are the privacy and security implications of neuroscience advancements? If BCIs are able to ‘read’ one’s mind, is consent-based decision-making at risk? There are many questions, but policy solutions are still far away.

Today’s computing systems, although having significantly improved decade after decade, can only solve problems up to a certain size and complexity. More complex issues require advanced computational power, and quantum computing promises to deliver such power.

How does quantum computing work? Classical computers rely on individual bits to store and process information as binary 0 and 1 states. Quantum computers rely on quantum bits – qubits – to process information; in doing so, they use quantum mechanical properties – superposition, entanglement, and interference. Qubits still use the binary 0 and 1 system, but the superposition property allows them to represent both 0 and 1 at the same time. So, instead of analysing 1s and 0s sequence by sequence, two qubits in superposition can represent four scenarios at the same time, thus reducing the time needed to process a data set.

Where can quantum computing be useful? The unprecedented power of quantum computers makes them useful in many scenarios where classical computers would require an impractical amount of time to solve a problem. For example, they can pave the way for unparalleled innovations in medicine and healthcare, allowing for the discovery of new medications to save lives or of new AI methods to diagnose diseases. They can also support the discovery of new electronics or chemical materials, the development of enhanced cybersecurity methods, the elaboration of much more efficient traffic control and weather forecasting systems, etc.

What are the policy issues associated with quantum computing? Quantum computing is mainly a field of research, but the promises it holds also make it the subject of an ongoing ‘race for supremacy’ among tech companies and nations. Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and other major tech companies are allocating significant resources to quantum computing research, as part of their efforts to pioneer breakthroughs in areas such as AI, medicine, chemistry and materials, supply chains and logistics, financial services, etc. Countries are following a similar competition path, with the USA and China being currently at the forefront, and the EU, Japan, and others following closely.

Beyond this ‘race for supremacy’, progress in quantum computing could also open up regulatory and ethical issues related to the use of the technology: How can we ensure that quantum computing will be used for social good? Similar to the ongoing discussions on ethics and AI, will there be a need to implement ethical principles in the development of applications based on quantum computing?