Emerging technologies: disrupting the future

africa prizeDr Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says that the Academy’s scheme to support UK visionaries gives her confidence in the country’s future as a world leader in science and engineering

Emerging technologies are defined as new or evolving technologies with the potential to change the status quo – and in some instances, where their impact is very widespread and they displace old technologies, they might become what are known as disruptive technologies. The UK has a strong history of pioneering such technologies, building on its world-class research base and culture of invention and creativity.

One chair is aimed at accelerating translation of biotherapetic systems for the brain from lab to industry

As part of the government’s National Productivity Investment Fund, the Academy has been allocated funding to accelerate the development and commercialisation of emerging technologies within the UK through 10 new flagship Chairs in Emerging Technologies (CET) at UK universities. The CET scheme identifies research and innovation visionaries and provides them with long-term support to enable them to build a global centre of excellence focussed on emerging technologies with high potential to deliver economic and social benefit to the UK. This type of public investment can be highly effective in stimulating co-investment from the private sector, enabling the UK to secure an early foothold in a potentially important future market and preventing UK companies from losing their competitive advantage as other countries take a lead.

The call for the CET scheme has also shone a light on what UK engineering researchers consider to be today’s significant emerging technologies. It is exciting to see both the diversity of technologies and disciplines represented among the chairs selected and the breadth of societal challenges and economic opportunities that have motivated the world-leading engineers appointed. The chairs also provide a vivid illustration of the fact that use-inspired research can be as intellectually rigorous as it is potentially transformative.

Perhaps unsurprisingly a number of the chairs focus on technologies with strong medical applications. One aims to deliver a step change in personalised medicine by engineering cells that can combine precise disease diagnosis with therapeutic intervention in a closed loop circuit to prevent the disease developing or provide a cure – sometimes called ‘theranostics’. Another focuses on reducing the burden of brain disorders. The goal of the chair is to accelerate the translation of therapeutic bioelectronic systems – for example a ‘brain pacemaker’ – from lab to industry.

Robotics, autonomous systems and AI also had strong representation among the chairs selected. For example, one chair addresses the technologies underpinning soft robotics, which have the potential to impact upon many areas of our lives, from implantable medical devices that restore function after cancer or stroke, to wearable soft robotics that will keep us mobile in our old age and biodegradable robots that can combat pollution and monitor the environment. Other chairs address issues of safety and reliability associated with AI and robotic systems – a topic of great societal importance and current interest.

Another significant focus was on driving improvement in materials that underpin important industrial and societal applications. One of the chairs will develop novel interactive technologies using acoustic metamaterials; another is targeted at optimisation of next generation battery materials for improved cost, performance and durability.

The remainder of the chairs draw upon other recent advances in the physical sciences to address novel areas. They include radical new space technologies that will underpin entirely new satellite applications, an integrated approach to two-dimensional classical and quantum photonics and a platform for multiscale industrial design, from the level of molecules to machines.

The CET scheme steering group, chaired by AI and open data pioneer Sir Nigel Shadbolt FREng FRS, were deeply impressed by the quality of applications they reviewed, which bodes well for the UK’s ability to continue to be at the leading edge of technology disruption. Nevertheless, it is notoriously difficult to forecast with any accuracy which technologies will turn out to have the most significant impacts over the long term, and what those impacts will be. The profound extent to which mobile communications, the internet and World Wide Web have changed our lives is now taken for granted, but this future impact was far from obvious when the early underpinning research was undertaken.

Another hugely important disruptive technology which had a less than auspicious start is GPS – the Global Positioning System – which was built on early work to help with the navigation of nuclear submarines. The US began deploying a more robust multi-use system in 1978, but full operational capability was achieved only in 1993, and the programme was almost cancelled in the meantime. Yet GPS is now ubiquitous – so much so that the deep dependence of critical infrastructure on this single platform has been highlighted as a significant risk by the Academy and others over the last few years.

I was recently asked whether I thought there was a way of identifying which technologies would go on to have pervasive impacts before it became obvious that they would. Trying to predict the future is (famously) a mug’s game but I am pretty optimistic that we can learn something from running competitions like this and tracking developments as our Chairs in Emerging Technologies get to work. Moreover, I am excited to see what insights will emerge when we bring our chairs together from across their varied backgrounds and areas of expertise to reflect on what the future might look like.