New technologies

The development of new technology relies upon science pushing back the boundaries of what we know and finding new ways of tackling problems. But while every new technology can bring huge benefits, it can also alter our lives in some surprising and unexpected ways.

The risks and rewards of new technologies

The emergence of new technologies is changing the way we live and enabling people to do things that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. Computing technology has come so far that we can carry devices in our hands that would have been considered supercomputers a few decades ago. We can connect to people anywhere in the world and share almost boundless amounts of information over the internet. 

Some new technologies arrive gradually, but others are sudden and disruptive, leading to radical changes in society and everyday life. This also means that alongside the benefits that technologies such as artificial intelligence, satellite technology and neural interfaces can bring, they also come with risks. In a connected, online world, for example, cybersecurity has become an enormous challenge.

To ensure such risks are fully understood and, where possible, can be tackled, scientists and innovators must engage with policy makers and the wider public to ensure emerging technologies deliver the benefits that society needs. 

Far above our planet’s surface, a technological revolution has been taking place. Thousands of satellites now orbit the Earth. These satellites help us navigate and communicate, provide television and data for forecasting. They help us to monitor changes taking place on our planet and provide vital information during disasters.

This is a rapidly evolving industry that has shifted from being dominated by publicly funded space agencies to a burgeoning and innovative commercial sector. The falling cost of launching spacecraft, combined with minaturisation of satellites, is opening new opportunities for how space can be used. This is changing the balance of space power as more and more countries and companies look to explore this domain. 

It is also bringing challenges along with the benefits. The space around our planet is becoming crowded and the threat posed by space junk and debris is ever growing. The prospect of exploring new worlds, asteroids and comets that could perhaps be exploited for resources raises a growing number of questions about how space can be governed and protected. 

The Royal Society’s ‘Perspective on Space’ will explore how activities and the technologies used in space will develop over the next half century. It will examine what steps can be taken to ensure space is used safely and sustainably for the benefit of all humanity. It will only become more vital to understand as our species begins to explore ever further from our own planet.

The ability to connect the human brain or nervous system to computers offers immense opportunities, but also raises some profound questions. Neural interface technologies are devices that interact with the nervous system of an individual. They can be as simple as sensors that record the minute electrical signals produced by our brains or movements, or they can stimulate our muscles and nerves. Some could even allow us to control devices with just our brain signals.

Yet neural interfaces are not a technology of the future. More than 400,000 people with hearing loss worldwide benefit from cochlear implants that stimulate the auditory nerve to restore some sense of sound. Neural interfaces are being used to rehabilitate stroke patients and to treat chronic pain, while some experimental approaches are aimed at helping people with paralysis.

As the technology is improved and minaturised, there are hopes they could provide alternatives to pharmaceutical treatments, or offer new ways of interacting with computers. They could even be used to enhance the abilities of the human body. 

This raises questions about not just the safety of these devices, but also their ethical and social implications. The Royal Society believes there must be an open and inclusive public debate about how this technology is used and regulated over the coming years.

What if your phone could repair itself after being dropped? Or roads could heal damage to their surfaces by themselves? The benefits of materials that can grow and adapt to their environment are enormous, potentially extending the lifespan of everyday objects and infrastructure. Known as animate materials, there is growing interest in developing human-made substances that can emulate the properties of living organisms. 

They could be transformational in a number of ways – allowing consumer products to last longer, creating buildings that can generate their own power and water, and medical implants that adapt to a patient’s body. They could lead to new types of responsive clothing or building materials that can harvest carbon dioxide from the air to repair cracks or other damage.

The field is still in its infancy, however, meaning there is huge potential to shape how it develops. As the Royal Society outlined in a report looking at how to maximise the benefits from animate materials, it will be important to ensure sustainability and circularity is built into their development to ensure a greener future. The public too should be included in the discussions around ideas and any concerns about how these materials might be used. 

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