A. Demand Pull from Society: In Response to Sustainable Development and Social Reforms

I.  Focus on 2030 Global Sustainable Development Goals

The rapid development of globalization, urbanization and industrialization has caused many shared challenges such as the rampage of the pandemic, replacement of manpower with automation, destruction of the eco-environment, climate change, and a widening gap between rich and poor. At its 70th anniversary on September 25, 2015, the United Nations (UN) held the UN Sustainable Development Summit and published “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” to address the major issues not accomplished by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

This study summarizes the 17 sustainability development goals (SDGs) into three categories, i.e., social, economic, and environmental (Table 1). These goals involve the issues faced by all the countries in the world. To realize equality and human rights, a total of 169 targets are outlined as the guiding principles and the key basis for member states in cross-border cooperation and initiatives to achieve by 2030.   

The issues in health & welfare, climate change, environment & ecosystem, green energy, economic development and social equality will be the focal point of global sustainability development, the determinant of national competitiveness, and a driver of technological development going forward. It is hoped that policy initiatives, understanding and making preparations for the innovative technologies of tomorrow will help to resolve relevant issues and accelerate the achievement of the sustainability development goals.  


II. Significant Social Transformations by 2030

1. Greater connectivity

Over the next four to six years, the increasing penetration of networks and mobile phones will connect nearly half of the global population currently not online. This will create a large number of jobs and market opportunities. By 2030, 500 billion devices and 100 trillion sensors will be connecting people and things. Transportation vehicles, machines and urban infrastructure will become smarter in the future.

2. Expanding human capabilities

The combination of artificial intelligence and virtual reality will make just-in-time education popular. Through 5G and other communication technologies, people will be able to freely access the latest information and all the data to meet their needs. Many start-ups such as Neuralink, Open Water, and Kernel are studying how to connect human brains to the cloud. Super humans are a real possibility going forward.

3. Increased human longevity

The emergence of new technologies such as genome editing, DNA sequencing, and stem-cell therapy is extending the average human life expectancy (to over 90 years). The assistance of artificial intelligence and robots could also enhance human capabilities and help to overcome a variety of intractable diseases. We will eventually live longer and be healthier.

4. Lower living cost

Energy generation cost will decline and the cost of living will be lower in the future. This includes a rapid decline of solar generation cost, gradual enhancement of energy storage capacity and efficiency. Solar generation cost is likely to fall below US$1cents/kWh. If solar becomes a viable alternative energy, seawater desalination will get cheaper, and the traditional use of reservoirs for hydroelectric power generation may no longer be necessary.


B. Technology Push: Trends in Five Platform Technologies

To address the abovementioned long-term issues and targets and to analyze the challenges and opportunities involved, the United Nations’ Millennium Project applied forecast methods such as the expert method, scenario analysis and Futures Wheel to formulate its “State of the Future” report. This identifies the five innovative technology platforms expected to reshape our society and life by 2030: these being blockchain, energy storage, DNA sequencing, robotics, and artificial intelligence (Figure 1).


I. Blockchain

1. Forward-Looking Technology Trend

Blockchain is a trusted and tamper-proof record, capable of tracking anything of value. Over the past decade, blockchain has developed in a variety of directions and has increasingly become part of our life. Leading companies such as SAP, IBM, Oracle and Microsoft have been investing in blockchain technology R&D and are seeking to offer relevant services to customers. According to a survey by Juniper Research of the top 400 companies in the U.K., 60% of them were either proactively discussing whether they should adopt blockchain technology or are already implementing blockchain.

As the acceptance and adoption of blockchain technology continues to increase in the corporate world, the value added by the application of blockchain technology is forecast to reach US$3.1 trillion by 2030. Other than corporates, some countries are also heavily investing in blockchain technology. The top five countries in blockchain development are Malta, Switzerland, Estonia, China and Singapore. The general overall approach and technological developments in these five countries include the passage of blockchain laws (e.g., virtual financial assets), the creation of cryptocurrency cities, the application of decentralization and data integrity authentication to administrative procedures (e.g., digital identification cards), the formulation of regulations and alliances for blockchain information service management, and the offering of a good environment and talent pipelines for start-ups.  

Below is a snapshot of global blockchain technological developments:

  • In 2016, the European Union collaborated with personal data companies, universities and research organizations to create a pan-European blockchain platform for the collection and sharing of patients’ medical information among medical institutions. 
  • CareChain AB in Sweden has launched a blockchain platform for medical data. This system allows companies and individuals to store medical data from different locations. Developers can create apps and relevant services, analyze users’ data and provide users with advice on health management. It also allows industries to develop related products.
  • Estonia as a powerhouse in information and communication technology is using blockchain technology to assist the government’s overall IT management. Since 2012, it has stored 95% of medical data digitally, and achieved 99% digitalization of applications for medical subsidies and issuance of prescriptions.
  • To prepare for public health crises, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is developing a common blockchain platform for pathogen data and disease incidence analysis. In 2017, Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies and Walmart cooperated in the MediLedger project utilizing Ethereum technology to deploy a blockchain platform for the tracking of counterfeit drugs and the maintenance of the medical supply chain through tracking and verifying the origins of medicines.

Whilst the blockchain technology still under development promises sweeping influence and unlimited potential, the mass adoption of business models requires a better and more complete infrastructure, a more friendly environment and supporting legal frameworks.  

2. Future applications

Blockchain technology can be used in a wide range of applications. It goes beyond the tracking of digital and encrypted currencies. Blockchain can be used for electronic transactions of financial assets, digital certificates, food traceability accreditations (e.g., the coffee traceability system based on blockchain and jointly developed by Starbucks and Microsoft), real estate transactions, energy trading systems, protection of art and cultural content, and Internet-of-Things (IoT) device management. It can also be used in medical records management and manufacturing, and in general industries in any fields where credit protection is required.

Take the medical domain for instance, blockchain technology can allow the rapid updating of patients’ medical records and prevent tampering and leakage. It serves as a secure mechanism for all medical institutions to manage and share data. The top five medical insurance companies in the U.S. have started to explore the use of blockchain technology in the medicare system by collecting demographic data from health data providers. Humana and UnitedHealth Group have changed their relationship from competition to collaboration. All of these indicate that the method of medical data processing is changing.


II.  Energy storage

1. Forward-Looking Technology Trend

Energy storage is the technology associated with storing electricity via chemical energy, thermal energy, gravitational potential energy and nuclear energy for the purpose of energy provision. Carbon emission reduction is a focal point of the global efforts to tackle climate change. Many heavyweight companies and start-ups are investing considerable resources on the development of new energy technologies. For example, Bill Gates launched the new energy venture investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) attracting many big-name companies to invest in a variety of storage and nuclear energy systems. These investees include Form Energy (long-duration battery storage); Ambri (liquid metal battery storage); Aquion Energy (sodium ion battery storage); Malta (electro-thermal battery storage); Terra Power (advanced nuclear reactors) and carbon capture. Below is a summary of the development status of a few high-profile energy start-ups.

Sulfur-flow battery: Form Energy from the U.S. is a developer of new battery technologies; one of which is sulfur-flow battery technology, which aims to leverage the low cost and high abundance of sulfur to create a cheaper alternative to lithium batteries. The flow battery requires a liquid electrolyte to be injected around the electrodes. As large components such as pumps are required, this technology is not applicable to small electronics devices such as smartphones. However, it will become an alternative for electricity grid storage equipment in the future. 

Solid-state battery: Quantum Scape, an energy storage company from the U.S. is planning to commercialize solid-state batteries by 2025. The replacement of liquid electrolytes with solid-state solutions can greatly enhance the energy density and storage capacity of batteries. This helps to resolve the issue of the lower mileage range of electric vehicles compared to conventionally fueled vehicles. The company has received US$100 million in investment from the Volkswagen Automotive Group.

Geothermal technology: American start-up Fervo Energy is developing state-of-the-art geothermal technology. This technology applies mixed medium stimulation and uses hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology to build a new system for geothermal energy, to enhance the output of existing geothermal generation plants and construct new geothermal generation capacity. It is envisioned that the application of ultra-high pressure hydraulic power can overcome limitations from porosity and permeability of rock strata. This technology comes from drilling in the oil industry.

Underground hydroelectric energy: Quidnet Energy from the U.S. is developing underground hydroelectric energy storage. Excess electricity from the grid is used to pump water down a disused oil well where it is stored under pressure. When the demand for electricity picks up, the stored water is released back to ponds on the surface via turbines which generate electricity.  

Power generation with nuclear fusion: Commonwealth Fusion Systems from the U.S. is a start-up based on technology developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It involves the Tokamak nuclear fusion system with deuterium and tritium as the fuels and utilizes technology that can reduce the volume of nuclear fusion. The goal is to have nuclear fusion power plants up and running within 15 years. The technology places sub-atomic particles into the Tokamak system to generate plasma and controls the heated plasma with superconductive magnetics. The commercialization prospects of this technology will require ongoing verification.  

2. Future applications

The emergence of energy storage technologies aims to support clean energy generation without impact on the environment. This will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can be used in a wide range of domains such as power, transportation, manufacturing, construction and agriculture. The research of energy storage technologies requires continuous investment, development, and experimentation, and it will take at least a decade to recover the initial costs. In the long run, the development of renewable energy calls for innovative thinking and a suitable environment. 

Space-based solar power(SBSP) currently under development will not cause an environmental footprint and will overcome the problem of the Earth’s solar power generating efficiency limit of 20%. Space solar power would collect solar energy at space stations and transmit the power to Earth or other planets. Special rectifier-antenna (Rectenna) systems will need to be installed on the Earth in order to receive the energy and then distribute the energy using the existing methods.  

Space-based solar power is expected to generate eight times as much energy than is possible on Earth. It will become a new and inexhaustible energy source. The key considerations for space-based solar energy are the location of equipment installation, satellite structures (eg. GEO/MEO/LEO), and energy collection and transmission. Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites are the most promising as they resolve the problem of rectenna sequencing and can transmit electricity non-stop. However, GEO satellites release a large amount of radiation and are prone to the influence of meteorites and solar winds. The inhibitive cost of launching satellites is another issue to be overcome. According to a study by the U.S. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), launch costs in the range of US$100-200/kg are required for space solar energy systems to be economically beneficial. Space X, an aerospace company from the U.S., is developing ways to recover and reuse rocket boosters. This will drive the continued reduction of launch costs going forward.  


III. Genome sequencing

1. Forward-Looking Technology Trend

Currently, the analytical and inspection technology for genome sequencing can be largely divided into traditional sequencing, next generation sequencing, and third-generation sequencing. Traditional sequencing is represented by DNA sequencing or sequencing-based typing (SBT) developed by Sanger. Sequencing is achieved through detection of DNA sequences with amplification to increase the number of target sequences. The result is reliable but the output is low and the cost is high. Next generation sequencing (NGS) is to shear DNA fragments into a large number of shorter fragments and then put these fragments back together. This large-volume and fast sequencing of short fragments can effectively enhance the number of comparisons and reduce the error rate in a short time. Third generation sequencing includes single molecule fluorescence sequencing, single molecule real time sequencing (SMRT) and nanopore sequencing. These techniques are fast and do not have the problems of repeated sequences and missing fragments. However, the error rate and the cost are relatively high.

CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing has attracted significant attention in the biotech domain. Therapeutics Sangamon in the U.S. uses in-body gene editing to develop a treatment for Hunter syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. The technology is to inject a genome-edited enzyme into the human body to rectify the genetic deficiency that prevents the creation of IDS (iduronate 2-sulfatase) enzyme. This will allow the metabolism of mucopolysaccharides and reduce damage to heart, liver and other organs.

Genome editing is gradually finding its way from the laboratory and into medical therapies. In 2019, University of Pennsylvania published a case study of using the CRISPR technology for the treatment of multiple myeloma and sarcoma. However, the gene injected may damage other important genes. Therefore, it will take time to validate the safety and effectiveness of this method.

Whilst genome editing increases the probability of developing treatments for many diseases resulting from genetic mutations, there are potential ethical issues. One example is the use of genome editing for DNA customization of embryos. A designer baby was born in 2018. Professor He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in China claimed to have used genome editing on twins born to be resistant to HIV. The legality and truthfulness of this research sparked many contentions and discussions in the medical world.

2. Future applications

The most mature application of next generation sequencing is non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), as the test subjects are straightforward, clinical validations are quick and clinical data is easily accumulated. This is followed by cancer tests. The combination of next generation sequencing and liquid biopsy can meet the continuous and extensive diagnostic and validation requirements for long-term cancer patients. It is primarily used with patients who don’t respond to first-line and second-line drugs or suffer from cancer recurrence.

Genome editing will primarily be used in medical care for the treatment of cancers or other terminal diseases. There is a growing number of studies on the enhancement of this technology’s accuracy. For instance, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Sun Yat-sen University, and South China Agricultural University worked with Massachusetts Institute of Technology to establish a research team to investigate the development of a drug treatment for autism with genome editing. CRISPR Therapeutics from Switzerland and Vertex Pharmaceuticals from the U.S. are collaborating on the treatment of hemophilia with genome editing. Editas Medicine from the U.K. sponsored a study on Leber's Congenital Amaurosis, a genetic vision disorder.

In addition to the medical domain, genome editing could also be used to boost the economic value of agricultural crops, poultry and livestock in the future. The potential value of genome editing patents is estimated to be in the billions of US dollars. The number of patents obtained each year is also increasing significantly. There will be more and more discussions and solutions to regulatory and ethical issues. Individuals, corporates and society should also think ahead about relevant solutions in order to respond to future societal changes.   

IV. Robotics

1. Forward-Looking Technology Trend

Robotics is a cross-disciplinary technology. It involves the design, production, operation and application of robots, integration with network communication, artificial intelligence algorithms, mechanical operation and sensors. Robots can be divided into service robots, industrial robots and military robots. For instance, Amazon Scout, the six-wheeled fully autonomous driving delivery robot developed by Amazon is currently undergoing operational trials and testing in cities at Snohomish County of Washington State. They are still under the supervision of human minders, known as Amazon Scout Ambassadors. Once the testing and acceptance have been completed, Amazon Scouts will be delivering around city centers on their own. Due to the impact of COVID-19 around the world, the corporate demand for autonomous technology has been increasing. Whilst many companies have deployed a significant amount of artificial intelligence, human supervision or remote control is still required given the complexity of urban environments.

Modular robots that can have customized configurations have the capability to self-repair and replace modules due to their neural network-like control systems. They can be used in industrial and medical settings and as home robots. Modular robots can replace humans in dangerous environments or confined spaces and represent a new development opportunity in the field of emergency rescue. Self-assembling robots, known as M-Blocks, developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) can climb up, jump or roll autonomously. They are attracted to each other via rotating round magnets and can configure themselves into a variety of shapes by stacking and combination.

2. Future applications

Once self-assembling robots can be adequately miniaturized, these autonomous robots could be mobilized into troops of mini-robots to deal with a variety of emergency situations and meet onsite requirements. For instance, they could be morphed into a ladder or other protective equipment for special missions such as bridge and building repairs, nuclear power plant patrols, or fire disaster rescue. Robots will be able to continuously self-learn, adapt to environmental changes and even come up with optimal solutions through evolutionary algorithms and technologies such as machine vision. This could lead to close collaboration between humans and robots.

The University of Sheffield in the U.K. has an R&D program on micro-robots for the inspection of structures and pipelines of underground facilities, undertaking repairs with cement adhesives, cleaning and unblocking operations. The inspection robots are approximately one centimeter in length and able to move around autonomously. Operations robots are slightly bigger and must be remotely controlled. The UK government intends to invest US$24 million on this project. It is expected to achieve savings of US$6.4 billion in road excavation costs each year.

Micro robots can also be used for operations in dangerous sites, such as the inspection of waste gases at nuclear power plants, monitoring of oil pipelines, checks on aircraft engine components, repair and assessment of orbiting satellites. Even smaller nanorobots could be used in medical applications such as for entering the blood vessels and biological tissues to administer drugs and for the treatment of cancers and other diseases. The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is using swarms of nanorobots driven by magnetic fields for simple surgical procedures. 


V. Artificial intelligence

1. Forward-Looking Technology Trend

Artificial intelligence has become a priority for R&D initiatives around the world. PwC forecasts that artificial intelligence will contribute US$15.7 trillion to the global GDP in 2030, and China will account for US$7 trillion of this GDP growth, North America $3.7 trillion. The Chinese government announced in 2017 its ambition to be the leading country in artificial intelligence by 2030. The three Internet giants BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) have invested extensively in R&D resources, seeking to spearhead the artificial intelligence sector in China, from copying Silicon Valley to innovations of their own. It is hoped that the industry will gradually extend its footprint outside of China and into the rest of the world. Below is a summary of the measures taken to date: 

  • Baidu: In the 2017 “Baidu World” conference, the company announced its “All in AI” and revealed its ambition to lead large-scale projects such as AI research, autonomous driving, service robots and international open-source platforms. The most representative initiative is its Apollo autonomous driving platform, which has attracted the participation of more than 95 international companies including Nvidia, Ford and Daimler. Baidu worked with the national deep learning research institute in the development of neuromorphic chips and AI robots. The company also worked on speech recognition patents and in 2018, launched Aladdin, which combines smart speakers, smart lamps and projectors. The system was powered by Baidu’s AI operating system DuerOS, and aims to compete directly with voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant.
  • Alibaba: The company is developing City Brain, an AI platform on the cloud. It is also working with local governments in Macau, Hangzhou and the Malaysian government to develop smart cities by using AI algorithms to analyze and manage traffic, sensors, CCTVs, social networks, and government data in order to predict changes in future events. In 2018, Alibaba invested in Nexar, an AI vehicle and traffic sign recognition company.    
  • Tencent: The company has entered the AI medical domain focusing on genetically personalized medicine. Tencent has been working with many companies with the most advanced technologies in the world and numerous start-ups in different countries. For example, it worked with Babylon Health, an AI medicare company in the U.K. to use AI algorithms for remote diagnostics over their communication app WeChat in order to boost their penetration of medical services. Tencent also invested in many digital health management companies such as WeDoctor (online medical service provider) and iCarbonX (an AI and cloud start-up).
2. Future applications

Artificial intelligence is already deployed in medical diagnostics and therapy (e.g., DeepMind which was acquired by Google), safety protection systems, autonomous robots, smart manufacturing and materials science. In the future, artificial intelligence will be used to lead a revolution in the content and entertainment industries and the development of voice assistants for seniors. The former includes personalized movies, composition and lyrics writing, immersive virtual worlds, AI role playing, dialogue-based storyboard games, and edutainment software. Artificial intelligence can help artists with the creation of artworks and boost human creativity. It can participate in the writing of movie scripts, poems, novels and songs. The latter might resolve the loneliness problem among elderly people with artificial intelligence acting as their best friend, daily caretaker and even emotional companion. This could help solve the digital divide phenomenon for seniors. (A case in point is the collaboration between Amazon and Front Porch, a retirement community in California, U.S.)

With the advancement of voice and data analytics, self-learning robots powered by AI will become intelligent agents for humans by serving as secretaries, protectors, strategic partners and friends. Intelligent agents will be able to assist in daily chores; sense our physical status in order to regulate sleeping habits; adjust ventilation, temperature and lighting; play our favorite music; make recommendations on clothes, shopping lists, recipes and restaurants, and suitable exercise; and provide therapies and reminders for medications. The enhancement of human intelligence with AI will enable the faster processing of events, ushering in an era of augmented intelligence. 


C. Industrial Revolutions and Market Growth Driven by Relevant Technologies

The aforesaid technology platforms can be applied to a wide range of domains and scenarios, including ubiquitous sensors and IoT (Internet-of-Things), multi-access edge computing, 5G and B5G/6G, XR (Extended Reality) and immersive media. It will trigger industrial revolutions in biotechnology, energy and health management.

It is estimated that the aforementioned five technology platforms shaping development from 2020 to 2030 (over the next 10-15 years) will create an aggregate commercial value of over US$50 trillion (see Table 2, with the current market size about US$6 trillion). Early investment and R&D efforts now could generate close to 10x returns. Below is a summary of relevant technological trends and applications. 

D. Issues Arising from Future Technological Development will Require Early Response

I. Ensuing issues

The rapid development of emerging science and technology creates positive benefits to society, but many issues and risks will also ensue. It is imperative to achieve a balance between the potential benefits and possible impacts of emerging technologies.

1. Ethical and privacy problems

Emerging biomedical technologies bring hope to patients suffering from incurable diseases. However, human genetic engineering techniques such as genome sequencing, genome editing, cloning and stem cells come with high risks and scientific uncertainties that are often difficult to control or remedy with traditional methods. Ethical issues arise about the subsequent risks to the ecosystem. Meanwhile, the development of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics trigger debates over rights and obligations. This includes whether robots should enjoy the same legal rights as humans, such as the right to participate in politics and access to social benefits; how to distribute the value added and economic benefits created; and who will suffer the impact of massive unemployment.   

With regard to privacy protection, there is a growing awareness regarding the use and protection of sensitive