If some of the many thousands of human volunteers needed to test coronavirus vaccines could have been replaced by digital replicas—one of this year's Top 10 Emerging Technologies—COVID-19 vaccines might have been developed even faster, saving untold lives. Soon virtual clinical trials could be a reality for testing new vaccines and therapies. Other technologies on the list could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by electrifying air travel and enabling sunlight to directly power the production of industrial chemicals. With “spatial” computing, the digital and physical worlds will be integrated in ways that go beyond the feats of virtual reality. And ultrasensitive sensors that exploit quantum processes will set the stage for such applications as wearable brain scanners and vehicles that can see around corners.
These and the other emerging technologies have been singled out by an international steering group of experts. The group, convened by Scientific American and the World Economic Forum, sifted through more than 75 nominations. To win the nod, the technologies must have the potential to spur progress in societies and economies by outperforming established ways of doing things. They also need to be novel (that is, not currently in wide use) yet likely to have a major impact within the next three to five years. The steering group met (virtually) to whittle down the candidates and then closely evaluate the front-runners before making the final decisions. We hope you are as inspired by the reports that follow as we are.