Technologies change the world. In the past 40 years, three major pieces of tech have done so: the PC, the internet and the mobile phone. If you are to pick three technologies that will really change the world in the decades ahead, you will take several steps.
First, eliminate the tech that is already on the verge of changing it: autonomous electric vehicles, solar and wind power with battery storage, improved crop yields, artificial intelligence.
Discard, too, the tech that seems to have strictly limited application, like blockchain, and those that seem likely to change it only slightly: graphene, electrified air transport, zero-carbon building materials, small modular nuclear reactors, cancer vaccines.
That leaves a small group of tech, of which three stand out. They represent, in turn: a huge leap in responsible consumption, a huge leap in manufacturing, and a huge leap in power.
Future tech: Cultured meat for food
The term cultured meat may seem a mere mouthful, but its effects may dwarf most others. We use half the world’s habitable land for agriculture, and more than three-quarters of that is used for livestock. As countries try to meet the demand for produce, for example China’s demand for Australia’s seafood, they are also denuding many of the world’s seas of fish.
The rise of lab-grown meat could radically reduce human pressure on the natural world, while cutting water use and greenhouse gas emissions (cows burp a lot of methane).
Cultured meat is mostly mushy – mince, really – and cultured-meat researchers mostly admit we’re still a long way from the muscle and fat of perfect steak. The artificiality makes some people queasy. But it’s reportedly very edible.
Make it at least vaguely competitive with existing meats, and we may quickly create a widespread social taboo against eating meat from what were once live animals. Greater demand and further innovation could drive down prices quickly.
The big trick, then, is for companies like Memphis Meats, Just, Finless Foods, Mosa Meat and Tyson Foods to make culturing fast and energy efficient, and thus affordable. Investors from Bill Gates to agriculture giant Cargill are betting that can happen. (Gates has also invested in plant-based artificial meats.)
Keep the price cuts coming over the next decade or two, and the world may have a lot more food factories and a lot less cows and fishing boats.
Future tech: Flexible, object-manipulating robots
See it, pick it up, do something with it. We do this so commonly that we take it for granted. Now machines are close to doing the same thing, which could transform relatively mundane tasks ranging from bricklaying to manufacturing to laundry.
So far, robots have mostly taken over activities where work can be extremely carefully organised, such as car production. To take the next leap in capability, they must cope with real-world messiness. Developments in sensors, actuators and artificial intelligence are starting to unlock that capability.
Future tech: Fusion power
This may be the longest shot, but the search for always-on power is likely to accelerate fusion funding over the next few years after decades of relative neglect. The reward of successful fusion might be almost limitless power, without long-lived and deadly radioactive waste or greenhouse gases.
The principles of fusion are compelling: fuse atomic nuclei at super-high temperatures in a magnetic bottle, forming heavier nuclei, and harvest the heat produced to make electricity just as we now make it by burning coal.