As humans, we live with the fact that while we are capable of building advanced societies and achieving incredible things, we are far from perfect. As the dominant species on the planet we have solved a lot of problems, but often in ways that have resulted in the creation of more.
From environmental damage to food shortages, inequalities in access to healthcare and education, and the ever-growing spread of misinformation and propaganda, it is clear we have a long way to go, and perhaps little time left to get there.
Yet I believe that while human progress and domination of the planet might have caused or exacerbated many of these problems, our capacity for innovation offers our best hope of salvation.
Building a better world will require more than just technology. It will also need human will, creativity, and a commitment to acting ethically. If we can manage all of that, developing the technology should be the easy part. With that caveat in mind, then, here are five of the most pressing challenges that I believe are within our power to solve, and the tools that could help us get it done.
1. The global energy crisis
Rising demands for energy, diminishing fossil fuels, and the impact of our energy use on the environment have created a situation where global repercussions are swiftly spiralling out of control.
New ways of harnessing wind, solar and tidal energy have led to a revolution in the way we use renewables. Globally, the amount of renewable energy generated increased from less than 50 gigawatts per year to over 2,800 gigawatts during the first two decades of this century.
Technology has also driven advancements in the development of nuclear fusion, small-scale nuclear fission (SMRs – small modular reactors) and hydrogen energy. While full-scale deployment of some of these is still a way off, recent breakthroughs offer exciting possibilities for how we will power the planet in the future.
The intermittent nature of renewable energy means that we’ve also had to become more proficient at creating batteries, leading to storage and distribution systems that offer greater capacity and reduced charging times. Smart technology has also been implemented across power grids, enabling better management of electricity distribution, increasing efficiency and resilience.
It’s true that the world is still heavily reliant on energy generated by fossil fuels, but through a combination of the solutions mentioned here, that dependence is gradually being broken down.
2. Famine and food scarcity
Population growth, the impact of climate change, war and economic disparity mean our food supply and security are increasingly under threat. We already see the effects of this, in famines in developing countries and rising inflation around the world.
Technology solutions here include many innovations designed to increase yield, minimise waste, and drive more efficient use of resources.
These involve precision farming – which leverages data-driven technologies including internet-of-things (IoT) sensors, artificial intelligence and GPS to let farmers better manage agriculture while also reducing their environmental footprint and water use. Simply reducing the amount of water used to grow crops can have a huge beneficial impact in areas where droughts are an everyday fact of life.
The past decade has also seen the emergence of autonomous farming machinery, driving more efficient production and reducing the need for labour-intensive tasks. Vertical farming and hydroponic solutions allow crops to be cultivated in indoor environments, reducing the wastage caused by pests, disease and adverse weather.
When it comes to meat production, cultured meat – produced in laboratories from animal cells – promises to offer a viable source of mass-produced protein that can address the environmental and ethical concerns around livestock farming. And gene-editing technology, including CRISPR, can create more pest-resistant crops that hold more nutritional value, need fewer chemicals, and grow more happily in harsh environments.
3. Access to healthcare
Stark disparities between access to medical services exist both within countries and between nations, and many areas are facing a dangerous shortage of trained medical professionals. Demographic, economic and geographic factors all play their part in this. Technology is helping to address these issues in a number of ways.
AI makes it possible to quickly and accurately analyse complex medical data, potentially reducing the time spent by doctors examining patients and medical records in order to diagnose illness and prescribe treatment.
It helps with tracking the spread of viruses and pandemics, so preventative measures can be put in place in order to reduce the risk of healthcare systems becoming overburdened. It is also used to find the most efficient formulas and predict side-effects in drug discovery, significantly reducing the time it takes for new medicines to be developed and put to use.
The lack of medical professionals – a particular problem in remote, rural areas, such as parts of China – can be alleviated thanks to developments in the field of remote and telemedicine. Virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) has many applications, both in the delivery of treatment to remote patients, and in the training of new healthcare professionals in order to fill the shortage. 3D printing is allowing localised production of medical tools and equipment. At the same time, people are becoming better able to monitor and look after their own health, thanks to mobile apps and wearables.
4. Education inequality
Despite millions of people living in developing countries being lifted out of poverty in recent decades, the reality of universal access to education has not been achieved. Barriers including geography, skills shortages, and cultural norms still prevent many children around the world from receiving an adequate standard of education. This has numerous knock-on effects including hindering social and economic development.
These issues disproportionately affect women, disabled people, and those living in remote and under-served areas, increasing the marginalisation of those groups. Initiatives aimed at widening internet access in remote areas provide a solution. As well as connecting schools and colleges in remote areas, it allows for study at home in places where girls might be restricted from attending classes due to local cultures.
Edtech solutions such as online learning platforms, VR and AR technologies and AI teachers – capable of offering an “adaptive” education, automatically personalised to the needs of an individual learner – can all help to tackle this issue. And students with disabilities can benefit from advances in accessibility technologies such as text-to-speech and voice recognition, enabled by advances in generative AI.
5. Disinformation and political manipulation
Digital communication technologies and innovations like the internet and social media give everyone a voice and an audience. But they have also amplified the spread of disinformation and are a potent weapon for those wishing to disrupt democratic processes or push their own agendas.
With the emergence of generative AI technologies, the spreading of lies and disinformation can take place faster than ever before. It also takes more sophisticated forms, such as deepfakes and voice cloning. Given the fact this technology is only likely to become more convincing, you could be forgiven for wondering how we are ever going to know if anything we see is genuine in the near future.
I believe that the solutions to these problems lie in the democratising effects of these same technologies. Social networks can be used to organise and mobilise against the threats. A better-connected and better-informed population will make smarter choices, and have more tools at their disposal to resist the tide of disinformation and propaganda.
To assist with this we have technology that can counter deepfakes by detecting algorithmically-generated content. We also have human solutions such as fact-checkers and educational resources, that leverage the power of technology to increase their reach and accessibility.
Overall my belief, or perhaps, hope, is that the capacity of modern communication technology to be used for good – by bringing people together – ultimately outweighs the potential for harm.