2017: a year of innovation opportunity

Posted on: 05/01/2017

As we move on from a chaotic 2016, there are game-changing developments ahead.

KTN predictions for breakthrough technologies in the next 12 months.

With all of the challenges that it presented, there will be many among us breathing a sigh of relief that 2016 has at last sunk below the horizon.

But human ingenuity is resilient – and a new year brings with it new opportunities for technological innovation; with some futuristic imaginings becoming reality, or at least, reaching trial stage. Here are a few of our team’s predictions for the developments that will change our world in 2017; beginning with the biggest game-changer of all, as artificial intelligence goes mainstream.


Artificial intelligence – from play to mission critical systems

Over the past decade, various incarnations of artificial intelligence (AI) have been creeping closer and closer towards operational aspects of our daily lives. Although it may not be labelled as such, AI can now be found in industries as diverse as banking, retail and air traffic control.

These applications often serve as simulations for training or as “early-warning” systems, which spot abnormal trends in big data to alert their human supervisors to take action. Spotting potential credit card theft from a deluge of transactional data is a good example of how AI is used “at arm’s length” to support decision-making.

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But last year, in a highly publicised, $1million challenge between man and machine, Deepmind’s computer programme, AlphaGo, thrashed 18-time international Go champion Lee Sedol at his own game.

This challenge, which AlphaGo won by 4 games to 1, marked a milestone in the development of AI for two reasons. Firstly, many aficionados believed Go to be a uniquely “human” game, with success dependent on qualitative decisions from the billions of moves available. Secondly, the algorithmic approach used by AlphaGo enables it to “learn” and improve with each game it plays. According to Sedol, his opponent played with “creativity and flair”.

In short, for the first time, artificial intelligence has started to demonstrate that it can think like us.

The advances made by Deepmind and other innovators mean that AI is at a watershed moment. In 2017, we will begin to see AI running operational activities that don’t just support, but which control mission-critical systems for their organisations. For instance, AI systems will plot and manage the air traffic itself, rather than simulating training scenarios for human operators.

We will see artificial intelligence starting to plan our energy consumption or our retail choices or our diet. Our factory production, our cities, our leisure – even our healthcare – will begin to be managed by more efficient and, certainly, cheaper versions of ourselves. There will be mistakes along the way – but we’re on a road towards AI taking care of us like never before. And that won’t be a game that we’ll want to lose.

-Jon Kingsbury, Head of Digital Economy and Creative Industries

It’s all in the genes

In 2017, we will synthesise more DNA than ever before. The knock-on reduction in manual cloning, together with advances in automation, mean researchers can spend more time designing better experiments and producing more high-quality data that can be shared and compared.

The bottleneck in the bio-design, build, test, and analyse cycle will shift, which will stimulate the development of better bio-design tools and innovation in higher-throughput characterisation platforms.

The toolkits we use to engineer biology are increasingly precise. Tools such as CRISPR/Cas9 will be used to further our fundamental understanding of biological systems, identify potential therapeutic targets, and engineer plants and microbes to make useful products in a more sustainable way.

As DNA is available in larger volumes at lower cost, we will also see it being used for a wider variety of applications: from cell therapy that could transform cancer treatments to the digital preservation of vast catalogues of information for future generations, these innovations will stimulate change in unexpected ways.

-Amy Tayler, Knowledge Transfer Manager, Synthetic Biology

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From screen to fork: food tailor-made for your body

In the 3D printing space, one of the most interesting areas is 3D printing of foods that grow. This is a way of using 3D printing to create something fairly homogenous, which later it changes into something heterogenous. Rather than just producing an interesting shape (as we can do already with 3D printing of chocolate or icing sugar), we can 3D print potential foods.

There are analogies for using 3D printing to allow cells to grow in a scaffold, which might then develop into a whole organ. Using additive manufacturing in this way could lead to a significant reduction in environmental footprint and food waste.

The next stage will be akin to the photocuring of foods. This is where a food is built up in layers; with each cooked in some way so that another, different layer can be added. For example, in the case of a pizza, each of the individual components can be printed. The challenge is to put these together in a way that they will be a complete food.

The next step towards that might also include personalised nutrition – food digitally engineered to meet individual nutritional needs. The US Army is leading research into this through DARPA, but some of its findings may be translatable for civilian use – and we may see some tangible outcomes in 2017.

-Bryan Hanley, Specialist, AgriFood

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4IR: the empire strikes back

The Fourth Industrial Revolution – fusing physical, digital, and biological technologies – is gathering pace; catalysed by the 4Manufacturing programme co-ordinated by KTN. Alan Mak MP, Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the 4th Industrial Revolution, has proposed 4IR as one of the central planks of the forthcoming Industrial Strategy; one that is critical to this country’s post-Brexit future. But it’s not just the UK where these technologies will be critical to productivity and sales.

For many years, China has been seen as a low-cost manufacturing country – but economic changes, including a rapid rise in wages, have driven up costs, and countries such as the UK and USA have been re-shoring. In 2016, the Chinese government introduced the Made in China 2025 programme to reinvigorate its manufacturing sector.

China has a significant proportion of young manufacturing employees with an insatiable appetite for technology, big data and innovation. Couple this with an ability to deploy it, and we will see greater strides in 4IR for manufacturing development in 2017.

This year, the Chinese will continue to react to the reduction in overseas sales by expediting industrial automation (the country is already the world’s biggest buyer of robots); investing heavily in R & D and using the Internet of Things and Fourth Industrial Revolution technology to transform their manufacturing and improve their global competitiveness.

As the UK Government builds on its growing trade relationship with China, our strong innovation credentials mean there will also be a number of opportunities for UK companies to support the technological ambitions of Chinese firms.

-Malcolm Harold, Knowledge Transfer Manager, Manufacturing


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