The next 20 years: five new technologies on the horizon

What will everyday life be like in two decades’ time? Matthew Partridge peers into his crystal ball.

Hypersonic plane
(Image credit: © Waymo)

It’s November 2040. You check your phone and see that you’re due to meet a friend in New York for lunch. You get in your car and order it to drive to Heathrow. During the brief flight, you chat to your grandmother, who just celebrated her 100th birthday by running a marathon thanks to her new bionic leg. When you arrive in New York, another driverless car whisks you to the restaurant. While you wait at the bar, you scroll through the news: the World Health Organisation (WHO) says the seasonal flu has finally been eradicated. All this sounds like science fiction in 2020. But major advances in transport, medicine and quantum computing are set to revolutionise our lives.

Driverless cars

One thing keeping carmakers’ managers awake at night is the decline in the number of young adults across the developed world learning to drive. According to Britain’s Department for Transport, the number of 17 to 20-year-olds with driving licences has fallen from around 50% in 1994 to just 29% in 2014. The trend is due to the rise in insurance costs and tougher tests. The good news is that in the future driving tests may become unnecessary thanks to the rise of cars that can drive without any human input.

Ben Barringer, an equity research analyst with Quilter Cheviot, thinks that fully autonomous cars are “likely to take around eight to ten years to hit the mainstream”. Real progress has been made in decreasing the amount of driver input needed. If automation is measured on a scale of zero to five, with five denoting total automation, an increasing number of carmakers offer level-two features such as automatic steering assistance and distance control, says Barringer.

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Several companies are devoting large sums of money to designing cars that reach levels four and five. While none of these cars are commercially available yet, they are undergoing real-life testing on public roads across the world. They do occasionally make mistakes, but the number of miles they can travel without needing to be overruled by their human test-driver has been rising. Waymo (owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company) claims that its driverless cars travel an average distance of 13,000 miles per human intervention (more than the average Briton drives in a year). China’s Baidu says its cars boast an average distance per human intervention of 18,000 miles.

One of the core technologies underpinning autonomous car technologies is Lidar, which measures the distance between two objects by using a combination of lasers and sensors. Infineon Technologies (Frankfurt: IFX) manufactures several key components used in Lidar systems, and should benefit from the rise of autonomous driving. It is on a 2021 price/earnings (p/e) ratio of 22 and yields 1.1%.

Hypersonic planes

The way we travel longer distances also looks set to change. In the 1970s everyone expected Concorde to usher in a new age of supersonic travel. Sadly, while it was technologically advanced, it consumed a huge amount of fuel and made an extremely loud noise (which led to the US and other countries forcing it to stick to subsonic speeds as it flew through their airspace). As a result, demand suffered irreversible damage when oil prices surged in the 1970s. Concorde limped on until it finally retired from service in 2003.

Nonetheless, research over the past few decades into how supersonic travel can be made commercially viable is now starting to bear fruit. For example, Aerion Corporation claims to have developed a business jet in conjunction with General Electric that can fly as fast as Concorde while consuming much less fuel and being quiet enough to fly over land. They have already secured an order for 20 jets and hope to start selling them by 2026. Virgin Group and Japan Airlines have also agreed to buy a 75-seat passenger jet from rival Boom Supersonic.

Hypersonic plane

(Image credit: © Boom Supersonic)

While the possibility of supersonic travel is exciting enough, the real game-changer would be travel at a flight speed in excess of Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound and more than twice Concorde’s velocity). This would cut travel times between London and New York to 90 minutes, “opening up the possibility of... day trips across the Atlantic, without having to bother about the need to adapt your body to different timezones”, says Dr. Adam Dissel, president of Reaction Engines, one of the many companies researching this area. Dissel predicts that we will see not only supersonic passenger jets by the end of decade but also hypersonic ones within 20 years.

One firm heavily involved in efforts to develop both supersonic and hypersonic planes is engine maker Rolls-Royce (LSE: RR). It has a substantial equity stake in Reaction Engines and is also developing the engines for both Boom and Virgin Galactic’s supersonic jets as well. While the Covid-19-induced collapse in demand for air travel has caused its share price to plummet, a £2bn rights issue, along with government support, should enable it to ride out the crisis until demand recovers.

Vastly improved vaccines

The idea of being able to travel from London to New York in less time than it takes to watch a football match is one thing, but at present most people are living under major restrictions on where they can go or what they do thanks to the ongoing pandemic. The good news is that the long-awaited Covid-19 vaccine may be only weeks away. According to the WHO, there are now 11 vaccines undergoing stage three-trials (the final pre-approval stage of clinical trials). These include vaccines developed in America, Europe, the UK, Russia and China, with a further 16 in stage two.

Of course, even after the Covid-19 pandemic ends there will be many diseases left to tackle. Alex Hunter of Sarasin & Partners notes that infectious diseases still account for one in every four deaths across the world. No wonder, then, that experts have calculated that every $1 spent by public bodies on vaccination programmes “can yield a societal return of $44”. More effective vaccines, against a wider range of diseases, with fewer side effects, could transform the world.

The way vaccines are produced is currently undergoing a revolution. Plant-based vaccines could slash the time it takes to manufacture a treatment, compared with the traditional approach using chicken eggs (finding a vaccine entails growing viruses in a cell, which they then take over, because they can’t reproduce on their own). The elements of a vaccine build up much more quickly in plants than in eggs.

Meanwhile, vaccines that target the stem of a virus, rather than just its surface, means that the vaccine will still work even if the virus mutates, making a universal flu vaccine a possibility. Finally, so-called “messenger RNA” (MRNA) vaccines aim to improve the efficiency of the immune system’s response by getting the body to create proteins that stimulate the immune system.

Vaccines are also playing an increasing role in treating diseases such as cancer. Drug companies are putting increasing resources into immunotherapy, which aims to train the body’s own immune system to turn against cancer calls. One company at the forefront of vaccines, both to prevent and treat disease, is biotechnology company Moderna (Nasdaq: MRNA). Not only is it one of the leaders in the race to bring a Covid-19 vaccine to market, but it is also working with Merck to develop personalised cancer vaccines based on MRNA technology.

Intelligent prosthetics

Vaccines aren’t the only area of medicine experiencing a revolution. Artificial limbs have become much more sophisticated over the past decade, with the industry moving way from passive lumps of metal or plastic to prostheses that anticipate and support users’ movements. What’s more, exoskeletons, wearable robotic devices similar to the bionic suit in the Iron Man film series, are moving from science fiction to reality. Several companies now offer exoskeletons that give stroke victims, or those partially paralysed, a chance to walk again.

At present even the best prostheses work by either predicting what moves the user will make next or measuring activity in the nerves surrounding the missing limb. This can be a big problem if the user makes unexpected movements, or if there is something preventing the signal from the brain reaching the area (such as a break in the spinal cord). However, there has been much research on creating brain-computer interfaces that allow users to communicate with the devices through their thoughts alone.

One approach to producing brain-computer interfaces is through devices that measure signals in various parts of the brain and then decode them into messages that can be sent to the artificial limb. However, another approach is to develop computer chips that can be implanted directly into the brain. In August, Neuralink, one of Elon Musk’s many start-ups, demonstrated a device that had been successfully trialled in a pig. A stock to consider in the prosthetics sector is ReWalk Robotics (Nasdaq: RWLK), which offers a rigid exoskeleton for those who have damaged their spines as well as an exosuit for people undergoing therapy.

While the company is not yet profitable, it recently became an approved provider for Medicare (the public-health part of America’s insurance system), which has the potential to boost sales dramatically.

Quantum computing

Medical advances have the potential to save lives and expand the human lifespan. However, attempts to use computers to speed up medical innovations by simulating human cells or even organs have been limited by the fact that even the fastest supercomputers struggle to carry out the complex calculations needed.

The good news is that quantum computers, which rely on energy on the scale of electrons and subatomic particles rather than the flow of electricity, may be able to help. Their unique properties allow them to tackle an enormous number of problems at the same time, unlike traditional computers, which tackle them one by one. The upshot is an exponential increase in computing power.

Drug and medical research isn’t the only area that could be transformed by quantum computers. They could eventually deliver solutions to “previously intractable problems”, improve efficiencies and reduce costs across a “broad range of industries”, says Colm Harney of Sarasin & Partners. They could “massively improve” the management of transport networks, speed up development in machine learning, and lead to “incredible” new discoveries in the materials industry. Banks and engineering firms are also starting to explore potential applications of quantum computers.

Of course, building quantum computers that can tackle “real-world problems” is not going to be easy, warns Harney. Designers are still struggling with the task of “keeping calculation errors to a minimum”. What’s more, just building a quantum computer itself won’t be enough, as the industry needs to develop “an entire ecosystem of quantum-specific operating systems, software, algorithms, programmers and so on”. Note that even after 40 years of research and development, quantum computing “hasn’t yet made a tangible difference to our lives”.

Nevertheless, despite these previous disappointments there are some encouraging signs that the 2020s “might be the decade that quantum computing finally makes the leap from hype to reality”, says Harney. Not only have Google and IBM built working quantum computers over the past 12 months, but there has been a “step-change” in the amount of private and public money invested this area. This includes £600m from the UK government, $1bn from the US, €2bn from the EU and $10bn from China, who all hope to become “global leaders” in this area.

Tom Weller of Evenlode Investment thinks that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) is one of the companies set to benefit from advances in quantum computing. Not only is the group developing quantum computers that can be accessed via the cloud, but they are also creating a range of applications that can exploit the extra processing power provided by quantum computers. The stock is on a 2022 p/e of 27.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri