Mains Articles

Frontier Technologies Opportunities and Challenges [Mains Articles]

Frontier technologies offer a multitude of opportunities to re-imagine how our economies could serve better social and environmental needs.
By IT's Mains Articles Team
December 28, 2019


  • Introduction
  • What is Frontier Technology?
  • General Purpose technologies
  • Digital Exclusion
  • Digital Technologies and Prosperity
  • Advantages of Technology
  • Challenges of growing digital technologies
  • Is technology enough guarantee success?
  • Pillars of future economy
  • People at the Centre
  • Conclusion

Frontier Technologies Opportunities and Challenges

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Rapid technological transformation will be a key feature of the economy in the future. At the national, regional and global levels, frontier technologies are offering promising new opportunities but are also introducing new policy challenges.

Frontier Technologies Opportunities and Challenges

What is Frontier Technology?

  • Frontier technology is the next phase in the evolution of modern technology. However, there is no universally agreed definition of frontier technology.
  • In fourth Industrial Revolution, frontier technologies comprised of AI, robotics, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things amongst others.

Frontier Technologies Opportunities and Challenges2

  • It is the intersection where radical forward thinking and real-world implementation meet.
  • Many frontier technologies can be classified as general-purpose technologies (GPT). A GPT has the potential to re-shape the economy and boost productivity across all sectors and industries.
  • Although some frontier technologies are “new”, in other cases they may be a different application or bundling of more established technologies. For these reasons, a multitude of different technologies have been identified as frontier.
  • For example, OECD (2016) listed 40 frontier technologies (figure 1) and mapped them into four quadrants that represent broad technological areas: biotechnologies, advanced materials, digital technologies, and energy and environmental technologies.

General Purpose technologies

  • A GPT has the potential to re-shape the economy and boost productivity across all sectors and industries.

general-purpose technologies (GPT)

  • Steam, electricity, internal combustion, and information technology (IT) are other examples of GPTs.
  • GPT has the following three characteristics:
  1. Pervasiveness – the GPT should spread to most sectors.
  2. Improvement – the GPT should become more efficient and effective over time and keep lowering costs for users.
  3. Innovation spawning – the GPT should enable the invention and development of new products or processes.

Artificial intelligence

  • The term AI has been around since the 1950s. It generally refers to computer systems that can perform tasks that normally require human intelligence.
  • According to OECD, AI is defined as the ability of machines and systems to acquire and apply knowledge, and to carry out intelligent behaviour.
  • This includes a variety of cognitive tasks (e.g. sensing, processing oral language, reasoning, learning, making decisions) and demonstrating an ability to move and manipulate objects accordingly.


  • A robot is a mechanical device that can be programmed to perform a variety of human tasks.
  • According to the International Organization for Standardization, a robot is an actuated mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy, moving within its environment, to perform intended tasks.
  • Worldwide, since 2010, the Republic of Korea has by far the highest robot density in the manufacturing industry.

The Internet of Things

  • Internet of Things represents a concept in which network devices can collect and sense data, and then share that data across the internet where that data can be utilized and processed for various purposes.
  • The term goes beyond devices traditionally connected to the internet, such as laptops and smartphones, by including all kinds of objects and sensors that permeate the public space, the workplace and homes, and that gather data and exchange these with one another and with humans.
  • The Internet of Things is closely related to big data analytics and cloud computing. While the Internet of Things collects data and takes action based on specific rules, cloud computing offers the capacity for the data to be stored, and big data analytics empowers data processing and decision making.

3D printing

  • 3D printing (also referred to as additive manufacturing), refers to a set of manufacturing technologies where 3D objects are created by adding successive layers of material on top of one another aided by specialized computer programs for both process control and object design.
  • Engineers and industrial designers used it to accelerate their design and prototyping operations, saving both time and money.
  • It has even been applied to create consumer products such as fashion, footwear, jewellery, glasses and food.
  • It can be used to produce tailor-made products of small quantity. It can turn out one-off items with the same equipment and materials needed to make thousands, thus altering the nature of traditional manufacturing.

Digital Exclusion

  • The latest wave of technological change is fundamentally altering how goods, services and ideas are exchanged. And as rapidly declining costs make digital technologies even more affordable and accessible, they will continue to transform people’s lives and livelihoods.
  • There is a danger that these gains will not reach the world’s poorest people.
  • An estimated three billion people could still lack internet access by 2023, and many more will have little or no opportunity to reap the benefits of digital technologies.
  • That means there can be no delay in addressing the problem of digital exclusion.

Digital Technologies and Prosperity

  • The Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development has shown that developing countries can still harness the new wave of frontier technologies for the benefit of all.
  • Digital technologies have unlocked new routes to prosperity through agriculture, manufacturing, trade in services, the linking of informal and formal sectors, and domestic interconnectivity.
  • Low- and middle-income countries around the world now have an opportunity to build new industries, deliver better services, and improve peoples’ lives.

Advantages of Technology

  • The adoption of technologies and innovation in production processes has the potential to enhance productivity. For example, embracing the Internet of Things in China’s manufacturing chain could add up to $736 billion to GDP by 2030.
  • Technologies have the potential to lift the sustainable development curve. For example, Image recognition has allowed researchers to scan more than 50,000 images of plants to identify crop diseases using smartphones with a success rate of over 99 per cent.
  • Innovative policy action to utilize technologies in the delivery of public services is gaining ground. E-government services, including in health and education sectors, are a great example of how governments are embracing technology.
  • Frontier technologies can help anticipate and respond to the effects of climate hazards and air pollution through the adoption of state-of-the-art technologies to address environmental impacts.

Challenges of growing frontier technologies

Challenges of growing frontier technologies

  • Digital technologies can also entrench existing forms of exclusion, disrupt livelihoods, and provide new tools for the powerful to abuse and exploit the weak.
  • There are uncertainties about the future of work. In the coming decades, the jobs of 785 million workers, that’s equivalent to over 50 per cent of total employment in the Asia-Pacific region could be automated.
  • Developing countries, in particular, are starting from a difficult position, because they are already grappling with the challenges of low human capital, ineffective institutions, and a difficult business environment.
  • Despite the rapid penetration of the internet the world over, several billion have been left behind. As ICT infrastructure is the backbone of many frontier technologies, there is a risk of its triggering a new frontier technology divides, compounding an already existing digital divide.
  • All developing countries and emerging economies should be able to capture at least some of the new opportunities on offer.
  • Frontier technologies pose trust and ethical questions. There are risks of calibrating AI algorithms based on biased data that may yield biased AI learning outcomes. Government-owned satellites, telecommunications multinationals, social media start-ups, all have real-time information at their fingertips. Technology per se is not the problem, but there are ethical issues surrounding privacy, ownership and transparency.

Is technology enough to guarantee success?

  • Technology alone will not guarantee success.
  • Policymakers must also account for local contexts and conditions, so that they can create social, political and economic ecosystems in which technology creates jobs and drives inclusive growth.
  • To compete globally, all countries will need to prepare themselves for new and upcoming technologies, by maximizing inclusiveness and guiding markets toward the right types of innovation.
  • Governments should start by recognizing that the challenge is not just about “digital policy.” Rather, it calls for a “whole-of-economy”—indeed, a “most-of-society”—approach. And because inclusion is the key to success, support for marginalized groups will need to be built into the policy process from the outset.

Pillars of future economy

  • The national governments should start planning for digital readiness in four areas: infrastructure, human capital, policy and regulation, and finance. These are the technical pillars of the future economy.
  • At the same time, regional-level policymakers—particularly in the Asia-Pacific region— need to start building momentum on policy cooperation which will be necessary for harnessing frontier technologies for the greater good.
  • Likewise, at the global level, cross-border issues associated with frontier technologies will need to be addressed multilaterally.
  • That means multilateral organizations themselves should be developing an antenna for identifying new technological and development challenges. It is already clear that more must be done to mitigate technological disruptions to employment, boost investment in human capital, and ensure fair taxation in the new digital economy.
  • The power of multilateralism should not be underestimated. For decades, countries have been coming together in global fora to safeguard public goods and pursue collective prosperity. Nonetheless, the existing architecture for multilateralism will need to be adapted to reflect changing needs.
  • To capture the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution we also need to strengthen public-private partnerships and make our economies more efficient and flexible.
  • With the world’s population projected to reach ten billion by mid-century, global governance will become even more complex than it is today.

People at the Centre

  • In addition to addressing the impact of technological disruption and ensuring fair taxation, the key will be to put people at the center of the agenda.
  • A digital world should be created where all people have a voice and where those who are not benefiting from change have the support they need.
  • The challenge we face is also an opportunity. Digital and frontier technologies have enormous potential to improve government administration and the delivery of public services. It is time for a new kind of conversation, one that involves governments, business leaders, innovators, civil-society organizations and citizens alike.


Frontier technologies offer a multitude of opportunities to re-imagine how our economies could serve better social and environmental needs. But for, especially, developing countries, the task is clear: we must ride the wave of technological change rather than wait for it to crash down on us.



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