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6 tech trends that are shaping the world right now

As the Elevate Festival returns to Toronto, here’s a look at some of the major trends that are sure to spark debate.

Thousands of tech types will arrive in Toronto next week for the Elevate Festival. The wide-ranging event shines a spotlight on topics from AI regulation and equality in tech to videogame design and the latest ideas from social media influencers.

Here are five important trends that will shape the discussion.


Science is coming to your dinner table

Agriculture accounts for 15 percent of current global warming levels. And with extreme weather events on the rise, crop yields will go down, and food prices will go up. What will we do in 2050, when our population hits 10 billion? The answer may lie not on farms, but in labs.

Lab-grown meats are set to enter the global food supply, with the U.S. recently approving lab-grown chicken for sale in restaurants, and eventually supermarkets, too. And the changes go beyond the meat aisle. Montreal-based Opalia creates cow-free milk using mammary cells grown in bioreactors and is scaling up its production.

Lab-grown foods are not the only solution. Urban hydroponic farming, like the kind being done by Ottawa startup Growcer, will help decrease food transportation, which makes up nearly one-fifth of carbons in the food system. There also continues to be advances in plant-based meats. Liven Proteins, for example, upcycles pea starch, which is often discarded or used for animal feed. The company turns the pea starch into animal-free collagen, which is perfect for improving the nutrition and texture of veggie meats.

Go deeper: The Future Dinner Plate. Sept. 27, 2:40 p.m. St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Featuring Kayli Dale, co-founder of Friendlier; Jennifer Cote, co-founder of Opalia and Leah Perry, senior manager of cleantech at MaRS.


The four-day week is gaining momentum

Should employers switch to a four-day work week? It’s a risky premise — there’s a lot of work involved in getting it right, but the productivity gains are worth it, says Grace Tallon, Head of Operations at the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence. Tallon describes Work Time Reduction as “an operational excellence project in disguise.”
An employer’s ability to reduce work hours without hitting output is directly related to the company’s operational efficiency.

Talon cites Unilever’s recent foray into the four-day work week. Unilever, a titan of consumer goods ( it owns Dove, Ben and Jerry’s and 400 other brands) reported increased revenue and staff happiness after implementing a 20 percent reduction in work hours in New Zealand. Four-day work week trials in the U.S. and Canada have yielded similar results. “This can happen,” says Tallon.

Go deeper: 4-Day Work Week for Gender Equality, True Inclusion, and Well Being. Sept. 29, 11:15 a.m. St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Featuring Grace Tallon, chief operations officer at the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence; Tessa Ohlendorf, managing director of Media.Monks; John P. Trougakos from the University of Toronto, and Ali Asaria, Founder of Tulip.


AI is getting into healthcare

In the past, looking up your symptoms on the internet was a sure-fire path to doom and gloom. You’d likely self-diagnose your common cold as pneumonia. But new AIs like ChatGPT and Google’s Med-PaLM are making the process far more accurate. In a recent study of responses to online questions from patients, researchers found that ChatGPT outperformed real doctors in the quality, thoroughness and empathy of its answers. (That’s likely because human doctors have other demands on their time, like performing surgeries or prescribing meds.)

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. AI is also speeding up the typically lengthy drug discovery process. And in hospitals such as St. Michael’s in Toronto, medical staff are using AI to monitor patients. These AI tools use patient vitals, test results and medical records to predict the level of support a patient may need — enabling care teams to keep a closer eye on those at higher risk of deteriorating. Even on the administration side, doctors are relying on machines to take their notes. In a world where nurse and doctor shortages are a recurring issue, these AI advances are primed to be gamechangers for the industry.

Go deeper: Beacons of Hope: AI in Medicine. Sept. 26, 6:35 p.m. Featuring Brendan Frey, founder of Deep Genomics.


Prompt engineering is becoming a thing — and it’s lucrative

Generative AIs like ChatGPT may be able to help diagnose a strange rash or “assist” with a university essay, but there’s an art to getting them to produce something useful (rather than going off on a flight of fancy with made-up facts). That emerging art is prompt engineering — and it has already given rise to a new kind of worker.

Prompt engineers have mastered chatting with AI the same way we’ve all mastered using search engines to get the information we want: they’re experts at guiding them to produce specific content. It’s work that can currently pay upwards of $400,000. While the big paycheques will likely become less common as more people acquire these skills, some high salaries may remain, particularly for prompt engineers navigating life and death matters. Medical applications, for example, require prompt engineers to feed sensitive patient information to the AI — a slip up in their work might be devastating.

Danielle Gifford, a veteran in the AI venture space, believes AI will evolve, but prompt engineers are here to stay. “There’s always going to be a balance of automation with human insight,” she says. Gifford suggests that the quality of AI content output will still depend on the quality of human input. “The prompt is like an instruction for the machine,” she says. And as AI becomes more complicated, so too will the instructions.

Go deeper: Unlocking Potential: The Art of Prompt Engineering. Sept. 27, 9:35 a.m. St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Featuring Danielle Gifford, executive director of Movement 51.


Getting old is going out of fashion

The entire beauty sector has been built on holding back the outward signs of aging. But scientists are now trying to halt or even reverse the changes that occur in our bodies as we age. Bryan Johnson, a 46-year-old tech entrepreneur, believes a scientifically calibrated lifestyle is taking his body all the way back to its late-teen peak. Johnson spends $2 million a year on supplements, injections and treatments based on algorithmic data about his health. His scientific team claims, among other achievements, that his body inflammation is lower than that of an 18-year-old. His company describes him as “the most biologically measured man in history,” and his project is emblematic of the growing anti-aging trend in tech.

Although longevity experts and bioethicists have raised concerns about where such attempts might lead, the anti-aging industry is burgeoning and attracting attention from some big players. Google has backed Calico Life Sciences, which is tackling age-related diseases, and Retro Biosciences — which says its mission is to add a decade to the human lifespan — has received a $180-million investment from OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. And with AI-driven medical advances on the rise, expect the industry to balloon even further – possibly to $44.2 billion by 2030.

Go deeper: You and I Are Going to Live Forever. Sept. 27, 2:35 p.m. Meridian Hall. Featuring Bryan Johnson, founder of Blueprint and Carly Weeks, national health reporter at The Globe and Mail.


Cybersecurity is getting an upgrade

Cyber attacks are happening more often. MGM Resorts, is scrambling to recover after hackers disrupted its operations, leading to shutdowns on casino floors and hotel guests being unable to use their key cards. There’s even a shortage of Clorox after the cleaning product maker became the victim of an attack.

Human error is still a factor in the overwhelming majority of cybersecurity problems. Researchers from Stanford University and a top cybersecurity organization found that 88 percent of all data breaches are caused by an employee mistake.

So cybersecurity experts are developing new tactics to account for this. These approach emphasis a multi-layered system that includes skilled and trained cyber defenders and deploying multiple digital barricades. This could include leveraging AI, machine learning, endpoint and network protections and improving network visibility.

Go deeper: Anatomy of an Attack: Decoding Cyber Threats for Enhanced Defense. Sept, 27, 3:50 p.m. St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Featuring Claudette McGowan, CEO of Protexxa and co-founder of Firehood Inc.

Learn more about how Canadian innovators are working to solve society’s greatest challenges at the Elevate Festival, which runs from September 26 to 28. For more information, visit elevate.ca.

With files from Amanda Whalen

Image source: iStock

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MaRS is the world's largest urban innovation hub in Toronto that supports startups in the health, cleantech, fintech, and enterprise sectors. When MaRS opened in 2005 this concept of urban innovation was an untested theory. Today, it’s reshaping cities around the world. MaRS has been at the forefront of a wave of change that extends from Melbourne to Amsterdam and runs through San Francisco, London, Medellín, Los Angeles, Paris and New York. These global cities are now striving to create what we have in Toronto: a dense innovation district that co-locates universities, startups, corporates and investors. In this increasingly competitive landscape, scale matters more than ever – the best talent is attracted to the brightest innovation hotspots.

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