When you get down to it, designers aim to solve problems, and technology is, by definition, a series of tools to do just that.
So why we do we fear and embrace emerging tech with equal measure?
Designers convened at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore last Wednesday to discuss the paradox.
“It’s amazing to think what the world might look like when you apply these mediums,’’ said Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of the Stanford University d.school, who facilitated a discussion that included Laura Kliman, senior flavor scientist at Impossible Foods; Morgan Mercer, founder and CEO of Vantage Point; and Kathryn Segovia, head of learning experience design in the executive education program at Stanford’s d.school.
Technologies like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology can both confound and inspire, the panelists agreed.
These technologies confound many of us because few of us truly understand or know who to use them. “They are becoming more accessible, but there is not yet a diverse community of designers” fluent in these technologies, Greenberg said.
But the designers who employ emerging technologies today have begun to show us that they can help solve problems and challenges that once seemed insurmountable.
Consider the effort to save the planet’s environment. One of the most significant contributors to climate change and ecological destruction is our appetite for meat, Kliman noted. Meat production is enormously resource intensive, using 30% of all the fresh water available on the planet and producing 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“People love meat. Asking them to change their behavior isn’t going work,’’ said Kliman, whose California employer makes plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy products.
Kliman said she and her team conducted deep research to identify the “secret source” of what gives meat its flavor, and found it is a compound named Heme. Using synthetic biology, her company extracted Heme from plant sources, produced it at scale and developed meat substitutes that she said can satisfy just about anyone’s taste buds.
“We are not redesigning the final product. We are redesigning the process to make that product,” she said. “It is meat made directly from plants. I like say we cut out the ‘middle cow.'”
Her plant-based meats are now being served in over 6,000 restaurants worldwide from Michelin-starred bistros to fast food chains. And on Wednesday, seven restaurants in Singapore began serving them, too.
And then there’s virtual reality—which can make all of us smarter, according to Mercer. Her Los Angeles enterprise training firm works with the technology. Studies show that virtual reality training can increase retention of knowledge by 75%, she said. That benefit can be applied in a number of ways.
Imagine someone preparing to give a speech. They practice, rehearse, and memorize the best parts. It all sounds smooth until they actually deliver the speech and become nervous in front of a real audience. With virtual reality, a speaker can rehearse in front of what looks and feels like a real audience. Delivering the real speech then becomes a piece of cake.
“Immersive mediums are so real, so impactful, so influential,’’ Mercer said.
And what about algorithms? They’ve gotten a bad rap in recent years, said Stanford’s Segovia. But they’re just tools—whether they produce results that are useful or terrifying depends on the designer who creates them.
When it comes to emerging technologies, the possibilities for producing good are great, the designers agreed. To achieve that, Greenberg added, designers must think about the world they want to live in, and the one they don’t.
For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.