Future business: how AI, automation and robotics can help humanity evolve

A recent report from NatWest co-authored by four leading futurists identified the key trends that could affect SMEs for years to come.

The more advanced technology becomes, the more people will be forced to concentrate on being people – particularly in fields such as healthcare and retail that require skills like caring for patients and dealing with customers. The NatWest Future Businesses Report, authored by independent futurists Dr Ian Pearson, Shivvy Jervis, Tom Cheesewright and Kate Hardcastle MBE, prepares us for some remarkable technological innovations that will help the human population shift towards a new model dominated by emotion-led skills such as leadership, motivation and nurture.


Intelligent ambulances

Imagine an ambulance that uses augmented reality and other technology to share vital patient details with hospitals and doctors, in real time. This advancement would be of huge benefit to patients and could be a reality within the next decade, according to our expert panel. Intelligent ambulances are hyperconnected ambulances that use 5G, the internet of things (IoT) and augmented reality (AR) to connect the vehicle and patient with the hospital and other professionals. Additionally, high-resolution video calling between the ambulance and hospital will give doctors a better understanding of the kind of emergency involved and allow them to prepare for what the patient will need on arrival.

Artificial intelligence (AI) doctors 

Triage consultations could become virtual, and initial appointments done by a supercomputer, which will then refer the patient to the most qualified available expert for an appointment. These ‘AI doctors’ may also be able to offer advice and prescribe repeat prescriptions. It’s likely this would initially be offered by SMEs as a private but cost-efficient service, before being rolled out on a much larger scale. 

Smart toilets 

Smart toilets that can analyse urine and faeces for signs of diabetes or cancer are just starting to come to market, and within the next 10 to 15 years it’s likely at-home consumer demand will increase. Tom Cheesewright predicts that not everyone will want one straight away, but that they are likely to grow in popularity as the technology gets smarter, with businesses emerging to sell, install and service them.

Smart skin clinics 

Wearable technology will communicate with electronics on, or even inserted into, the skin. Close proximity to blood capillaries and nerves will enable these smart wearables to provide constant and precise monitoring of blood chemistry and nervous system activity. ‘Smart skin’ will also help meet the demand for medical staff. This means not only will patients get accurate diagnostics fast but also that those with more critical conditions can receive more time with a doctor to diagnose and find solutions more effectively. 

Barrie Davison, National Sector Head of Healthcare at NatWest, observes: “NatWest is already seeing demand from businesses offering specialised services that maintain us in health, rather than fix us when we are ill or suffering from long-term conditions. The incentive is to live longer, healthier lives.”

3D-printed organ production 

Organ donation waiting lists could be a thing of the past 15 years from now, says Shivvy Jervis, who predicts that 3D printing may evolve enough to be able to replicate human organs from a patient’s own cells. Within the next 15 years it’s highly likely that we can expect to see businesses using 3D laser-printing technology to create safe, legally approved yet lab-grown human organs and tissues.

Mind-controlled exoskeletons 

In the UK it is now estimated that there are thousands of people living with a spinal cord injury. University College London has recently created and successfully tested a mind-controlled exoskeleton that has allowed people not only to walk again, but to use their arms as well. While it’s currently in the testing phase and needs improvements, it can be expected to be much more effective and accessible in the next 10 to 15 years.

Biosimulator businesses 

The development and research of a new drug takes a decade on average. Future businesses will both lower the risks involved and accelerate valuable drugs development, halving the time they take to reach the market. These biosimulator businesses will create AI platforms that predict the clinical outcomes of new drugs, helping to get medical solutions to those that need it the most and are anxiously awaiting a cure.

Retail, fashion and food

AI tailoring

One of the biggest gripes about fashion has always been the fit, leading to thousands of tonnes of clothes ending up in landfill after being returned. As the backlash against fast fashion grows, smart technologies will be introduced by clothing stores where AI body-scanning meets automated, personalised production. It’s likely that these shops will look different too, becoming more like ‘clothing galleries’ that display only one of each item for shoppers to select, before being made to their exact measurements.

Super-fast fashion 

Developments in manufacturing technology and delivery services, like the potential for drone deliveries, will ensure that, in future, clothes cannot only be made and fitted with AI, but also delivered to your door quickly. This is just another development that will help the fashion industry to become more sustainable. 

Although it was already an emerging trend that we could clearly see through our business customers at NatWest, the importance of customer engagement will be even greater as fewer of us visit physical stores

David Scott
Head of Retail and Leisure, NatWest

VR shop assistants

In the next 10 to 15 years, it’s predicted that upon entering a shop, a personal virtual reality assistant will appear in your smart glasses. They’ll welcome you by name, recommend what to try, and even offer a discount based on your loyalty to the store. Of course, this person isn’t real. They’re AI wrapped in a 3D projection. But in a few years, it will be hard to tell the difference.

Augmented reality shopping 

From beds to bathroom suites, ‘try-before-you-buy’ experiences, ranging from previewing furniture and products in your home to trying on clothes, are an increasing trend. Larger retailers like IKEA are already using this technology, and there’s scope for improved software to create more realistic digital renders. Shivvy Jervis predicts a rise in businesses offering this type of digital tool to brands. 

David Scott, Head of Retail and Leisure at NatWest, observes: “Although it was already an emerging trend that we could clearly see through our business customers at NatWest, the importance of customer engagement will be even greater as fewer of us visit physical stores.”

Insect/bug foods 

The answer to climate change, low-carb eating, and high-protein diets could be smaller than we think. Crickets and other bugs might seem a little unpalatable to most of us, but they can be ground down to make a nutritious and protein-packed ingredient. Insects already make up a large part of the everyday diet in many cultures around the world and they present a sustainable food source for humans in the future.

Algae snack foods and supplements 

In addition to insects, algae can provide a high-protein food source and is likely to feature in a wider range of snack foods and supplements in future. The nutritional value of microalgae typically includes essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and amino acids, as well as several key vitamins.

Lab-experience restaurants 

They may be perceived to be the future of Frankenstein foods, but lab-made foods are likely to become a staple of our future diet. In fact, lab restaurants may bring a touch of theatre to the concept of cooking, according to Kate Hardcastle. With some consumers still fearing the unknown in the development of processed food and drink, SMEs may bring to life the science behind lab-grown foods in immersive cooking experiences and demonstrative restaurants.

Fungus food packaging 

Plastic packaging could soon be a thing of the past as crates made from biodegradable fungus are used to transport foods, not only helping with getting to a zero-carbon future but also reducing waste.


Precision farming

Food demand is expected to increase anywhere between 59% to 98% by 2050. To address this, businesses will need to provide more efficient solutions for farmers. Enormous gains in efficiency will be achieved via a more precise approach to farming within the next 15 years. The use of sophisticated technologies, including farming robots, is set to spring up to meet the demand for food, says Shivvy Jervis. From an environmental perspective, with a more precise approach, Dr Ian Pearson predicts that less agricultural land will be required as yields will be higher, so more land will be returned to nature.

Livestock wearables 

The same principles as precision farming will be utilised for livestock, with the implementation of cheaper, more effective wearable technologies to monitor the health, welfare, whereabouts and development of livestock at all times. These technologies are likely to be provided by SMEs, with farmers investing to equip themselves with the insights needed to administer medicines to their animals as soon as they need it.

Urban food farms 

Within the next 10 to 15 years it’s likely that some food production will happen closer to consumers in city centres. Urban farms will take a variety of different shapes, from climate-controlled warehouses powered by solar energy producing items such as herbs, tomatoes and salad leaves; to containers in alleyways where robot farmers cultivate rare mushrooms. This new industry will cater to a demand for the freshest produce that has travelled the least distance, as consumer awareness of the carbon impact of food increases further.


Download a copy of the NatWest Future Businesses Report

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

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