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Top 10 Technologies That Will Help Change the World

AtlasRecently, MIT’s Technology Review published their list of the ten emerging technologies that they feel are most likely to change the way we live. Sadly, the ‘Hotdoll’ and the ‘USB Stripper’ were left off the list, but the list does include ‘Modeling Surprise’, ‘Probabilistic Chips’, ‘NanoRadios’, ‘Wireless Power’, ‘Atomic Magnetometers’, ‘Offline Web Applications’, ‘Graphene Transistors’, ‘Connectomics’, ‘Reality Mining’, and ‘Cellulolytic Enzymes’. My favorite is the graphene transistors, but hey, I’m carbon, through and through.

Modeling Surprise:

Modeling Not meant as “guess what we are modeling today?!” but rather actually predicting surprises. I think that would mean it’s not a surprise if you modeled and predicted it, but hey, who am I to argue? Eric Horvitz, the head at the Adaptive Systems and Interaction group at Microsoft Research, is part of the reason. He and his crew have been working on software that can predict what humans consider surprises (about traffic) and sends them an alert whenever the traffic pattern presents an unexpected change. For example, I drive a toll road every morning to get to work. I know that the traffic is horrible between 7:45am and 9:00am so I normally leave around 7:00am. However, one morning I’m running late because I had to stop and get gas so I’m planning to take the much longer but no traffic route to work when viola! I receive a message on my phone saying that for some reason the toll is wide open! That would be great right? Well, the tricky part is that the computer has to have knowledge and foresight, i.e. it has to know what humans find surprising and it has to be able to predict when this something will happen in enough time for the humans to react. The coolest part? It’s working…but only in Seattle and only on Microsoft smart phones for now. The technology is called SmartPhlow and they are currently working to bring this to the masses. However, it will definitely take some time and some up-dated maps! Click here to read the entire article and find out the ins and outs of how they do it.

Probabilistic Chips:

chip Krishna Palem — a professor of Computing at Rice University — wants a little error with his computer chips. Currently, calculations done by microchips depend on the transistor registering a 1 or a 0 as electrons flow through them. These devices contain a certain amount of “noise”, so to ensure that the transistor can over the noise and calculate the correct value, most chips run at relatively high voltages. Palem’s idea is to lower the voltage in parts of the chips that calculate the ‘not so significant’ numbers, e.g., the 4 at the end of 105,674. While the transistors may come up with the wrong values, he says engineers can calculate a probability for getting the right answer for a given voltage. He says that by lowering the voltage requirements, battery lives could be boosted for things such as cell phones and mp3 players. This cool, because I definitely want the battery in the Zune that Franklin is going to buy me to last longer, but I’d better not lose one single count of cow bell. Click here to read the rest of the article and about all the other applications for the future.


radio Just what it sounds like. Pardon the pun. A radio from a single nanotube. In theory, any wireless device could benefit by using the NanoRadio. It would lessen power consumption and boost battery life. This device was developed by Alex Zettl and his group at Berkley about a year ago. It works by translating the electromagnetic oscillations of a radio wave into the mechanical vibrations of the tube, which are then turned into electrical pulses that can reproduce the signal. They are currently working on ways to use the device to send out signals instead of just receive them. This could have huge implications for drug delivery devices. Click here to get the rest of the article.

Wireless Power:

wireless Have a cell phone that beeps uncontrollably when it gets a low battery? Wish it would just start charging when you walked in your pad? Without frying your insides? Well, that’s exactly what Marin Soljačić wanted. Soljačić – an assistant professor of physics at MIT – was dragged out of bed one night by his beeping cell phone so he started looking for ways to wirelessly transmit power. He considered several options, including radio waves which can send information without affecting the surroundings, but they lose most of their power in space. Laser beams were also of interest, but require line of sight. He eventually settled on resonant coupling. It’s the phenomenon in which two objects that are tuned to the same frequency exchange energy strongly, but interact only weakly with other objects. Using two resonant copper coils, Soljačić’s team was able to design a device that could power a 60 Watt light bulb. One coil was plugged into the wall with an alternating current flowing through it, creating a magnetic field. The second coil, connected to the light bulb, was tuned to the same frequency and resonated with the magnetic field, generating an electric current that powered the light bulb. Other devices are being developed that allow owners to wirelessly charge electronics using pads, but Soljačić’s idea would allow you to power up your iPod as soon as you walked in the door. Click here to get the details on the setup and the rest of the article.

Atomic Magnetometers:

magnetometer Magnetic fields are everywhere. The earth, our bodies, even things as small as proteins have their own magnetic fields. That’s a good thing. We have tools, such as MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance), that gather information based on these faint fields. However, most of the sensors that are currently in use are large, stationary, use a lot of power and are very expensive. There are more portable and cheaper sensors, but they are not as sensitive. John Kitching hopes to change that. Kitching is a Physicist at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, CO, that is working on tiny, low-power magnetic sensors. They are almost as sensitive as their larger brothers but are about the size of a large grain of rice. These sensors have three components stacked vertically on a silicon chip — an infrared laser and an infrared photodetector sandwich a glass and silicon cube filled with vaporized Cesium. Initially, the laser light passes through the cube, but in the presence of a magnetic field, the Cesium atoms’ relationships change and allows some amount of the light to be absorbed that is proportional to the strength of the field. This change is then picked up by the photodetector. Atomic Magnetometers have been around for a while now, but the cells are large — about the size of a soda can — and are made from glass blowing techniques. Kitching’s idea was to shrink these and due to the advancements of fabrication he now has them. Click here to read about the production and scale up of these fascinating detectors.

Offline Web Applications:

cloud Cloud computing has caused a massive change in the way people are creating and using software. These web-based programs are available instantly, rarely depend on your operating system and are always up to date. However, there are drawbacks. Users can save information to their own hard-drives, you can’t drag and drop between applications and you can’t receive your reminders when the browser window is closed. So, Kevin Lynch at Adobe Systems and his team have been working on a way to take advantage of the browser and the desktop. Their system is called Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) and will allow programmers to use Web technologies to build desktop applications that people can use on- or off-line. They started this project way back in 2002 and the beta was released in June of this year. From the looks of the website though it has really taken off, though I haven’t been promoted to download it yet. Click here to read the rest of the article or here for FAQs on AIR.

Graphene Transistors:

graphene The number of inexpensive transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. This is known as Moore’s Law and is expected to come to an end in the next decade or so as miniaturization continues because silicon becomes unstable at such a small scale. However, because of new research, such as Dr. Geim’s work at the University of Manchester and Dr. Walt de Heer’s group at Georgia Tech, the trend may be able to continue with a new material – graphene. Graphene – a single layer of carbon atoms – has been shown to conduct electrons at room temperature with little resistance, producing very little heat. The problem with silicon is that at such small size scales, the heat produced makes the material unstable and the transistor overheats and fails. Graphene is also a very good thermal conductor, which allows it to dissipate heat very quickly. Because of these and other factors, it is possible that graphene-based devices could operate at extremely higher speeds. There is still a lot of work to be done in this area, but current results are promising. One of the biggest obstacles faced is the large scale production of this amazing material. Click here to read the rest of the article and to get a few more data points.


brain Connectomics is a new field that is trying to physically map our nervous system. Ultimately, the hope is that these maps could provide insight on the development of the brain and diseases that are a result of ‘faulty wiring’, such as autism and schizophrenia. The neural connectivity of the brain has been studied for years, but due to limitations of current tools we still don’t know exactly how the brain works. Scientists haven’t even been able to generate a detailed picture of all the neurons that make up the network. However, the technology developed by Jeff Lichtman at Harvard University and his colleagues Jean Livet and Joshua Sanes paints nerve cells in nearly 100 colors. Not only does this produce cool pictures for your desktop and screen savers, but it also allows scientists to see where the axons lead and should hopefully shed some light on how information is transferred between different areas of the brain. Lichtman and his colleagues genetically engineered mice to have fluorescent nerve cells so that they can then use microscopy to visualize the cells. While this technique will undoubtedly allow for huge strides in the understanding of how the mammalian mind works, I doubt you’ll see a working human model until it’s perfected a little. You can read the rest of the article here.

Reality Mining:

mining Sandy Pentland – a professor at MIT – calls using data gathered from mobile devices reality mining. Basically, he says it’s all about paying attention to patterns and using the information to help people live their lives. The data is created when you use your mobile devices. Your phone pings a cell tower and the FBI can triangulate where you are, etc. In other words, you leave a ‘digital bread crumb trail’. Pentand says that with the aid of a few algorithms, phones could collect even more information about their users, from physical activity to conversational cadences. He says cell phone statistics could offer insight into workplace dynamics and the well-being of a community. It could even help project the course of disease outbreaks and an individual’s health. Ok, I can’t write about this any more. Why don’t I save you some time and hire a personal CIA agent to follow me around, restrict my movements and report back? This may be some cool tech, but it freaks me out. Maybe I am a little paranoid, but who wouldn’t be working with Sam and Franklin? If you’re not totally freaked out of you mind, you can read the rest of the article, but Pentland won’t be getting any phone calls from me.

Cellulolytic Enzymes:

enzyme Alternative fuel sources and reduction of oil dependence are hot topics these days (recall Sam’s article). Part of the equation are cellulosic biofuels – fuels derived from sources such as agricultural waste, wood chips and prairie grasses. However, there is one major problem at this point. No one has demonstrated a cost-competitive process that can be used on the industrial scale for the production of these biofuels. Currently, most of the ethanol produced in the United States is from the starch in corn kernels, which is easily broken down into sugars that are fermented to make fuel. Corn is an expensive source however. I mean, we can’t even have a bowl of popcorn at our Settlers game without Sam breaking into a rant about it. But I digress. In order to make ethanol from cheaper sources, an efficient (meaning no $$) way to free sugar molecules from the crystalline chains of cellulose. Frances Arnold and many others believe the way to do this is better enzymes. Arnold believes that not only can she make more efficient enzymes for breaking down cellulose – the most abundant organic material on earth – but that she can also make ‘superbugs’ that break down the cellulose and ferment the sugars to produce fuels all in the same step. This will drastically reduce the cost of the process and Arnold believes she is well on her way to finding these enzymes. Click here to read the rest of the article and find out how she plans on overcoming cellulose’s natural resistance to being broken down.

Have you seen something that tops these? Got an idea that you think would work? Let us know!

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