Technologies Set to Change the World as Selected by MIT Editors

The editors of Technology Review, MIT’s magazine of innovation, have announced their annual list of the 2008 TR10, the 10 emerging technologies poised to have a dramatic impact on our lives and work. These revolutionary innovations - each represented by a researcher whose work and vision is driving the field - have the power to transform computing, medicine, nanotechnology, our energy infrastructure, and more.

This year’s TR10 includes some technologies that aim to solve critical problems, others that represent whole new ways of looking at problems, and a few amazing feats of engineering that have created something entirely new. The 10 technologies highlighted:

  • Cellulolytic enzymes. Frances Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering and biochemistry at Caltech, is taking on one of the biggest challenges of the biofuel industry: designing better enzymes for breaking down the cellulose in biomass. Breaking down this complex molecule will enable bioengineers to produce ethanol and other biofuels from grasses and agricultural waste instead of corn.
  • Reality mining. Sandy Pentland, a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, is using data gathered by cell phones to learn more about human behavior and social interactions. Using data collected by cell-phone sensors, Pentland’s models could enable automated security settings, smart personal assistants, and monitoring of personal and community health.
  • Connectomics. Jeff Lichtman, a neuroscientist at Harvard University, is a leader in the emerging field of “connectomics,” which attempts to physically map the neural circuits that collect, process, and archive information. The “wiring diagrams” that Lichtman’s technology can generate should lead to better understanding of diseases such as autism and schizophrenia, as well as new insight into learning and other cognitive functions.
  • Offline Web applications. Developed using Web technologies such as HTML and Flash, these applications can take advantage of the resources of a user’s computer as well as those of the Internet. Kevin Lynch, chief software architect at Adobe Systems, has led the development of a platform that allows programmers to quickly and cheaply build applications that work in a broad range of devices and operating systems.
  • Graphene transistors. Georgia Tech physics professor Walter de Heer is creating transistors based on graphene, a carbon material one atom thick, which has extraordinary electronic properties and could replace silicon in speedy, compact computer processors.
  • Atomic magnetometers. John Kitching, a physicist at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, is developing tiny, low-power magnetic sensors almost as sensitive as their big, expensive counterparts. They could one day be incorporated into a wide range of devices, from portable MRI machines to faster and cheaper detectors for hidden bombs.
  • Wireless power. MIT physicist Marin Soljaèiæ is working on a technology that transmits electricity wirelessly. The system could allow any low-power device, such as a cell phone, iPod, or laptop, to recharge automatically simply by coming within range of a wireless power source, eliminating the need for cables—and perhaps, eventually, for batteries.
  • Nanoradio. Alex Zettl, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed tiny radios built from single nanotubes. These nanoradios could improve cell phones and allow communication between tiny devices, such as environmental sensors.
  • Probabilistic chips. Krishna Palem, a professor of computing at Rice University, is developing a microchip design technology called PCMOS that allows engineers to trade a small degree of accuracy in computation for substantial energy savings. In the short term, PCMOS designs could significantly increase battery life in mobile devices; in a decade or so, the theories behind PCMOS may need to be invoked if Moore’s Law is to continue to hold.
  • Modeling surprise. Eric Horvitz, head of the Adaptive Systems and Interaction group at Microsoft Research, is creating software that combines massive quantities of data, insights into human psychology, and machine learning to help humans manage surprising events. Surprise modeling could eventually aid decision makers in a wide range of domains, such as traffic management, preventive medicine, military planning, politics, business, and finance.

In addition to being published in the March/April edition of Technology Review, the TR10 is posted on the Web at

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