Posts Tagged ‘X-Prize Foundation’

What does it take to produce a world-changing breakthrough? Humans try again and again to arrive at a formula. These days, the X-Prize Foundation sponsors competitions in areas such as space travel and genomics, with a mission, it says, “to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.” As far back as 1714, meanwhile, the British government pursued this same so-called “market approach” to sparking innovation, offering a king’s ransom, £20,000, to solve the seemingly intractable longitude problem. Sailors could not accurately determine their longitude at sea, limiting exploration and resulting in deadly shipwrecks.

Part of the problem with the market approach, though, is that humans aren’t always imaginative enough to know what we need. Eighteenth-century British leaders knew they needed to figure out longitude. But the vast majority of discoveries are at least semi-accidental.

Given the serendipity behind so much innovation, it may seem like folly to predict who will change the world–but we’re doing it anyway, if for no other reason than to spark creative discussion. We’ve looked far and wide to come up with our 10 revolutionaries. They’re young thinkers and scientists whom you’ve probably never heard of, doing work that is radically new and potentially world-changing. Together, they might transform medicine and computing, pollution and poverty, and our understandings of the brain and the cosmos–in short, they really could change the world.

While researching these innovators, we didn’t stumble upon a magic formula for producing breakthroughs. But we did get a good idea of where to look for innovation–and a good idea of just how many methods of fostering it have been tried.


Everyone agrees that we need new ways to meet the energy demands of the future, but there’s little consensus on how to do it. Nuclear fission? Cleaner coal? Bio-diesel? Bruce is one of a small handful of researchers suggesting an entirely different road. Nature has its own incredibly efficient way of producing power from the sun–photosynthesis–so why not put it to work? “Essentially, you grow a power plant in a field or in a fermenter,” says Bruce.


No, we aren’t quite to the point of “beam me up, Scottie,” but last October, Cirac teleported stuff in his lab. The “stuff” in question was information (more technically, a “quantum state”), and Cirac managed to instantly transfer it across a distance of half a meter without it touching anything in between.


While politicians tend to espouse solutions like “more aid” or “more trade,” entrenched poverty is a great lingering economic mystery. Duflo designs studies to figure out which kind of aid projects work, and which don’t. She was among the first development economists to evaluate aid projects using randomized trials, long the gold standard in scientific testing.


Eggan is leading the way to a world where stem cells–which have tremendous medical promise because of their potential to replace any damaged cell in the body–could be made without destroying embryos. Eggan is also becoming one of science’s more outspoken voices, defending the necessity of pursuing embryonic cell research through all available means as a way of understanding scourges like diabetes and Lou Gehrig’s disease.


When you buy shares in a company, you get to vote on corporate decisions. Likewise, when you invest in Hanson’s movie-making project, you get a say in the script, the casting, the cinematography, the filming and the editing. He believes not only that it’s a viable new business model, but that high-quality cinema will result — and he’s showing early signs of success.


Last year the borough of Tamaqua, Pa., passed an unprecedented law giving ecosystems legal rights of their own. Yes, you read that right. The trees, rivers, mountains and all the little critters that live in them have rights just like people. Linzey drafted the law, and is working on passing more ordinances around the country. His efforts fly in the face of thousands of years of Western legal precedent that treats nature strictly as property.


A scientist asks you to recall a memory, gives you a pill and alters your recollection. It sounds like a scene from the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the sci-fi romance in which ex-lovers have their memories of one another erased. But it’s exactly what Nader is doing with folks who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (rape survivors, war veterans and the like). The method does not aim to actually erase bad memories, but it can significantly reduce the severe pain of traumatic memories. His work could revolutionize how doctors treat epilepsy, obsessive compulsive disorder and even drug addiction.


If the laws of physics as we know them are correct, the vast majority of the universe–some 96% of it–consists of invisible, mysterious stuff known as “dark energy” and “dark matter.” Tegmark’s ambition is nothing less than to map and measure the entire universe, including these “dark” bits.


Science fiction is rife with intelligent, self-aware computers, from the benevolent “Mike” of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress to the murderous HAL 9000 in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But before we can actually design and build super-smart machines like those in our books and movies, we need to better understand the nature of human intelligence. That’s where Tenenbaum comes in. He’s using a combination of mathematical modeling, computer simulation and behavioral experiments to explain how people learn new things.


“We program cells like robots,” says Voigt. He’s at the forefront of a group of young researchers working to deliver on the profound promise of genetic engineering: Rebuilding living organisms to fight disease, make bio-fuels and solve industrial problems. To do this, Voigt works hard to understand what “commands” are programmed on the DNA of simple organisms like the E. coli bacteria. Then he changes the commands so the organism does his bidding.

Read Full Post »