Inventing Tomorrow Today Sure, the future will be different. But who knows exactly how? These five young innovators have a clue.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – During seminal historical moments, like the dawn of a new millennium, it is often tempting to imagine how our lives might be different ten, 20, even 50 years hence. It is a natural urge, and one easily satisfied by a few sage words from some forward-thinking think tank. In the weeks leading up to Y2K, we learned about biotech, nanotech, and dozens of other words ending in "tech." We heard possiblys, maybes, and almost certainlys. But the scientists and technologists working to transform these probabilities into realities remained, as ever, in the background.
FORTUNE set out to find a few brave souls out there who weren't just talking about what the future might be like but were actually inventing it--people whose work today will transform radically the way we live our lives tomorrow. But there was one problem: Unlike the 1,500 or so professional members of the World Future Society, most of the brightest young innovators in science and technology don't really advertise. After a few hundred phone calls, we found them anyway.
In a nondescript office building in New Jersey we discovered Pankaj Merchia, who combined his knowledge of medicine and computer science to create a device that may radically alter the practice of medicine. At the V.A. Hospital in New Orleans, we came upon Timothy Hammond, a kidney specialist who found solutions to his patients' problems in the unlikeliest of venues--outer space. In the bowels of NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., we unearthed K.R. Sridhar, whose invention may allow us to breathe on Mars--and in some other unfriendly places, like the middle of a raging fire. In Hawaii, we found another NASA affiliate, Lewis Pinault, who may one day help us navigate the legal and political quagmires associated with space exploration. A member of our group does come from one of the more famous bastions of futurethink, MIT's Media Lab. That's where we met Neil Gershenfeld, who is building brains for musical instruments, chairs, and other formerly inanimate objects.
Each innovator is young, studious--and surprisingly modest. Perhaps they will change under the glare of the media spotlight. Perhaps they will take out an ad in Futurist magazine. We suspect that they won't.
K.R. SRIDHAR: FINDING OXYGEN ON PLANET MARS
"If the pioneers who landed on the East Coast had to load up their wagons with all the food, water, and air they needed to travel west, they would only have gotten as far as the Appalachians," jokes K.R. Sridhar, director of the Space Technologies Laboratory and professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona. "They had to learn to live off the land." Sridhar has spent the past ten years figuring out how we can do the same in space.
Sridhar is at the forefront of the effort to adapt the environments of other planets to make them habitable. The key is breathing: How can we get good air to breathe in those hostile environments? Working with NASA's Johnson Research Center, Sridhar has developed the Oxygen Generator System (OGS). The device--a black dome the size of a grapefruit and weighing about two pounds--is designed to convert the carbon dioxide of Mars' atmosphere into oxygen, which could both sustain the lives of human explorers and serve as rocket fuel for return missions to Earth. The 2003 Surveyor Lander to Mars will test both and may also--courtesy of Sridhar's lab--create drinking water, electricity, and heat.
Sridhar's work has terrestrial applications as well. Within five years, he believes, the OGS could be worn by firefighters storming smoke-filled buildings, environmental workers containing toxic spills, soldiers in biological war zones, and emphysema sufferers, who may trade in cumbersome oxygen tanks for OGS fanny packs.
PANKAJ MERCHIA: THE END OF DIAGNOSTIC ERRORS
When the Clinton Administration recently announced it would spend $30 million to reduce medical errors, it may have imagined a future like this: Every time a doctor evaluates a patient, a few clicks on a customized Casio handheld computer--linked to a database compiled by Harvard and Johns Hopkins medical school faculty--gives him focused recommendations about what drug and dosage to prescribe, reactions with other medications, and other available treatments. The doctor can print the prescription on a special printer, so tiny that it plugs into the back of the PDA. When he drops the PDA into its cradle to recharge the battery, it also gets an update from the database. Thanks to this marriage of medicine and technology, the number of U.S. deaths (100,000) and serious injuries (one million-plus) attributed to medication errors drops by nine-tenths.
That's exactly what Pankaj Merchia, a 26-year-old Harvard M.D. and computer science whiz, has dreamed up. Merchia graduated at 18 from Johns Hopkins with bachelor's degrees in biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mathematics. After a year in India studying medicine and Eastern philosophy, he combined a medical degree at Harvard with doctoral work in computer science and medical informatics at MIT. He even spent a year in the health-care practice at McKinsey.
His background seems perfectly choreographed for such an ambitious enterprise. He calls his device the MDPad. In conjunction with the medical center at Johns Hopkins, Merchia has applied for funding from pharmaceutical companies so that he can give away 100,000 MDPads to physicians over the next two years. He hopes to generate additional revenue by selling ads that will pop up on the MDPad screen and by charging fees for premium services to medical specialists.
LEWIS PINAULT: DEVELOPING A LEGAL SYSTEM FOR SPACE
A former management consultant at BCG, Gemini, and Coopers & Lybrand, Lewis Pinault has just written a book, "Consulting Demons," about his experience. He also holds a bachelor's degree in political science from MIT and a master's from the London School of Economics. So his talk of the legal and geopolitical implications of mining asteroids and of building settlements on Mars is not the rambling of a Trekkie. Establishing property rights and liability on the moon, asteroids, and planets in our solar system may just be the legal quandary of the future.
Companies and governments are busy sending more and more communications satellites into orbit. Every launch increases the likelihood of a collision, and yet no law exists to divide up the space in which they travel--or to assign blame or damages should any impact occur. Satellites also provide visual details of the movements of troops and fishing boats, the location of forced labor camps, the probability of volcanic activity, and other crucial information. Despite industrial and governmental pressures to restrain or to release this data, no uniform agreements exist. All of which makes questions of the ownership of planets, asteroids, and the air above Earth seem slightly less esoteric.
Pinault was a delegate to last summer's U.N. Conference on Space in Vienna. Despite having his studies partially financed by NASA, he advocates an internationalist perspective on space settlement rather than one focused mostly on protecting U.S. interests. An International Space Authority, similar to the U.N., could pool the funds of member states to allow for international space exploration.
Pinault sees the moon as the first extraterrestrial settlement, with water and metals mined from asteroids as building materials. A moon settlement could then be used as an extraterrestrial way station for the exploration and colonization of Mars and other planets.
NEIL GERSHENFELD: THE PERFECTION OF PAPERR
As the leader of the Physics and Media Group at MIT's Media Lab, Neil Gershenfeld has made it his mission to invent technology that brings people together. He has developed computers that make car seats smart enough to know who is sitting on them, so that they don't deploy potentially lethal adult-sized airbags for young children. He has placed penny-sized computers in the bottoms of medication bottles so that they glow when it is time to take a pill, and also inform a doctor, via a network connection, when a prescription must be refilled. But what distinguishes Gershenfeld from many of his peers is his refusal to discard wonderful old technologies just because newer ones come along--one reason he's studying what makes those Stradivarius violins, which were built more than 300 years ago, really sing.
In his book "When Things Start to Think," Gershenfeld discusses the technophile notion that we must choose between books and computers: "I was struck by how strange it is to replace paper with displays that are guaranteed to be bulkier, take more power, and look worse. If paper is such a good system, why not continue to use it?" The only advantage liquid-crystal panels have over paper, says Gershenfeld, is their ability to change. So instead of trying to build an LCD screen to look and function like paper, Gershenfeld and his Media Lab colleague Joe Jacobsen developed electronic paper and electronic ink. These charged, microencapsulated particles have the look and feel of the real thing, but tiny electrodes implanted in the paper can switch old words and images for new ones. Another invention, radio paper, is even more ingenious. A radio receiver imbedded in the paper and powered by a microscopic solar panel downloads data and changes the "ink" to something new. Imagine a newspaper that updates itself automatically and instantaneously. It might really be the perfection of paper. If it works, Gershenfeld will have pulled off the death of print as we know it--a murder we can all celebrate.
TIMOTHY HAMMOND: GROWING ORGANS IN OUTER SPACE
On the CV linked to his Website at Tulane's Environmental Astrobiology Center, Dr. Timothy Hammond lists his activities and interests: "Being beaten at one-on-one basketball by 14-year-old son; admiring 18-year-old daughter's new clothes when she's home, wondering where she is when she's not; walking the dogs." He forgot to indicate that he might one day be recognized for ending drug testing on animals, and for growing human organs in space. The Australian-born kidney specialist, transplant physician, and head of research at New Orleans' V.A. Hospital simply wanted to find a better way to repair the damaged kidneys of his patients.
He found the answer in space. Tissue cells of kidneys and brains undergo developmental changes when the stresses to which they are exposed change. On Earth, technicians trying to create tissue cells can momentarily "suspend" growing cells above the pressure-filled culture in which they reside--but gravity eventually wins out. Hammond theorized that gravity-free space would reduce stress to zero, optimizing the environment for duplicating tissue cells.
In 1997, Hammond's theory was tested aboard the space station Mir, where kidney cells extracted from rats in his lab were kept under weightless conditions for four months. A year later, on the space shuttle Columbia, the experiment was repeated with human cells. Implications: Space may be the place to develop small pieces of kidney tissue that could be used instead of animals when pharmaceutical companies test drugs. It may even be possible to grow entire human organs in space--and tailor them to recipients' genetic specifications. The understanding gained from space research can then be used to duplicate these experiments on Earth. Fine, says Hammond--as long as all this stuff can someday help his patients.