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Columns Tom Baxter

A diverse list of innovators hints at what the future will be like

By Tom Baxter

We don’t know what the future will look like, but there’s one thing we can know without doubt. One day the children who take so easily to the gadgets that flummox their elders will grow up and look at what their children and grandchildren so quickly master, and feel as inadequate as we do.

Imagine, for instance, a 3D printer that can build a 100-foot-tall rocket, or robots made of polymers and muscle tissue. Somebody already has, and is moving forward on the idea.

Tim Ellis, the 29-year-old head of Relativity Space, constructed a massive metal printer and has a contract with a Canadian company to begin launching satellites in 2021. He wants one day to send 3D rocket printers to Mars.

Ritu Raman has already developed inchworm-size “biohybrid” robots at MIT, and dreams of much more.

“I’m a mechanical engineer by training, and I’m honestly a little bored building with the materials we’ve been building with for the past thousand years,” said Raman, who is 27. “So I’m making robots and machines that use biological materials to move and walk around and sense their environment, and do more interesting things—like get stronger when they need to and heal when they get damaged.”

Ellis and Raman are among MIT Technology Review’s 2019 “35 Innovators Under 35.”  It’s an annual list which over the past two decades has included such future techno-titans as Marc Andreeson and Sabeer Bhatia and introduced the early adapters to such innovations as e-commerce, data mining and gene sequencing.

This year, artificial intelligence and 3D printing are the spring boards for a lot of innovations. Good use is also being made of the CRISPR gene editing tool, whose inventor, Feng Zhang, is at 37 a sort of elder figure to this generation of inventors.

The interest in gene sequencing two decades ago has blossomed into the DNA Zoo, which is documenting the DNA of everything from cheetahs to porcupines. Its “chief zookeeper,” Olga Dudchenko, has developed a process which greatly speeds up DNA sequencing.

Dudchenko, born in Ukraine and a researcher now at the Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University, is typical of many on this list who come from all over the world and do their work within an orbit of prestigious U.S. companies and universities.

But Isaac Sesi, head of Sesi Technologies, grew up in Ghana without electricity or running water, and gained his technical expertise taking apart discarded gadgets. His company sells a moisture-detecting device used by grain farmers in Africa for $80, a more affordable price than the nearly $400 imported version.

There are innovations which aim to make machines more like humans, and others which can make humans more like machines. Marc Lajoie creates tiny switches from protein which enable white blood cells to be altered in a way similar to the way microchips are programmed. In that way he can design white blood cells which more aggressively attack cancer cells.

There is technology at the cutting edge, like Mariana Popescu’s ideas for using knitted textiles to make the mold for complex concrete structures. But there’s always something to be said for building a better mousetrap, or, in the case of Ida Pavlichenko, a better ear tube.

As many an exasperated parent knows, the tubes used for certain children’s ear problems can cause painful infections or fall out before they’re supposed to. Pavlichenko, an Azerbaijan-born researcher at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, has developed a smaller, infection-resistant tube which could be a blessing for many families.

Glancing at the lists from previous years, the percentage of women innovators appears to be increasing steadily. While the list has always been very cosmopolitan — to use a word which has recently become politically charged again — this year’s list could hardly be more diverse.

It shows, in dramatic fashion, the importance to this country’s place in the world of people like U.S.-born Vivian Chu, whose robot, being tested now in four Texas hospitals, performs repetitive tasks like collecting soiled linens and delivering lab samples. Or U.S.-born Archana Venkataraman, who has used AI to detect epileptic seizures, or Chinese-born Qichao Hu, based now in Massachusetts, who’s currently testing what he believes will be the next generation of lithium batteries. There still is a great benefit to being the shining city on a hill.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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