MIT Thinkers Weigh in on the Most Important Advances About to Change the World

5/28/08Follow @bbuderi

Think helper robots anyone can afford. Or garden and household waste that powers your home, personalized digital fabrication, and well, not living forever, but for a lot longer, thanks to tissue-regeneration technology and other disease prevention advances.

MIT has polled a group of top researchers about the most important economy-boosting, life-changing technologies and advances they predict are awaiting around the corner—and the items mentioned above are just a sampling of the future they foresee.

Sure, it’s shameless PR from the MIT folks, but it’s still interesting. Here is the list from a baker’s dozen academic visionaries (three of them Xconomists, with capsule descriptions of their ideas—not all of which are actually about technology, with one (transcending technology) even being about its limitations. More complete write-ups of each of these visions can be found here.

Bioengineering—Phillip Sharp, Institute Professor, Xconomist

Merging engineering and biology, which will ultimately yield better medicines, agriculture and materials. See more here as well.

Biosolar cells—Shuguang Zhang, associate director, Center for Biomedical Engineering

Low-cost, nanoscale solar cells.

Digital Fabrication—Neil Gershenfeld, director, Center for Bits and Atoms

The digitization of fabrication, the consequence of which will be personalization—allowing anyone to make almost anything anywhere.

Education—Eric Klopfer, Professor of Science Education and Educational Technology

As we begin to realize that strict standards-based education has squeezed out much of what makes the U.S. education system unique, new solutions…that emphasize creativity and innovation, qualities that have become the envy of the rest of the world, will be required.

Electrochemical energy—Paula Hammond, Professor of Chemical Engineering

The reduction and oxidation of materials to either generate energy or to store it.

Embedded Electronics—Michael Strano, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering

Embedding low-cost electronics into almost every object that we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

Fusion—Leslie Bromberg, Principal Research Engineer, Plasma Science and Fusion Center

Using plasma to convert waste to fuel (imagine using garden and household waste to make energy).

Life extension—Mehmet Faith Yanik, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering

Significant extension of the human lifespan by disease-preventative and tissue-regenerative technologies.

Managing autism—Rosalind Picard, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences

Building new technologies to enable people diagnosed with autism—now 1 in 150 American children—to be able to communicate better and have better independent and interdependent living skills.

Problem solving—Ed Boyden, Benesse Career Development Professor, Assistant Professor, MIT Media Lab & Dept. of Biological Engineering

We need to use our knowledge of the mind to engineer better information-handling tools and software, for visualizing, understanding and figuring out how to fix problems. We need to understand data and deal with problems at a higher level: Information, by itself, is not enough.

Robotics—Rod Brooks, Professor of Robotics, Xconomist

Robots that are practical and affordable.

Sustainable cities—William J. Mitchell. Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences

Rebuilding our cities in “smart” sustainable form, with ubiquitous networking that will allow cities to respond like intelligent organisms to dynamic changes in the needs of their inhabitants.

Transcending technology
—Rebecca Henderson, Professor, MIT Sloan School of Management, Xconomist

I think what we have here is a social and political problem, not a technological problem. I don’t mean to call into question the technological enterprise or suggest that we at MIT don’t have an extremely important role to play. But without the political and social will to value externalities—most obviously carbon but more generally environmental.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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