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Five new technologies that will change the world (and win at Jeopardy!)

Five forms of new technology that can change the world: From the computer that beats humans on "Jeopardy!" to cellphone apps for African pick-and-hoe farmers, to satellites that spy on human rights abusers.

By Correspondent / April 12, 2011

In this March 23 photo, MIT doctoral students Fatih Sen and Selda Sen use liquid nitrogen to cool down a near-infrared detector that will be used to image carbon nanotubes.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor

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Watson was an idiosyncratic "Jeopardy!" player. He wagered odd amounts of money – $2,127 – and sometimes his guesses were odder still, like when he named Toronto as an American city. Or when he named Dorothy Parker as the title of a famous writing manual (whereas Ms. Parker was, in fact, the person who wrote a review of the book in Esquire in 1959).

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And yet Watson, an IBM computer, won his nationally televised game of "Jeopardy!" in February. He steadily overpowered his opponents, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter – two of the game's all-time human champions.

In an age when computers have multiplied the productivity of workers, it is tempting for millions of people with monotonous office jobs to wonder whether Watson could outright replace them. It won't happen yet.

Between the lines of Watson's story and the half century of history that made him possible is a parable of innovation and economics with much to say about which technologies will have a broad impact on society. The most glamorous advances often didn't have that impact (supersonic air travel, for example), whereas pedestrian inventions like the Haber-Bosch process to produce nitrogen fertilizer fundamentally altered the economics of basic human need – and changed the face of the planet.

In this installment of the Future Focus series, the Monitor examines five technologies changing the world now, or well positioned to do so in the future: from low-tech gadgets remaking livelihoods in remote villages of Niger to electronics that roll out of printing presses to spacecraft hurtling around Earth at 5 miles per second. For the most part, these technologies promise one thing: to stretch the dollar – or yen, or euro – into accomplishing new things. It is this litmus test that will determine how pervasively Watson touches the lives of ordinary people.

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Few people realize it, but behind Watson's cool veneer of digital competence were 2,880 computer processors filling 10 racks. They devoured an estimated 100,000 watts of electricity – 80 times what an average American home used in 2008. Watson's employer would pay $100,000 a year to power him – plus $30,000 in cooling to prevent him burning the building down.

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