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.
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"Computers are pretty much energy-limited now," concludes Furber.Skip to next paragraph
The almost-intelligent software that allows Watson to win at "Jeopardy!" remains an impressive feat, and it will be used where the cost can be justified – like sifting through reams of financial information to suggest stock purchases at investment banks; searching stacks of legal documents to find the pearl of evidence that will win a court case; or tweaking the coming and going of planes, trains, and buses so that travelers don't miss connections. But before something as smart as Watson comes to ordinary peoples' laptops and smart phones, engineers must build more-efficient computers that circumvent current energy limits. Whichever technology succeeds will push the world to a different place.
The central insight from the past 45 years is that Moore's law was never a law of science, but a law of economics. It was the economic benefit of squeezing ever more transistors onto a chip that drove Moore's law forward. Likewise, the technologies that have changed the world often weren't the ones that allowed new and exciting things – but rather those that reduced the costs of doing things already possible – whether those costs are counted in dollars, time, or other finite resources.
Supersonic air travel – once a source of French national pride, which promised to bring the far corners of the globe closer together – failed to pass this test. Even before the last Concorde retired in 2003, supersonic travel had been defeated by the basic economics of air drag. "Just going from Mach 0.85 to Mach 1.1 doubles your fuel consumption," says Erik Conway, a technology historian at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
In addition to killing fuel economy, air drag threatened to rip the plane apart – necessitating an expensive reinforced airframe. Air friction also heated the Concorde's exterior to 200 degrees F. – and was expected to heat the exterior of the US supersonic airliner under development to 1,000 degrees F. – complicating maintenance between flights. Concorde's thick fuselage fitted just 100 passengers; a round trip from New York to Paris could cost $8,000. Even as conventional, subsonic jets became three times more efficient, supersonic travel was never more than marginally profitable.
Human spaceflight suffered a similar fate: Homo sapiens reached the moon in 1969, but 42 years later, that remains a high-water mark rather than the start of a growth curve. Changing political priorities undermined space travel, but so did engineers' inability to reduce the fixed amount of food, water, and oxygen that humans need to survive.