Before looking ahead at technologies that could emerge this coming year, I’d like to continue my look back at this past year. In yesterday’s blog, I looked at some technologies that were singled out by the staff at Gizmag as “some of the most significant and far-reaching breakthroughs” of 2011. In this post, I’ll look at innovations and technologies singled out by two other publications, The Wall Street Journal and Consumer Goods Technology (CGT). The Journal let some its writers select their favorite innovations of the year. There No guidelines were established for making the selections and the paper admits the article is about just “a handful of some of the year’s most impressive inventions.” [“Bright Ideas: Innovation in 2011,” 30 December 2011] The first reporter to select a favorite technology was Spencer E. Ante. He selected IBM’s Watson Computer specifically, but also paid homage to advances in artificial intelligence generally. He wrote:
“Reality caught up with fiction when International Business Machines Corp.’s Watson computer system thumped two ‘Jeopardy!’ champions in a nationally televised competition [in] February. The victory marked a milestone for the field of artificial intelligence, conjuring memories of the HAL 9000 computer from the classic science-fiction flick ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Watson—a group of technologies designed to understand the complex domain of words, language and human knowledge—is more than a cool R&D project. Health-plan company WellPoint Inc. plans to use Watson to help suggest treatment options and diagnoses to doctors. IBM executives believe Watson has the potential to grow into a billion-dollar business in three to five years as it is applied to other fields, such as call centers and engineering. Watson shared the spotlight this year with one other disembodied assistant: Apple Inc.’s Siri voice-recognition software for its iPhone. While limited, Siri is a precursor for a range of new voice-activated consumer products, and could be followed with variants that make decisions for users, too, based on their past behavior and preferences.”
To learn a little more about Watson and Siri respectively, read my posts entitled Artificial Intelligence and the Future and Artificial Intelligence and the Era of Big Data. Although Ante makes it sound like Watson is omniscient, others have pointed out the computer still can’t compete with humans when questions are ambiguous or nuanced.
The next Journal reporter to select a favorite 2011 innovation was Nathan Hodge. He selected Northrop’s X-47B Drone. He wrote:
“In February, an unmanned, bat-winged fighter jet soared over a desert north of Los Angeles in a 29-minute test flight that signaled a new age in naval aviation. This isn’t your average drone, piloted remotely with a joystick by someone with extensive flying experience. A computer takes care of the X-47B’s flight mission, while an operator can simply click a mouse to start the engines and send it on its way. Northrop Grumman Corp.’s X-47B, which can carry up to 4,500 pounds of weapons in its two internal bays, will also be the first drone that can take off and land on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier. Drone technology has made enormous strides over the past decade, but its limits were demonstrated late in 2011, when Iran claimed to have downed an RQ-170, a pilotless stealth aircraft operated by the U.S. military. Carrier-launched drones, set to enter service later in the decade, will be near-invisible to enemy radars.”
Drones are a controversial subject. My friend Thomas Barnett has written that drones don’t “obviate the boots-on-the-ground effort”; rather, they “‘create’ some of the resistance while simultaneously reducing [an adversary’s] best players on a consistent basis.” [“When the Machine World Attacks,” Battleland (Time Magazine), 20 September 2011] Tom continued:
“And yes, all the usual concerns about legality and rules will apply. But this will work, and we will use it pervasively. … The ‘occidentalism’ of our opponents (the belief that Westerners are weak and have no stomach for ‘real war’) sustains them. This technological path will supercharge that claim (‘You don’t fight like real warriors!’), but – again – it will create real despair long term. The off-grid places are disappearing, and the Terminators are coming – just for you.”
The next Journal reporter to choose a favorite 2001 technology was Don Clark, who selected Lytro’s “Living Pictures.” He wrote:
“Many technological breakthroughs come from labs at big companies, but it was little Lytro Inc. that generated big buzz in the photography world. Billed as a revolutionary development in digital photography, the Silicon Valley start-up’s still cameras create what it calls ‘living pictures,’ which can be refocused after they are taken. When viewed through a Web browser, users can click on different spots to bring objects into focus. Lytro says it updated a century-old invention called light-field cameras, which capture much more information than conventional digital cameras.”
I’ve seen this technology on the web and it is amazing to click to on different parts of a picture and bring them into focus. The next reporter to select a technology was Scott Austin who chose the Leveraged Freedom Chair. He wrote:
“Rolling around a city in a wheelchair is difficult enough without ramps and elevators. Toss in unpaved roads full of rocks and mud, as found throughout the developing world, and it becomes impracticable. A new wheelchair created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Mobility Lab could be the solution for millions of disabled people in these countries, a large share of whom live in rural areas and travel upwards of two to three miles to get to work or school, or simply stay at home. Built with bicycle parts found cheaply and abundantly in developing countries, the Leveraged Freedom Chair costs only about $100 to make—compared with a few thousand dollars for conventional push-rim wheelchairs—and is designed with a special lever system that enables the user to muscle over rough terrain and up steep hills. After several years of testing, the chair will begin production [in] early  in India, with other countries likely following.”
In past posts about innovations and development, I’ve noted that many universities have taken a leading role in developing innovative solutions to problems faced by poverty-stricken people in the developing world. I’m pleased that at least one reporter recognized the work that students and professors are doing to make the world a better place to live.
The Journal‘s Ron Winslow selected the Sapien Transcatheter Heart Valve as his standout technology. He wrote:
“The Sapien, made by Edwards Lifesciences Corp., does for diseased aortic valves what the stent did for clogged arteries: It enables treatment without open-heart surgery. Made partly of cow tissue and polyester and approved by the Food and Drug Administration on Nov. 2, it’s the first replacement heart valve delivered via catheter, through either a leg artery or a minor chest incision, rather than open-heart surgery. The rise of stents, which are implanted only by cardiologists, meant a big reduction in cases for heart surgeons, rupturing relations between the fields. The new valve was developed collaboratively and can be deployed by both groups. If the device is widely adopted, Sapien’s true innovation may be in healing the rift between the specialties.”
I’m still looking for the day when stem cells can be injected into defective parts of the body and they repair or replace damaged tissue. Until that day arrives, the less invasive we can make surgery the better. Staying in the medical field, Scott Austin was fortunate enough to select a second technology. His choice was Diagnostics for All. He wrote:
“Postage stamp-sized paper could be a key to diagnosing some of the world’s troubling illnesses—all for less than a penny. Diagnostics for All, a Boston-based non-profit organization created by biotechnology executive Una Ryan and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has developed a blood test using specially treated paper that channels a single drop of blood or urine and in minutes will change color if a problem is found. Its first target is African AIDS patients with tuberculosis who often die of liver failure because of the highly potent drugs they take. This liver function test, which detects toxicity in blood, will cost 0.10 cents or less and work without external power or equipment, the group says.”
With healthcare costs continuing to skyrocket, anything that can be done to bring costs into check (whether in developed or developing worlds) should be applauded. The final technology selected was a technology discussed in yesterday’s post, Intel’s Tri-Gate Transistors. It was selected by Don Clark, who earlier singled out Lytro’s “Living Pictures” for recognition.
Turning to Consumer Goods Technology, its Editorial and Research Advisory Boards selected three organizations for their Most Innovative Company Award and three products for their Most Innovative Product Award. [“2011 Innovation, Business & Technology Awards,” by Alliston Ackerman, 15 December 2011]. The overall winner of the Most Innovative Company Award was Newell Rubbermaid. Coty Inc. and Dyson were awarded Outstanding Achievement recognition. Concerning Newell Rubbermaid, Ackerman wrote:
“Over the past five years, Newell Rubbermaid successfully transformed its business model from a manufacturing and product focus to one that is consumer-centric and built on marketing, branding and consumer-driven innovation. The company implemented a strategic, company-wide approach to uncovering insights and unmet consumer needs to drive new product innovations and put the consumer at the heart of the business. Today, Newell Rubbermaid delivers products that lead their categories because they were designed by listening to the needs of consumers and professional end-users, like the Calphalon Unison Nonstick Egg Poacher, the Parker Ingenuity pen and Lenox Bi-Metal Speed Slot Hole Saw.”
The overall winner of the Most Innovative Product Award was Neutrogena Wet Skin Sunblock Spray from Johnson & Johnson. Purex Complete Crystals from Henkel and Sensodyne Repair & Protect from GSK Consumer Healthcare received Outstanding Achievement recognition. Concerning Neutrogena’s Wet Skin Sunblock Spray, Ackerman wrote:
“Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena skincare has a long-standing heritage in providing innovative products that offer real benefits. Launched in early 2011, Neutrogena Wet Skin Sunblock Spray with Helioplex was the first sunscreen specially formulated to be applied to wet skin. When applied to wet skin, ordinary sunblock can whiten and slide off. Neutrogena Wet Skin Sunblock Spray instantly cuts through water to form a protective barrier. Trust us, it really works. We’ve tried it! Plus, the product has been praised by 10 beauty publications, including Allure magazine, which named it one of the Best Beauty Breakthroughs of 2011.”
As I noted yesterday, there are obviously many more technologies and products that could be singled out for recognition. Nevertheless, the companies, technologies, and products that have been given special attention should be congratulated. Innovation is what is going to keep the global economy expanding and make the world a more prosperous and productive place.