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TR 100: Computing

Computing is all about creating better connectionswhether between tiny transistors or human beings
October 1, 2004

“Only connect,” urged E. M. Forster in his novel Howards End. Connections, of course, are the essence of the Internet. But those connections are still getting stronger, as is clear from looking at the work of the computing-related TR100 honorees. Some are working to improve communication between nearby computer chips or along the optical network. Others are using tiny computers to gather information about the world. Still others hope to translate the ties between machines into ties that bind people, coming up with better ways to form communities.

Computer chips are relentlessly getting smaller, more densely packed, and faster. But the wires that carry data from one chip to another remain relatively big and slow. “The bottleneck is now the bandwidth between parts of the system,” says Sun Microsystems engineer Robert Drost, who has pioneered a method of chip-to-chip communication that eschews wires. When a bit flips on one chip, it causes a change in the surrounding electrical field, which can be sensed by an adjoining chip and translated into a bit flip there. This approach will be key to the performance of Sun’s future supercomputers.

Light waves already zap data and voice traffic across the Internet and the telephone network. But try to send the data any faster and the light interacts with the glass optical fibers in ways that smear the optical pulse, lowering the rate at which bits can be transmitted. Increased data speed will be needed for applications such as remote surgical procedures, to say nothing of all the people who have not yet begun to blog. “Not everyone is using the Internet today,” says Aref Chowdhury of Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs. “As it becomes more accessible, we will see even more demand for bandwidth.” Chowdhury’s optical phase conjugator performs a nifty trick that could pack more data into fiber. Normally, as a light pulse travels through a fiber, it gets distorted, and the signal gets muddier. But the phase conjugator reverses the phase of the pulse – in effect inverting its distortion. As the pulse continues down the fiber, further distortion actually undoes the inversion, restoring the original signal.

Also driving the need for more bandwidth are new sources of data, such as networked sensors. Sokwoo Rhee, cofounder and chief technology officer of Millennial Net in Burlington, MA, has developed a method for linking simple wireless sensors into a self-organizing network that feeds to a central computer. Such sensor networks could track objects and people, provide environmental control in an office building, and remotely monitor everything from local humidity to the presence of chemical weapons.

A world of ubiquitous interconnections can be a little frightening, so some innovators are trying to help people disconnect. Concerned that the spread of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags might allow the covert tracking of people and their habits, Ari Juels of RSA Security in Bedford, MA, has developed a blocker tag that accompanies an RFID tag to prevent unwanted reading of its unique identity codes. The RFID tag would contain one privacy bit. If this bit were turned off, any scanner could read the tag. But once it was turned on at the checkout counter, the blocker tag would confuse scanners by broadcasting all possible identity codes – spamming the scanners into uselessness.

Lest the chatter of networked appliances drown out human conversation, some of the TR100 are developing better ways for computers to help people connect with each other. Jonathan Abrams created Friendster so people could build networks of new friends and potential dates. The system, with more than eight million users, eases introductions and helps ensure that the people on the other side of the computer screen aren’t complete strangers, because you know someone who knows them. And at, Scott Heiferman works to get people offline and into face-to-face networking. His Web-based organizing tool fueled the meteoric rise of presidential candidate Howard Dean, and more than 1.4 million members use it to meet fellow fans of everything from Harry Potter to pottery.

Nuria Oliver of Microsoft feels that as more and more computers connect to each other, they should also make better connections with their human owners. “Our overall goal is to endow computers with a perception and understanding of what is happening,” she says. Combining microphones and cameras with statistically based machine learning, Oliver hopes to give computers the ability to read people’s facial expressions or tones of voice and make judgments about their intentions or emotional states. Your computer might, for instance, see that you’re busy and block instant-message interruptions. Oliver’s techniques would also provide another way for those who can’t use a keyboard – young children or the disabled – to communicate with computers.

Daniel Gruhl of IBM’s Almaden Research Center also wants to endow computers with a more humanlike understanding of the world. To help make sense of the mass of online data that’s accumulating, he has built WebFountain, a supercomputer-based system able to examine millions of Web pages. Applying natural-language processing, statistics, and pattern recognition, the system develops an understanding of context that a keyword-based search engine couldn’t match. A bank could use WebFountain to run a background check on someone with suspicious account activity and discover, for instance, that his cousin has ties to a terrorist organization that might want to use the account to launder money. “We’re just beginning now to see things you can do with this technology that are different or new,” Gruhl says.

As people like this year’s TR100 forge new connections, computers will become better integrated into our lives. In Forster’s words (easily found on the Web), “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

TR100 Startups in Computing


Company Founded/Cofounded


Jonathan Abrams

Friendster (Sunnyvale, CA)

Website for building networks of friends and contacts

Guido Appenzeller

Voltage Security (Palo Alto, CA)

Easy-to-use encryption technology for communications security

Serge Belongie, Vance Bjorn

DigitalPersona (Redwood City, CA)

Fingerprint authentication for computer and network logons

David Brussin

TurnTide (Conshohocken, PA)

Anti-spam router; company purchased by Symantec

Tianqiao Chen

Shanda Interactive Entertainment (Shanghai, China)

Online multiplayer gaming network; now the largest in China

Ali Hajimiri

Axiom Microdevices (Orange, CA)

Cell-phone power amplifiers

Scott Heiferman (New York, NY)

Website for arranging meetings for interest groups

Michael Helmbrecht

Iris AO (Berkeley, CA)

Tiny deformable mirrors for improved biomedical imaging

Kurt Huang

BitPass (Palo Alto, CA)

Online micropayment system

Sokwoo Rhee

Millennial Net (Cambridge, MA)

Self-organizing wireless sensor networks

Ben Trott, Mena Trott

Six Apart (San Mateo, CA)

Easy-to-use software for creating and hosting weblogs

Computing Profiles

David Brussin
Age: 29 | Cofounder | TurnTide
All e-mail is handled by a set of rules that determines how messages get from one point to another. David Brussin, cofounder and chief technology officer of TurnTide (recently acquired by Symantec), turned those rules against spammers by building a router that examines the content and source of messages passing through it. When Brussin’s router identifies a computer that’s sending spam, it reduces the number of messages that computer can send out. According to Brussin, companies using the TurnTide router see spam drop by about 90 percent.

Robert Frederick
Age: 31 | Senior technical manager |
You probably think of as a place to buy everything from books to kitchenware. But that’s only a part of what the company aspires to be. Programmer Robert Frederick is leading Amazon’s transformation into something more like the Coca-Cola of e-commerce, with its own virtual vending machines – each a gateway to Amazon’s entire inventory – scattered across thousands of third-party websites. It’s all part of a grand vision starring Amazon as the Web’s central platform for almost any kind of online purchase.

Frederick got his start at the company five years ago by building Amazon Anywhere, software that prepares data from Amazon’s vast product database for display on cell phones and other mobile devices. From there, it was a short conceptual step to opening up Amazon’s database to any independent Web merchant or programmer with a need for product information. And the resulting tools – a set of standardized commands for interacting with Amazon’s database, built around XML and other new Web standards for describing content – have allowed outsiders to soup up their businesses with a range of Amazon services.

More than 60,000 Web developers have signed up to use Amazon’s new services, with many hoping to bring new customers to their sites – and earn a commission of up to 10 percent on every sale.

Ali Hajimiri
Age: 32 | Cofounder | Axiom Microdevices
By squeezing an entire radar system onto a single chip, Ali Hajimiri may have brought us closer to the day when even a low-end car can “see” through fog. Earlier, the Caltech electrical-engineering professor found a way to fabricate a multiwatt amplifier on inexpensive silicon with no external components – a development that could result in smaller, cheaper, less power-hungry single-chip cell phones and led him to start Axiom Microdevices of Orange, CA.

Scott Heiferman
Age: 32 | Cofounder and CEO |
In the wake of September 11, Scott Heiferman felt the need to find new ways to build community. He knew that Americans no longer belonged to bowling leagues and Elks Clubs in the numbers that they once had, but he didn’t feel that electronic chat rooms and Internet personal ads filled the void. “People still live in the real world, the real non-cyber world, where they want to be face to face,” he says. “The idea was, How do you use the Internet to get people off the Internet?”

So in early 2002, he assembled a five-person team to build a database and develop software that would help people organize themselves. People sign up at the site, indicating where they live and what topics they’re interested in, and when a certain number of like-minded people in the same area have registered, the site announces a meeting. About 190,000 supporters of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign used to organize in the months before the Iowa caucuses, giving his campaign early momentum. About 170,000 people are now registered for meetings of Democracy for America, an organization that grew out of Dean’s campaign. Today, has more than 1.4 million registered users, and revenues at the privately funded company are seven times what they were a year ago.

Heiferman can get passionate about his theme of bringing people together, invoking de Tocqueville on the importance to Americans of forming associations and even citing an evolutionary imperative. “We’re a species who was optimized for face-to-face interaction,” he says. Meetup’s innovations, he adds, are “as much in social engineering as software engineering.”

Heiferman has been an entrepreneur since about age nine, when he founded Scott’s Slave Service to market menial tasks to his siblings. And his sense of community engagement began to blossom the next year, when he wrote what he calls a “pointless letter to every U.S. governor, major-city mayor, and Fortune 100 CEO.”

“The best of the Web is when there are platforms for people to do their own thing and take it in ways that the founders could never think of,” says Heiferman. “What’s really interesting is when the technology is merely a tool for people to do things that are uniquely human.”

Maria Petrucci-Samija
Age: 33 | Photonics R&D program leader | DuPont
The Internet would be even faster and cheaper if more components of the fiber-optic network could be combined on individual chips – in much the way that computers evolved from room-sized monstrosities to desktop machines when transistors were condensed onto integrated circuits. Chemist Maria Petrucci-Samija has created materials that might soon make such integrated photonic circuits possible.

The problem with putting multiple optical components on a single chip is that different components work best when built from different, often incompatible materials. Silica glass is great for shunting a beam of light from one place to another,

but it’s not so good at modulating a signal so that it carries information. Petrucci-Samija has shown that plastics can be molecularly tailored to combine the best of all worlds. “It’s really trying to figure out at the atomic level what is necessary to do that,” she says.

Petrucci-Samija figured it out well enough to produce a polymer as transparent as the best optical glass; this helped the company she worked for, Lumenon Innovative Lightwave Technology, create the first polymer versions of several optical-communications components. Petrucci-Samija’s work continues at DuPont, where she heads a team striving to develop new plastics and to combine plastic and silica glass devices on individual chips. She hopes to have marketable components ready for use in optical networks in about three years.

Petrucci-Samija says the first use of integrated photonic circuits will most likely be to make network communications more reliable and bring down the cost of equipment. Eventually, though, the same approach could help realize the dream of superfast optical computers.

Mena Trott
Age: 27 | Cofounder and CEO | Six Apart
Mena Trott, who cofounded Six Apart with husband and fellow TR100 honoree Ben Trott (see photo), liked writing a weblog but not the inflexible software it required. So while Ben pounded out code, Mena developed a simpler user interface – and the Trotts created Movable Type, which allows bloggers to create links to other pages by clicking and dragging items on-screen. TypePad, a blog-hosting service based on Movable Type, has more than 50,000 paying users.

Jonathan Abrams
Age: 34
Founder and chairman, Friendster
Created the Net’s top social-networking site, where eight million people communicate with friends and friends of friends. The Mountain View, CA, firm has raised $14 million in venture capital.

Guido Appenzeller
Age: 33
Founder and chief technology officer, Voltage Security
Started a Palo Alto, CA, firm to commercialize an encryption technology that uses a simple ID, such as an e-mail address, to ensure secure communications.

Alyssa Apsel
Age: 31
Assistant professor, Cornell University
Adapts optical-communications technology to build receivers, transmitters, and interconnects that speed chip-to-chip communications within computers.

Anuj Batra
Age: 34
Systems engineer, Texas Instruments
Leads one of the industry’s top teams advancing ultrawideband wireless technology, which provides the high transmission speeds needed for streaming-media applications while consuming little power.

Serge Belongie
Age: 30
Assistant professor,University of California, San Diego
Created video software to analyze lab mice for adverse reactions to trial drugs. The system is related to fingerprint-matching technology he and Vance Bjorn (see below) founded DigitalPersona to commercialize.

Vance Bjorn
Age: 31
Chief technology officer and cofounder, DigitalPersona
Partnered with fellow TR100 honoree Serge Belongie (see above) to found a Redwood City, CA, biometrics company that specializes in fingerprint recog-nition for computer access.

J. J. Cadiz
Age: 29
Program manager, Microsoft
Invented a better approach to alleviating information overload, using a sidebar window on computer displays to track e-mail alerts, weather reports, and other data. Look for Sideshow in future versions of Windows.

Tianqaio Chen
Age: 31
CEO and cofounder, Shanda Interactive Entertainment
Built his Shanghai startup into China’s largest online game company by specializing in multiplayer fantasy and role-playing games that now attract millions of users. Shanda’s IPO last May raised $152 million.

Aref Chowdhury
Age: 32
Member of technical staff, Lucent Technologies
Invented techniques at Bell Labs that enable higher-speed transmission of data over very long distances (up to 6,400 kilometers) within fiber-optic networks.

Raffaele Colombelli
Age: 33
Research staff member, University of Paris-Sud
Develops new types of quantum cascade microlasers with a variety of sensing and imaging applications.

Adrian Colyer
Age: 33
Senior technical-staff member, IBM
Leads IBM’s Winchester, England-based effort to improve software quality and cut development costs through “aspect-oriented programming,” an approach that promises to simplify coding for a wide range of applications.

Robert Drost
Age: 34
Principal investigator, Sun Microsystems
Pioneered a wireless technology to eliminate the wired connections between closely spaced chips in computer systems. The advance, enabling a 100-fold speed gain over wired connectors, will be crucial to future Sun supercomputers.

Dan Gruhl
Age: 32
Research staff member, IBM
Serves as chief architect for IBM’s WebFountain system, which identifies patterns in and extracts meaning from billions of Web pages to aid business decisions and fraud detection.

Michael Helmbrecht
Age: 34
Founder and CEO, Iris AO
Fabricates microscopic, deformable mirrors on computer chips that perform image correction for medical imaging, surveillance, and other applications.

Aaron Hertzmann
Age: 30
Assistant professor, University of Toronto
Combines machine learning and graphics to capture the motion of actors, dancers, and athletes – and to generate realistic animations for films and video games.

Kurt Huang
Age: 34
Cofounder and president, BitPass
Launched a startup developing micropayments technology that allows artists, small businesses, and others to charge fees of as little as one cent for access to online content.

Ari Juels
Age: 34
Principal research scientist, RSA Security
Devised techniques at Bedford, MA, firm to improve the security and privacy of radio frequency identification tags, as well as cryptographic tools for authentication systems based on personal information and biometrics.

Richard Kent
Age: 34
Assistant professor, University of Virginia
Produces biomechanical data vital to the design of air bags and auto safety systems that adjust during a crash, customizing protection to such factors as the passengers’ size, weight, and physical condition.

Andre Kulzer
Age: 29
Research engineer, Bosch
Created a thermodynamic simulation that showed the feasibility of gasoline direct injection, which lowers auto fuel consumption and emissions and eliminates the electric starter.

Golan Levin
Age: 32
Assistant professor, Carnegie Mellon University
Explores the artistic implications of information technology. For Dialtones: A Telesymphony, the artist and engineer choreographed the ringing of audience cell phones.

Massimo Marchiori
Age: 34
Professor, University of Venice
Develops more efficient ways of identifying, finding, and retrieving information on the Web. The computer scientist also developed the World Wide Web Consortium’s Internet privacy standards.

Wojciech Matusik
Age: 31
Visiting research scientist, Mitsubishi Electric
Uses sophisticated computer graphics and image-rendering techniques at Mitsubishi Electric’s Cambridge, MA, lab to create 3-D television and related 3-D photo and video systems that weave together images from multiple cameras.

James O’Brien
Age: 34
Assistant professor, University of California, Berkeley
Invented algorithms for simulating natural phenomena such as splashing water and explosions, for use in movies, video games, and advanced training simulations.

Nuria Oliver
Age: 33
Researcher, Microsoft
Constructs more-intuitive human-computer interfaces. The Spanish native’s projects include a smart office that can recognize what its occupants are doing and a system that lets users interact with computers via hand gestures.

Ramesh Raskar
Age: 34
Visiting research scientist, Mitsubishi Electric
Built large computer display systems that seamlessly combine images from multiple projectors. The computer scientist’s image-processing and graphics research may lead to new applications in entertain-ment, image-guided surgery, and user interfaces.

Jennifer Rexford
Age: 34
Senior technical consultant, AT&T
Created tools for monitoring and automatically managing Internet traffic on large networks. The computer scientist’s innovations are used in several systems, including AT&T’s commercial backbone network.

Sokwoo Rhee
Age: 34
Founder and chief technology officer, Millennial Net
Designed extremely-low-power wireless-sensor networks at Burlington, MA, startup. The company’s dime-sized sensor nodes can be used for environmental monitoring, surveillance, and health-care applications where inexpensive, long-term data collection and control are key.

Shad Roundy
Age: 33
Lecturer, Australian National University
Built tiny generators for wireless sensor networks that convert low-level background vibrations into electricity, eliminating the need for batteries.

Jesse Schell
Age: 34
Professor, Carnegie Mellon University
Invents new forms of digital visualization. The professor of entertainment technology teaches game design and heads simulation projects, including one that helps firefighters deal with terrorism.

Kees Schep
Age: 34
Department head, Philips Electronics
Helped develop blue-laser optical-disc storage systems with much greater capacity than today’s DVDs. The discs are now being introduced commercially.

Chaitali Sengupta
Age: 34
Systems architect, Texas Instruments
Oversees the architecture of the communications chips used in advanced cellular systems now coming to market. The chips let multimedia cell phones more easily handle Internet access, videoconferencing, and mobile commerce.

Pierre Sillard
Age: 34
R&D project manager, Alcatel
Devised a software modeling tool that enabled him to design complex optical fibers now being manufactured for use in very-high-capacity communications systems.

Simeon Simeonov
Age: 31
Principal, Polaris Venture Partners
Left software engineering to engineer startups. The venture capitalist advises Archivas, which uses distributed computing to manage digital archives, and Service Integrity, a Web services firm.

Charlotte Skourup
Age: 34
Senior principal scientist, ABB
Employed “augmented reality” technologies – such as goggles that overlay the visual field with computer graphics – to help human operators program robots for industrial painting and other manufacturing tasks.

Ben Trott
Age: 27
Cofounder and chief technology officer, Six Apart
Teamed with wife Mena (see profile, this page) to found the San Mateo, CA-based company that developed Movable Type, a popular and easy-to-use program for creating weblogs, and TypePad, a service that publishes them.

Srinidhi Varadarajan
Age: 31
Director, Terascale Computing Facility, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Conceived and built the world’s third-fastest supercomputer from a cluster of 1,100 Apple Macintoshes for $5 million. Other world-class supercomputers, in government, universities, and industry, cost $100 million or more.

Min Wu
Age: 29
Assistant professor, University of Maryland
Devised ways to hide digital watermarks in financial statements and other electronic documents to authenticate records, prevent fraud, and deter unauthorized distribution.

Qian Zhang
Age: 31
Researcher, Microsoft
Improved roaming between cellular networks and created better compression and delivery technologies for wireless multimedia. Based in Microsoft’s Beijing research lab, she has more than 20 patents pending.

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