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Inventing the Future at EG’10

Intellectual Ventures’ unusual engineering projects highlighted at the annual EG meeting in Monterey.
January 22, 2010

Every year, an almost bizarrely eclectic group of entertainers, technologists, artists, musicians, authors, and general “big thinkers” assemble in Monterey, CA, for EG, the Entertainment Gathering. This year, I’m lucky to be joining them, and I came prepared for a long weekend of cool new ideas.

The opening session, on Thursday afternoon, didn’t disappoint. One of the speakers, Pablos Holman, resident hacker at Intellectual Ventures, talked about a few of the unusual projects underway at Nathan Myhrvold and Ed Jung’s “invention factory” in Seattle. He promised that these would be ideas that very few people had heard about before–though I was oddly familiar with a couple of them, and TR readers likely will be as well.

The first one out of the gate was a scheme to inject particles into the earth’s stratosphere in an attempt to mitigate the effects of global warming. The general idea is not new, and Kevin Bullis discusses it in his recent (and excellent) feature, “The Geoengineering Gambit.” But the implementation itself–an impossibly long hose flown aloft by V-shaped helium balloons–looked so familiar. So I went back into Kevin’s feature, and sure enough, the hose project is the one illustrated in the very cool graphic of geoengineering schemes in the story.

Holman then spoke about a terribly sci-fi sounding effort to help eradicate malaria. The engineers at IV are apparently designing a laser perimeter system (a la the Star Wars defense project) to identify and zap only female mosquitoes. “Toddlers flapping their wings” and honeybees would be perfectly safe, Holman assured us, because the system uses size, wing beats per second, and several other factors to specifically pick out only female mosquitoes of the species that transmits the most malaria in Africa (male mosquitoes are exempt because they don’t bite, and zapping them “would waste energy unnecessarily”). The guys at IV are apparently quite excited because they see this as a project with not only humanitarian goals but also lots of commercial potential–what self-respecting suburbanite wouldn’t want a mosquito-killing laser beam surrounding their patio?

The next project Holman spoke about rang bells again: a team of 35 nuclear scientists and engineers are developing what they call a “traveling-wave reactor,” which would run off of the large amounts of nuclear waste already stored around the country. Yup, it’s one of last year’s “TR10,” our annual list of 10 emerging technologies with the potential to change the world. The crowd seemed pretty intrigued by the reactor design, reported on by TR’s own Dave Talbot last March. It would render nuclear waste safe and eliminate the need to enrich uranium (the step that creates material suitable for nuclear weapons). We wouldn’t even need to mine more uranium–Holman said that the waste stockpiled in Tennessee alone would be enough to power the world for thousands of years.

Finally, Holman showed us the unusual kitchen at Intellectual Ventures. Apparently cooking is one of Myhrvold’s passions, so there’s a big effort to develop the cooking techniques and prepared foods of the future. The most notable thing about the kitchen (at least to me) was Holman’s claim that it includes not only super-expensive food dehydrators and emulsion systems… but also a band saw. I’d really like to know what they use that for!

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