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May/June 2012
June 19, 2012

“10 Emerging Technologies,” May/June 2012

“Of all the innovation going on in this country, Timeline? Really? Shame on you.”
Alec LaLonde, Salt Lake City, Utah

The May/June issue featured our annual list of the year’s top technology breakthroughs (“10 Emerging Technologies”), and as usual, readers took issue with some of our choices. The inclusion of Facebook’s Timeline seemed to be a particular point of annoyance. Alec LaLonde of Salt Lake City, Utah, wrote: “Please elaborate on how it will ‘have the greatest impact on the shape of innovation in years to come’? Your entire supposition is based on the collection of data for the purpose of advertising—how does this at all help its users? To them, Timeline is merely an (often unwanted) restructuring of a user’s homepage. And I suspect the lofty idea of a Web ‘permanent record’ is merely a side effect of maximizing data collection, and not at all the primary goal. Facebook’s much-hyped IPO makes this decision especially disconcerting. Of all the innovation going on in this country, Timeline? Really? Shame on you.”

Other choices drew much more praise, such as the faster Fourier transform—an effort by a quartet of MIT researchers to create a new algorithm for processing data. “If I had to lay a bet as to which of these 10 technologies will have the most effect over the next five years, I would put my money on this one,” wrote ptmmac in an online comment. “We are talking about sending more information with less bandwidth, and many other algorithms being speeded up by this new shortcut. We are living in the age of the algorithm—this is a big deal.”

The U.S. Department of Energy’s loan program is “in shambles,” wrote TR editor David Rotman in “Can Energy Startups Be Saved?” Because of diminishing government help, Rotman concluded, the best bet for small energy companies will be to partner with the large companies they might once have hoped to make obsolete. “This sounds trite,” responded dnwdfw, “but maybe companies need to grow organically, without federal intervention. The vast majority of startups do fail, and that birthing process actually weeds out the weak and marginal, allowing the ones with the right DNA to thrive. It’s called the market, and we need to let it work and stop letting the feds pick the winners based on politics and cronyism.”

Sault, another online commenter, took a different tack: “DoE loans are problematic nowadays because of gridlock in Congress concerning the budget and frivolous investigations conducted solely for political reasons. U.S. solar companies are hurting because China is dumping solar panels on the world market at unfairly low prices due to currency manipulation, meager wages, unsafe working conditions for employees, zero government oversight, and massive overt and hidden subsidies. Let’s get rid of fossil-fuel subsidies and make those companies pay for the damage their products cause to people’s health and the environment.”

Is Siri, the new iPhone’s personal assistant, really breaking new ground in artificial intelligence? Or does it use wit and charm to cover up its shortcomings? TR’s online editor, Will Knight, tackled this question in “Social Intelligence” and found that AI has a long way to go—though he found Siri’s charm irresistible anyway. Alexanderm responded: “Does the charm of Siri’s personality provide lasting benefits, beyond the novelty effect? Anecdotally, several colleagues have said they’re a bit tired of smart-alecky replies.”

“Back in the early ’80s,” wrote cvmichael, “I attended an AI conference and Nicholas Negroponte opened his talk by saying AI is 95 percent artificial and 5 percent intelligent. That said, Siri is fun to use and much better than Vlingo and Evi, at least for now.”

Our photo essay on Tesla’s manufacturing floor (“Building Tesla”) got some readers debating whether Elon Musk’s high-end electric vehicles were worth all the hype. To which flipd responded: “I keep hearing that same tired argument from critics that if a car isn’t selling 200,000 units, it’s a failure. The Corvette sold only 13,000 units in 2011. It’s an expensive sports car that not everyone can afford, but they keep making them, don’t they? People will pay a premium to have something a normal car won’t do. In the case of the Corvette, it’s speed and handling. With the Volt, it’s the technology and the idea that for your average commute you will hardly ever have to fill up with gas. The Tesla is a no-brainer, in my opinion. Less than a Corvette, more luxurious, almost as fast, and you don’t have to pay for gas.”

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