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MIT Technology Review

Inventors (2015)

Creating technologies that make it possible to reimagine how things are done.
  • Benjamin Tee

    Age:
    33

    A synthetic sense of touch could help both people and machines.

    “As a kid I was always curious about things, and I tended to break things,” says Benjamin Tee. “One of the things I broke was my great-grandmother’s alarm clock—you know, back then it was a winding alarm clock, it was one of those really old antiques, and she got really upset when I broke it and I couldn’t fix it.”

    The experience only made Tee more curious about how things worked, and now, through innovations in electronic skin and pressure-sensing devices, he is addressing much more complex problems than fixing an alarm clock.

    As a PhD student at Stanford, Tee and colleagues built what he calls “a smart bandage.” Tape it on your wrist, “and it can detect your pulse on the radial artery near the wrist,” he says. “We did it in such a high-resolution manner that we can tell if your arteries are actually healthy.”

    He also developed a highly pressure-sensitive electronic skin, which could someday coat prosthetic limbs to give them some of the sense of touch that human skin has. “Your brain needs a lot of feedback to do your daily activities, and the skin allows you to do that,” Tee explains. “The fact that I’m sitting down and not falling over—a large part is really because I’m getting sensory information from the chair.”

    Small pyramids in ­Tee’s ­electronic skin distort with ­pressure, altering the electrical charge they hold.

    Such sensors have other applications: for example, a tiny wireless monitor can be implanted in the skull to measure pressure inside the brain, a technology he has tested in mice. Measuring cranial pressure is extremely important for people who have had brain injuries or are recovering from brain surgery, and doctors usually do it by implanting a catheter that runs through a small hole in the skull.

    Today Tee has a Singapore-based startup, Privi Medical, that is developing diagnostic and treatment technologies. It should offer him more chances to fix problems, given that health care, he says, is “ripe for disruption.”

    Anna Nowogrodzki 

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  • Yunji Chen

    Age:
    32

    Improvements in artificial intelligence call out for new hardware.

    Yunji Chen, iconoclastic and cosmopolitan, is sporting an untucked flannel shirt and sipping a mango smoothie at an Italian coffee shop in Beijing. He is talking about how he can make deep learning, a hot field of artificial intelligence, far more useful to people.

    Once an obscure research branch, deep learning has quickly improved image search, speech recognition, and other aspects of computing (see “Teaching Machines to Understand Us”). Companies such as Google and Baidu are heavily invested in using it to get computers to learn about the world from vast quantities of data without having to be manually taught. However, the technology is resource-intensive: when the Google Brain project trained a computer to recognize a cat face in 2012, it required 16,000 microprocessor cores. That dismays Chen. “The expense and energy consumption is quite high,” he says, noting that only large companies can afford it.

    The reason is that most processors can quickly repeat basic math functions but need “hundreds of instructions” to perform the more elaborate functions needed in advanced AI techniques, Chen says. So he is designing dedicated deep-learning processors, optimized “to compute the basic blocks of machine learning.” In his lab at the Institute of Computing Technology, research assistants run a computer program that simulates how precise tweaks in chip blueprints will affect processing speeds. “We are changing the wires, the connections, the circuits,” he says. His latest design appears to be hundreds of times faster than today’s central processing units, yet it requires only a thousandth as much energy.

    As impressive as that may be, Chen, who entered college at age 14 and raced through his PhD in computer science by 24, envisions reducing energy consumption by a factor of 10,000, which could let deep-learning functions work on mobile or wearable devices. “After five or more years,” he says, “I think each cell phone can be as powerful as Google Brain.”

    —Christina Larson

  • Canan Dagdeviren

    Age:
    30

    A master of flexible sensors and batteries sees opportunities for a new class of medical devices.

    What do you do when your mother complains that she can’t tell if her skin cream is working? If you’re the Turkish materials scientist Canan Dagdeviren, you build a device that can measure changes in skin quality too slight to be detected by human touch. While working with dermatologists to develop the instrument, however, Dagdeviren found that it could be put to a more significant use: screening for skin cancer, either to catch it earlier or to help patients avoid unnecessary biopsies.

    Dagdeviren’s stretchable skin sensor for detecting early signs of cancer.

    One early indicator of cancer is a patch of skin slightly thicker than the skin around it. It turns out that Dagdeviren’s device, a tiny sensor and battery embedded in a translucent patch of stretchy rubber, can detect variations in skin density more accurately than a doctor’s fingers. It can be pulled over skin anywhere on the body to take such measurements.

    As a PhD student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Dagdeviren also developed a device that can be permanently implanted inside the body and harvest energy from the movements of organs. It can send that power directly to devices like pacemakers or be used to charge a battery. Today, pacemaker batteries are bulky and need to be surgically replaced every five to eight years. Dagdeviren’s self-powering device, which has been tested in animals, could make life with a pacemaker that much easier.

    Flexible, implantable devices that harvest energy from the movement of organs.

    While the flexible energy harvester works by a different mechanism than her skin sensor, both projects fit with the overall goal Dagdeviren is pursuing as a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard and MIT: creating a new class of biomedical electronics that are far less rigid and clunky than what we use today.

    —Julia Sklar

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  • Lisa Seacat DeLuca

    Age:
    32

    A software engineer makes a habit of going after everyday problems.

    With more than 150 patents, Lisa Seacat DeLuca is IBM’s most prolific female inventor ever. Her inventions include a way for people on conference calls to get alerts when a certain topic comes up or a certain person starts talking; a system that can guide cell-phone users as they walk and talk so they don’t lose service; a necklace that lights up every time a given Twitter hashtag is used; and a locator service in cars that can track items like, say, a wallet that falls under the seat.

    “The idea generation isn’t the slow part,” DeLuca says. “Anyone can come up with ideas very quickly. It’s taking the time to write them down and do research to figure out if it’s a great idea or how to make it an even better idea—that’s really the bottleneck in innovation.”

    Most of that research happens outside the office on nights and weekends. By day, she works on mobile computing and commerce for IBM. Her latest project is an app for retailers that can send shoppers targeted offers based on their location in a store. DeLuca has filed nine patents related to the app and is testing out the necessary Bluetooth beacons in her own home. She also recently bought a 3-D printer that she plans to use for prototyping ideas. First up: a Fitbit key chain for her husband, who always forgets his fitness tracker on his way to work.

    Suzanne Jacobs

  • Travis Deyle

    Age:
    32

    He has built robots that can be powered wirelessly and ones that can bring people medication. Now Google has him trying to use technology to improve health care.

    Q: At the Google X research lab, you’ve been part of the team that is building glucose-measuring contact lenses. Now you’re working on a different, undisclosed health-care-related project. How do you apply your robotics experience at Google X?

    A: Almost every field can benefit from robotics. “Robotics” is really just a nice way of saying “massive multidisciplinary everything,” because you have sensing, perception, controls, machine learning, mechanics—everything. Automation. And having that broad exposure lets you plug in to any group, regardless of the domain, and make massive contributions.

    Q: What impact do you hope to make?

    A: Improving people’s lives is the key thing. Health care is one of those things that’s been stagnant for a while, and there’s a lot of regulatory reasons for that, but there’s also just a lot of risk aversion. I think by taking a more agile approach we can actually make giant leaps and bounds.

    Q: Why is Google in any kind of position to solve big problems, such as those in health care?

    A: It has buy-in from the highest level. Google’s founders take risks that no one else will. It reminds me a lot of the amazing things that came out of Bell Labs, like the transistor, which obviously drove entire revolutions in technology. So I think they have the right mind-set to embrace innovation and failure in ways that other organizations just won’t.

    —Rachel Metz

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  • Richard Lunt

    Age:
    33

    Making invisible solar cells for electronic devices requires some exceptional creativity.

    Richard Lunt invented solar cells you can see through. They’re made of molecules that absorb ultraviolet and infrared light—wavelengths that we can’t see—and convert it into electricity while letting visible light through. Applied as a coating on the screen of a phone or smart watch, they generate power so the gadget lasts longer between charges. Some low-power devices with the coating, such as e–readers, might not need to be plugged in at all.

    Prototypes of devices with these materials are on display at a company that Lunt cofounded, Ubiquitous Energy (the CEO, Miles Barr, was an Innovator Under 35 in 2014). However, one challenge in developing the technology is that it is complex to manufacture, especially for larger screens. So Lunt is also trying a second approach.

    Lunt, a materials scientist based at Michigan State University, has concocted a combination of see-through materials that convert ultraviolet and infrared light to wavelengths that are then directed to photovoltaic cells at the edges of the screens. Because this design is simpler than the original approach of putting transparent solar cells directly on the surface of a screen, it could be cheaper to manufacture, especially for bigger devices.

    The technology could boost conventional photovoltaic designs, too. If included as a coating on a standard solar panel, Lunt says, the new materials could increase the panel’s power output by converting more of the sun’s energy to electricity.

    —David Talbot

  • Rohan Paul

    Age:
    30

    To create an affordable obstacle detection system for blind people, he began by simply asking them what they needed.

    “In 2005, I was at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi as an undergraduate. As part of a course intended to design solutions for real-life challenges, we visited the National Association for the Blind in Delhi. We heard stories of how people with blindness get hurt when out walkingabruptly hitting open windows, tree branches, or vehicles. It creates so much fear that they are reluctant to step out without assistance.

    These ultrasonic sensors detect obstacles. The device vibrates in patterns that indicate the distance to ­obstacles.

    We envisioned a sensing system on canes. By the end of the first year we had a basic prototype using ultrasonic ranging for detection and vibrations for feedback. You could see the users smile once they detected an obstruction; many refused to give back the prototypes!

    We involved the users from the very beginning. They insisted that the device has to be small; if it falls it should not break; and it should allow any gripping or holding style. It has to detect everything, from signboards, people, parked cycles, or even cattle blocking the pathand also respond to obstacles approaching fast.

    Women told us they wanted a device to be small enough so the cane can fold and fit into their purse. And they debated about color. Why? Because they would show it to someone else and say: ‘Am I looking smart with this?’ Men wanted to know if it will prevent touching or colliding with people; they told of women turning around and slapping them after such unintentional accidents. They don’t want to say, ‘Oh … excuse me, I didn’t see.’ It is about dignity as well as everyday safety. We engineers at times overlook the human side of a technology like this.

    The full system includes a foldable cane for easy storage. It can also be mounted on a traditional cane.

    We ended up with a sleek handle-shaped attachment that fits on the traditional white cane. When we tested it in 2012 we saw users had 95 percent fewer collisions. We released it as a product in early 2014. The SmartCane costs only about $50 and is already in the hands of about 10,000 people. Our aim is to help one million or more worldwide.

    It is a ‘people’s product’a humble tribute to the Mahatma, who inspired innovators to harness science and technology for the masses.”

    —as told to David Talbot

    Watch this Innovator at EmTech 2015
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  • Jamie Shotton

    Age:
    34

    He gives computers new ways to see the world.

    For his PhD at the University of Cambridge and then at Microsoft Research, Jamie Shotton developed a way for a computer to identify different objects in a moving video. By dividing pixels into segments according to color, the software could separate, for example, a sheep from a field, or a bookshelf from a desk.

    This brought Shotton widespread attention, and one evening he received a call asking him to join a secret team working on a new video-game control system for Microsoft. The group hoped to have the system classify individual human body parts in a video stream and then allow people to interact with a game using nothing but their bodies. In the shower one day, Shotton realized that he could segment objects according to their distance from the camera rather than their color.

    That led to Kinect, a motion sensor for the Xbox 360 game console that was a monumental development in computer vision and machine learning. It has not represented a sea change in computer interaction, though, perhaps because it requires too much physical effort to use one’s body in such a way for a sustained length of time. Shotton remains undeterred. Some of his hand-gesture control software will debut in HoloLens, Microsoft’s forthcoming augmented-reality device. He’s also working on allowing even basic depth-sensing webcams to interpret subtle hand movements. A user can zoom in with a simple pinch of the fingers in space, or enter a password using nothing but hand signals. “There are new and better ways of interacting with computers in the future,” he says.

    —Simon Parkin

    This story was updated on August 18 to clarify Shotton’s PhD work and to correct that his latest research is not yet related to HoloLens.

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  • Conor Walsh

    Age:
    33

    This robotics researcher might have something in just your size.

    Most robotics labs don’t contain sewing machines. But there’s a room full of them in Conor Walsh’s lab, along with three full-time textile experts and a wall of fabrics in neat plastic bins. There’s a rack that looks as if it belongs in a sporting goods store, with a row of what could be some new kind of running shorts in an array of sizes.

    For Walsh, a robot is not necessarily a rigid metal machine. He’s working on robots that are soft, lightweight, and flexible so people can wear them to enhance their abilities.

    The running shorts are part of an exosuit for the legs. Sensors in the suit measure a person’s movement and then tell a motor to pull on cables attached to the fabric in order to assist the muscles at the right moment. The exosuit could support soldiers as they walk, to increase their endurance. Or it could help patients who have trouble walking. “For people whose limbs don’t work very well, there’s really no good technologies that exist today,” says Walsh, a faculty member at Harvard and its Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. In a video of one trial, a stroke patient walks visibly faster, and with a more symmetrical gait, when the robot is turned on.

    Using fabric and cables keeps the exosuit lightweight. But the suit also needs to fit just right, so it can apply forces to the body without restricting movement. “The textile component is probably the most critical,” says Walsh. Hence the sewing machines.

    Anna Nowogrodzki

    Watch this Innovator at EmTech 2015
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