In industry, research and development spans a wide range: everything from basic semiconductor physics to adding new features to products that have been on the market for years. But to get the best perspective on how the world could be different in the next few years, Technology Review went hunting for projects at a crucial point on that continuum: well-funded work with specific commercial goals that will, if successful, provide a dramatic improvement over the products and services now available. Some of these technologies stem from new discoveries in basic science, but others spring from new twists on old materials and techniques, or even build on years of slow progress. They are all just making their way out of the lab, and their development is motivated by strong market demands or consumer needs. Technology Review canvassed top corporate R&D groups worldwide in its search for these hot projects. Below are seven of the most compelling.
Automatic speech translator
Status: Could appear in laptops or personal digital assistants by mid-2004
Some social pundits claim that communication via computer has hampered personal connections. But researchers at IBM are on the verge of using computers to bring people closer together with a system that translates spoken language on the fly.
The speech-to-speech effort started a couple of years ago “as an adventurous research project,” says David Nahamoo, manager of the human-language technologies group at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY. The group has now built a working prototype: a laptop computer uses speech recognition software to process spoken words into text; sophisticated translation algorithms convert the text into a second language; and then the computer uses text-to-speech technology to “speak” the translated phrase.
So far, the prototype works only for English and Mandarin Chinese. The IBM team chose these languages in part because so many people speak them; another reason is that they represent extremes of differences in just about any linguistic parameter-for instance, in “prosody,” or the meaning given to a word or sentence by the speaker’s inflection. The system works with phrases likely to be used in specific situations, namely, travelers ordering in a restaurant, navigating a city, or seeking emergency medical care. Project coordinator Yuqing Gao says the laptop prototype works well enough for two people speaking different languages to carry on a rudimentary conversation. A version of the system that runs on a personal digital assistant is already in development, and though the group isn’t planning work with other languages, the technology is language independent; once a need is identified, it can rapidly be applied to any pair of languages.
Spinal-cord trauma treatment
Status: Human trials anticipated within three or four years
Biologists have long known that peripheral nerves (such as those in the hands and feet) sometimes grow back after they’re injured but that nerves in the spinal cord and brain do not. Now researchers are looking for a way to overcome natural inhibitions to nerve growth and help patients who have suffered spinal-cord trauma or stroke.
In the late 1990s, Yale University neurobiologist Stephen M. Strittmatter isolated a protein in the nerve cells’ protective sheath that inhibits the capacity of brain and spinal-cord nerves to regenerate. Strittmatter also identified the molecule on the nerves to which this regrowth-inhibiting protein, called Nogo, binds. Since 2001, Strittmatter has been working with Biogen to find a way to block this receptor and thus allow the nerves to regrow. They have come up with several potential protein drugs, which could be injected into the spinal cord up to a week after injury and would compete with Nogo to bind to its receptor. “The challenge now is to find the best candidate molecule,” says Katherine Turner, Biogen’s vice president of validation biology.
In early tests on mice and rats with spinal-cord injuries, the approach at least partially reversed paralysis. Despite these encouraging results, however, Turner cautions that most researchers don’t consider mice good models for human neurological trauma. Also, it turns out there are two other proteins that bind to the receptor, and it is not yet clear whether the Nogo blockers will displace them as well-a process that may be necessary to trigger regeneration in the human spinal cord.
Status: Ready for product development
Cynthia Dwork began thinking about the problem of junk e-mail more than 10 years ago, back when most people knew “spam” only as processed meat. She came up with the idea of requiring any networked computer to solve a separate little math problem for each e-mail it sent. Proof that the problem had been solved would be attached to the e-mail, and no other computer would accept a message that did not come with this certification (see “Making Spam Expensive,” TR April 2003). “The idea is that legitimate users will not even notice,” says Andrew Goldberg, who works with Dwork at Microsoft Research. “But those sending out billions of pieces of unsolicited mail-their cost of doing business will skyrocket.” Say that solving the problem takes 10 seconds for an average computer; a single computer working round the clock could send out only 8,600 messages. To stay in business, spammers would have to invest heavily in new hardware.
But there’s a snag: users with newer, faster computers may not notice the extra computation, but those with older machines could experience serious performance lags. So Goldberg and Dwork set out with Microsoft Research colleague Ted Wobber to adapt the method so that it relies on a computer characteristic that hasn’t improved as quickly as chip speed-that is, “memory latency,” or the amount of time it takes for a computer’s processor to fetch needed data or instructions from its memory chip. A cryptographic puzzle that is simple enough not to overtax the processor but that requires data to be retrieved from memory evens out the difference between newer and older computers. The team has demonstrated the method, which Wobber says could be built into e-mail programs such as Outlook, into e-mail servers, or into Web browsers used to send and view e-mail. To promote deployment of the technique, Microsoft is talking with computer and Internet companies to develop a standard.
Miniature ultrasound device
Company: General Electric
Status: Prototype will be under evaluation by 2005
Despite increasingly sophisticated electronics and huge improvements in image resolution, ultrasound systems today work essentially the same way they have since their introduction in the 1960s. The limitations of this method mean that small systems-and today’s smallest are about half the size of a laptop computer-yield relatively low-resolution images. Kai E. Thomenius, chief technologist for ultrasound and biomedical imaging at GE Global Research, hopes to change that with a tiny revolution in the way ultrasound transducers produce and sense sound waves. His vision: “A doctor reaches into his pocket, pulls out a device, and places it on the carotid artery to see blood flow or on the heart to see its motion.”
The key is replacing the materials now used in the transducers with arrays of microscopic “drumheads” made of silicon. Sound waves produced by the interaction of the ultrasound waves with the body cause these minuscule drums to vibrate, moving electric charges through the silicon. This charge is measured and translated into images. Using silicon rather than traditional piezoelectric materials that require additional electronics to interpret the sound waves means that more electronics can be packed closer together in the transducer, yielding a more compact device. The sensitive silicon drumheads are also more responsive than the most sophisticated piezoelectrics. Moreover, the ability to integrate the transducer with the imaging electronics on silicon offers other advantages, such as the potential for the transducer to send an image wirelessly to a remote display. And while today doctors need to switch transducers to perform different kinds of ultrasound imaging, Thomenius says that a single silicon-based transducer could perform a variety of scans-from 3-D prenatal screening to scans of blood vessels.
Company: Sun Microsystems
Status: Could be used in computers in five years
Silicon transistors have become so small that the limit on faster computing is no longer the number of devices that can be crammed onto a chip. Rather, it’s how quickly information can move between chips. Sun Microsystems’ answer to this problem: instead of connecting the chips with tiny wires, let them communicate merely by being near each other.
It’s called capacitive coupling, and it works like this: Movement of a charge through a transistor on one chip creates a disturbance in the surrounding electric field. This changing field, in turn, induces an identical charge to flow through the matching transistor on the facing chip-creating what amounts to a wireless communications link over the distance of a couple of micrometers. The result is chip-to-chip communication that’s up to 60 times faster than the speediest existing system’s.
“Proximity communication is essential for the growth of computing,” says Robert Drost, a Sun senior staff engineer leading the project. Supercomputers, scientific computing, Web servers, and database servers will soon demand a faster form of chip-to-chip communication, he says. Sun is developing the technology as part of an effort by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build a next-generation supercomputer in the next six years. But Drost expects the technology to begin delivering faster computing in high-end commercial systems, such as those used in scientific computers or as database servers, even sooner.
Status: Large-scale tests planned in about two years
More and more people are tapping into the Internet through devices other than desktop computers: cell phones, personal digital assistants, televisions, and wireless laptops. This diversity makes life difficult for content providers transmitting multimedia files: what’s good for a big-screen PC with a high-speed hookup doesn’t work so well for a PDA with its small screen and slow connection.
At Hewlett-Packard Labs, electrical engineers are developing ways to ensure end-to-end media delivery, regardless of the type of network or device being used. The idea is to move digital files more rapidly by adapting their transmission format to the devices that will receive them, and to position more content at the “edges” of the network-that is, close to the end user rather than the sender. The HP researchers’ latest brainstorm is a series of nodes-filled with specialized routing hardware and software-that can be added to existing networks to augment the delivery of streaming media. The nodes have several functions: they move media files off individual Web servers and put them closer to users; they determine the best routes for sending files; and they detect what nearby users are watching, discern patterns in their viewing and listening preferences, and then “pre-fetch” data that they are likely to want. Finally, the nodes detect the kinds of devices on the receiving ends of their transmissions and adapt the media stream accordingly. That way, a high-definition TV, say, will get a high-resolution video file, while a cell phone receives a compressed file.
Prototype nodes have already been deployed between HP’s various labs around the world, and on a test network connecting HP and Japanese wireless giant NTT DoCoMo. While it may take years before such systems make their way into the Internet at large, bits of the technology are starting to turn up in Web servers and software, says researcher and development manager Susie Wee.
Piezo fuel injection
Company: Siemens VDO Automotive
Status: In diesels now; gasoline engines by 2006
Fuel injectors transformed the automotive industry, increasing gas mileage and decreasing emissions. Researchers at Siemens VDO Automotive are set to launch another revolution in internal combustion with injection jets constructed from piezoelectric materials, which change shape in response to electrical current.
Originally developed for diesel engines popular in Europe, the jets are being adapted for gasoline engines and are expected to reduce fuel consumption by as much as 20 percent, while improving engine performance and emissions. “The piezo enables very fast, precise injection control,” says Brian FitzGerald, director of Siemens Diesel Systems North America. As soon as the piezo element receives an electrical impulse, it expands, actuating the nozzle needle and opening the injection valve within two-tenths of a millisecond. The fuel is directed straight at the spark plug, rather than at the cylinder wall. Fuel ignition occurs only if the amount of fuel and the injection timing are precisely calibrated-and that’s exactly what the piezo injectors, with their rapid response, excel at. Peugeot has begun incorporating the diesel version of the system into its cars in Europe, and six other manufacturers plan to follow suit. Siemens hopes piezo injection will prove as popular for gasoline engines.