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From the Neocortex to Nanoelectronics

Technology’s luminaries will gather at MIT on Wednesday for Technology Review’s fifth annual Emerging Technologies Conference

The newsmakers who regularly fill Technology Review’s magazine and Web pages – and hundreds of the entrepreneurs and executives who follow their achievements – will gather this week at the company’s fifth annual Emerging Technologies Conference, set to begin on Wednesday, September 28 on MIT’s campus.

The meeting will be an opportunity for leaders in information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology to share their thoughts publicly – ideas that Technology Review has chronicled over the past year, from the advent of seamless mobile computing to the potential comeback of nuclear power. Presenters and panelists will also delve into the innovation process, taking the pulse of investing opportunities and the U.S. engineering profession.

More than fifty speakers will be attending the two-day event, including Palm co-founder Jeff Hawkins, Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy, Segway inventor Dean Kamen, famed inventor and visionary Ray Kurzweil, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Motorola CEO Ed Zander.

“There are lots of technology conferences. But even if ETC were not our own, I would still love it,” says Jason Pontin, Technology Review’s editor in chief and publisher, who will open the conference on Wednesday. “I love it for its unembarrassed geekiness, for the interest and celebrity of its speakers and attendees, and, most of all, for its mission: to debate the meaning and impact of the most important new technologies.”

Running through the conference is a socio-economic theme: globalization and the need to help developing nations equip themselves with the technologies they need to compete. Nicholas Negroponte, founding chairman of the MIT Media Lab, gives the first keynote talk, which will focus on the Lab’s $100 Laptop Project, an effort to identify designs, components, and manufacturing techniques cheap enough to produce hundreds of thousands (and eventually millions) of laptop computers for children in poor countries.

The philosophy behind this ambitious project is that computers are not unlike pencils – tools to aid in the thinking process – and therefore every child deserves his or her own.

“Whatever big problem you can imagine, from world peace to the environment to hunger to poverty, the solution always includes education,” Negroponte told Technology Review in August. “We need to depend more on peer-to-peer and self-driven learning. The laptop is one important means of doing that.”

In its closing presentation and panel on Thursday, the conference will return to the theme of technology for the developing world, loosely taking its lead from New York Times writer Thomas Friedman’s recent best-selling economic treatise, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

Broaching that theme, inventor Ray Kurzweil will deliver the closing keynote speech on “GNR,” or genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. These three technologies are key to what Kurzweil calls “the Singularity” – the merger of humans and machines. A post-Singularity world would be drastically flatter, Kurzweil argues.

“We will reprogram our DNA, human aging and illness will be reversed, world hunger and pollution will be solved, and our bodies will be transformed by nanotechnology,” Kurzweil writes in a summary of his just-published book, The Singularity is Near.

Throughout the two-day conference, attendees will listen to the latest thinking and debate on artificial intelligence, nuclear power, homeland security, the open-source movement, and stem cell research.

Jeff Hawkins, who led the development of the PalmPilot and the Handspring Treo, will speak about his career switch to neuroscience and his vision for a new kind of artificial intelligence. In his 2004 book, On Intelligence, Hawkins argued, somewhat controversially, that human intelligence is largely a product of the predictions that the neocortex is able to make based on the physical patterns of the memories it contains. Numenta, Hawkins’ latest company, is attempting to translate his theory into mathematical expressions that could be used to reproduce the same behavior in a computer.

The hardware necessary for tomorrow’s computers will be a topic in a second-day session, appraising progress in nanoelectronics: the application of molecular-scale components in the construction of computer logic circuits and memory.

At startup companies like Nantero, founded and led by panelist Greg Schmergel, carbon nanotubes and other structures are being used to build ultra-dense, ultra-high-capacity memory chips that could eventually be used in computers able to reboot instantly or PDAs with tens of gigabytes of memory. Representatives from research giant IBM and Yale University, a leading academic outpost in nanotechnology, will round out that panel.

In a Wednesday afternoon breakout session, meanwhile, environmentalist-turned-nuclear-advocate Stewart Brand and a panel of nuclear industry analysts and insiders will ask whether it is time for the United States to put nuclear power back on the public agenda. This spring on Technologyreview.com, Brand held up his side of a spirited debate on the advisability of bringing back nuclear power, squaring off against clean-energy expert Joseph Romm.

“Conservation is always a first choice” in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve U.S. energy security,” Brand wrote on his TR blog. “My main point on nuclear energy is that it’s worth adding to the mix of carbon-reducing practices and technologies.”

But that’s just a sampling of the conference’s offerings. Be sure to land on Technologyreview.com each day through this Friday for new articles on and images from TRETC 2005.

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