Intelligent Machines

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Adam Fisher spent months compiling an “oral history” of a rarefied experience: private spaceflight (“‘Very Stunning, Very Space, and Very Cool’”). Since 2001, when former NASA engineer turned financier Dennis Tito flew to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, five more people–at a price of around $30 million apiece–have made similar journeys. “I waited for six months to interview some of them,” says Fisher. “They are all smart, charismatic, and well spoken–the kind of people you want to be seated next to at a dinner party. It was only later, when I played back the tape of my interviews, that I realized that they were talking about pretty personal stuff: their preflight enema, for example, or what happens when you vomit in zero G!” Fisher was a features editor for Wired and New York. He now writes about travel, food, science, and technology from a houseboat in Sausalito, CA.

This story is part of our January/February 2009 Issue
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Emily Singer reports on the trend of personal genomics, which is being made possible by rapid advances in DNA sequencing ­technology (“Interpreting the Genome”). “The capacity to sequence thousands of human genomes is revolutionizing our understanding of the genetic basis of common diseases,” says Singer. In the course of her reporting, she visited the century-old Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island for the first “Personal Genomes” conference. “The newness of the topic was palpable, as presentation after presentation raised more questions than it answered,” says Singer. “How will scientists analyze the huge volumes of data they are producing, and what does it all mean?” The event may indeed prove historic for the field of genomics; attendees likened discussions there to previous pivotal debates in the field, including those over the Human Genome Project. Singer is Technology Review’s senior editor for biomedicine.

Robert X. Cringely reports on the central challenge facing Intel and the rest of the semiconductor industry: silicon-based microprocessors have reached such complexity that they risk overheating if they pack any more transistors into a single-core design. One solution to the overheating problem is multicore computing, whereby multiple processors within a chip are made to work with each other in parallel. But this hardware solution presents software problems that are difficult to solve (“Parallel Universe”). “Many years ago, a very smart boss of mine explained to me, ‘If making computer hardware is like building a house, then making good software is like building a city,’” says Cringely. “My experience writing this piece shows that to be true. The challenge of making parallel software easy to write is huge, and the penalty for failure is a stalled trillion-­dollar industry. My brain still aches from trying to explain the issues involved.” Cringely went to Silicon Valley in the 1970s and fell into writing about and working in the computer industry. His work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Forbes, and Newsweek. His PBS docu­mentaries have been shown in more than 60 countries.

Ewan Burns took photographs for chief correspondent David Talbot’s feature on the tremendous importance of a revitalized electrical grid (“Lifeline for Renewable Power”). “It was a fun assignment, involving hundreds of miles of California desert highway,” says Burns. “Where I was shooting, it was desolate–a kind of no-man’s-land.” Burns’s work has appeared in Portfolio, Audubon, Men’s Health, and other publications.

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