• Tech

The 50 Best Inventions

32 minute read
Lev Grossman, Mark Thompson, Jeffrey Kluger, Alice Park, Bryan Walsh, Claire Suddath, Eric Dodds, Kayla Webley, Nate Rawlings, Feifei Sun, Cleo Brock-Abraham and Nick Carbone

Correction Appended: Nov. 18, 2011


In the age of Steve Jobs, it’s all about perfecting the final product. Nobody remembers the guy who had the idea in the first place

Tell me what you think of when you read the word inventor. (If Professor Jack Gallant of Berkeley, Calif., were here and you were in his fMRI machine, he could read your mind and tell you himself. But more of him anon.) I’ll tell you what I think of: a little guy with white hair and a white lab coat from an old Disney cartoon. He’s tinkering with an old-fashioned computer — you can tell it’s a computer because it has a lightbulb sticking out of it. He looks like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.

I think of either that or a sad sack in a plaid blazer who in the 1960s came up with a clever idea that some giant corporation took all the credit for — the guy in that movie about the guy who invented intermittent windshield wipers. I think Greg Kinnear played him.

It wasn’t always like this. Inventors used to be cool. They used to be towering, romantic figures, rogue geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin and Nikola Tesla, who called down lightning and stole the holy fire of the gods. If there had been movies back then, these men would have been played by Taylor Lautner. But all that has changed. Now they’re not even played by George Clooney. What happened? How did inventors lose their divine aura? When did scientific innovation stop being sexy? I place the blame, reluctantly, on the late, great Steve Jobs.

That’s to take nothing away from Jobs, a true genius who revolutionized at least four industries. But an inventor he was not. What Jobs did was perfect other people’s inventions. He optimized them. He had the will and the skill and the caliper eye to nail down the numbers to the far-right decimal places. He buffed and polished other people’s ideas until they gleamed with the holy light of irresistible retail commodities. Jobs wasn’t an idea man; he was a remix artist.

Steve Wozniak: he was an inventor. Charles Thacker, Butler Lampson and Douglas Engelbart were inventors — they were the guys at Xerox PARC from whom Jobs borrowed much of the look and feel of the original Macintosh’s revolutionary graphical user interface. But hardly anybody knows their names. What poor bastard invented the first digital music player? Who invented the tablet computer? The smart phone? I don’t know. You don’t know either. They were never on the cover of Time. But we all know who came up with the iPod and the iPad and the iPhone. He’s been on the cover eight times.

You don’t want to romanticize inventors. Recent scholarship on innovation, such as Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, suggests that most inventions are the result of slow-burning collaborative efforts hatched in academic labs and corporate R&D departments rather than in some isolated genius’s garage.

But somewhere in that creative scrum is somebody — or several somebodies — who’s thinking really different. When Jobs looked at a smart phone, what he saw was a better smart phone, and that’s all well and good. But you have to think truly different(ly) to look at sour milk and see a new textile, which is what the German biologist and fashion designer Anke Domaske did. Or to use electricity to put out fires rather than start them, as Harvard researcher Ludovico Cademartiri does. What if you could refocus a picture after you took it? Lytro’s Light Field camera can. What if you could use an fMRI machine to capture a picture straight from someone’s imagination? It’s been done. Gallant did it.

Who looks at an ordinary lightbulb and sees a wireless data transmitter that could replace wi-fi? Who looks at a giant incinerator and sees an even more giant ski slope? Those aren’t ordinary thoughts. They’re not even different — they’re downright weird. Jobs’ genius lay in figuring out how to make things actually do what they were supposed to do, but inventors do something else. They make things do what they’re not supposed to do — what’s not even supposed to be possible.

We live in an age when inventors are cheap. They’re a necessary evil, a manufacturing by-product to be discarded as soon as their patents are safely in the hands of the optimizers. But let’s take a second to remember how much we need them. A lot of the things you’ll see in this feature aren’t pretty; it’s a rough draft of the future, unoptimized. One day someone like Jobs will take it as raw material to be tamed and refined and turned into something that will change the world. But not yet. This is the uncut, unprocessed ore of invention, straight from the idea guys, who got it straight from the gods themselves.


LESS THAN 10 NANOMETERS (ONE MOLECULE) | We thought it couldn’t be done, but scientists at MIT are developing a drug that may cure the common cold. It’s called double-stranded RNA activated caspase oligomerizer, or DRACO, and it fights viruses as effectively as antibiotics fight bacteria. DRACO is a genetically engineered molecule designed to trigger suicide in cells that have been invaded by a virus. In lab tests, it was effective against 15 viruses, including rhinovirus, which causes colds; H1N1 influenza; dengue fever; and poliovirus.


22 NANOMETERS | A technology revolution occurred this year, and almost nobody outside the high-tech world noticed. In May, Intel demonstrated what it’s calling a Tri-Gate transistor: a three-dimensional transistor in which electrons flow not just in a flat channel but along three sides of a raised fin. Why should you care? Because next year, when Intel ships its first chips based on the new 3-D transistor, they’ll perform about 37% better and use about half the power. Another victory for Moore’s law.


12 MICRONS (ONE CELL) | What happens to all the fat that gets vacuumed out of our bellies and thighs during liposuction? Old answer: it’s thrown out. New answer: it could be transformed into heart cells to compensate for dying tissue after a heart attack. Fat contains stem cells that can be turned into heart muscle in a lab dish, so researchers have developed a method for extracting stem cells from a liposuction sample and giving them a new cellular identity. Such cells are currently being tested in heart-attack patients. Because they are made from a patient’s own fat, the hope is they will repair the damage done when the heart is deprived of oxygen without causing any tissue rejection.


2 CENTIMETERS (ONE VIAL) | One of the deadliest diseases in the developing world, malaria kills about 780,000 people every year. But after 24 years of research, Joe Cohen, a scientist at GlaxoSmithKline, and his team have found a malaria-vaccine candidate. RTS,S — or more familiarly, Mosquirix — is still in its trial stages, but so far it’s showing great success. The Phase 3 efficacy trial, taking place in seven African countries, is cutting the chances of children’s contracting malaria in half. If the trials continue at this rate, Mosquirix could hit the market as soon as 2015.


2 CENTIMETERS | Enough sheer solar energy strikes the planet’s surface every hour to power the world for an entire year, but little of that energy can be stored for later use. Nature found a way around that problem: the humble leaf converts solar energy into storable chemical energy through photosynthesis. So Daniel Nocera — a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and a TIME 100 honoree) — took a page from nature, developing an artificial leaf that turns sunlight into chemical fuel. The leaf — a thin silicon solar cell with cheap catalytic materials bonded on both sides — can split water into hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to sunlight, with the gases usable later to power a fuel cell.


3.2 CENTIMETERS | Lithium is an amazing element — not much else can be used for both batteries and antidepressants — but it has an unfortunate habit of bursting into flames when exposed to oxygen, even in water. That’s too bad, because a battery that could harness lithium in air or even water would provide more energy than the standard lithium-ion battery found in your phone. That’s exactly what Steve Visco and his colleagues at PolyPlus created: a working lithium-water battery. PolyPlus made a membrane that encloses the lithium, sealing it from the water — and preventing combustion — while still enabling an electrical charge. The result is a battery that can last far longer than a conventional lithium-ion cell.


6 CENTIMETERS IN DIAMETER | For Bayerische Motoren Werke, or as we know it, BMW, the headlights on its vehicles are as iconic as the checkered logo: they let you know, even from a distance, that it’s a BMW. Now those headlights will last a lot longer. In September, BMW announced the development of headlights that use lasers instead of the current LED bulbs. The lasers consume about half as much energy as LEDs, and they’ll be converted to make them safe and less intense than a laser pointer. They’ll create a very bright, very white light that’s pleasant to the eye and guaranteed not to vaporize oncoming cars.


10 CENTIMETERS | Here’s the situation: our 5 billion mobile phones transmit 6 petabytes of data every month. That’s 6 with 17 zeros. We’re running out of the radio frequencies that are used for wi-fi and cellular networks. Enter Dr. Harald Haas of the University of Edinburgh, inventor of li-fi. Like many other great inventors, Haas developed a solution using things we have in abundance: chiefly the world’s 14 billion lightbulbs. His system implants electronics in ordinary lightbulbs and uses subtle changes in light intensity to transmit data. It’s fast, and since light doesn’t go through walls, it’s secure. What could possibly be more illuminating?


10 CENTIMETERS | A joint project of the University of Tokyo and Sony Computer Science Laboratories, the PossessedHand is an armband with 28 electrodes that send electricity through your joints and muscles, producing precise, involuntary finger movements. Essentially, it controls your hand. In theory it could make you play the guitar, or touch-type, or do whatever its evil will desires.


10 CENTIMETERS (THE SIZE OF A TYPICAL TOUCHSCREEN) | Finnish company Senseg’s E-Sense technology enables users to not just touch pictures on screens but actually feel them. Tixels — or tactile pixels — simulate a host of textures, from dry and wet to rough and smooth, using electrical fields and vibrations. Theoretically, the interface could work on screens as small as a smart phone or as large as a movie screen.


11 CENTIMETERS (THE SIZE OF AN IPOD) | Could this be the sleeping pill of the future? British ambient band Marconi Union has drummed up the world’s most relaxing song: “Weightless” is 8 min. 10 sec. of aural bliss, proved to reduce anxiety by 65% and slow heart rates by 35% as the listener’s body rhythm syncs with the song’s. Indeed, “Weightless” is so successful at inducing somnolence that scientists caution drivers not to listen to it while behind the wheel.


11.2 CENTIMETERS | When Lytro’s tiny rectangular Light Field camera takes a picture, its sensors capture the entire light field, recording each ray of light’s color, luminosity (intensity) and vector direction. In layman’s terms, it means that nothing is ever out of focus. There’s also no shutter delay, so photos are taken instantly. But here’s the truly cool part: the camera uses a series of algorithms to let users refocus a picture after it’s taken. You can choose to bring different objects at different distances into and out of focus, long after the moment you captured has passed.


11.2 CENTIMETERS | In the U.S. the traditional incandescent lightbulb will be effectively outlawed by 2014. Right now, many fluorescent alternatives contain poisonous materials and give off harsh white light, and they are largely unpopular with the American public. So the race is on to create an energy-efficient bulb that gives off the familiar warm glow we’ve come to love. Switch Lighting may have an answer. Its 60- and 75-watt-equivalent lightbulbs contain LEDs that give off yellow light and (unlike fluorescents) can be used with dimmer switches. Switch bulbs cost about $20 but use a small fraction of the energy that incandescents do (for example, the 60-watt-equivalent bulb uses only 12.5 watts) and have a life span of 25,000 hours, or 20 years. The bulbs are due to be released in early 2012.


11.4 CENTIMETERS | This is Siri. You may have met. Siri is the latest feature on Apple’s iPhone 4S and the intelligent personal assistant you’ve always wanted. Ask Siri to send a text message or find the best burger joint nearby — done. She can also remind you to pick up your laundry on your way home, and she takes dictation. Siri goes beyond the voice recognition of the past: she understands natural speech without requiring you to use special words and without a learning curve. And Siri is still in beta, which means she should keep getting better.


13.97 CENTIMETERS | Nearly 9,000 deaths in the U.S. could be prevented each year if alcohol-detection devices were used in all vehicles, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Which is why QinetiQ North America, a research-and-development facility in Waltham, Mass., is working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the auto industry to develop touch- and breath-based sensors that could be strategically placed on steering wheels and ignition push buttons to instantly measure drivers’ blood-alcohol concentration. The sensors would automatically analyze a driver’s breath or skin to determine whether or not he or she was fit to drive. If the blood-alcohol level was at or above the legal limit of 0.08%, the car would start … but not move. The devices are in testing now and will be embedded into a research vehicle by the end of 2013. If all goes as planned, they could be on the road in eight to 10 years.


12 CENTIMETERS | No, that’s not really a lake in the middle of a desert; it’s the mirage effect. Nanotech scientist Ali Aliev, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas, re-created the effect using 350-micrometer carbon nanotubes arranged in a sheet of what appear to be tiny threads. Spike the sheet’s temperature to more than 2200°C and the dissipating heat bends the surrounding air and light waves, making any objects behind the sheet appear invisible. But Aliev’s experiment works best underwater, so don’t expect to see this in the halls of Hogwarts anytime soon.


14.3 CENTIMETERS | With an iridium handle, pure platinum screws and white sapphire blades, Zafirro’s new razor sounds more like a Tiffany accessory than a bathroom gadget. But its form serves its function: to provide customers with a close shave and a very durable shaving device. Iridium is one of the strongest, densest materials in existence, and the company claims that each hypoallergenic and corrosion-resistant blade is 5,000 times thinner than the human hair it’s designed to cut. The razor, which costs $100,000, comes with free cleaning and resharpening services for 20 years. That’s about $99,000 more than you’d spend on disposable razors in that time, but if the exorbitant price doesn’t keep sales down, the quantity produced will: only 99 of the razors have been made.


15.4 CENTIMETERS | The Inkling pen automatically remembers whatever you draw with it on any kind of paper. Using ultrasonic and infrared technologies, the pen captures your sketch line by line, storing it on a receiver you place on your piece of paper. When you connect the receiver to a computer via a USB cable, it transfers those images as files, and voil! Your freehand sketch is a digital image. The genius of the Inkling is that it preserves the authentic pen-to-paper quality that is sometimes lost in computer-generated images. Though this tool is geared toward professional illustrators and designers, it’s simple enough for amateurs too. No talent required.


16.5 CENTIMETERS (WINGSPAN) | A team of engineers led by Matt Keennon at California-based AeroVironment has developed the Nano Air Vehicle (NAV), a tiny, two-winged surveillance prototype for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Designed to mimic a hummingbird’s flight, the NAV can fly up to 17.7 km/h in all directions, even backward. It can hover and rotate clockwise and counterclockwise. The $4 million aircraft is remote-controlled and weighs 18.7 g, less than one AA battery (but more than most real hummingbirds). It’s also equipped with a video camera. Because it’s so small, the NAV can go where humans can’t: it can spy, scout out safe spots in combat zones, hunt for survivors after a building collapse or an earthquake and even locate a chemical spill. Who knew the canary in the coal mine would turn out to be a hummingbird?


16.7 CENTIMETERS (LENGTH OF A HUMAN BRAIN) | What if I couldn’t just guess what you were thinking but could actually see it? Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a system that uses fMRI (a specialized MRI scan) to model what we’re thinking while awake and even what we see in our dreams. In experiments, subjects watched random clips of Hollywood movies, and the system reconstructed their brain activity through a process called quantitative modeling. The images from the subjects’ minds bore incredible similarities to the ones they were watching. The fMRI technology has been around for about two decades, but the breakthrough came in a smaller form. “The real invention was entirely software,” Professor Jack Gallant tells TIME. “It is a new way to model the brain, which allows one to build a much better brain decoder than could be done in the past.”


20 CENTIMETERS | If you’re not one to wear your heart on your sleeve, now you can at least express yourself with fake ears. The Japanese company Neurowear has developed necomimi, a cat-eared headband that’s powered by brain waves. The ears rise when you’re excited or concentrating and drop during relaxed states. And if you’re concentrating and relaxing at the same time, the ears perk up and wiggle. Scheduled for release at the end of this year, the necomimi cat ears are part of a line of fashion gadgets by Neurowear that are designed to respond to biosensors.


30 CENTIMETERS (ONE DINNER PLATE) | Every three months, Grant Achatz throws out the menu of his Chicago restaurant Next and begins anew. This time around, he decided to take diners back to childhood, crafting a menu with the treats he remembered from his Midwestern youth. Capping the meal is what Achatz calls an edible campfire — a dessert based on sweet-potato pie. The campfire’s burning logs are made by cooking sweet potatoes in sugary syrup and blue corn, which gives them their blackened look. Then a concoction of alcohol, vanilla and cinnamon is dusted over the logs and set ablaze. When the fire goes out, Achatz says, the logs taste like the outside of a burned marshmallow.


34.4 CENTIMETERS | Solar energy is plentiful — unless you live in, say, Seattle. But it’s also very diffuse, which means you need a lot of solar panels to collect usable amounts of energy and a place to put them. That’s what makes the flexible thin-film solar panels from Colorado-based Ascent Solar so ingenious. Standard solar panels are rigid and need to be mounted on angled arrays, limiting where they can be deployed. But the Ascent thin-film panel — which rolls and unrolls like a carpet — can be integrated directly into building materials. A roof or a wall of an office building could be made entirely of solar cells, soaking in all the power of the sun.


48 CENTIMETERS (LENGTH OF 140 CHARACTERS) | The stock market is moody. So is Twitter. Harness the emotions flowing through both and you could beat the market. Indiana University professor Johan Bollen found that Twitter’s collective mood predicted a market shift three days in advance. London hedge fund Derwent Capital took that info to the bank, growing 1.85% last July. The same month, the S&P dropped 2.2%. Derwent scans 10% of the more than 200 million daily tweets, parsing terms like calm or alert.


60 CENTIMETERS (THE LENGTH OF A SHIRT) | The 28-year-old German biologist and fashion designer Anke Domaske creates clothes using a material made from sour milk, from which she extracts protein fibers that are spun into yarn. The result is a flexible fabric called QMilch that feels similar to silk. Domaske was inspired to create a material for people with textile allergies after seeing her stepdad, who suffered from a blood cancer, react badly to various fabrics. QMilch takes about an hour to make, and its production doesn’t require any pesticides or chemicals. A dress or shirt can be made from roughly 6 L of milk. The line ranges from $200 to $270, making for green fashion that’s gentle on the environment — and shoppers’ wallets too.


70 CENTIMETERS | UNICEF’s Digital Drum is designed to help rural communities in Uganda that have difficulty getting information about health, education and other issues. These solar-powered computer kiosks, which come loaded with educational content, are made of locally available metal oil drums and built to be durable against the elements. The first Digital Drum was installed in March at a youth center in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu, and UNICEF plans to deliver the devices to all parts of the nation.


70 CENTIMETERS | Enflama extinguioso! Though it’s been described as a magic wand, the integral part of this device is an electrode designed to weaken and even eliminate flames. “It does not do magic,” says Ludovico Cademartiri of Harvard’s Whitesides Research Group, its developer. It does, however, create an electric field, which produces a flow of charged particles that can subdue a flame. It could limit the damage caused not only by a fire but also by the water used to extinguish it.


76 CENTIMETERS | You’re not crazy for talking to your mirror in the morning — especially if it’s serving you the day’s news. The New York Times Co. Research & Development Lab invented a mirror that uses Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor to recognize and interact with you. Step up to the mirror and it reflects who you are; beside your visage you’ll see your health history and daily agenda. This magic mirror can do everything your morning routine requires: serve you news, tell you about the weather and rattle off your calendar. Put your morning medication on the sill and it will give you dosage details. It can even alert your doctor when you need a refill. Just don’t ask this mirror who’s the fairest of them all. Its camera might scan your outfit and offer you a better choice of tie.


76 CENTIMETERS | It’s easy to map the lunar surface; even with the naked eye, you can tell peaks from plains. The inside is tougher. That’s a shame, because the moon’s interior is an intriguing mix of lumps within lumps — areas of varying density and gravity. But a pair of NASA probes launched together on Sept. 10 will soon get a peek inside. As the ships, dubbed GRAIL (for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory), orbit the moon, they will keep a fixed space between them. When they fly over a high-density area, they will get a gravity jolt — like a car hitting a speed bump. This will cause the gap between them to change by about the size of a red blood cell. Instruments will record all these flutters, providing what will amount to a full-body scan of the lunar interior — no X-rays needed.


92 CENTIMETERS | Combining design with technology, Dutch couturier Iris Van Herpen’s fantastical dresses are initially planned in Photoshop. She then works with an architect to develop a 3-D model, which is printed onto a polymer over the course of a week, resulting in a ready-to-wear dress that is an exact replica of the original sketched version. Van Herpen — who recently designed the dress Bjrk wears on the cover of her new album, Biophilia — presented her printed dresses during Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week this January.


1 METER (ONE SIDE OF ONE BLOCK) | Plenty of video games allow you to build things. In Farmville you plant crops. The Sims lets you make babies. In Minecraft, a video game designed by Swedish developer Markus Persson, players can build a whole world made of 1-cubic-meter blocks, creating a low-res, retro-looking virtual universe. People have noticed: 16.1 million have registered to try it, and more than 4 million have purchased Minecraft. When the Smithsonian Museum opens its exhibit “The Art of Video Games” in March 2012, Minecraft will be one of 80 games featured.


1.5 METERS | Last summer, the U.S. team fell just short in its bid to win the women’s World Cup. It didn’t have the same problem at RoboCup 2011. Entered in the Humanoid League, the remote-controlled CHARLI-2 robot defeated Singapore’s Robo Erectus. Though stiff, deliberate and slower than a turtle, the bot — created at Virginia Tech by Dennis Hong — secured the prestigious Louis Vuitton Best Humanoid award. According to the RoboCup website, the organization’s goal is to create a team capable of defeating human opponents by 2050.


1.83 METERS | The Urban Photonic Sandtable Display is a holographic map that shows buildings and terrain in full color and three glorious dimensions — no goofy glasses required. After the real-world landscape is swept by unobtrusive lasers, software created by Zebra Imaging renders the map, and then a set of lenses displays buildings and land features to heights of up to 30 cm. Commissioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Sandtable will, among other things, make possible better strategic planning and fewer surprises on the battlefield.


2.13 METERS | Photo collages are a hallmark of British artist David Hockney’s oeuvre. But his latest addition, titled May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5 PM, invites viewers to see more than still pictures. The installation comprises 18 screens showing high-definition pictures taken by an array of nine cameras set at different angles and exposures on a stretch of land between two streets in East Yorkshire, England. The subject is largely static, but because the pictures switch to the same angle at different points in time, the effect is that of an artwork in motion.


2.5 METERS | Magnetic-resonance-imaging (MRI) and ultrasound technologies are each remarkable in their own right, but combine them and you get something life-changing. A technique called focused ultrasound uses MRI pictures to guide multiple beams of acoustic energy into a concentrated hot spot deep inside the body to heat and melt away tumors or other growths like uterine fibroids. A version of the device is being tested to tweak brain regions to relieve pain and even the tremors associated with Parkinson’s.


3 METERS | NASA’s newest Mars rover, Curiosity, is twice as long as any previous rover and weighs nearly 900 kg. That’s a good thing, because when it lands on the Red Planet (Curiosity is scheduled for an August 2012 touchdown), it will have to explore the Gale Crater, which covers an area the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined and has peaks taller than Washington’s Mount Rainier. Curiosity’s 10 onboard instruments include two that ingest and analyze rock and powder samples collected by the rover’s two arms. It’s all powered by a radioisotope generator that uses radioactive decay to produce heat and electricity.


3.48 METERS | There was a lot of hullabaloo this year about the Dreamliner, and for good reason. It’s a great airplane. But the most important development in aviation in 2011 is the PurePower PW1000G Geared Turbofan engine, developed by Pratt & Whitney, a Connecticut-based aerospace manufacturer. The PurePower engine promises a 16% improvement in fuel burn and carbon emissions over conventional engines, and it makes half as much noise. It can do all this because of some clever gearwork that connects the fan to the rest of the engine — the PurePower is able to pair a big, slow, quiet fan with a fast, efficient turbine. The industry is taking notice: Airbus ordered 600 PurePower engines for its new A320neo airplane.


5.06 METERS | Electric cars are undoubtedly good for the earth, but are they any good to drive? Too often the answer has been no, but the souped-up Fisker Karma is a scorching exception. Developed by Henrik Fisker, the Danish automobile designer behind iconic sports cars like the BMW Z8, the Karma has an all-electric range of 80 km. But its greenness aside, the Karma is also an unabashed luxury product, with sustainably sourced wood trim, a high-tech paint job, solar panels built into the roof and a drive system that can go from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 6.3 seconds. (Unlike the equally zippy electric Tesla Roadster, the Karma also has a gas engine that extends the driving range by 400 km.) It’s not surprising that green celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio already have Karmas in their driveways.


APPROXIMATELY 8 METERS | “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.” Those were the words of 74-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings after IBM’s Watson computing system dismantled him and another top Jeopardy! player in a man-vs.-machine challenge last February. Though the publicity stunt may have secured Watson its notoriety, the computing system, which is the size of 10 refrigerators and performs 80 trillion operations per second, has higher aspirations. The machine is not simply Google version 2.0. Rather than gathering countless pieces of data, Watson aims to relay only one — the necessary one.


13.4 METERS | What will soon be the fastest car in the world isn’t in NASCAR or Formula racing or even in a Fast and Furious movie. By 2013, the world’s fastest car will be the Bloodhound SSC. The goal: 1,000 m.p.h. — nearly Mach 1.4 at sea level. The current record of 763 m.p.h. was set in 1997 by the Thrust SSC, driven by Andy Green, who is also slated to helm the Bloodhound. The Bloodhound has both an EJ200 jet engine and a hybrid Falcon rocket engine, the combined power of which will enable the 7-ton car to reach 1,000 m.p.h. in only 42 seconds. Project director Richard Noble is relying on contributions from corporate sponsors and individuals to fund the car’s development.


15.8 METERS | Marines are sending unmanned helicopters to Afghanistan to test a safer way to supply troops deep inside hostile territory. The 3-ton, twin-rotor K-MAX, built by Lockheed and Kaman, will be capable of ferrying up to 3 tons of supplies. Human controllers will guide it from its main base to isolated forward-operating bases. The goal: replacing risky truck convoys that are exposed to ambushes and roadside bombs.


46.2 METERS | By day, Frenchman Yelken Octuri (a pseudonym) is a cabin designer for the airplane manufacturer Airbus. But after office hours, he dreams even bigger, putting his design skills to use on more-futuristic projects. His flying yacht sports a luxe interior that would fit right in on the Mediterranean, but its exterior is something only Daedalus could have dreamed of. Its bullet shape allows it to glide equally well through sea and air, and its stark lines pay homage to Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium. The yacht’s four sails tower 40 m above the water, folding down on command into the wings of an airplane with the power to propel the vessel out of the water and into the skies.


THE SIZE OF A JUMBO JET | The 2022 FIFA World Cup is scheduled to be played in Qatar. It’s hot in Qatar; temperatures in the summer average more than 100F. Engineers at Qatar University have proposed a radical solution to the problem: huge artificial clouds that would float over the stadium, providing shade. The clouds would be lightweight carbon structures filled with helium and positioned by remote-controlled, solar-powered engines. The other solution, only slightly less radical, would be to hold the World Cup in the winter that year.


57 METERS (WINGSPAN) | The newest beast in the skies is all about efficiency, not capacity. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner lifted off in September after seven years in development. It wasn’t designed to be the next big thing — it holds only 264 passengers — but instead to upgrade the way we fly. Environmentalists can admire its 50%-composite body, made of lightweight carbon-fiber plastic, which requires 20% less fuel, but flyers will feel the real changes. The more pliable body allows for higher cabin pressure, reducing altitude sickness. Larger windows mean that even middle-seat dwellers can gaze into the great beyond. Japanese air carrier ANA brought the first two Dream-liners into service this month, and Boeing has orders for 819 more.


61 METERS | Conceived as a monument to long-term thinking, this enormous timepiece — brainchild of inventor Danny Hillis and funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — will be 61 m tall and housed in a remote West Texas cave. Built primarily out of steel, titanium and ceramic ball bearings, the clock will play a unique melody once each day and when prompted by visitors to the site. Yet the inevitable question on everyone’s mind is, can a clock — especially one so complex — endure for 10,000 years? Only time will tell.


63.4 METERS (WINGSPAN) | The Solar Impulse airplane has a wingspan only a meter shorter than that of a Boeing 747, but it weighs as little as a family car. Designed by a team of engineers led by Andr Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fdrale de Lausanne, the single-seat airplane has four electric motors powered by 11,600 solar cells, which can store energy for later use. The Solar Impulse has flown continuously for more than 24 hours; a second model that will be able to fly around the world is in the works.


73.2 METERS (120 BAGUETTES LAID END TO END) | Americans have their late-night slices of pizza, and now, thanks to an entrepreneurial French baker, Parisians will have their late-night baguettes. For 1 euro, or about $1.35, hungry night owls in Paris and the town of Hombourg-Haut in northeastern France can get a nice warm baguette well after the country’s roughly 33,000 bakeries have closed for the night. Jean-Louis Hecht told the Associated Press he got the idea from living above the bakery he owns and having customers knocking on his door at all hours, seeking a carb fix to tide them over until the morning. His machines can hold up to 120 precooked baguettes at a time. In his first month he sold 1,600, and in July, his machines moved 4,500.


94.7 METERS (ONE CITY BLOCK) | Police officers in Santa Cruz, Calif., are getting ahead of the bad guys by figuring out where crimes will be committed before they take place. Using a computer program developed by mathematicians, an anthropologist and a criminologist, officers are able to predict what areas of the city are most at risk for future crimes and the time the crimes are most likely to occur, so they can have a member of the force at the ready.


100 METERS | When the city of Copenhagen spent 3.5 billion kroner ($640 million) on a new waste-to-energy plant — the largest environmental project in Denmark — officials didn’t want it to be just a 100-m-tall incinerator. They needed a way to turn the waste-treatment facility into a tourist destination, so they solicited bids to integrate the structure into the city. The winning architect, Bjarke Ingels, designed a 425-m-long, 31,000-sq-m ski slope with areas for skiers of all skill levels.


412 METERS | Kuwait City’s newest skyscraper spirals up from the sand, but al-Hamra Tower is no desert mirage. The centerpiece of the booming Arab city, it stands tall in a challenging climate. The tower needed a shield from the blistering Arabian Desert to the south while preserving sweeping views of the Persian Gulf to the north, so architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill wrapped the tower in glass and added a sweeping cut up the south facade covered in limestone. The rock face reflects the desert heat with a distinct salute to the unrelenting Middle Eastern sun. The aesthetic 90-degree curve traces the sun’s path across the sky and is punctuated by glass wings at the top, making al-Hamra seem to rise ever higher.

The original version of this article did not mention Dr. Ali Aliev’s affiliation with the University of Texas at Dallas.

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