Inside some of the world’s mightiest minds

Whether it’s inventing the World Wide Web or finding new ways to feed more of us, 20 of the world’s greatest minds are helping power our future, writes David Morton

Stephen Hawking – Space man

How Clever?

The theoretical physicist and cosmologist has done as much for the advanced academic exploration of black holes and quantum gravity (like gravity, but harder to comprehend) as he has to ignite popular interest in science. He is, quite literally, the don.

It Is Said ...

“From his wheelchair, he has led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos.

In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and showed us the power of the human spirit.”

— US President Barack Obama, making Hawking’s Medal of Freedom award ceremony speech

Personally Speaking

“I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers. I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Gambling on the universe. Not satisfied with merely exploring the most distant corners of our existence with the power of his mind, Hawking also likes a flutter on what he finds. A public bet on the outcome of the ‘black hole information paradox’ with American contemporary John Preskill actually saw Hawking concede defeat. He presented Preskill with a baseball encyclopaedia as a prize.

Matt Berg - Disease texter

How Clever?

Berg has developed a mobile phone platform called ChildCount+, which uses SMS to monitor illness and improve healthcare for children and pregnant mothers in Africa. So far, over 100,000 women and babies have benefited from the system, which helps to make quicker interventions and drives more effective health campaigns.

It Is Said ...

“Using basic mobile phones and text messages, ‘invisible’ poor or homeless people in India and Africa can be counted as individuals with needs and rights — and receive their share of social resources.”

— Daniel Braun, National Geographic

Personally Speaking

“From the abacus to early computers, technology has long provided mechanisms that help to better account for things — finances, transactions, diseases, people.

Today, the mobile phone promises to fundamentally increase accountability by connecting people, even the world’s poor, to modern communication networks that facilitate the collection and sharing of information.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Nurturing homegrown talent. Berg has also established the Rural Technology Lab in Western Africa to train local students to manage the health of their own communities.

Nathan Wolfe – Virus hunter

How Clever?

Ebola, avian flu, swine flu — these new viruses in the modern world have jumped from animals to humans. As the founder and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, virologist Wolfe is the man trying to ensure the next such disease does not make that leap.

It Is Said ...

“Most virologists spend their working lives in laboratories, looking at slides, focusing on specific proteins and, often, on a single disease. Nathan Wolfe’s life conforms more to the pattern of a 19th-century explorer than to that of a 21st-century biologist.”

— Michael Specter, The New Yorker

Personally Speaking

“What is more likely to kill millions of people? Nuclear war, or a virus that makes the leap from animal to man? If, tomorrow, I had to go to Las Vegas and place a bet on the next great killer, I would put all my money on a virus.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Going mobile. By calling in a mobile technology expert from Stanford, Wolfe intends to create a database that will allow him to observe viral trends in the same way Twitter and Google can recognise and categorise popular topics or searches.

Ben Rattray - Cyber organiser

How Clever?

The founder and CEO of website change.org, the world’s fastest growing website for social activism.

With over 14 million users, the platform for online petitions changes the balance of power between the little people and the biggest corporations in the world. More than 1,500 new campaigns are launched around the world every month.

It Is Said...

“[change.org] reflects a zeitgeist in which desire for change, disenchantment with traditional power structures and new technology is connecting people online like never before.”

— Alexandra Topping, The Guardian

Personally Speaking

“This is not direct democracy; it doesn’t mean that the people making the decisions have to agree or comply. But it does mean that instead of ignoring the people their decisions affect, those in power have to respond, and that is very healthy for democracy.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Going local. Recent upgrades to change.org now give people around the world the tools they need to tell their stories and launch campaigns that target the issues they really care about, from the reinstatement of a teacher to rubbish disposal, and connect with other local citizens to instigate that change, no matter how small.

instead of ignoring the people their decisions affect, those in power have to respond, and that is very healthy for democracy

Eythor Bender – Man-machine man

How Clever?

The Icelander is expanding the physical limitations of the human body. The latest ‘wearable robots’ off the line include the Human Universal Load Carrier, which allows a human to carry up to 90kg for hours on end, and the Ekso suit, a powered exoskeleton that allows paraplegics to stand up out of their wheelchairs and walk.

It Is Said ...

“For paraplegic patients, being able to stand — not to mention take a few steps — under their own power is a cruelly unattainable goal. Or at least it has been…”

— Alice Park, Time

Personally Speaking

“Our firm is at a crossroads in the history of mobility. Up until now, bionic exoskeletons were contraptions portrayed in the form of sci-fi avatars or robots. We are at the tipping point of advancement where we have the ability to turn dreams and hope into reality.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Making man and machine understand each other. The robotic prosthetic legs use artificial intelligence to ‘read’ the wearers’ movements, learning gestures to simulate a natural human gait. Ekso

Bionics is looking to release the Ekso suit to the home market as soon as 2013, spelling a new era of mobility and independence for those who think of nothing else.

Marissa Mayer – Online gatekeeper

How Clever?

Anyone who uses Gmail, Google Earth, Google Maps or even just good old Google, has used Mayer’s simple user interfaces that have become the online giant’s trademark. One of Google’s first 20 employees, and its first female engineer, she became the company’s vice-president of consumer products. In 2010, aged 35, she became the youngest ever lady on Fortune magazine’s list of 50 Most Powerful Women. Yahoo just poached her to be its new CEO.

It Is Said ...

“Marissa Mayer is both the innovator and gatekeeper for Google’s core product — its search engine. She scrutinises every slight tweak or change to the experience that has become an essential part of most people’s lives.”

— Emma Barnett, Digital Media Editor, The Telegraph

Personally Speaking

“Imagine what it would be like if there was a tool built into the search engine which translated my search query into every language and then searched the entire world’s websites. And then invoked the translation software a second and third time, to not only then present the results in your native language, but then translated those sites in full when you clicked through.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Reading the world’s minds.

Before leaving Google, Mayer began work on ‘contextual discovery’ or, if you like, search without search.

Your browser or smartphone will look at where you’ve been and where you are in the world then show you where to go for dinner before you even realise that you’re hungry.

James Lovelock – Environmental Maverick

HOW CLEVER?

A British independent scientist and futurologist, whose advances in the detection of CFCs led to the first identification of global warming.

Now, the unorthodox 93-year-old environmentalist has worked out that the best way to stop the big melt is the only viable alternative to fossil fuels — nuclear power.

It Is Said ...

“Lovelock is a small man, unfailingly polite, with white hair and round, owlish glasses. His step is jaunty, his mind lively, his manner anything but gloomy. In fact, the coming of the Four Horsemen — war, famine, pestilence and death — seems to perk him up.” — Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone

Personally Speaking

“I find it sad, but all too human, that there are vast bureaucracies concerned about nuclear waste, huge organisations devoted to decommissioning power stations, but nothing comparable to deal with that truly malign waste, carbon dioxide.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Seeing the bigger picture. The Gaia hypothesis, which states that the biosphere is self-regulating, suggests that by tinkering with the chemical and physical conditions of our planet we have perhaps our best chance of keeping it nice and healthy.

Tim Berners-Lee – Web Guru

How Clever?

‘TimBL’, or Sir Tim, as he’s more formally known, invented the World Wide Web in 1989. Which, in terms of everything that takes place in the modern world, from finance to education and YouTube videos of laughing babies, is a very big deal.

It Is Said ...

“If computer networking were a traditional science, Berners-Lee would win a Nobel Prize.”

— Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, speaking to Time magazine

Personally Speaking

“I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and — ta-da! — the World Wide Web.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Making it free. Berners-Lee made his idea unreservedly available with no royalties for its use. Instead of charging for it, he founded the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994, a group of companies volunteering to create standards and maintain the quality of the web, handing the keys of content over to anyone with a computer. Which includes you.

Dina Katabi – Data Accelerator

How Clever?

As leader of the Network group at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at brain hive MIT, Prof Katabi spearheads the search for ways to improve data streaming, which one day very soon will be the world’s most important form of information exchange.

In January, she and three colleagues unveiled a new algorithm that will make it faster and cheaper.

It Is Said ...

“With the new algorithm, streams of data can be processed 10 to 100 times faster than was possible [before]… less computer power is required to process a given amount of information — a boon to energy-conscious mobile multimedia devices such as smartphones.” — Technology Review

Personally Speaking

“We all know mobile video is the next ‘killer app’. We also know that mobile video suffers from glitches and stalls… Ideally you want a video that always achieves the best possible performance… Our system is as efficient as digital video, but with no [loss of signal].”

Smartest Thing Ever

Saving future lives. Yes, faster video means no more glitches in all the movie trailers and clips of kittens watched on smartphones and other hi-tech devices.

But more vitally, Dina Katabi’s innovative work will lead to greater strides in medical technology, such as when video streams are used in conjunction with robotics to perform remote surgeries.

Kim Ung-Yong – World’s highest IQ

How Clever?

The bona-fide cleverest man on the planet, according to his intelligence quotient — given by the Guinness Book of World Records as around the 210 mark. Able to speak four languages by the time he was two, the Korean had a Phd in physics and a NASA research post aged 12. The 50-year-old has rivals for the high IQ spot, notably Terrence Tao, former child prodigy and current UCLA maths professor, whose points score is unofficially estimated to be between 220 and 230.

It Is Said ...

“Kim Ung-Yong started university courses at age three, around the time you were playing with a magnetic alphabet on your parents’ refrigerator.”

— Science Channel

Personally Speaking

“Society should not judge anyone with unilateral standards. Everyone has different learning levels, hopes, talents and dreams, and we should respect that.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Being normal. In 1978, after 10 years in the US under NASA’s wing, the 16-year-old Kim returned home, switched to civil engineering, and took a position in the business-planning department of a South Korean development corporation. As of 2007 he has held a part-time post at the local university.

Michael McAlpine – Battery recharger

How Clever?

As an assistant professor at Princeton University, McAlpine realised that PZT, a piezoelectric material that converts mechanical energy into electricity, can provide humankind with a new, natural and neverending power source — the movement of the body.

As you walk, jog or run, power is generated. One day, you will never have to plug in your iPod again; thanks to McAlpine, you are plug enough.

It Is Said ...

“McAlpine and his colleagues have suggested applications such as shoes that help power MP3 players or smartphones. There’s even the thought of placing silicone sheets against the lungs to harness natural breathing motions to power pacemakers, as opposed to using batteries that require surgical replacement when they run down.”

— Jeremy Hsu, Popular Science

Personally Speaking

“PZT is 100 times more efficient than quartz, another piezoelectric material. You don’t generate that much power from walking or breathing, so you want to harness it as efficiently as possible.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Finding a new use for implants. McAlpine’s team are working on scaling up the silicone-based technology, meaning silicone implants could produce a significant amount of renewable, personal power.

Also, the researchers note, by feeding external power back into the device you can make the implants oscillate, flex or, indeed, jiggle.

Dr Martin Cooper – Mobile Intelligence

How Clever?

From the brick-sized mobiles paraded by 1980s businessmen all the way to the latest hi-tech smartphone, every piece of mobile-phone tech arose from his vision. His idea of a portable handset distinct from car phones is the most vital step in the giant leap from wired to wireless. Working at Motorola, his prototype mobile weighing 1kg, took less than three months to produce.

It Is Said ...

“Marty said, ‘We’ll get this thing down to the size of the palm of your hand.’”

— Travis Marshall, former Motorola executive, speaking to The Economist

Personally Speaking

“Our culture was based upon a conviction, almost a religion, that people were naturally and inherently mobile and that any communications device that inhibited this was wrong ... It was [AT&T], the largest company in the world, against us, a little company in Chicago. We demonstrated our dream — and won. Today, the exciting industries are wirelessly enhanced medicine and social networking in the enterprise, both of which are revolutionary to the same extent that cellular technology was.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Making the first call. In 1973, Cooper, stood on Sixth Avenue in New York and placed the first mobile call to an industry competitor. It marked the moment we began calling people, not places.

The man on the other end of the line? Joel S Engels, research director at Bell Laboratories. As in, ‘Alexander Graham’ Bell Laboratories.

Dickson Despommier – Blue-sky farmer

How Clever?

According to current estimates, by the year 2050 around 80% of the world’s inhabitants (there will be about 8bn of us then) will live in urban centres.

In order to produce enough food we will need to expand into new agricultural space equivalent to the size of Brazil. Eco-microbiologist Despommier has another way. That way is up.

It Is Said ...

“The goal is to provide safe, fresh food around the globe in a way Despommier says is impossible with modern farming. He acknowledges that getting to that future might be expensive, but he considers it a challenge akin to the space race...”

— David Runk, Associated Press

Personally Speaking

“Creation of prototypes so all of the integration issues can be worked out is the most vital step to vertical farming becoming a reality. Getting funding for prototypes, so all of the integration issues can be worked out, is difficult.

It will require partnerships between private and public funding, but I am confident that this will happen over the next six months to a year from now.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Thinking of everything.

Despommier’s is a 360-degree premise. It uses far less water than traditional methods; it can be implemented anywhere as no soil is needed; it brings fresh produce to the city all year round; and it will create many new job opportunities.

Dwellers of all cities will have accessible, healthy food for the first time in human history.

Sebastian Seung – Mind mapper

How Clever?

Seung has developed computer-vision algorithms to explore the field of connectomics, the mapping and study of the neural networks in your brain.

Unravelling the ‘connectome’ is the Human Genome Project of the mind, but while DNA explains what it is to be human, Seung believes that cracking the code of the 100 billion neurons in the brain will unlock the basis of what it is to be You. It is the Mount Everest of human science.

It Is Said ...

“His work could someday lead to a better understanding of memory, personality, and pathologies. For now, Seung is just following his curiosity — and one nagging question: are we all simply the sum of our

connectome?”

— Matthew Hutson, Wired

Personally Speaking

“Ask not what the brain can do for the computer — ask what the computer can do for the brain.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Getting everyone to help. By inviting the public to visit eyewire.org and ‘colour in’ neurons themselves, Seung is making shorter work of mapping the neural tissue at the back of the eye. No specialist training is required to trace the ‘wiring’ and users tend to display better decisions over time. In other words, you actually become smarter.

Donald Sadoway – Renewable Energy Lynchpin

How Clever?

MIT engineering professor whose class is one of the most highly attended in the school’s history. His work with liquid metal and molten salt batteries could be the solution to the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources. Put simply, when the sun goes down and the wind dies out you need huge, cheap batteries like Sadoway’s that can step in and pick up the slack.

It Is Said ...

“His online TED talk has logged more than 380,000 views. The talk is on the unsexy topic of liquid-metal batteries, but you’ll enjoy it so much you’ll feel guilty. That’s because Sadoway does more than entertain; he gives you a glimpse into the future of energy.”

— Jeffrey Kluger, Time

Personally Speaking

“Imagine batteries about the size of a small refrigerator in the basement of every home, where people can take energy off the grid in the wee hours of the morning, then draw upon that stored energy throughout the day. Maybe even sell it back to the grid during peak demand times.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Being the only expert on his team: the rest of his group are his students. Sadoway sees this as maximising the human potential of his juniors in the same way they strive to optimise the electrical potential of the batteries they are close to perfecting.

Elaine Mardis – Cancer cracker

How Clever?

Co-director of The Genome Institute at Washington University, Mardis led the team that published the first full sequence of a cancer genome in 2008 — a huge step towards understanding the mutations that cause the disease and the most effective methods of treatment. Mardis is now developing a genetic profile of the cancers most likely to respond to available drugs.

It Is Said ...

“By sequencing the genomes of [patients] with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), Mardis and her colleagues hope they can help doctors choose the best possible avenues of treatment… sequencing could save patients from unnecessary treatments and direct them toward more effective, targeted therapies.”

— Karen Hopkin, The Scientist

Personally Speaking

“Right now, if you look at the major genomics companies — the number of people they employ and the instruments and reagents they produce — we’re probably one of the few US enterprises that’s still making something of value. And doing new science.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Knowing her limits. Mardis leaves the second part of the cancer puzzle — determining how the mutations trigger the disease — to doctors, scientists and specialists, so that she and her team can concentrate on providing the pieces that will build the next generation of treatments.

Magnus Carlsen – Chess prodigy

How Clever?

In 2010 he became the youngest person (21) to be ranked number one chess player in the world. His peak rating of 2010 is the second-best of all time, behind the legendary Gary Kasparov.

It Is Said ...

“In 2004, Carlsen played a brilliant game in Holland. His victory made a great impression and I called him the Mozart of chess. He was 13 at that time...”

— Lubimir Kavalek, grandmaster, Washington Post columnist

Personally Speaking

“I think I’m able to keep my concentration for long periods because I enjoy the game of chess a lot.

However, to be able to focus during a long game or a long tournament, I have to be physically fit and very aware of what I eat.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Beating the world. On Sept 10, 2010, Carlsen took the G-Star RAW World Chess Challenge (Carlsen has modelled the brand’s clothing). Any online player was able to vote on their preferred move of those suggested by three grandmaster advisers. Forty-four moves and 2.5 hours later, the world resigned.

Amy B Smith – Altruistic innovater

How Clever?

The engineer and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) develops low-tech devices for use in developing countries. Her hammer-mill design sifts grain to flour using aerodynamics, and is so simple village blacksmiths can manufacture it from indigenous materials. She has also patented an incubator that does not require electricity.

It Is Said ...

“Her design philosophy is elegant: create simple machines that meet particular needs and then build them locally.”

— Computer scientist Prof Sandy Pentland, speaking to Time magazine

Personally Speaking

“Solutions to problems in the developing world are best created in collaboration with the people who will be using them.”

Smartest Thing Ever

Organising the International Developments Design Summit. The results of this meeting of minds have included an off-grid refrigerator for rural use, a recycledmaterial greenhouse and an advanced evaporative-cooling method to prolong the life of perishable food.

Andre Briend – Hunger buster

How Clever?

The French nutritionist developed Plumpy’nut, a high-protein, energy-dense food paste used by UNICEF and the WHO for the treatment of malnourishment in third world areas.

It Is Said ...

“It’s a paste about as thick as mashed potatoes and stuffed with milk, vitamins and minerals. But that’s akin to calling a ’45 Mouton Rothschild fortified grape juice.”

— Michael Wines, New York Times

Personally Speaking

“Looking at a jar of chocolate spread I noticed the balance between proteins, energy and lipids were more or less the same as in the diet recommended by WHO. ”

Smartest Thing Ever

Using the lowly peanut. High in calories, it provides energy from relatively small amounts of product.

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